In Which I Make Up a Categorization Called “Slow-paced Genre Realism”

(What I’m reading now: Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones; about to start Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which is such an awesome title; and reading the YA urban fantasy My Diary from the Edge of the World, Jodi Lynn Anderson, to my daughter)

I had a great time this past month savoring Version Control by Dexter Palmer. It clocks in at a little over 18 hours as an audio book, but once I settled into the story, I found the slow pacing to be really wonderful. I wonder if we can create a sub-genre in science fiction or fantasy of slow-paced genre novels (or slow-paced genre realism?). Think a little Alice Munro or Karl Ove Knausgard transported into a genre setting. Into such a categorization, I’d throw some of my favorite books: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, as well as Molly Gloss’s Dazzle of the Day and Wild Life. Ah, and how about the beloved The Wall by Marlen Haushofer? My Real Children by Jo Walton? And then there is this one book I read 20 years ago, which I can not locate, no matter how many creative Google searches I do, about a regular California community and a regular woman, maybe a mother, who is just essentially living in an almost boring way–and then, in what’s maybe the last two chapters, there is a nuclear holocaust. But that is such a small part of the book, maybe even an afterthought… 

I’ll stop my list now. But I do admire the authors who write this way. I think it takes some courage to straddle the line, not just in style but in plotting, between genre and realistic fiction as they do, as genre readers may find such fiction slow, and literary readers may wonder why there has to be aliens in the story.

My love for slow sci-fi and fantasy doesn’t mean I avoid or despise meaningful plot-driven  genre books. The Underground Airlines comes to mind, a page turner, but also fascinating in its alternate history of the U.S., but also a dark mirror to who we are now. In more traditional genre books though, I find myself drawn to the minor characters who are left behind in quests, who don’t save anybody or become involved in intrigue or do anything spectacular–who are simply living their ordinary lives against an interesting fantastical backdrop, and often I wish the story was about them rather than the hero. 

I came across an essay of Dexter Palmer’s on Strange Horizons: “On Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.” It’s a lovely essay, written with the same generosity, thoughtfulness, and curiosity that I found in Version Control. The essay’s opening captures some of what I’ve been thinking about lately concerning writing, readership, and readers’ responses to a work–in particular, what seems like people’s impulse to judge, rather than a movement to first try and understand. To equate quality with whether or not they liked the book, not allowing that it’s possible for a book to be successful and, at the same time, for them not to like it. Rather than thinking of work we don’t like as a failure, there is the possibility that maybe it’s us: that we are uninterested in reading the work in the way the author intended, or that maybe we just don’t like that sort of writing. (How does one identify a successful versus an unsuccessful book then? Is it by first determining what the author was attempting to do, and then considering was the author able to achieve that? Or maybe it would help to simply acknowledge, before we judge, our reader biases: I don’t like fiction that leaves me depressed, etc.) Part of my feelings about this is personal: I write slow fiction, and that includes slow genre fiction. Right now I’m drawn to stories in which nothing substantial happens on the surface, other than the reader is given a window to a character’s life for a little while. I realize these sorts of stories aren’t for everyone. But the fact that a story isn’t for anyone does not, by default, mean 2 stars. Anyhow, here’s the Palmer’s essay opening: 

All novels are exercises in empathy for their readers; all of a novel’s readers are performers of its possible meanings. Each novel gives hints of the kind of person it wants its reader to temporarily become in order to enjoy it to the fullest. We don’t read eighteenth-century fiction with the same ear as we do fiction from the twenty-first, or science fiction with the same ear as literary fiction about the daily lives of New Yorkers. If we are skilled readers, we quickly pick up on the hints the text throws out and we shift our expectations. If not, or if the conventions of the work are unfamiliar to us, then perhaps we find ourselves left out in the cold, or saying, “I really wanted to like this book. But.”

This is certainly not to say that all novels are inherently good, and that a displeased reader is always one who has failed the text, but to say that when a reader bounces off a novel, we should ask if the problem lies with the author’s failure of craft, or with the reader’s inattention, improper expectations, or inexperience, or whether it’s caused by some other reason altogether. With a work whose critical reputation is well established over decades or centuries, this is easy: one-star Amazon reviews of Moby-Dick are mocked for a reason. But with a work of expansive scope and ambition that’s still only months old, the question is harder. Here is the opening of the New York Times’ review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, dated May 28, 1922:

“A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may comprehend ‘Ulysses,’ James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will gain little or nothing from it—even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it—save bewilderment and a sense of disgust. It should be companioned with a key and a glossary like the Berlitz books. Then the attentive and diligent reader would eventually get some comprehension of Mr. Joyce’s message.”[1]

That sounds like the beginning of a hatchet job, the sort of review we’d smugly laugh at now that ninety-odd years have passed, but two paragraphs later Collins calls Ulysses “the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century.” Collins isn’t hedging his bets here: he knows, even in these early days, that he is in the presence of genius. And yet he freely expresses an ambivalence about the nature of that genius.

In the following paragraph, I also found this idea fascinating: that micro-realism and micro-description has a place in genre fiction, but not in realistic fiction. I don’t know if I agree with this–perhaps My Struggle would be the book I would hold up as an example where the point of the book is in the minutiae of detail. Where it’s not the detail itself but the lens through which the detail is seen that’s important: every character or narrator does not see a tree identically. (Bolding below is mine.)  

Whether Moore’s attention to detail is an asset or a liability in the first part of the novel, it clearly becomes an asset in the second part, when the dominant mode changes from realism to a mix of young-adult fantasy mixed with metaphysical speculation. In this section we get an extended journey into the afterlife world of Mansoul, occasioned by a near-death experience brought on when Michael Warren chokes on a cough drop at the age of three. There is a strong influence in these chapters from Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, as well as the children’s adventure stories of Enid Blyton, and it’s here that the cosmogony of this novel is revealed: essentially, though humans perceive themselves as moving dynamically through three dimensions as they age, they are in fact static four-dimensional objects, and their belief in their own free will is a necessary illusion. If one might think that many parts of the first section of the novel would be better rendered as a comic rather than as a text, here Moore breaks free of the two-dimensional limits of the page, using prose to describe extra-dimensional objects that would be impossible to visualize otherwise, and that benefit from extended detail, being wholly imaginary. (One might also say that the problem here is that Moore writes realist fiction in the same style as he writes genre fiction, as if Northampton’s sights and sounds will be as unfamiliar to the reader as those of Mansoul.)

Love this too…the idea of intentionally creating a work for which an ideal reader does not exist. To have that be the point of the work.

But an optimistic reading, the one I tend toward, is that it’s a suggestion that the scope of Jerusalem is such that its ideal reader of this text may not and may never exist, and creating a work with such a scope was Moore’s ultimate aim. Nearly every reader who encounters this work and sticks with it will find his or her empathy for art tested, in one way or another: this is the achievement of a work that’s so remarkably versatile and all-encompassing in its genres and styles. Whether the book constantly tickles one’s pleasure centers (and I freely confess that it did not for me) is, in the instance of this book, almost irrelevant. The novel is aiming for greater things than pleasure, not least of which is the illusion of fully preserving a place, in all its detail, in four dimensions. (Alma, talking of her work, just a few pages from the novel’s end: “I’ve saved the Boroughs [ … ] the way that you save ships in bottles. It’s the only plan that works. Sooner or later all the people and the places that we loved are finished, and the only way to keep them safe is art. That’s what art’s for. It rescues everything from time.”) (1259)

Anyhow, read the essay! I’m curious about Jerusalem now, it’s officially on my reading list, but so are about 500 other books (sigh…). 

The Joy of List Making Part 2: The Throwback Special

I recently became obsessed with The Throwback Special written by Chris Bachelder. I started off listening to it as an audiobook while aqua jogging in the local YMCA's pool. It's a difficult book to listen to in the first place, lots of shifting points of views (the novel follows 22 men) and tons of little gems of descriptions and dialogue that you might miss if your attention wanders for, say, a second. It's especially difficult to listen to while aqua jogging in a pool, as pools are noisy to begin with, at least the pool I use, and you're also getting splashed, and sometimes the nice water aerobics women sharing the tiny roped off corner of the pool with you are trying to talk to you. (What is the perfect book to listen to while aqua jogging? I haven't quite found it yet...). So after a first listen through, I read this book again, this time on my Kindle. Then I listened to it one more time. Then I went back and reread anything I highlighted, which seriously was about half of the book.

I think I'm done with my rereading, but really, it's an amazing book stylistically, a book I tried to study and learn from as I read through it again. How does Bachelder manage to be so funny while not belittling his characters and turning them into a joke?  How, in this time, in the current political/publishing climate, do you write about 21 white middle-aged men (1 of the men is bi-racial) and still have their stories seem vital, valuable, and worth telling? How do you take a story about football and guys and make a reader like me, who is completely uninterested in football, and prefers I'll be honest to read stories about women, love the novel? And then there's all the smaller stuff: how Bachelder is an expert at not over-explaining. How he slips in small details and then leaves the details behind, letting the reader make of them what they will (such as this hint at a character being suicidal: "In his garage where he did not kill himself he had constructed a prototype of a self-washing house window."). How he has his characters tell these amazing, interesting, yet at the same time ordinary stories to each other and then the particular story isn't brought up again. The story isn't connected to some future event either. It's put out there, often in a monologue format, and usually not everyone is listening to it, and that telling of the story is its own purpose.  

I could go on and on but I'll limit myself to one more thing Bachelder does extremely well: list making as a narrative device. His lists have this great rhythm to them but I also love how he breaks the rhythm with dialogue or grammatical variation or by varying the length of a list item. And also I love the emotional variation of his lists too.

TRENT HAD COME HOME to find his daughter going down on a boy. Jeff had come home to find his daughter going down on a girl. Andy had come home to find his kid doing like this with an aerosol can of whipped cream.

“Yeah, whippets,” said George, the public librarian.

Tommy had come home to find that his dog had eaten a package of diapers. The surgery was twenty-five hundred dollars, and now he had pet insurance. Nate had come home to find his wife Skyping with a man in a military uniform. Bald Michael had come home to find his son hurting a cat. Whenever Peter comes home now, his daughter is reading. He was so anxious for her to learn to read, so worried when she showed little interest, but now that’s all she does. She doesn’t even talk to Peter anymore. She just sits in corners, knobby knees pulled up to her chin, the book held over her face like this, like a veil. The other men knew about books over the faces of girls. Carl came home to find his son building something with a lot of wires. Wesley came home to find that his twins had built twin snowmen. The picture was on his phone if he could only find it. Fat Michael had a friend who came home to find that the rags he had used to apply linseed oil to his furniture had spontaneously combusted, causing sixty thousand dollars of property damage. When Steven had come home, everyone in the house was just gone. 

List Making Part 1: the joy of post-its

(side note: an interview with me is up on the F&SF blog where I discuss the background to the story that's in the Jan./Feb. issue of the magazine)

I'm going to post about some amazing lists soon from the novel The Throwback Special (by Chris Bachelder), but first, this development for my writing desk: I now have a bulletin board, and I have post-its. I'm combining both of these things to create....lists! I'm hoping this will help me stay organized when I write and make me feel like I am choosing to work on whatever I am working on. It has been suggested that I am obsessed with post-its in other parts of my life too, but I really find they are essential, as both a parent (you can literally stick a note to your child) (I'm joking, I don't usually do that) but also as a writer. I especially love them during the revision process. 

Anyhow, here, below, is what I'm trying to work on this week. Current projects today on the left, future things to the right. I just finished a draft of a story I've been working on for a month or two, so I'm taking a few days to get myself organized, process the crazy amounts of notes I've been taking, and maybe do some reading.   

Louise Erdrich, LaRose, Hearts

Back in the summer, I was going through a LaRose / Louise Erdrich obsession, so, in my obsessed state, I decided to go through the novel and make a list of how Louise Erdrich describes and uses her characters' hearts. I remember being interested in a couple things: first, simply, that people's hearts kept coming up. It seemed an unusual descriptive point to keep circling around. But also I was interested in how Erdrich sidestepped cliche and managed to make her heart descriptions meaningful, moving, and illuminating. That's hard to do. It's like trying to describe multiple characters' tears ("Never describe your character's tears," I remember one of my writing teachers once telling me). Just rereading the experts below makes me want to reread LaRose again or maybe read everything Erdrich has ever written. But what about Shirley Jackson?! What about all the great sounding books on all the best of 2016 lists? What about rereading, and rereading, and rereading The Throwback Special, my latest obsession? Anyhow, here are a lot of ways that Erdrich describes hearts.  

 

He lets Landreaux come close enough for him to take the infallible shot. Closer and closer yet. There it is. Peter squeezes the trigger gently with his heart exploding. Nothing.

 

The birds were silent. Snow was falling off the trees that day. She had scrubbed her body red with snow. She threw off everything and lay naked in the snow asking to be dead. She tried not to move, but the cold stabbed ice into her heart and she began to suffer intensely. A person from the other world came. The being was pale blue without definite form. It took care of her, dressed her, tied on her makazinan, blew the lice off, and wrapped her in a new blanket, saying, Call upon me when this happens and you shall live.

 

Landreaux sat down at the table, touched the edge. He didn’t want to speak, to bring up the thing he dreaded. He could feel the tension bubbling up inside, the quickened pump of his heart.

The agreement, whatever we call it, Peter started.

Landreaux just nodded, staring at his fingers.

The question is, said Peter.

Landreaux’s heart just quit.

The question is, said Peter. What’s it doing to him?

Landreaux’s heart started beating again.

What’s it doing to him, he weakly said.

 

You dove, he said. He stroked her shoulder all one way, like feathers.

A mean dove. Who will peck out your heart, she said.

That would hurt.

I can’t help myself. Will you stay with me, she said, suddenly, if I go crazy?

There was desolation in her voice, so he tried to joke.

Well, you already are crazy.

He felt tears on his chest. Oh, he’d gone too far.

In a good way. I love your crazy!

 

A mysterious & lovely package from a Sun reader

Each time I'm lucky enough to have a story in The Sun Magazine, I'm just floored by the emails I receive in response. This doesn't usually (ever?) happen when one is published in literary journals, even very good literary journals, at least in my experience, and though I should be used to it by now, it's hard not to find that radio silence a little disappointing. The emails from Sun readers, on the other hand, are heartfelt, thoughtful, moving, and personal, and I am so grateful--so grateful--so grateful!--SO GRATEFUL!!!!--whenever I receive one. More than the publication itself, hearing from a reader allows me to think that, yes, the lifecycle of that particular piece is now complete. It's left me, and gone out into the world, and done what I've always hoped it would do: find somebody and become something meaningful and separate from myself in that person's life. It's really, really amazing that writing, written in such isolation, can do this.

In response to "Two Moons," my story in the December Sun (which is based in part on my challenges raising my autistic son), a kind reader sent me a beautiful box of wood carvings. For the first week, I kept them out on our kitchen island. My kids were constantly touching and petting and moving them, each asking if they could keep one in their rooms. I finally carried the carvings into my writing space in the attic. In his original email, the reader had mentioned that his carvings told a story of their own, so when I emailed him to let him know they arrived, I asked to know more about that story. He never wrote back, a response I kind of love: it means I have to figure out the meaning on my own.

A New Year's Resolution: reach out more to the writers whose work moves me and let them know how important their stories are to me.

Here's a few pictures of the wood carvings from a photo shoot on my writing desk, taken when I was supposed to be packing for an upcoming trip.... 

wood-carving1

Tooth Pain & Loving Shirley Jackson

There is the possibility these two things are related

First, let's talk about tooth pain. For the last 8 weeks I've been struggling with mild to extreme pain on the upper left side of my mouth. When it was the worst, especially when I was off Advil and trying to monitor the pain, the pain in my teeth was all I could think about. So I free wrote about my tooth and all the trips a good deal. The pain was most intense after the first root canal and crown on a separate tooth, but before the redo of the first root canal (with a second root canal on another tooth yet to come), and I told myself, well, lucky you, here is an opportunity to write about very intense pain and the fear that comes with it--that this pain might be permanent, as I know it is for some people. That this is your new normal. That the source of the pain might never be found. The possibility that the pain is all in your head (is it still pain then, if one is imagining it?). And how the act of trying to describe pain to someone who is not feeling your pain is nearly impossible. How does one put pain into words? Must it always be through metaphor? I haven't gone back to look at all that writing yet--it will either probably be very interesting or very awful--but I'm hoping it might fit in somewhere in this massive mess of a creative non-fiction project about depression that I'm hoping to work on in the upcoming year. It was fascinating, for me at least, to compare depressive mental pain with extreme tooth pain: is one preferable, or more bearable, over the other? What kind of pain would you choose, if given a choice?  

Around the time I became obsessed with the pain in my teeth, I also became obsessed with Shirley Jackson. I like to think that these two events are somehow related. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, the new biography about Jackson by Ruth Franklin, which I recently finished, is fabulous. I feel like all women writers, especially married women writers, should read it.

Bluets & creative non-fiction

(Side note: new speculative story for teens out in the November/December issue of Cicada magazine! Also there's an interview with me. Also, perhaps most excitingly, there is my favorite author photo in that issue: me lying in my daughter's bed, along with my daughter, her classroom guinea pig, and a Harry Potter book. It's not the most flattering picture (of me, anyway, the guinea pig and my daughter look great) but, you know what, that was a moment of transcendental happiness for me. I loved that guinea pig. I loved my daughter. I loved Harry Potter. I loved my daughter's bed. I loved reading to that guinea pig. I loved how, when reading, the guinea pig would look up from his carrot then slowly, slowly creep toward me, closer and closer, until its front paws were on my shoulder, and its face was sniffing my face, like he was trying to find the words I was speaking out loud. Other times, he would try and eat the book. He was my ideal reader and I miss him.)debbie-stella-guinea-pig

(I also have a new story, "Safe," in the Fall issue (65:3) of Epoch, a journal I had been sending stuff to for the past 11 years, so this is particularly nice for me. It's a story told by an evangelical narrator who is relatively new to the faith. I wrote it to help me understand my little sister, who got re-baptized into an evangelical church 2 or 3 years ago.)

Writing non-fiction + what we can learn from our kids’ photos

This week I have an essay up on Motherwell, a new online magazine with some really interesting, thoughtful writing about parenting. My essay came out of a challenge I gave myself a few months ago, to try and write a few non-fiction pieces. I've written a lot about parenthood in my stories and I was curious what writing non-fiction about the same topics would feel like (the other essay that came out of this experiment was up on Brain, Child a while back). It was more difficult than I thought, to have to stick to reality, and I was reminded many times in the process why I love fiction so much. Sometimes, for me anyway, to really get at the truth of what happened, it seems best/natural/easiest to make things up (or at least alter the details).

(Tangent: I think that's Werner Herzog's approach to documentaries, where he is searching for the "ecstatic truth,” "wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication." (quote from Tom Bissell's great essay on Herzog "The Secret Mainstream.") So Herzog doesn't mind having his interview subjects rehearse the answer to a question first. He's not against giving them an idea for a dream they never had, or a habit they don't possess, if it gets at some greater truth that may not have been accessible by sticking strictly to the facts). 

That said, I'm still interesting in exploring non-fiction, but maybe playing with form by trying a "hermit crab essay"--a form I didn't know existed until I came across this great essay about it. (From the essay: "Hermit crab essays adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand, such as the essay in the form of a “to-do” list, or a field guide, or a recipe.") Or else I might continue to explore speculative non-fiction, a term I believe I made up, where it's still about your life, only with speculative elements included. 

My essay on Motherwell is about quite a few things, including learning how to accept who my son actually is, as well as what happened when we gave him a camera a few years back. To compliment the essay, I wanted to post a few of my favorite pictures that he's taken. I'm fascinated by kids' photographs: it's like getting into their brain and looking out at their world through their eyes. Because my son has mild autism, and communication isn't always easy, I feel especially lucky to have these glimpses into how he sees the world. 

These are two of my favorite extended-family photographs. I love the expressions on everyone's faces, and how honestly everyone is captured.

family-pic-jasper

These are some of my favorite extended-family photographs. I love the expressions on everyone's faces, and how honestly everyone is captured.

Rovers on Mars

I've been interested for awhile in the possibility of something living on other planets--whether it's us living out there, or some other life form living there, or robots are fine too. Just so, you know, it's not just us living here. (A few favorite books on living elsewhere: The Dazzle of the Day, by Molly Gloss;  The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber; and The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, by Ursula LeGuin). So when I came across these photos of the tire tracks from rovers wandering around Mars, I kind of fell in love. It's pretty easy, for me at least, to humanize the rovers, and get to imagining what they're thinking, or what if they were us. My first instinct is to view these photos as a portrait in loneliness--something about a being looking back at where they've come from, and only seeing their own tracks, is so quiet and a little sad to me--but that also seems predictable. Why can't they be excited? Or relieved? Or lost? 

mars-rover-looks-back

pia13147-full

IDL TIFF file

Spirit_rover_tracks

Uprooted and a really cool surprising love scene

I just finished reading Uprooted (Naomi Novik), a fantasy novel and a great summer read. I loved a lot about this book--the narrative voice is funny and true, the narrator is super likable, the descriptions of the creepy woods are excellent, the plot is exciting. Though I'll admit I was disappointed that the book eventually succumbs to a rather traditional romance (young girl falls in love with cranky older--in this case 150 years older--man, but he doesn't look old, so maybe it's okay--and underneath his crankiness, there is rare glimpses of kindness, like maybe he has a heart of gold but just doesn't show it) (but I don't know, I still questioned why she loved him so much--is the heart of gold there or is she just imagining it?) (and if someone has a heart of gold but pretends they don't, will that be satisfying in a relationship later on?) (perhaps she loves his magic more than his personality--I like this idea best, that she falls in love with his magic more than him) (or maybe she adores the crankiness?) (it would have been interesting had he actually looked 150 years older--would she still have loved him in the same way then?). 

Anyway, before all that traditional romantic stuff happens, there are some really lovely scenes where Agnieszka (young narrator) and Sarkin (old magician who doesn't look old) do magic together. Sarkin practices a very traditional, rational magic, and Agnieszka's magic is more intuitive and wild.  I'm always on the look out for examples of love that look different from how we usually describe it, and I was kind of blown away by this scene. 

"A month into my new training, he was glaring at me while I struggled to make an illusion of a flower. “I don’t understand,” I said— whined, if I tell the truth: it was absurdly difficult. My first three attempts had looked like they were made of cotton rags. Now I had managed to put together a tolerably convincing wild rose, as long as you didn’t try to smell it. “It’s far easier just to grow a flower: why would anyone bother?”

“It’s a matter of scale,” he said. “I assure you it is considerably easier to produce the illusion of an army than the real thing. How is that even working?” he burst out, as he sometimes did when pressed past his limits by the obvious dreadfulness of my magic. “You aren’t maintaining the spell at all— no chanting, no gesture—”