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Notable New Books: Beyond Binary, Lauriat, The Moment of Change, and Yesterday’s Hero

Jeff VanderMeer • August 14th, 2012 • Book Reviews


(The cool cover art for Lauriat)

I’m a little behind on blogging about some interesting books that’ve come my way. So here are thumbnails on four of them, all of which you should consider picking up…

Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Charles Tan. “Filipinos and Chinese have a rich, vibrant literature when it comes to speculative fiction. But what about the fiction of the Filipino-Chinese, who draw their roots from both cultures? This is what this anthology attempts to answer. Featuring stories that deal with voyeur ghosts, taboo lovers, a town that cannot sleep, the Chinese zodiac, and an exile that finally comes home, Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology covers a diverse selection of narratives from fresh, Southeast Asian voices.” Written up in Publishers Weekly and on io9.com. I’m still delving into it and finding it very entertaining.

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Notes on Writing: The Perfection of Imperfect Comprehension

Jeff VanderMeer • August 10th, 2012 • Writing Tips

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(Photo by Taylor Lockwood—all rights reserved.)

The following short essay was originally presented as part of a longer powerpoint presentation given in various forms, including at a London architectural conference and at the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine.

Sometimes it’s useful to think in abstractions to more clearly see the effects we are trying to achieve in fiction. For example this idea: 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.

If this is true, then nothing we see is entirely inert. Everything around us has, to some degree, a point of view. Thus, it may be useful to think of objects and other things embedded in your narrative as characters, too. Which is to say, that they have their own stories and agendas at the micro level of narrative. Paying attention to the possibility in these stories can be closely allied to characterization generally.

In extreme situations, these points of view become powerful influencers of behavior and history. This is the case in the imaginary city of Ambergris as described in my novel Finch, which I offer up as an example. In the novel, the subterranean inhabitants of the city, the gray caps, have Risen and taken over the city, occupying it and trying to maintain power over the human inhabitants through what can only be described as thought viruses given flesh. Their version of the city can be seen as an operational reality in competition with the reality of the original, indigenous peoples and the settlers who supplanted both them and the gray caps.

These operational realities do not play well with one another and the Rising brings everything to a boil. For a long time before this, the majority of Ambergris’s population—the descendants of Manzikert’s whaling clan, and new settlers—had the luxury of forgetting that they live in one of three possible versions of the city. This is something you see often in our real world, and this is also why you see the sparks of seemingly “new” conflict in some cases—because there is something there that has never been resolved. People on the ground have to live with that, and the dissonance it creates. (This is somewhat comparable in some ways to the more personal conflict and interpersonal dynamic between two individuals. It could be said to be a type of macro-characterization when applied to fiction.)

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Summer Road Trip Book Haul: More Than You Might Think…

Jeff VanderMeer • August 7th, 2012 • Book Reviews, Uncategorized

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(An anthology of Bruno Schulz-inspired fiction ffrom Ex Occidente and the latest from Wendy Walker–check out Wendy Walker’s back catalogue.)

I never intend to buy books on trips, and I especially didn’t intend to on this latest one, where from July 10 through August 5, I went from the Stonecoast MFA program to ReaderCon to the Shared Worlds teen SF/F camp. But, as usual, no matter what I plan, books accrete to me without conscious thought…So here’s the run-down on what I acquired, or was gifted to me.

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Dreaming Well: Does the Future of Publishing Need More Imagination?

Jeff VanderMeer • August 6th, 2012 • Culture

For the past three or four years, the book world has been inundated with advice, predictions, and knowing winks about the next phase of what it means to be a writer. We’re told to exploit social media, to cater to our fans, to turn to self-publishing through e-books, to eschew copyright in favor of giving readers material for free. But what value does any of this actually have? What actual results, and at what cost? Is the salvation for writers the same thing that will wind up killing off good books? Who is rendered invisible by all of this, and what does it mean for the future of literary quality?

Just for those who don’t know me, I’ve been a writer for over 25 years, with novels out from major and indie publishers, as well as self-published titles. I’ve got multiple awards nominations, and wins, and write-ups in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. I’ve run an award-winning publishing company. I help run a teen writing camp and write book reviews for major national newspapers. I’m also the author of what is still the only internet/new media-based book on what it means to be a writer in the modern era, Booklife, which has such spin-off sites as Booklifenow. I’m not at all shy about using social media, and getting my hands dirty with promotion and all of the other things that we are increasingly told we must do.

But I feel passionately that some of the information we are getting is increasingly wrong and motivated by selfishness and, yes, to some degree, a form of hyperbolic illogic. We are so hung up on predicting the next big thing, on getting in on the next gold rush when it comes to ways for authors to promote themselves and market their work that we often seem to be active participants in our own destruction. We are voluntarily committed at times to dismantling those elements of traditional publishing that actually work and adopting the new simply because it’s shiny and seems to offer an easy way out. We may talk now about accessibility and visibility instead of distribution and publicity, and the delivery system and format of books may be changing, but those are just matters of terminology and translation. At the same time, we’re not able to truly dream well about what e-books might mean beyond things like making them look more like videogames or annotating them. Honestly, who cares? That’s pretty much dressing something up, not dreaming well.

The problem right now really isn’t the “tyranny” of big NYC commercial publishers or an Amazon monopoly. The problem is the virus of mediocre and received ideas coursing through the collective brains of the book world, infecting too many of its writers, commentators, reviewers. It’s a kind of fundamentalism at its heart, and we want to believe in it because it’s easy to do so. Then we don’t have to think for ourselves and we can also worship at the altar of a God of E-Plenty.

Just a few prominent examples, although there are more, and more subtle, cases…

War on copyright and the fervent belief that content should be free. This belief isn’t based on any scientific facts showing that this will benefit the majority of writers (the midlist, which often is the bedrock of literary quality) but often based on anecdotal experience from gatekeepers who mistake their own immense personal power for signal boost as distributing evenly across the book culture.* When it most assuredly does not. The idea, meanwhile, that non-US/British Commonwealth writers do not in fact want some form of international copyright in place is just plain wrong for the most part, not to mention insulting to the wealth of diverging opinions across countries, regions, and traditions. (This is leaving aside the ridiculous length of copyright in the US/UK right now; it is too long.)

Mega-selling self-published authors war on traditional publishing, specifically the Mighty Konrath. This belief, again, isn’t based on scientific fact—note the recent study showing less than 10 percent of self-published authors make any kind of money at all—but on anecdotal evidence related to a unique situation in already having an audience built up through traditional publishing. Any crusade against traditional publishing is selfish to the extreme—it wants to replace diverse ways to publication with One True Way. The same call is often taken up by budding writers, because it can be very seductive to think publication is so very, very much closer than ever before…even if time put into getting rejected can be extremely important to developing writers. Self-publishing is a tool and like any other tool it can be used well or poorly. Putting it on a pedestal is a pointless exercise. I AM BOLDING THIS STATEMENT SO I DON’T GET ANY COMMENTS ABOUT HOW I HATE SELF-PUBLISHING, BECAUSE I DON’T. (Any such comments will be deleted.)

Advocating against the use of an agent. I’ve seen more than one experienced writer who should know better rail against the use of an agent in the new publishing atmosphere. All I can say is, if you think agents are evil sycophants who want to suck all of your money out of you and cheat you, feel free. I’ll be over in this corner getting a lot more done for more money because of my agent.

No one at New York publishing houses edits books any more. This is something I really find to be propaganda in the worst sense, in the context of bolstering the case for self-publishing (the case for which doesn’t need bolstering, depending on the context). All I can say is that everywhere I’ve been published in NY, I have had amazing editors who rolled up their sleeves and suggested, in some cases, major changes that had a big impact on the quality of the book in question. And many of my friends who also publish with NY publishers will tell you the same thing. This little inaccuracy used to be relatively benign back in the day, but it now more and more harmful, since it also suggests that since writers with big houses don’t get edits, editing in general really isn’t necessary. Not true.

Claiming you know how things are going to look five years down the road and recommending strategies based on your Sacred Knowledge. There are a lot of different elements in play right now in a market in flux. No one can really be sure of what book publishing will look like in five years except that e-books will be a hugely important part of it. But one thing you can be sure of: that future will have built-in tumors and cysts due to your promulgation of shit-ass ideas now, infecting the mind-stream of the internet and taking hold when they needn’t have.

Telling writers to establish some social media presence well in advance of finishing or selling a novel or other type of book. Another one-size-fits-all approach that isn’t useful for all writers or all kinds of books. For some writers, depending on their personality, it is downright destructive. For others, it is like being a hamster in a wheel trying to power your career, and expending lots of energy for little gain. Writers over-extending themselves, losing track of their art, all concerned that otherwise they’ll be rendered invisible.

This invisibility concerns me the most, especially in the context of those who scoff at traditional publishing these days. Trad publishing offers something to the shy writer, the introverted writer, the writer who will *always* trip over themselves trying to yank at the levers of social media. And that thing is advocacy and support. Is the advice we’re being given actually coming with the subtext that “if you’re not good at social media and selling yourself, don’t become a writer”? If so, fuck that. Some of my favorite writers wouldn’t know a facebook from an effing hole in the wall and yet, gasp, somehow manage to have careers.

Taken together, advocates for the wholesale dismantling of the current system and, to a lesser extent (lesser because it’s not as prevalent) other advocates who too frequently defend the inadequacies of the current system represent the biggest threat to the majority of writers. By spreading a more-or-less ideological virus that is then repeated by ever-growing numbers of people who do not stop to analyze what they then put out there as gospel, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs that may do long-term damage to the ability of writers to survive in this new age of publishing.

As noted, I’m no luddite. I use social media strategically and well. I write very surreal books that reach a larger audience than they otherwise would because of these tools. But I also know what doesn’t work, and that old-fashioned word-of-mouth and many of the traditional ways still hold true. I am not at all interested in being complicit in the impoverishment of the literary community by adopting new ways without thinking them through thoroughly first. I also am not at all interested in some becoming more visible at the expense of making others into ghosts.

Now, of course, you’ll ask if I have the answers. Well, I don’t. I’m smart enough to know I don’t, but also savvy enough to know bullshit solutions when I see them, and not to promulgate them to new writers. We live in an exciting age for books, but the jury’s out on whether we’ll have enough imagination to make it a Renaissance or a Dying Fall. And lest anyone misunderstand, I am as at-fault as anyone in not yet having been able to see clearly on this issue. I just know there must be better ideas out there, better ways of doing things. Before we become Locked In to just One Idea or Two Ideas.

* In other cases, artists coming in from other media suggest ludicrous things like “all you have to do is have your own popular band and then you can write a novel that easily reaches people.” Yes. Form your own musical group. Then use that popularity to write a novel. Next idea, please.

Carlos Fuentes Vlad Review in the NYTBR

Jeff VanderMeer • August 5th, 2012 • Book Reviews

The New York Times Book Review has published my review of Carlos Fuentes’ Vlad.

“When rodents are being shoved down your pants, you know things aren’t going to end well.”

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

Jeff VanderMeer • July 29th, 2012 • Book Reviews

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.

On the Road: Newport

Jeff VanderMeer • July 18th, 2012 • Culture

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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!

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Goodreads and the Steampunk Deletions

Jeff VanderMeer • July 17th, 2012 • Culture

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

Jeff VanderMeer • July 17th, 2012 • Culture, News, Uncategorized

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(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…

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(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.

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On Reaching the Curmudgeonly Age of 44

Jeff VanderMeer • July 6th, 2012 • Culture

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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.