Sunday, March 28, 2010

The End; or, The Bit That Matters Most

I think there are two tricks to telling a good story. Well, scratch that: Writing a good novel. Ready? Okay. Here we go. Real talk.

1) Starting,
2) And finishing.

This isn't me talking about how to write a novel; no, this is me taking a moment to appreciate my favorite part of a novel: The last line.

Everybody talks about the importance of classic opening lines, but if you ask me, the last line is where we separate the wheat from the chaff; it's the bit that lingers, the ringing in your ears after the gunshot, the last little flourish from the pen that makes everything else fall into place. Any clever old dog can write a good opening line -- although maybe all the droves of us that can't just don't and move on with our lives. That last line, though? It's the difference between craftsmen and wizards. It's the hard part, How tempting does it have to be to be a little too cute? Or, worse, indulgently purple (I'm looking at you, Perdido Street Station.) A good one -- a really good one -- makes you sad to see the story over, but leaves you satisfied.

Here's one that's too cute (and just sort of awful):

"Trailing her was the faint scent of Johnson's Baby Powder. His eyes fell the length of her slender torso --- to her white blouse with the bra barely visible beneath, to her knee-length khaki skirt, and finally to her legs... Susan Fletcher's legs.

'Hard to imagine they support a 170 IQ,' he mused to himself."

- Dan Brown, Digital Fortress

There you go, guys! Thanks for sticking with me for the last 400 pages. We here at Shakespeare & Co. try not to be too negative, so I'll stop there, but you get what I mean when I say it can go horribly wrong. It's a tricky tightrope to walk. It's not fair to be put against, say, Hemingway (for my money, the best last line is from The Sun Also Rises: "'Yes,' I said. 'Isn't it pretty to think so?'" Don't fix what isn't broke), but if I had to pull a good, elegant last-stroke-of-the-pen out of my hat I'd go with Nick Hornby's About A Boy: "Will knew then, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Marcus was going to be OK."

 See what I mean?

(Up above: The last shot from The Third Man, aka "The Most Hardcore Ending In The History Of Cinema")

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Genre gurgling.

Alright, so I've been talking about genre lately. Thinking about it, always thinking about it. I mentioned a big part of the problem: the self reinforcing feedback loop! I like books about wizards, I go to the sci-fi section, even though One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez is essentially a story about the family descending from a alchemist patriarch. Yeah, Gabriel García Márquez writes a lot of stories that are basically about magicians-- it was Gene Wolfe who said "Magical Realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish." So, even if you like lightsabers (who doesn't?) & Jedi (or Sith, if you are like me), you end up in the Sci-Fi section-- even though there is no guarantee that Star Wars Expanded Universe novels are going to be any good-- odds might be that they aren't! It isn't just "elitist" snobs who are keeping genre on the sidelines-- it is the actions of genre readers themselves. Hey, colour me guilty-- I'm way less likely to read fiction about...I don't know, what is popular fiction about? Menchildren who can't reconcile art & responsibility? Then again, what is Fantasy about anymore? Semi-offensive caricatures of gender relationships? See-- lose/lose. You have to find the good stuff, fringe or otherwise. You've got to tilt your head & think about how Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland & the End of the World is basically a Phillip K. Dick novel. Nicola Griffith has talked about this at length-- she's in the thick of it! Her novels run the gamut from the rather "Hard" SF novel Ammonite to the Noir(ish) series starting with The Blue Place & continuing into Stay & Always-- stopping along the way to write the Cyberpunk Slow River & edit a bunch of Gay & Lesbian Fiction anthologies. Currently she's working on a bit of historical fiction. So where do you shelve her? I guess the answer is-- wherever the hell you want.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Genre Genera.

(Aaron Diaz of Dresdan Codak drew the monsters of Lord of the Rings.)
 Genre. You may have heard the term "genre ghetto." This is the place otherwise lovely books are exiled to because they feature a detective, or a spaceship, or a wizard, or a hunky guy with his shirt off. For instance-- J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most read authors of the last century, with recent blockbuster Lord of the Rings movies containing some pretty darn good special effects & performances from Oscar caliber actors...but lots of people will discount it as Fantasy. Star Wars is a cultural touchstone of our generation without parallel, an exploration of Campbell's archetypes that verges on Jungian-- but nobody takes it seriously. Heck, if you have a homosexual character in your book you risk being exiled to the "Gay & Lesbian Interests" section, never to be heard from again. & that is the thing-- the genre ghetto is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Science Fiction fans will browse the Sci-Fi section without even looking at general Fiction, while most readers will browse Fiction without looking at the Sci-Fi shelves-- & do you really see a lot of Fantasy fans crossing over to the Romance shelves? Now, some of this is changing. People like Michael Dirda are examining genre critically-- including my personal pet pick, The Book of the New Sun. & places like Shakespeare & Co. mix & match; maybe H.P. Lovecraft (the father of everything modern viewers think of as horror, & half the stuff they think is Sci-fi) is in both SF/Fantasy & Fiction, for instance. & blending-- well blending Romance & Fantasy these days is practically a license to print money. My question is: are there more enduring options?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Rant: Your Childhood Was Stupid.

Shut up about your childhood. Shut up about how Hollywood is ruining your youth. Shut up about how you preemptively hate whatever remake of a movie is coming out. You are an idiot. Oh, are you upset because they are making a new version of The NeverEnding Story? Well, I like it too, but shut up a thousand times. You know what? The NeverEnding Story was a book first, & they threw a fit when they translated it to the screen. Ruining X by doing Y. You know what else? It wasn't even a book in English! The translator ruined it! So shut up, shut up about Transformers not being "like the real thing." The "real thing" was a crappy twenty minute toy commercial. Nothing else! I get that the alchemy of nostalgia makes you think it was awesome, but I hate to break it to you-- it wasn't. So chill out. The first animated Disney Alive in Wonderland is a travesty of plot, conflating book after book, & The Wizard of Oz movie doesn't even have the right kind of slippers. So take a breath. Pause. Reconsider. People have been remaking & recycling stories forever. It is part of what stories are. I'm not saying you can't be upset that the Star Wars prequels are terrible movies. You can be! I'm just saying, you aren't entitled to possession, as an audience member. So step back. Karate Kid was a good movie with that weird skeleton pajamas scene-- the new Karate Kid looks like it has nothing in common with it except themes & spirit. Isn't that what we want? & plus, Jackie Chan? So relax. Settle down. Things are remade, or restarted, or rebooted. Sometimes they will be terrible, but sometimes they will be Battlestar Galactica.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Shakespeare in Cape & Cowl.

The comic shop is dead-- long live the comic shop! I know people talk about the demise of the brick & mortar bookstore-- & I think they are wrong. I've talked a little bit about why I think that, but this time I want to talk about how I reconcile this with-- well, with my childhood. See, a lot of my formative geek experiences started in a comic book shop. Let me give you some basics. People talk about the death of the comic book shop a lot. About the end of floppy, single issue comics. By which logic they then go on to say that the comic shop model is doomed. & they are always this is the accepted wisdom. Now, some go on to say that the comic book shop is doomed...unless it diversifies. Places that turn into comic book shops slash video game shops, for instance. Which-- well that brings my back directly to my childhood. See-- the comic book shop of my youth, Capp's Comics? Wasn't some pure, unadorned purist comic book mecca. If it was, I wouldn't have nearly the memories of it. See-- Capp's Comics was also where I went to purchase my role playing books. They had a far better selection than the spotty, picked over (& I suspect, un-picked up special orders) at the bookshop in the mall. Those were the options, in those days, whippersnapper. Besides that, the comic book shop also rented videos-- how else could I have watched Robotech or Akira? & where else would I have gotten that poster of The Sandman, or that Vampire: The Masquerade t-shirt? My point being; the comic book shop was always diversified. & that wraps around! All the way around, to Shakespeare & Company. See, Shakespeare & Company is a bookstore, sure. But it is a bookstore that has a lot of the same potential to be a holy ground for the geek, the little geeklet me. There is a wall of comic books! Sure, not the floppies, but the trade paperbacks, which for my money is where I'd bet on the future going. & you know what? Right above those (last I checked) were the roleplaying books. Your Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition stuff. I know we've got the Players Handbook 3 because I hear the others at the store chattering about it. They've got your fix, is what I'm saying. We are the comic book shop-- long live the comic book shop.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chatroulette: it's not just for creeps and perverts any more. Oh, wait, yes it is.

Over at lauded political blog Crooked Timber, Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy takes an unserious look at randomized video chat service Chatroulette by asking users to show her their books. Perhaps predictably the first bunch of people she encounters claim they own no books, or are simply nonplussed that she is not a serial public masturbator, and then she eventually gets tired of all the exposed penises and quits. Cute idea though. (link)

Yes A Black Man Can Write For The Big Screen

Where do I begin? It was a prelude to the other history making event that night. When it happened, it took a moment to process. I heard the word Precious, a long gap, then Fletcher. Everyone including I thought the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay was going to Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up In The Air. I was never so happy to be wrong. Geoffrey Fletcher walked to the stage, knees unsturdy, heartbeat racing, lightheaded, humbled, to receive what has long eluded any person of color in the 82 years of the A.M.P.A.S a writing award. As a black screenwriter, the moment served as motivation and an affirmation. Beyond the glitz, the politics, the marketing, the box office numbers, it is about the work. Adding to the moment was his speech. The only other time I was so taken by a speech was when President Obama won election night. So graceful and so touchy, it even caused Morgan Freeman to get a bit teary-eyed. From Suzanne DePasse to Lonnie Elder to Charles Fuller to John Singleton to Spike Lee to myself, we salute you Geoffrey Fletcher.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Translations. Weird things, but necessary evils, right? I mean-- at the root I have to blame myself for not knowing Spanish when it comes time to read Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges; for not knowing German when I'm reading Rainer Maria Rilke; Japanese for Haruki Murakami. That said, what is the other option, ignoring great works that aren't written in your mothertongue? That is no good, especially if you are a straight white male like me. So you play the game of Telephone. It is doubly tricky here, isn't it? When word choice can be the whole beauty of a book, when the construction of a sentence or a line of poetry is the whole point. The architecture of the work is in jeopardy the second you start trying to gut it out & replace it. I can't understand why there aren't more rockstar translators. Okay, you've got some in the classics, but then that hardly counts, & besides-- when we're talking something like Homer, there will always be the historical question, the riddle of scholarship-- what does X even mean? With more modern writers you have cultural & linguistic difference, but at least the place still stands! So why aren't there darlings of translation, people you could follow & trust? & how much credit do the translators that exist now deserve? More than they are getting, I think. I guess if I was a genuine polyglot, or a linguist, I'd know more about this. I just feel like I should be told more about this!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

This history...isn't small enough!

I think it might be time to talk about Carlo Ginsburg. Have you heard of this gentleman? He's not exactly a shrinking violet, at least in the circles you'd expect to hear of him. Mister Ginsburg is kind of the frontrunner of "microhistory"-- that is, examining small cases, particularly to extrapolate from them to a larger context. He also does a kind of...backwards masking? Backwards unmasking, I suppose I should say. Let me explain, in a typically roundabout way. One of the things Carlo Ginsburg discusses in detail is "witchcraft." His book The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries & another one; Ecstasies. Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath get into it, particularly.

Now, there isn't a lot of actual historical data on pagan religions in Europe-- the Church going through a lot of effort to make sure it was that way. What Ginsburg figures is-- "hey! There might not be a lot of primary data, but there is a TON of secondary data-- in the form of witchhunt trials!" See, the Church kept records of their inquisitions. You are thinking at this point "Oh, great, nice unbiased piece of historical context," in a sarcastic tone of voice. & you are right of course-- but Carlo Ginsburg gets that. His point is-- well, if multiple accounts separated geographically keep trumping up certain charges-- then that means that the pop cultural view of European shamanism must include that. It makes a lot of sense, the way he spools it out-- he does, of course, a much better job explaining than this rough gloss does. So I recommend you check it out.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How I became a feminist.

I think I put the start of real genuine feminism-- personally, I mean-- at the feet of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Like any thinker, I'd worked the subject over in my head for a while-- hitting a range of pretty boring stops along the way-- but it was when I read Hrdy's book Mother Nature that things started coming together for me. Pieces began to click into place. I'd taken a couple of Gender Studies classes, & felt like the Essentialist school of thought had something going for it before it became a paper tiger for the Constructionists to tear apart. To wit-- sure, gender & sex aren't the same thing, but to say the Venn diagram of the two overlap entirey based on socialization isn't really honest. It was Hrdy's digging into Evolutionary Biology (with one hand) & Feminism (with the other) that really started making sense to me. She wasn't looking for science that suited her agenda; rather her agenda was to go looking for science. Her arguments aligned with both the percieved reality & the constructed reality. She really broke the wall on addressing what is actually happening, rather than what you want to pretend is happening. & what she found is equal parts grim & uplifting-- which only adds to the ring of truth. In a nutshell, she found the women...act like people. I know, shocking, right? All of it in an anthropological context that really appeals to me. I have her new book, Mothers & Others in my greedy little paws, & am looking forward to taking a bite out of it. It is on my short pile!
Books spied on the train today: Fargo Rock City, by Chuck Klosterman. Innumerable copies of the Twilight series.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The actual organic method of reading a book.

Where do you get your reading done? For me, these days, it is the train. The old commute! Since I moved to New York City, that has been the raw truth. I've never been one much to read in bed: I sort of have to ascribe to the school of thought that says bed is for sleeping-- nothing else. Otherwise you start getting Pavlovian about books-- they equal bed! So yeah, for me the train is where I get a lot of my reading done. Now, my commute isn't long-- maybe thirty minutes either way? Lucky for me I'm a quick study. I pour through those little wads of paper with a quickness! I knock out 25 to 50 pages a sitting. If a book catches me-- I mean, genuinely-- then it is on. I'll curl up on the couch usually, when I start machete-ing away at a book, or on the bed-- not before bed-- as I said. I used to enjoy music while I read, but I've gotten away from that. These are just my quirks, my idiosyncrasies-- mostly I want to know about other people's styles. How do you, the reader, read? What are your techniques? Seriously, I'm interested: leave a comment. Let me know. Drop me a line, a dime!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Films adapted from novels! The NeverEnding Story.

I'm going to bite a little bit of Dante's style & talk about a film adaptation: The NeverEnding Story (directed by Wolfgang Petersen)based on the book of the same name-- or well, in German it was originally Die unendliche Geschichte by Michael Ende. The movie is pretty faithful to the book-- the first half of it, anyway. Really, other than some bits that are cut & not missed (Falcor versus the giant spider), or a few pieces of backhistory that you don't get spelled out (the G'mork is a planeshifting, dimension hopping werewolf bountyhunter) you get the full thrust of the first half. Really I think the only characterization that fails to live up to the book is Falcor, but only because in the novel he's just so awesome. "Falcor, weren't you afraid of that giant spider?" "No! I knew I'd get out of it somehow. I'm extremely lucky!" "Falcor, the Nothing! Are you worried?" "Nope, I'm a Luck Dragon. I'll be okay, somehow." As for the second half of the book...well, lets just say, it is different, & the "NeverEnding" part really kicks in (that is the second post in as many days that deals with recursion...) & you see a whole 'nother side of Bastion Balthazar Bux. Oh! & speaking of textual play, The NeverEnding Story has four different colours of ink; one for each world &...well, just check it out.

One last note: the Childlike Empresses' name?
Totally Moon Child. Take that, Aleister Crowley!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Forgotten Masters: E.R. Eddison

E.R. Eddison. I don't know if you've heard of him. I can hardly claim to be the authority on him, as I've only read one book of his-- his seminal work The Worm Ouroboros (& I'm anxious to get my mitts on the out of print Zimiamvian Trilogy). So don't take my word for it when I say E.R. Eddison is a forgotten master. No, instead take a little fellow named J.R.R. Tolkien's word, when he said E.R. Eddison was "the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read." Or C.S. Lewis's when he said "No writer can be said to remind us of Eddison." See, the way Tolkien prefigures modern fantasy-- his elves & dwarves populating the tropes of the genre-- E.R. Eddison stood tall when the Inklings were looking for a star to guide their ships by.

The Worm Ouroboros is written in faux archiac style, & the diction really sings at points. E.R. Eddison doesn't write in the old school prose for no reason; the soup he stirs the words in lead you to believe you really are reading of the likes of Beowulf & Gilgamesh. Plus, The Worm Ouroboros has possibly the best fight scene I've read in any book-- against a manticore. Forget famous drow doing wire-fighting moves; THAT is a battle worth paying attention to. E.R. Eddison had been crafting the world (Mercury, don't you know) since his childhood, & the combination of youthful logic & fervor with adult craft & guile makes the story work across every level-- up to & including the Pre-Post-Modern textual recursion.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Just Making Stuff Up

Today Henry Holt and Company, publisher of Charles Pellegrino's historical nonfiction tome Last Train from Hiroshima, about the thirty people unlucky enough to survive the bombing of Hiroshima and then immediately get on a train to Nagasaki, has made the dramatic decision to cease all publication of the book.

Why? This is a book the New York Times called "sober and authoritative", after all. Well, a month after that review, the NYT was ready to call it something else. Substantial sections of the book are based on the recollections of one Joseph Fuoco, now deceased, whom Pellegrino describes as having stood in for flight engineer James R. Corliss on one of the escort planes (called Necessary Evil--who says the armed forces don't have a sense of humor?) that flew with the Enola Gay when it dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. It turns out, this substition never happened, and Fuoco was never on the plane, wasn't even in the same unit, and a legion of ticked-off historians and veterans started making noise about it. Initially, Pellegrino said he had been "deceived" by his conveniently kaput source, and Holt vowed to make corrections in future editions of the book. A couple days later, in a narrative that's really familiar by now, it all fell apart.

It now looks like "Dr. Charles Pellegrino" never received a Ph.D. from the university he claims to have. According to the Associated Press and this guy, Pellegrino's supposed alma mater has said of him "Although he did do some PhD study, we can’t find any record of him actually completing or graduating." Uh oh. People started remembering things that have been written about Pellegrino's previous works, such as: "flouts most principles of scientific scholarship" (the NYT, on Ghosts of the Titanic), and "all nonsense" (the Israeli Antiques Authority, on The Lost Tomb of Jesus). Then it looked like Pellegrino had completely made up "characters" who never actually existed, and statements and sentiments from whole cloth. Sez Henry Holt: "We must rely on our authors to answer questions that may arise as to the accuracy of their work and reliability of their sources. Unfortunately, Mr. Pellegrino was not able to answer the additional questions that have arisen about his book to our satisfaction." Aaaand that was pretty much it.

Still awaiting comment from the guy who dug the book so much, he paid his own money to option the film rights.

Conversely, interestingly, I am really not at all bothered by the similar hoopla surrounding claims made in the new biography of the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, whose books about conflict in the far corners of the globe I continue to adore unashamedly. According to his biographer, Artur Domoslawski, K was, "often inaccurate with details, claiming to have witnessed events he was not present at ... invented images to suit his story, departing from reality in the interests of a superior aesthetic truth." I feel like everyone kinda knew that already. This isn't the first time K's been called "a fabulist who did not adhere to the basic rules of journalism", and anyway I rather like fabulists. K was a genuinely brilliant writer and I guess I'm okay with lies so long as they're good lies?

I suppose the lesson here is that if you're a writer of no particular literary distinction and the only claim your book has to journalistic greatness (or simply relevance) is that it is the unalloyed truth, you really, really better have some good fact checkers. Or just don't make stuff up that is easily verified as untrue.