. . . Karen Joy Fowler

. . .

The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Reckless Moment Meeting the son-in-law

"Cyberspace is no place for mommies." -- Karen Joy Fowler
Maybe not, but The Reckless Moment proves that there's sure a place for 'em in film noir. In fact, as with a lot of formulas favored by self-pitying spoiled sons, film noir makes more sense with a mommy in the lead.

Sit-coms and comic strips love the American family because something big always seems to be happening but everything is back to normal by the end of the episode. The Reckless Moment repositions that once-a-day cycle from the mother's point of view: the family member's job is to present every passing fancy as an emergency to the mother, but the mother's job is to maintain stability at any cost. Where Douglas Sirk's domestic tragedies emphasize suffocation (the enveloping family keeps you warm at the cost of snuffing out flames), Ophuls pecks to death.

The eventual effect of this affection-hungry din is to level all stimuli out. Thus Ophuls's thoroughgoing use of a narrative technique I've never seen used anywhere else in film, fiction, or theater: the deliberate tossing away of obvious opportunities for suspense and emotional climaxes. Drama is replaced by fretfulness:

And so on, until it's completely understandable that someone who needs $5000 overnight would start trying to figure out how to trim the electric bill, and that someone might panic as much over the distinction between "getting" a loan and "making" a loan as about murder, blackmail, and truly doomed love.

(Those intrigued by Ophuls's gynocentric approach to film noir should also seek out Caught, which must be the only Hollywood movie in which a miscarriage supplies the happy ending. And then probably move on to Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai Du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles....)

. . .

Collage by Christina La Sala
Special Anniversary Narcissism Week! (concluded): Rooms for Improvement

Over the past year, I finished a long essay, collaborated on a short film, wrote some letters, and made a living. But mostly it's been Hotsy Totsy.

Over the next couple, it won't be too big a surprise if I finish some other essays I've been promising for years (on Patricia Highsmith, on Jean Eustache...) or months (on Barbara Comyns, on Karen Joy Fowler...), or even something unexpected. And I better make a living. But mostly I expect it to be Hotsy Totsy.

Well, if this is gonna be my standard watering hole, I got some suggestions to make to the proprietor, if he can rouse himself up from behind that 1.5L jug of Wild Turkey for a moment....

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"


Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet is a charming zine in the proto-Web tradition, but I didn't expect to find the two best short stories I've read this year tucked up its slender cuff. What a "coup," as they say in the editor's native Scotland!

With frighteningly typical aplomb, Karen Joy Fowler's "Heartland" demonstrates the equation:

Tropical resorts Fantasy lands Ground meat

Club Med MGM McDonalds

Brightly colored plastic and happy little people, as maintained and portrayed by grim Oompa-Loompas -- pay no attention to the sentimentalizing whip-wielders behind the curtain.... Oh, it's barely possible that you or I might, given sufficient prompting, work out that premise, but neither of us would be able to incarnate it in so convincingly organic a form. This is politics drawn from life and returned to living flesh.

And Kelly Link's "The Glass Slipper" is the most interesting modern take I've seen on Cinderella. Of course I would be interested, being as it directs the spotlight off the girl and onto the Prince, whose motivations have always been rather shadowy. What would drive a nice guy (because, after all, we'd really prefer him to be nice) to go around fitting shoes? Is fitting shoes really a good way to meet Ms. Right? (I can't tell you myself, 'cause I got fired from my shoe store clerk job after just two weeks, thus condemning me to life in the software industry.) If it is, mightn't you meet Ms. Right through the process itself, even without an official win on the foot? I mean, you can probably get to know someone as well by fitting their shoes as by dancing with them, right? And so we find ourselves pratfalling over the tangled, by no means strictly causal, relations of fetish and love, attraction and consummation.... It's what fairy tales were made for: to warn us about real life.

Rosebud Wristlet
So the next time some deadbeat stoner asks you how come you don't subscribe to Conjunctions or the New Yorker, you look 'em right in their beady bloodshot eyes and say "Fuck you, buddy! I subscribe to Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet!"

. . .

Continuing our schedule of Irony Supplements ("Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman"), we happened to intercept a note being passed along the unruly back rows:

"Irony is a way for [a weirdo] to put himself down without it looking like he's putting himself down."
Biographically that's insightful, but it might make for misleading critical generalizations. Irony is a narrative approach applicable to many different types of story. It just so happens that the stories I'm most comfortable telling are more-or-less first person.

The imagination of egocentric drama queens like Stendhal or Byron rarely strays far from the self-as-hero, and so their irony is worn form-fitting and pointy-side-in, whereas a less self-obsessed sort like Karen Joy Fowler is apt to seem much less masochistic about the whole venture.

. . .

Our San Francisco readers, along with any friends they can fetch, would do well to make all conceivable effort to reach A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness) by 7:30 tonight to listen to Karen Joy Fowler, who, besides being one of the greatest writers of our time, puts on a very entertaining show.

Believe me, your English major grandchildren will look at you pretty funny if they ever find out that you saw Neal Pollack but skipped Karen Joy Fowler. Don't let that happen!

. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

I remember them all with such happiness.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .

The enemy of my friend is confused; the friend of my enemy is instructive

I write to work out problems, and the stories of Karen Joy Fowler rarely leave me anything to say except "Read this."

Attacks on the stories of Karen Joy Fowler are a different matter. Richard Butner recently referred me to an appetizingly al dente specimen authored by Dave Truesdale and inexplicably incited by "What I Didn't See." (Not that the story doesn't push buttons; it's just not clear how it pressed these.)

To me, what makes Fowler's work mainstreamish is not (just) her emphasis on character, but her story structure. I would love a story in which I get to sit there and read about a richly developed character going through a significant change (or many changes). That is what I expect from an author -- to be shown such an evolution of a character on the page which I get to observe. Giving me that opportunity to observe is fair exchange for my investment in reading time, and for the money I may have spent buying the publication or subscribing to the website, etc.

But Fowler doesn't give us characters that change. Her characters are who they are. What changes is our perspective on them. She gives us information and, over the course of the narrative, we see the charactres differently. The change is in _us_. We're not observers; we're participants. That's what is mainstreamish about it.

I don't care for this technique. It makes me feel manipulated. It makes me feel lectured at. ("See those people? _This_ is how you should feel about them!") I want to be given access to a world, not be tricked into doing the labor that I expected the author to do.

Making the change happen in the reader, rather than "on the page," obviously causes some people to be impressed. They tout the virtues of the writers who do it. Fair enough. You're entitled to your opinion. But do all of you see how what's being served up is, to use my metaphor of a few days ago, a meatless entre which may please the vegetarians, but is of no appeal to a carnivore? There is simply no way talespinning of this -- call it "mainstreamish" -- type has a chance to favorably impress me, because it's not living up to my basic expectations of what a story is _for_.

This is absurd on the face of it down past the hypodermis, but there's something about it that interested me.

Face first:

  1. There's no genre activity less productive than defining the genre. No, not even masquerade contests. And when play cartographers start policing their delusionary border, they're promoted from nuisance to the rank of actively destructive parasite. Determining the worthiness of an individual work on the basis of its typicality is like choosing friends based on how closely they match the traits on a eugenicist's chart.

  2. Truesdale's fervor seems particularly misplaced here, since "What I Didn't See" is clearly science fiction: Where else could the Bride-of-the-Gorilla theme be treated seriously and realistically?

    Intragenre call-and-responsiveness also anchors Fowler's story. Its title points to James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See," its setting and voice point to Alice Sheldon, and its acerbic mix of escapist eco-fantasy and repressive violence points to effects characteristic of both Tiptree and Racoona Sheldon, while the focus on those left behind is pure Fowler.

    A story, like it or not, which could only exist inside a genre and which has been published in the genre is pretty securely part of the genre.

  3. The supposed specifics of Truesdale's discomfort make no more sense, since the episode described by the story was a pivotal experience for the protagonist and her husband, pivoting the latter right into his grave. The characters change significantly, all right. They're just not necessarily happy about the change.

  4. The reader modification that Truesdale purportedly wishes to chase away is instead a long-time distinguishing trait of science fiction. What's "sense of wonder" if not a change in perception and what's "world building" but a way to accomplish that without character development? What romance authors have become successful cult leaders? How many libertarians were birthed by Mencken and how many by Heinlein? Is the New Yorker as responsible for Westchester as Astounding is for NASA?

  5. And if allowing the reader's understanding of characters to grow more complex over time counts as being "lectured at" and "told what to feel," what coercive terms are strong enough for writing that tells you exactly what attitude to take toward every character from the beginning (or even before)?

  6. No, what bothers Truesdale isn't lack of incident, or lack of change in the characters, or being bullied by assumptions about the characters, or even reader modification, but lack of expectedness. The revelations gained by Fowler's characters aren't the ones that intrepidly well-meaning white explorers are supposed to end up with. And it's not just a matter of pessimism: a Harlan Ellison story might climax in far splashier violence and much louder breast-beating without tripping up readerly expectations in the least.

    This question of fulfilled expectation has helped bisect the bookish world before, into "readerly work" and "writerly work," "passive recipients" and "active recipients," "text de plaisir" and "text de jouissance," "easy" and "challenging,""childish" and "mature," "novelized" and "novel." But it would be absurd to claim that the line divides "mainstream" from "science fiction" when both types of reader and both types of writer are also found, to their mutual irritation, in mysteries, thrillers, horror, porn, romance, and every brow level of mundane fiction.

    He has confused the genre and the generic.

  7. Given the nature of Truesdale's indigestion, a better analogy than "vegetarian meal for a carnivore" would be "offputtingly exotic meal in place of comfort food." Or, if we take the insulted host's point of view, "preparing gaeng kiao wan ped from scratch for someone who refuses to eat anything but popcorn shrimp."
What interested me:
  1. Like Fowler, "I like stories that only fall into place when you've read them." Obviously, you can't experience crystallization unless you've kept expectations in suspension. When I'm enjoying what I enjoy, I'm not thinking about how moral and intelligent and shit I'm being; "writerly," "active," "challenging," and "novel" are just the labels for what I need to stay entertained instead of bored and disgusted.

    But you may have noticed a hierarchy behind those dichotomies. As usual, academics and critics haven't been shy about exaggerating the importance of their trades' minor differences, and Truesdale's preferred mode of consumption has been blamed for such ills as global capitalism, the formation of subject-identity, and compulsory heterosexuality.

    Villainous though that makes him, I can't suppress a sense of fellowship with anyone who complains about feeling manipulated. After all, when not stunned by tedium, my reaction to "readerly" texts ranging from Steven Spielberg and Mike Resnick to Mark Amerika and Robert Hass has been a straight-from-the-gut "Get your filthy hands offa me afore I call a cop."

    A sleepy dog and a fidgety cat have different notions of fun and of irritation, and the switch between pleasurable "play" and aversive "manipulation" isn't always clearly marked. As Truesdale correctly insinuates, what I enjoy is also manipulation -- it's manipulation that provides the illusion of interaction rather than the illusion of being catered to, but it's manipulation all the same.

    As for the question of "maturity," every writerly writer I can think of started readerly and then switched teams; often, as with the Brontës, at the end of adolescence. My own childhood preferences weren't just readerly but speed-readerly, and I grew extremely annoyed when the work exhibited any bumps that might impede my progress. At puberty, bumps became more interesting and my reading slowed to its present Karloff-like lurch. But that doesn't so much imply that readerly readers are immature, as that the maturing of writerly taste is dependent upon having gained a certain amount of readerly ease with the conventions being disrupted.

    Regarding the broader brushwork, I'm sure I hope that a certain flexibility and a certain suspicion of narrative patness are healthy for the species. But is it necessary to be flexibly suspicious all the time? About everything? Would Franklin D. Roosevelt really have achieved more as President if he'd spent his free time reading Proust instead of gobbling murder mysteries like candy? Would you vote for Harold Bloom? Heck, I wouldn't even vote for Ralph Nader!

    To return to the dining room, some people find it unappetizing to have their attention drawn to the food they're eating, and others find it unappetizing to ignore the food they're eating. One might guess that the latter type of person is more likely to become a cook, and one might therefore call their approach to dining "cookly" as opposed to "eaterly," and think them handier in some circumstances, but that's about as far as my value judgments could stretch.

Not that this deflation of "writerly" self-aggrandizement is an entirely new idea. In fact, I think I first encountered it courtesy of Karen Joy Fowler:
... the escapist aspect is something to think about. It's seldom admired, and yet it seems to me often that if people's lives are hard and a book takes you out of it for a few hours, what's wrong with that? Why isn't that an admirable thing for a writer to have done?

. . .

Whether theoretically justified or not, when she purveys a back-o'-the-thick-hornrimmed-specs view of 80 Flowers, Leggott follows the author's lead. The nearest Zukofsky came to a public statement about the book was in a 1975 recorded discussion with Hugh Kenner. After reading "#22 Bayberry," the first words out his mouth are:

The source of this is...
And it doesn't take long for the author's own source-digging to strike apparent absurdity.
"Durant," and that's where Dante comes in.... The name Dante: do you know what that means? ... It's still used today: it's deer-skin. And it's enduring. It presumably holds. So it's "durant leaf."
Let's imagine -- or even embody -- a close or expert reader facing the following lines:

Candleberry bayberry spice resinwax green
durant leaf moor in key
dour attested deer-wit winds survive

Even if we intuited a proper name in "durant leaf," wouldn't we hit Jimmy before Alighieri?

Given Zukofsky's lack of interest in biography, the focus on process is surprising. Maybe his assumption is that there's no reason to point out the details of the craft, it resting right there on the surface free for Kenner's taking? We are talking about someone whose most manifestive critical work was an anthology. Maybe he's not really talking professionally, even if he's not talking all that personally either. (Another quote from the tape: "My original source, that's a private matter.") Maybe he's just providing a professional friend with professional gossip.

So! All right, this is how Zukofsky amuses himself. They say, they ask me, do I amuse myself? God, no, I...! But when it's done, well, then, it's -- at least it's out of the way, damn it.
It's always a shock to find a bone-familiar sensation described by someone you admire, isn't it? "Out of the way" -- yeah. The only good reason I know for writing is to get the annoying jingle-jangle-jingle of the spurs down and out of my head so I can stop being bugged by them. I guess there aren't many other reasons for writing if you're not writing for an audience. (And I guess it's appropriate if one then ends up with not much of an audience....) But in these circumstances, it makes me feel like a piker: I haven't written about Zukofsky's poetry myself; I haven't written about most of my favorite things. When I read Zukofsky's poetry, or Karen Joy Fowler's stories, or watch Howard Hawks's movies, nothing bugs me; I'm kind of with Zukofsky in thinking that the pleasure's blatantly there.

Instead, here I write about a book about Zukofsky. Because that's where something bugged me.

. . .

Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon: A Note on Method

"As a corollary, then, historical inference can only take us back to the furthest-past extension of the principles that now govern the world. A time when 'everything was different' is in principle not reconstructable, i.e. not available to history."
- On Explaining Language Change, Roger Lass
"That's not where I want to be."
- The Ramones
"If it's not all about me, she might have said, why does everyone watch everything I do? Lucky she didn't. Who would complain of this to Mrs. Pleasant, about whom the whispers never hushed?"
Sister Noon - Karen Joy Fowler
"On the one hand, in effect, one must want the greatest good for the friend -- hence once wants him to become a god. But one cannot want that, one cannot want what would then be wanted, for at least three reasons...."
Politics of Friendship - Jacques Derrida
"Here discretion lies not in the simple refusal to put forward confidences (how vulgar this would be, even to think of it), but it is the interval, the pure interval that, from me to this other who is a friend, measures all that is between us.... It is true that at a certain moment this discretion becomes the fissure of death."
- Friendship, Maurice Blanchot

Most good fiction set in the past achieves its brief rapprochement between history and story by avoiding any names that might rouse mutual interest. But let an old beau be brought up and the holiday is ruined: "Well, if you'd only listened to Aaron Burr —" "Aaron Burr! Aaron Burr! Always she throws Aaron Burr in my face!"

Name-dropping historical fiction, whether researched-sincere or postmodern-bratty, may sell well, but it withers quickly. Even Flaubert couldn't lift John the Baptist to the same level as Frédéric Moreau, and a Michener or Vidal, or worse yet a James Tully or Sarah Booth Conroy, seems irredeemably presumptious. History originally comes from story the rushed and slanted newspaper report, the misremembered self-serving memoir and if I'm going to give up the illusion of certainty, I might as well just return to those primary sources. Their half-truths will most likely provide more surprises than a contemporary fiction writer's could.

You could easily argue with that opinion. Me, I just hold it. And it was with no small confusion that, in the dazzle of my first reading of Sister Noon, I looked down and found it still there in my unattended hands, a commute-worn hat from which a table-filling bouquet had been produced with a show of perfect ease.

Well, one of the critic's tasks is to figure out how the trick's done. It doesn't begin to make the magic easy, but it's what we do. And after a few years of slow-mo-ing through Fowler's performance, I think I might've done it.

Rather than confusing gossip and slander with knowledge, Sister Noon eyes that confusion's source and the hunger that feeds it. Its hero isn't the ascertained celebrity, but the half-reluctant, half-fascinated hanger-on. Its plot isn't a schematic rise to power and fall into disgrace, but a journey into the sucking bog of schemas and back out again.

With "poor, fanciful, inconsequential little Lizzie," we learn how one's unattended, unkempt life becomes stuctured into narrative by a brush with celebrity, or a dream of celebrity, or a memory of celebrity. Suddenly that's what people know about you, that's what people think about you, that's what they want to hear, that's what you want to tell them. You find yourself with a story, even if it's a pale distorted reflection of someone else's story, even if that story itself distorts the celebrity's own unattended, unkempt life.

As docudrama's smugness resembles the lower forms of biographer or journalist, Fowler's fond respect resembles The Quest for Corvo. What's offensive about those other ginks is their wilfull, even spiteful, ignorance. The finer stuff of Fowler and Symons gracefully incorporates its own limitations. Symons begins his biography not with an unpromising birth but with the author's curiosity, and ends it not with an overdue death but with the author's satisfaction. In Sister Noon's first chapter, the protagonist is brought into the circle of the most infamous name of her time and place; in its last, they definitively separate, and, satisfyingly, that's the only thing made definitive.

Fowler's choice of protagonist neatly solves another generic problem as well, that being how to convey the alienness of another time or culture with the techniques of realistic fiction. If reader identification takes for granted a shared notion of what's natural, how can what's "natural" become an issue? Of course, this is also a foundational problem for science fiction, and in both genres a frequent solution is to make the novel's protagonist a first-time visitor to the novel's setting. Fowler instead leverages the insight that alienation from one's mundane surroundings is a familiar shared experience (albeit not one that's necessarily taken for granted). Lizzie Hayes exhibits the same dully baffled irritability towards spiritualism, white slavery, and the Doom Sealers that I feel towards Burning Man, multi-player shooters, or the Great Anthrax Scare. We all occasionally find ourselves stranded on Mars or in a suburb of Carthage.

The ambiguous and disputatious sources of history aren't different in kind from those of the present. To resolve them is to falsify not just "what really happened" but also "what really happens."

And we readers, gossipers, hanger-ons make up part of "what really happens," unattended though we might be even by ourselves. A close look at an entrepreneurial multi-millionaire may confirm our unconfessed contentment in the tweedy middle class. Long-standing acquaintance with a successful author may reduce the shame-facedness with which we prefer self-publishing. On the sinister hand, our growing identification with a target of scandal may weaken our own restraints: having seen the worst, the fears that hemmed us in seem tawdry things, low-grade cotton rotted and easily torn.

There's a reason the fiction was put into this historical fiction. Lizzie Hayes isn't merely a passive conductor, capacitor, or resistor of the social current. When she has reached this realization or rather more actively has realized it, in the most humane and engaged way imaginable the tension between perfectly known fiction and permanently unknowable history is released, and the characters are set spinning out of the name star's orbit, from the documented fantastic to the unlimited mundane, cycling around once, four years later, to be glimpsed in the novel's first paragraph, and then (re-)lost to view.

Not that Lizzie Hayes would genuinely vanish, much as she might like to. Duties, if not heavens, forbid. She and her new-found (or rather more actively new-founded) family drive away, quite as material as they ever were, into what would appear to be a most distinctive narrative of their own.

But that's another story.

. . .

A Note on "Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon: A Note on Method"

You do realize, right, that an entire novel took place behind me while I blathered about abstractions? (Mysterious orphan, kidnapping, drugging, plague, daring rescue, and plenty wicked men —I'd call that an entire novel.)

. . .

Department of Theology News

Bridge of the Gods - Overhead Clearance 14' 6''
Photo by Juliet Clark

For those who've been wondering at what point your arms would be long enough to box with God, my calcuations place the Holy Button at 12' 8½" (or under).


Are you sure that's the possessive genitive? Could be made of the dry bones of the divine fallen. -pf

Or it could be a dental prosthetic swapped from deity to deity, like Walter Brennan's in Red River. Time for another schism, I reckon!

Long enough with a reasonable expectation of holding your own to box etc...

More conditions, eh? What next? "Your weight class too light to box..."? "Your trunks the wrong color to box..."? Listen, you just set the date and the purse and my boy will be there.

What's that in metric?


So, what'd you think of the Jane Austen Book Club?

I thought I'd better buy and read a copy. And I still think so. The author's appearance at Cody's on 4th St. this Saturday at 7 PM seems like a good time to get the process started.

You gonna bring Big John Kerry with ya? Or is he too busy denouncing Abu Gharib? High noon right here. Unless I get a call from dispatch. Or my lumbago starts up again.

Let the record show that I received this challenge at 1:36 PM. Typical.

A final commentator ties everything up in pretty red ribbon:

Jane Austen Fight Club

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a bloody beating.

. . .

In which a Slate writer comes this close to noticing that Karen Joy Fowler is better than The Onion

Anyhow, I'd like to end with the quote that summed up the book for me, and a question. Here is the quote.
"We had, most of us, also lost our mothers. We spent a moment missing them. The sun was blooming rosily in the west. The trees were in full leaf. The air was bright and soft and laced with the smells of grass, of coffee, of melted Brie. How our mothers would have loved it!"
Here is the question: Is this the bathetic, Windham Hill mishy-mosh I think it is? Or is it brilliantly satiric writing, of the quality of, say, the Onion?
(Slate via melymbrosia via Justine Larbalestier)


Although I found this stumblebum pas de deux painful to witness ("Such a relief to reveal my obtuseness publicly," one of them sighs near the end), it's fun to tip their lines into Fowler's compilation of Jane Austen reviews. In particular, their uneasiness with Fowler's apparent attempt to have her cake and eat it too would seem to disqualify them from enjoying not just Austen but any ambitious fiction from Cervantes (satire made chronicle) to Richardson (titillation made redemptive) and Fielding (mock-heroic made heroic), to Stendhal's and Flaubert's social tips from the clueless, and on towards Beckett's attenuated can't-go-on and the leftover genre hashes that intrigue John Holbo.

Oh foolish book clubbers, having the cake we eat's what fiction is for.


PF asks:
Also, speaking of Jane Austen, how do you feel about Clueless?

It and Persuasion are my favorite adaptations to date, although neither are a 100 Super Movie au maximum.

Josh Lukin kindly adds:

I wish this point could be seen by the thousands of people who argue over whether Keillor is mocking or celebrating the poor Lake Wobegonians.

. . .

The Launderer's Hand

Continuing the discussion:

As has been pointed out many times before, "genre" is not a simple compound, or even a clear formula, and its assorted aspects of publishing, writing, and reading are only loosely interdependent. Some writing, it's true, affirms generic coherency, snug and compact in a neatly labeled bundle. But much of what I'm drawn to seems badly wrapped, corners rubbing against frays and duct tape.

It always comes marked, however. No matter how much writer or reader idealizes invention from whole cloth, there'll be some natural discoloring, someone to see a pattern, and someone to apply a dye. Even the launderer's hand grows red with wringing.

To drop the metaphors:

  1. My favorite writing is sui generis.
  2. It was (and is) all published (more or less antagonistically) within a generic context.
  3. Assuming that one particular genre has special access to the sui generis greatly reduces the chance of actually finding it.

Which is why, as I wrote earlier, plowing cover-to-cover through some 19th century volumes of Blackwood's or Harper's, or High-Modernist-era New York Times book reviews or High-Hollywood-era movie reviews, would be salutary for most English and creative writing majors. Someone who refused to look at smut would have missed Lolita (fittingly, Nabokov himself first received Ulysses as an exemplar of smuttiness); someone who refused to look at sea stories (or flop gothics) would have missed Melville; someone who refused to look at cornpone humor would have missed Twain; and so on. And someone who refused to read academically canonized writing would miss all the same books now. For we who love to be astonished, it's worth attempting to read Hammett's and Thompson's (or Fitzgerald's and Faulkner's) prose the same way whether behind pulp covers or a Library of America dustjacket.

To take a limit case, there are (and have been) an astonishing number of readers who treat everything written by women as its own genre, resulting in a comedy of re-interpretation when misattributions are corrected and as the purported "genre" is denigrated or celebrated.

All this from publishers and readers. For a writer, genre may considered a conversational context, with one's social circle not necessarily restricted to one's neighbors, or even to the living. Since the literary mainstream's "discovery" of Patricia Highsmith began, I've seen a number of bemused references to the influence of Henry James, but this isn't an unusual phenomenon. The work itself is always more (or less, if truly "generic" work) than whatever genre it's in.

Carol Emshwiller, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Jack Womack, and Kelly Link write the sui generis they write and publish in whatever genre welcomes (or allows) them. But a contemporary may find it useful to learn that they all began publishing within the context of the science fiction genre, whether they themselves started as genre readers or not. And although I seek out Dalkey Archive and Sun & Moon Press spines in the bookstores, I enjoy knowing that the past decade of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has shown more lively variety than any university-sponsored or trust-funded fiction journal.


Lucius Shephard also

God, yes. There are, oh, let's not start feeling guilty about not mentioning M. John Harrison, there are lots more. And then all the great writers who are publishing mysteries, thrillers, romances, Y/As, and including, sure, the literary mainstream and the poetry presses, but all of them, now ignored or long forgotten or even deservedly noticed, should get more than just a for instance, and I just meant for instance.

A welcome update, fourteen years later, from Josh Lukin:

Well you know my fave bemused reference to the influence of Henry James . . . although I'm sure Baldwin's Jamesianity too incurred some bemusement (to say the least) in his day, of the "'Notes of a Native Son'? What does this guy think he is?" sort (I don't at the moment have the wherewithal to turn to my Marcus Klein and Maxwell Geismar and Irving Howe and see if that was among their beefs).

I've been reading some James stories and am struck by their reliance on Ideas (pace T.S. Eliot). And I mean Ideas in the way SF writers mean Ideas: premises that one can quickly pitch to an editor (or to a writer, if one is that kind of editor I did have a pair of cats named Horace* and Campbell). It's an unoriginal insight that post-Chekhovian litfic doesn't make for good log lines the way that older stuff does; but I wonder whether pitchability has an economic origin or not: did Maupassant**, whom James might have gotten it from, write for magazine editors?

*Horace is still with us, but he doesn't like me to read the New York Edition. He will plop himself on it or gently close it or try to eat "Daisy Miller." I had to get hold of the first book editions of the stories so he'd leave me alone.

**Did anybody else pan their influences as interestingly as James? Not Wilde, not Nabokov, not Alan Moore . . . the list isn't as long as Harold Bloom led me to believe . . .

. . .

Reference Work, 2

You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.
- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.
- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"

I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.

In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.

What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.

Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.

In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.

It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.

On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

... to be continued ...

. . .

Writer-Response Theory

Karen Joy Fowler : Ever since I came into the field, there have been long discussions, sometimes in my presence, sometimes not, over whether I belong or not, with heartfelt decisions on both sides. And I'm happy to be here, so.... Often people ask me do I think I write science fiction, or do I think I write fantasy. In my heart, I think that's not my job to answer that question. So mostly I try to determine which answer is going to piss the person who's asked me off less. If you tell me I don't, I won't argue with you, and if you tell me I do, I won't argue with you. I do feel strongly, however, that whatever it is I am writing, the kind of audience I'm writing it for is the science fiction audience. It's a kind of reader that I see more inside the field than outside it, a reader who likes a challenge, a reader who likes to solve puzzles and problems, a very engaged reader. And so the most honest answer I can give is I don't know if I write science fiction or fantasy, but I'm writing for science fiction and fantasy readers.

- from "The Coode Street Podcast" Episode 94,
hosted by Jonathan Stahan & Gary K. Wolfe


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.