May 30, 2010

Unfamiliar Quotations - Raymond Queneau

 - Odile, Raymond Queneau, 1937. 

May 27, 2010

In the News - Elitist New Yorkers Attack Country Bumpkin

The biggest new story in publishing this week seems to be the oldest as well - didn't you hear? Publishing is dead! At least that's what Garrison Keillor, NPR mainstay and county-fair-styled variety show creator, said in a recent New York Times op-ed (I picture him slowly shaking his jowls in disappointment). His biggest concern is with self-publishing, which will lead us to a future of:
18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.
He's hardly the first person to come out with these statements, but for some reason he's getting a hell of a lot of flak for it. I guess a lot of people are taking advantage of his anecdotal and unsubtle analysis to take a few jabs at the quaint, moldy storyteller. Responders include Jon Stewart who, speaking at a Book Expo breakfast panel he was hosting, said:
Garrison Keillor wrote in a Times op-ed yesterday that the publishing industry is dead... Funny, I thought [Keillor] was dead … No one understands cutting-edge media like a man who does written radio plays about a fictitious town.
Flavorwire went all out, approaching a dozen industry professional to get their response to Keillor's dire predictions, which included one anonymous publishing insider who quipped:
I think someone in publishing should do an op-ed on the death of radio. I won’t talk about Lutherans in Minnesota if Garrison won’t talk about publishing.
Incidentally, when I lived in NYC and was somehow aware of Garrison Keillor's existence, I never realized that he also wrote books. It was only when I came to Oxford that I saw a lot of his books in used book stores, and since then have also come across them in English book stores here in Israel (didn't buy any, though). I wonder if he's more popular as a writer outside the states (on second thought, if people really liked his books they wouldn't be donating them to Oxfam, would they?) (on third thought, perhaps all those copies were dumped there by American tourists).

May 24, 2010

What I've Been Reading & Defining Science Fiction

I just finished reading Martin Amis's short story collection Einstein's Monsters and felt like I had to issue a warning to anyone thinking about reading this book - Don't!

The book is made up of five stories and an introductory essay, all ostensibly linked to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Written in the late 80's, the opening  essay is both dated and hysterical (I mean uncontrollably frantic, not knee-slappingly hilarious), and sets the overall reductive and didactic tone of the work, as Amis remarks in an "author's note":
"Einstein's Monsters," by the way, refers to nuclear weapons but also to ourselves. We are Einstein's monsters, not fully human, not for now.
That's about as deep and philosophical as it gets. The stories that follow are all equally minor and forgettable - their plots are generic and the worlds they imagine are so unremarkable that, read in today's context, they could just as easily take place in a world ravaged by global warming, pollution, Biological warfare, Mad Cow Disease, or any other man-made global catastrophe, rather than in the aftermath of nuclear war.

Most significantly, these stories lack that "distinct new idea" which, according to Philip K. Dick, marks the difference between a real work of Science Fiction and a story that's merely "set in the future." In a real Sci-Fi story the dislocation between our world and the one presented to us should be conceptual, as in the case of Amis's far more interesting novel Time's Arrow, where the central conceit is of a consciousness that runs backwards in time. In this collection, however, the differences between the imagined worlds and ours are, as Dick would put it, "merely trivial or bizarre."


I've attached the full text of Philip K. Dick's definition and discussion of Sci-Fi below since I could not find it on any worthwhile website, and I think it's a very useful text (I hope his estate won't mind); it was originally included in a letter and may be found in the preface to his collection The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford and Other Classic Stories.
I will define science fiction, first, by saying what sf is not. It cannot be defined as “a story (or novel or play) set in the future,” since there exists such a thing as space adventure, which is set in the future but is not sf: it is just that: adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced technology. Why, then, is it not science fiction? It would seem to be, and Doris Lessing (e.g.) supposes that it is. However, space adventure lacks the distinct new idea that is the essential ingredient. Also, there can be science fiction set in the present: the alternate world story or novel. So if we separate sf from the future and also from ultra-advanced technology, what then do we have that can be called sf?
We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society — or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one — this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.
Now, to separate science fiction from fantasy. This is impossible to do, and a moment’s thought will show why. Take psionics; take mutants such as we find in Ted Sturgeon’s wonderful More Than Human. If the reader believes that such mutants could exist, then he will view Sturgeon’s novel as science fiction. If, however, he believes that such mutants are, like wizards and dragons, not possible, nor will ever be possible, then he is reading a fantasy novel. Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances. This is in essence a judgment-call, since what is possible and what is not possible is not objectively known but is, rather, a subjective belief on the part of the author and of the reader.
Now to define good science fiction. The conceptual dislocation—the new idea, in other words—must be truly new (or a new variation on an old one) and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader; it must invade his mind and wake it up to the possibility of something he had not up to then thought of. Thus “good science fiction” is a value term, not an objective thing, and yet, I think, there really is such a thing, objectively, as good science fiction.
I think Dr. Willis McNelly at the California State University at Fullerton put it best when he said that the true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is good sf the idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that that mind, like the author’s, begins to create. Thus sf is creative and it inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not do. We who read sf (I am speaking as a reader now, not a writer) read it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being set off in our minds by something we read, something with a new idea in it; hence the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create — and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness.
May 14,1981

May 23, 2010

Good News for Borgoholics

Back in 2008 I read the last stories I had not yet gotten to in Jorge Luis Borges's Collected Fictions, then in 2009 I quickly breezed through his Selected Poems, and this year I'll probably finish reading the Selected Non-Fictions, leaving me only the somewhat unsatisfying Book of Imaginary Beings to appease my Borgoholic tendencies (well, that and rereading stories like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and "The Library of Babel" over and over again, naturally), or at least so I thought.

It seems the good people of Penguin Books (who were also responsible for the four volumes listed above) are releasing no less than five (!!!) new volumes of writings by Borges this year. Here is the information I've been able to gather thus far:
  • Poems of the Night (released 30 March 2010) - according to Penguin this collection contains "the great literary visionary's poetic meditations on nighttime, darkness, and the crepuscular world of visions and dreams."
  • The Sonnets (released 30 March 2010) - collects all of his sonnets in Spanish with parallel English translation.
  • On Argentina (to be released 29 June 2010) - according to Penguin, "the twenty selections chosen for this collection will flesh out the vision of the young Borges between 1925 and 1930."
  • On Writing (to be released 29 June 2010) - according to Penguin this volume will offer "a comprehensive and balanced account of the evolution of Borges's thinking on the craft of writing."
  • On Mysticism (to be released 29 June 2010) - according to Penguin this volume will contain "a collection of Borges's essays, fiction and poetry that explores the role of the mysterious and spiritual in Borges's life and writing."
I think it's safe to assume that each of these books contains some works that have already been published in the previous volumes, but must also contain some new translations as well. The cynic in me might say they're taking advantage of Borges's followers by spreading out over six volumes new material that could have been included in just one addendum to the earlier collections. Luckily, the Borgoholic in me has picked up volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia and beaten the cynic in me into a sweet, metaphysical coma.

May 22, 2010

The Great Gatsby - One Line, Three Versions

One of the funnier scenes in The Great Gatsby takes place at an impromptu party thrown by Tom's mistress Myrtle Wilson. When Myrtle and her sister Catherine argue over why she married George Wilson, the following exchange takes place:
“I married him because I thought he was a gentleman,” she said finally. “I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn't fit to lick my shoe.”
“You were crazy about him for a while,” said Catherine.
“Crazy about him!” cried Myrtle incredulously. “Who said I was crazy about him? I never was any more crazy about him than I was about that man there.”
She pointed suddenly at me, and every one looked at me accusingly. I tried to show by my expression that I had played no part in her past.
Recently, while skimming through the novel (yet again) I came across that same scene and something didn't seem right to me - there was something off in the flow, particularly in the last line. I looked up the text online (thank you, Project Gutenberg Australia) and sure enough there it was - the version on the screen was as I had remembered it, while the the last line of the version in my hand read:
She pointed suddenly at me, and every one looked at me accusingly. I tried to show by my expression that I expected no affection.
This line appears in the Penguin Popular Classics edition of the book, which is unavailable in the US since it is the only place in the world where the copyright for this work has not yet expired (I mean, come on, the book was published 85 years ago and the man's been dead for 70 of those years, but this isn't a post about unreasonable copyright laws). I had purchased the penguin edition as a second copy, in addition to the Scribner edition I already had, for reasons far too idiosyncratic to go into without making me seem like a loon.

Additional research on Google Books revealed that the latter version of the line also appears in the Wordsworth Classics edition, and the Oxford World's Classics edition, (both editions also relied on the work's expired copyright for publication), while the "original" line appears in the Scribner edition (Fitzgerald's original publisher) and the "definitive" Cambridge edition.
Further snooping (can you tell I'm avoiding work?) also points to which of the two lines came earlier. In Trimalchio: An Early Version of the Great Gatsby, also published by Cambridge University Press, the line appears as:
She pointed suddenly at me, and everyone looked at me accusingly. I tried to show by my expression that I expected no affection whatsoever.
 So it seems the Penguin version is probably earlier than the Scribner version, halfway between Trimalchio and Gatsby. This change from the earlier version to the later one makes complete sense to me for three reasons:
  1. The Scribner version sounds far better than the earlier one, which in such a short line managed to throw in two distracting elements - a clumsy alliteration (expression/expected) and an accidental rhyme (expression/affection).
  2. The Scribner version makes more sense - at this point in the narrative Nick, the narrator, is trying to defuse the situation, so the clearest approach would be a statement of fact - he played no part in her past - rather than exploring his expectations, which are quite irrelevant for the assembled crowd.
  3. Finally the Penguin version tries too hard to be funny - it's too cute, and this comes at the expense of both the flow of the narrative, and Nick's character as we've come to know him.
Since I don't plan to reread both versions side by side, I can only wonder if there are additional lines of The Great Gatsby that changed between printings. I also wonder when exactly this change took place - I am aware that in current publishing practices corrections are often made in the transition from the hardcover to the paperback, was this also the case back then?

And while we're on the subject of Fitzgerald, here are a few (somewhat) related recommendations:
  •  Tender is the Night, which Fitzgerald wrote after The Great Gatsby, also exists in two versions - after the original, published in 1934, failed commercially Fitzgerald thought about revising it (essentially to make it more accessible by constructing the narrative chronologically) and discussed this notion with his friend (and noted critic) Malcolm Cowley. In 1951 a second version, edited by Cowley and  based on Fitzgerald's revision notes, was published posthumously. Scribner publishes the original version and Penguin publishes the second. Unsurprisingly, I recommend reading the original Scribner version.

May 17, 2010

What I've Been Reading - Four Books in Four Days

After lazily making my way through Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (a great book, though occasionally exhausting and trying) I decided to read some shorter books, going for an almost ridiculously eclectic mix of writers - both familiar and unknown, varied in style, subject matter, and origin, though now that I think of it, all works are 20th Century fiction. Here are my brief and random thoughts:

The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain (1934, U.S.)
Dashiell Hammett's blurb practically says it all: "a good, swift, violent story." It's not really shocking for our Tarantino-ed sensibilities and there are a few ridiculous aspects (e.g. the puma), but it has some clever literary devices and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The ending certainly has existential resonance and it's not difficult to see the link between this work and The Stranger (which Camus modeled after this novel).

The Day of the Owl - Leonardo Sciascia (1961, Italy)
Described by some as a "metaphysical mystery," I would probably just call it a "literary mystery" - it has beautiful prose and presents an accurate (and by now perhaps even clichéd) view of life in a mafia-controlled Sicilian town, but has no real philosophical weight. To be fair, this novel was Sciascia's first foray into detective fiction, and later works are often said to be more complex.

Three Exemplary Novels - Miguel De Unamuno (1920, Spain)
Basically made up of three longish short stories, not novels, which are very similar to the stories collected in Ficciones and fall somewhere between them in terms of quality - better than La Tia Tula but not as good as his best short work "San Manuel Bueno, Martyr" (and certainly not as complex or interesting as his novel Mist). All three stories have biblical echoes, and are fairly bare in literary terms - there's hardly any description of atmosphere, space, or time, and the characters' psychology remains mostly unexplored - so that they feel more like extended parables than fully fleshed-out stories.

Dolly City - Orly Castel-Bloom (1992, Israel)
I had never read anything by Castel-Bloom before and try to avoid back cover blurbs, so I was genuinely shocked by this novel. It's sort of like a particularly vicious Donald Barthelme story - it has its own internal logic, divorced from our reality but related and constantly commenting on it (other works that came to my mind while reading include Harry Mathews's Tlooth, and in some particularly surreal sections even Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String). 
Castel-Bloom is often named alongside Etgar Keret as a representative of a certain type of Post-Modern Israeli literature, and there's certainly a similarity of tone and subject matter between the two. I read the novel in Hebrew, but Dalkey Archive Press is planning to release an English translation in Fall 2010 as part of its new Hebrew Literature Series.

May 16, 2010

Procrastination Theory and Practice

Several years ago I heard of a study (my recollection of it is a little fuzzy, so forgive me for not going into too much detail) performed wherein gorillas were given some sort of treatment that blocked a certain part of their brain activity, which led them to perform whatever task they were given immediately, without delay. Rather than selling this as a miracle cure for laziness or procrastination, researchers actually came to the conclusion that the part of the brain they had tampered with was the one in charge of estimating how long a certain task will take. So in essence, the gorillas were not cured of their laziness, but were actually given the anxiety of not knowing whether they have enough time to complete the task at hand (which, perhaps, is what diligence actually is).

I have used that story several times in the past, telling it to myself as well as others, in an attempt to excuse my constant procrastination (e.g. I can wait until the night before that Modernism paper is due to start writing it because my mighty brain is not in panic mode yet, which means that it knows I will be able to get it done in time). The problem is that this excuse doesn't really work when it comes to writing, since there are rarely any deadlines other than the ones I arbitrarily impose on myself and habitually fail to meet. Thus, it's very easy to procrastinate for days on end, constantly feeling guilty about not writing but never quite getting to the point of sitting down and getting it done, because that adrenaline-infused panicked feeling just isn't there.

And there are additional wrinkles to the procrastination problem, because just as there are no established deadlines, there are no established limits either, so that if I get my current writing project done earlier, I wouldn't have to sit around waiting for the world to catch up, I could simply get started on the next one, and the next one after that (ideas are not something I'm currently short on; I already have a pretty good idea of what my next 3 big writing projects are going to be), but the longer I procrastinate, the longer I defer these projects. And then there's also the problem of what I'm doing while I'm procrastinating, which is essentially nothing - If I hadn't planned to sit down and get work done, I could have gone to the beach, cooked something up, finished reading a book, or basically anything other than sitting at the computer and not writing, or writing, but not the stuff I should be writing. What do you think I'm doing right now? Blogging about procrastination rather than writing fiction.

A recent book review by Brendan Boyle (in BookForum where registration, which is free, is required for access), which I obviously came across while procrastinating, brings up similar points. Boyle begins his review of The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination by actually reading Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, a different book about procrastination, and then lamenting, "and so it began, putting off writing by reading about putting off writing, all with a familiar irritation and indignation." The Thief of Time, unfortunately, offers little solace for the procrastinating writer, instead choosing to discuss pigeon behavior at length, but Boyle does present an interesting Rilke quote as a coda: 
I have often asked myself whether those days on which we are forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity? Whether all our doing, when it comes later, is not only the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place in us on those days of inaction.
So is procrastination not only natural, but necessary? Perhaps, but I also think a certain kind of writerly procrastination, namely blogging, answers a much clearer psychological need - the need for an audience. As a still unpublished novelist, I can't expect to get anyone's response to my work (except for the occasional trustworthy friend or family member), but as a blogger I can get much more immediate responses, often from people I don't know (in the form of comments, emails, and even "like"s on Facebook), for something I didn't have to work on for months and years.

May 13, 2010

Wordcount - From Novelettes to Meganovels

I just finished reading Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives last night, and this morning I started reading James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. It took me about three hours to slog through the last 100+ pages of Bolaño's book, less than a sixth of its overall length, then this morning I breezed through 30 pages, or first quarter, of Cain's book while sipping my morning coffee (which I sip pretty quickly). This had nothing to do with my enjoyment of the works or their relative simplicity or density - just a matter of words per page, and I found it interesting that, in spite of their significantly different lengths, both works would be defined as novels.

The novel stands at the high end of narrative length, usually denoting any work of fiction 50,000 words or over. While there are more specific definitions for shorter works (novella, novelette, etc.) there is no differentiation between books like  Mrs. Dalloway and War and Peace, though the latter is almost ten times longer than the former. At least there was no differentiation, until now:

Word Count
Notable Examples
Novelette 7,500 – 20,000
Novella 20,000 - 50,000
Noveli  50,000 - 100,000
Novel  100,000 - 200,000
Übernovel  200,000 - 500,000
Decanovel  500,000 - 1,000,000
 1,000,000 and over   

How did I come up with this naming system? It's actually quite simple:

  • I set the "standard" novel length at between 100-200k, mostly because it seemed to be a good point in the middle, and probably the most common length.
  • Following the already established novelette-novella-novel sequence, I added Noveli to denote a work between a novel and a novella (I also considered Novello, but it seemed too masculine, while Noveli is more neutral, and successfully evokes something smaller than a novel and bigger than a novella)
  • The "Über-" in Übernovel, denotes that this work is "over" the length of a standard novel, but not by any strictly defined ratio.
  • "Deca" is a prefix denoting a factor of ten, so the Decanovel is up to ten times longer than the shortest novel, or up to a million words.
  • "Mega" is a prefix denoting a factor of one million, in this case it refers to the number of words being one million or more. I do realize that based on the metric system the next prefix after "deca" should be "hecto," but a Hectonovel just sounds ridiculous; so does a Kilonovel. Plus, "mega" is now commonly used to denote anything large (e.g. in the "Mega Millions" lottery, you don't really get a trillion dollars; someone should sue them for false advertising), and the term Meganovel has already popped up in media from time to time, though I don't think it was used to mean anything more than a "big" novel. Another possibility would be to call it a Megalonovel, since "megalo" simply means "great" or "large" in Greek, without specific implications. The downside of calling it a megalonovel is that people might expect it to involve dinosaurs.
All we need to do to make this official is for some "established" newspaper or journal to reference this, and for someone else to add it to Wikipedia's article on novel length. In other words, dear readers, now it's all up to you.