Essay in the New Haven Review: The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin)

The New Haven Review’s issue #10 (summer) is now out, and it includes my 9,000-word essay “The Art of the Literary Fake (with violin),” which is an exploration of literary fakes. It focuses on a book entitled An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin but also explores strange facts, an odd book of crayfish names, an eccentric penguin researcher tome, and much more. Here’s the opening of the essay, which is the longest piece of nonfiction I’ve written since my essay on Angela Carter back about 20 years ago. Other contributors to this issue include Nick Mamatas. You can order the journal here. Thanks to Brian Slattery for commissioning the piece.


This sentence is a fake.
This sentence is the original.
This sentence is an animal, not a series of words.

Michal Ajvaz’s short story “Quintus Erectus” provides an instructional metaphor with regard to literary fakes, a form with which readers and reviewers have a long yet uneasy history. “Quintus Erectus” describes a capybara-like South American mammal that, when it stands on its hindquarters, “presses its hands closely to the body, turns its head to the attacker and remains motionless…two vertical strips of dark hair…evoke an impression of human hands with fingers,” while coloration on the head “depicts the human face.” At a distance of three meters “we can easily mistake the animal for a man; from a distance of five meters the animal is indistinguishable from a man.” In the story, this unsettling illusion creates a feeling of wrongness and nausea in many observers. Are they seeing an animal or a human being? Is the text itself really a story or is it a disturbing something other, pretending to be a story?

The story of Quintus Erectus in some ways mimics the reaction in certain quarters to the literary fake—a piece of fiction that pretends in some way to be true. Is it fact or fiction? Is it good fun or something more disturbing? By operating under the auspices of traditionally nonfictional modes to tell its story, the literary fake chooses to bring the reader to suspension of disbelief through means that include extreme guile—and, in cases where the reader recognizes the trick, continues to amuse, entertain, and say something interesting about the human condition regardless. As such, it destabilizes our view of reality, which can be uncomfortable, sometimes unforgiveable, especially if we think someone is laughing at us. We don’t always appreciate things that look like other things, even if there’s a purpose to the mimicry; perhaps this is a vestige of an ancient evolutionary trait that allowed us to discern between the harmless and the harmful.

Nor do some readers, apparently, like to think they are being made to believe something false against their will. Fakes are especially divisive at two essential moments in time: when they successfully slip past the reader’s defenses and when the reader discovers the deception. Whether this latter point occurs soon after picking up the book or halfway through it, a literary fake eventually forces the reader to decide whether to be sympathetic or hostile toward the fakery.

Fakes may also be viewed with suspicion as artificial constructs, identified as stories in which the skeleton appears to exist on the outside of the body. Fiction is meant to be an uninterrupted dream or movie for the reader, we are often told, and those struts and supporting walls should always be inside the house of the narrative; only in nonfiction do we expect to see the architecture.

The irony of this view of fakes as an unnatural form is that most examples are forged by that most liberated state of mind: ecstatic imaginative play, poured into the constraint and thus given shape and structure. However, and here irony piles up upon irony, imaginative play (and, in some cases, results that exist purely as an offering on the altar of Play) creates another issue. Play isn’t academically rigorous, can’t be easily quantified, and suggests a border that criticism cannot cross. The Quintus Erectus that lies peacefully in the morgue, awaiting dissection, suddenly slips through our fingers when we produce the scalpel, and then reappears, grinning at us mysteriously from a chair across the room. It’s as if a mischievous but highly intelligent ghost haunts the text. To speak of a ghost directly, and especially an unpredictable ghost, is to be seen as childish or superstitious, even though we are all childish and superstitious.

Karin Lowachee: Shared Worlds’ Writer in Residence

Also, just a note that our Shared Worlds feature on Karin Lowachee, our writer-in-residence, is now up at the SW website.

Shared Worlds: First Day and Public Reading Schedule

Shared Worlds camp--first day
(Returning students seeing each other again for the first time in a year)

Today was registration day for Shared Worlds, with the 53 students coming in from as far away as Japan, France, and Germany. It was a hot, hectic day, but also very relaxing and fun—in terms of seeing everyone getting along, and for the returning students renewing old friendships while also keeping the new students in the loop. We haven’t had much in the way of cliques, and we’re happy about that. This is also the most students we’ve had, in this, the fifth year of the program. In year one, we had 20 students.

More soon on Shared Worlds, but I wanted to make readers in the Carolinas aware of three great events:

July 25, Wednesday—Hub City Bookstore (downtown Spartanburg, SC)—6pm, NYT Bestseller Naomi Novik, gaming expert and writer Will Hindmarch, and World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer will be reading, signing, and answering questions.

July 31, Tuesday—Hub City Bookstore (downtown Spartanburg, SC)—6pm, NYT Bestseller Tobias Buckell, PKD Award finalist and Amazon Writer-in-Residence Karin Lowachee, Shirley Jackson Award-winner Nathan Ballingrud, and Hugo Award winning editor Ann VanderMeer will be reading, signing, and answering questions. More info on both Hub City readings here (although the time listed there is wrong and Baggott will only be participating in SW via Skype.)

August 4, Saturday–Malaprops (downtown Asheville, NC)–7pm, NYT Bestseller Tobias Buckell, PKD Award finalist and Amazon Writer-in-Residence Karin Lowachee, Shirley Jackson Award-winner Nathan Ballingrud, awesome writer and gaming expert Will Hindmarch, World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer, and Hugo Award winning editor Ann VanderMeer will be reading, signing, and answering questions. (Join us in the pub across the street afterwards, too.) More info at the bookstore site.

On the Road: Newport

Cliff walk-33

I had to buy a hat in Newport, RI. I had to buy suntan lotion. I had to buy a smoothie and dump it over my head. It is hot here. But I didn’t let that deter me, and I went and took the Cliff Walk in a light drizzle, and then decided to take the scenic drive…as a walk..which was a war of attrition after awhile, about 10 miles in all. You can see photos on my facebook, using this link (which I think is public).

Oh yeah–and I had one of the most perfect cheese plates ever at the White Horse Tavern, before my hike. Highly recommended.

Off to Richmond tomorrow! Nine hours! Huzzah!


Goodreads and the Steampunk Deletions

A very good blog entry here about the recent Steampunk book deletions on Goodreads, with all the context. From past behavior of the individual involved, I have a hard time believing this was accidental.

On the Road: Stonecoast, Maine, ReaderCon

BerlinNatHisMuseumVials (2)
(Core samples I have taken, which tend to manifest as organisms; thanks to Eric Schaller for his help with taxonomy, although all mistakes are my own.)

I am in New Hampshire at the moment, with a short break hanging out at Matt Cheney’s house before driving on to Newport and then to Richmond, Virginia, with the goal of winding up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, by Friday—in preparation for teaching at the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp for two weeks.

Stonecoast: Memory and Fantasy

It’s been an eventful and fun time on the road thus far. I started out in Maine, giving a presentation at the Stonecoast MFA program and then doing a reading that night. I had a wonderful time. The Stonecoast house is near the water and the grounds are lovely. I stepped out of the car and all of the stress in my body just left me…and then came back as I came to realize we wouldn’t be able to print the notes to my presentation. But someone—someone miraculous whose name I’ve lost—managed to do a kind of split screen thing where the slides showed up for the audience and my notes, on the same computer, just showed up for me…

(Art by Myrtle Von Damitz III)

The presentation was on Memory, History, and Fantasy: Urban Landscapes and Characterization, focusing on my novel Finch—basically swooping down from an eagle-eye view to a street-level view to talk about the ways in which characterization and settings interact. It’s not presented like Finch is the be-all and end-all, as that would be presumptuous, and indeed I told the audience that what I was about to show them was predicated on an ideal of the novel, including thoughts I’d had about it since publication. Since it was an MFA group, I thought I’d just bring it re the complexity and have the visual element and some bullet point lists strewn throughout help make it not too dense.

Butt Ugly

One of the central ideas of the presentation is that spaces and buildings are not neutral, inert things in novels—or shouldn’t always been seen as such. That in fact structures are important opportunities in fiction, related to characterization. I tie this into the following idea, a note from the presentation: “Everything we see around us, whether functional or decorative, once existed in someone’s imagination. Every building, every fixture, every chair, every table, every vase, every road, every toaster. The world we live in is largely a manifestation of many individual and collective imaginations applied to the task of altering reality.” I like to pull back to the abstract level here because it helps the audience to envision these elements as not inert but as kinetic and alive at the level of idea and metaphor.

[Read more…]

Upcoming Appearance Schedule–Now with Wonderbook!

WONDERBOOK--Jeremy Zerfoss--Story lifecycle snippet

So I’m on the plane headed for Stonecoast, where I will give a presentation tomorrow afternoon and then do a reading in the evening at the Brunswick Inn (Maine) at 7pm, I think. The presentation will include a sneak peek at Wonderbook, the creative writing book I keep nattering on about—above find a snippet from the lifecycle of a story diagram Jeremy Zerfoss has created for me.

After Stonecoast, I’ll be at ReaderCon—my schedule is in a blog entry below this one.

In addition, I’ll be reading with Shared Worlds guest writers in Spartanburg, SC, at the local indie bookstore the last week of July, and introducing more writers the first week of August there as well–I’ll post the exact details in a day or two. Also, August 4, Shared Worlds writers Tobias Buckell, Karin Lowachee, Will Hindmarch, Ann VanderMeer, Nathan Ballingrud and I will be appearing at a SF/F extravaganza hosted by Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina, at 7pm. Please drop by!

As for other upcoming gigs, Ann and I will definitely be at World Fantasy in Toronto, which will feature a book release party for Karin Tidbeck’s Cheeky Frawg release Jagannath.

Next year, Ann and I will be keynote speakers for a SF symposium at the University of South Florida, and I will be a guest of honor for the Steampunk World’s Fair.

More news soon…

On Reaching the Curmudgeonly Age of 44


I’m sure it’s July 7 somewhere, so I might as well admit it’s my birthday and I’m 44. Turning 44 doesn’t bother me one bit, to be honest. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, getting about 2 hours of exercise a day, and feel strong as an ox. I’ve also had a monstrous first half of the year creatively, returning at full strength to fiction and completing a novel, Annihilation, the novelette Komodo, and several short stories. As well as finishing off parts of other novels, a long essay on literary fakes, and part of Wonderbook, my forthcoming illustrated book on writing.

Strangely, getting bronchitis after several dental surgeries was a blessing. It made me slow down and focus. Ever since then, near the beginning of the year, I’ve felt refreshed and rejuvenated. A far cry from the last couple of years, during which, quite frankly, the looming shadow of The Weird really impacted our lives in negative ways, even if we’re quite proud of the achievement embodied by that anthology. It just devoured our schedule, our routine, etc.

Although the balance in my life still sometimes goes back and forth, the one thing I haven’t ever given up during this year is the work in the gym, and it’s been a huge part of why I’ve managed to be so productive. I’m also happy to be 6 years out from the last time I held a day job, and very grateful to be able to do what I love.

I’m looking forward to a great rest of the year, with Wonderbook being turned in soonish, and several amazing new projects to announce in the next couple of months. I’ll also be completing Authority, the sequel to Annihilation.

Finally, as ever, thanks to friends and family–and to my wife Ann, my love, who keeps me sane, makes me laugh, and who is always there for me.

Recently Reviewed in The Guardian and Los Angeles Times: Graham Joyce and Kim Stanley Robinson

Just a quick note that you can find reviews of mine online this week at the Guardian and the LA Times.

I read Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale for The Guardian, and it was a bit of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed parts of it, but for once Joyce’s agility at craft seemed exposed—a few too many wires and gears showing.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, on the other hand, I thought was wonderful—and featured one of the great love stories in science fiction.

I’ll have reviews of, among others, Carlos Fuentes appearing soon in other major newspapers.

Foyle’s War…Unaired Episode with Cockroaches

foyles%20war 2

I think our current all-rain all-the-time situation, which is increasing the incidents of encountering my mortal foe, the cockroach, is getting into my head—along with Foyle’s War, the Masterpiece Theater mystery series, which we’ve been devouring….

I had this dream last night that we were watching Foyle’s War, and the episode was about the search for a giant human-sized murdering cockroach. Except there were a lot of law-abiding giant cockroaches in England, so the case was difficult. At one point early on, Foyle decided he needed someone to go undercover in an apartment complex full of giant human-sized cockroaches.

So Sam speaks up and says, “Oh, sir, I’d love to go undercover to help get this cockroach, if it’s all right with you, sir. I think I’d enjoy it, as a break from driving.” So Foyle reluctantly agrees to this, and Sam goes undercover.

From there, the episode gets really strange. First of all, they keep cutting to Foyle’s sergeant, who has called in sick. But you see recurring shots of him, and he’s dressed in a black tuxedo and attached to the ceiling of his house, and just kind of hissing and there’s white stuff coming out of his mouth, that he’s affixing to the ceiling.

Meanwhile, the scenes with Sam infiltrating the apartment complex are as if through the holes in her cockroach disguise that allow her to see out, so you just see a lot of confused, claustrophobic dark shots of exterior feelers and cockroach mandibles and terrible glossy bug eyes, along with this chittering that you gradually realize is Sam trying to speak cockroachese.

If that’s not bad enough, Foyle spends the entire episode from then on in a chair by the fireplace of his home, and every once in a while he’ll move his head really fast to face the camera, and he gives this really fiendish smile, and we see a ghostly overlay of a cockroach head over his own head.

So, finally, Sam gets in a lot of trouble, and they just manage to rescue her, but when she returns to Foyle’s place, he’s still in the corner just staring off into space, and we cut to the sergeant on the ceiling, who has kind of married the ceiling—like, he’s now kind of decomposing into it, or becoming something else entirely.

We then cut to Sam on the white cliffs of Dover—no idea how she got there—and she’s staring out like she’s expecting to see something on the horizon, and she says “They weren’t really cockroaches, were they? They weren’t. They weren’t.” Then the next-to-final shot is a close-up of Foyle’s son flying through the air, but when the camera pans back, we see he’s not in a fighter plane but instead on the back of a giant flying cockroach, high above the white cliffs of Dover. Except, as we pan back in, we see that it’s the son’s *head* growing out of the back of the “cockroach”.

The very *last* shot is of Foyle again, in his chair, except we realize it’s not really a chair. That it’s a kind of weird carapace. And he looks right into the camera and screams, “For England! For England! For England.”

The end.