Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Balticon 40

Saturday Miss L and I journeyed to lovely Hunt Valley, Maryland for the 40th annual Balticon Conference, an annual conference hosted by the Balticon Science Fiction Society. for whatever reason I always seemed to miss it. So when it came around this year on weekend I actually didn't have to work I didn't let the head cold threatening me to stop my going.

Overall it was a great time. The focus was on SF and Fantasy publishing moreso than film or television. So in many ways I felt right at home. Yes, a lot of people came dressed as Klingons, Faerie Folk, or Doc Brown from Back to the Future. Yes, I witnessed an embarrassingly heated arguement between two people over the color of the planet vucan's sun. But the panel discussions and general going-on were interesting, fun and well worth the time.

The first panel discussion we attended was on artistic collaboration. The panel featured Neil Gaiman (author) , Gene Wolfe (author), Lisa Snellings-Clark (artist), Lorraine Garland (musician), Malena Teves (musican), Adam Stemple (musican and author), and Marc Hempel. Interestingly, all of the panelists had worked with Gaiman in once capacity or another over the years. Much of the discussion revolved around striking a balance between collaborators so each makes signifigant contributions to the work. The end goal should be a piece that's truly a joint work separate from the work normally done by the inidividuals. Never having done one myself, I found the give-and-take ideas of a collaboration very interesting. With the right person it could be a lot of fun and very successful; with the wrong person it could certainly be extremely painful. Gaiman also took part in another panel discussion with Peter S. Beagle. Probably most widely known for the novel The Last Unicorn, Beagle has written dozens of fantasy novels as well as scripts for Hollywood. Much of their discussion revolved around the differences between writing a novel and writing a script and what it's like to see your work adapted to the big screen.

Miss L and I then went our own directions; she hit a few of the seminars on fantasy art while I flowed in and out of readings given by various authors. Even just wandering the hallways I overheard people discussing things like character development, tackling social issues, and what exactly makes a good story. I even saw local horror host Count Gore involved in some discussions of his own, although he was incognito in a simple black t-shirt and without a cape or make-up.

The only real letdown for me was the dealer room. I went hoping to find a variety of books by small preses and possibly even some magazine that I've never heard of. But the spaces were taken up mostly by shops selling merchandise, not individual publishers trying to promote their new material. An large amount of first printings of older books, while most of the newer books . Several other dealers focuses solely on gaming, which I shouldn't have been surprised by. It's such a huge industry now.

Although Balticon continued through Monday, health, money and other obligations only permitted me to go on Saturday. It really was the SF event of the region, though. I hope to go again next year.

A number of the readings and panel discussions will be available online in a few days in a podcast form here for anyone interested.


Friday, May 26, 2006

A Little Revolution

I've had kind of a love-hate relationship with the lit mag Tin House for awhile now. I often find really great stories in each issue, but I find some of their editorial choices very odd. They often have theme issues Great in concept, but the trouble is that I often fail to see the connections of several pieces to theme (look at my review of their obsession issue for more detailed examples of what I mean).

Their newest issue is dubbed "The International Issue", and as a theme it seems to work better for them than one based on content. The issue pulls in works from writers in Europe, South Ameria, Asia and Africa, all of it of very high quality. While some writers like Saramago I've certainly read before others like Ismail Kadare I've never even heard of. The only contributions by US authors are short essays about writers in other cultures, but those are also fascinating and provided me with even more authors and magazines to look into.

Aside from all this great material the one essay that's continued to stick with me is a critical piece entitled "Prizes of the Fall" by French author Dominique Parent-Altier. The essay looks at the culture of literary awards and prizes and, at least partially, blames them for the lackluster literature currently dominating the scene in France. Parent-Altier blames the very organization of the awards system itself. The winners are often the same year after year, and if they are different they are often from the same set of publishers, making the choices often fairly conservative, fairly safe, and entirely unoffensive. Kind of like American Idol.

Parent-Altier writes, "What's impressive about this year's major the number of elements their books have in common: an emphasis verging on obsession with a narrator whose personality so approaches the author's that it is often difficult to distinguish the two; general absence of meanigful dialogue; carefully labored prose that supports neither character, nor plot, nor theme, and seems to exist for no other reason than to call attention to its carfully labored nature" (80)

Parent-Altier stated in much better terms than I can what I don't like about a lot of contemporary US literature. I often think of European lit being separate from the work written in the US but it sounds like it suffers from much of the same wordy self-confessional first person accounts. While some are fabulous most come off to me as whiny, self-indulgent and lacking any real sense of drama or conflict. The style dominates literary magazines, from high-end ones like the New Yorker all the way down to the smallest student managed university zine. A number of small presses fall prey to it as well. Parent-Altier contintues by writing that these types of works have a severe "incapacity to provide either the least resonance with life in France today, or a satisfying escape from it" (80).

What are the possible solutions? How do writers, readers and critics combat this issue (assuming they agree it's a problem)? Dan over at Barrelhouse points to critics, that instead of just slamming books that are bad to offer up alternatives. It's not a bad suggestion; aside from promoting work that might be a bit stronger it can also give more concrete advice to writers. Another direction is through education. The Now What blog focuses on teaching students the traditions of innovative fiction by introducing them to writers like Pynchon, Barth, Acker and Burroughs alongside the normal fare one receives in a literature class. With participation from big name experimentalist like Lance Olsen, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Doug Rice they are already having some pretty provocative conversations.

What it all comes down to is this: real innovation in art is rarely rewarded and recongnized when first created. It's something made on the margins because something about it---whether it's the content, style or substance of the work---does not mesh with the majority culture. When everything does mesh with the majority things become stagnant. And I think that's where we're at in many cases. I don't know what the next big event will be to jar us out of this and seek out different voices, but I have a feeling it's coming soon. At least that's my hope.

The Tin House essay concludes with a battle cry of sorts to seek out, find and create work that is truly revolutionary. As a reminder Parent-Altier states that "revolutions are not wrought by institutions of any kind, not by prize juries or labor unions or political parties, but by individuals spontaneously connecting with one another. This experience, where an individual links profoundly to another, is precisely what literature accomplishes" (81). I couldn't agree more.



Parent-Altier, Dominique. "Prizes of the Fall". Tin House. Volume 7, Issue 3. Spring 2006. 72-80.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Saturday Surprise

I fully intended this post to be about the launch party for The Portal Press held on Friday night. I wanted to write about the artwork in the Warehouse gallery, about the books The Portal Press is putting out and the really nice conversation I had with a gentlman from Fantagraphics on the poor state of criticism of graphic novels. But instead I have to write about something else that happened to me yesterday morning.

When I work Saturdays I often drop by my local grocery store to treat myself to a lunch that's something other than peanut butter and jelly. I looked through the aisles trying to make my choice between pumpernickel or rye bread when I heard a loud crash coming from the front of the store, followed by a lady's scream. I darted down the aisle towards the front of the store and saw an angry looking man standing at the counter of the mini-Chevy Chase bank.

Although only about 5'5", he was stocky with broad shoulders and a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off showed his thick, tree trunk arms. His face and head were covered with a wild, thick hair the color of black storm clouds. He held a large sledgehammer in his hands, carefully balancing the scuffed up iron end in his right and cupping the other end of the wooden handle with his left. He stood like a statue in front of that counter, frozen in time. It was like someone paused him a magical remote control and then suddenly pushed play. When that play button was pushed, he heaved the sledge behind him and swung, bringing it down hard on the desktop separating him from the frightened bank employeee. He struck the desktop again and again, puncuating each hit on the desk by yelling, "Gimme the G-D money!"

That was the strange part. He actually said, "G-D money"; that's not my editorial slant to prevent offending readers. The odd duplicity of this violent, angry man robbing a bank still being careful enough to not use offensive language was really odd to me. Not that the sledgehammer wasn't odd enough.

The frightened woman behind the counter finally got over the shock enough to empty out her cash drawer. She handed the paper bills to him in a big handful. The man grabbed them, shoved them into the pockets of his jeans and bolted out the front entrance. The police arrived a few moments later. While they did a pretty good job calming everyone down and interviewing all the witnesses (myself included) they were too late to catch the guy.

Although it's been a full day now, I'm still not sure what to make of it: the man, the sledgehammer, the whole event. I imagine I'll work it into a story at some point but it will probably be awhile before I figure it out. From what I heard he couldn't have stolen more than a few hundred dollars. I just wonder what drove him to it.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Best?

The NY Times Book Review asked roughly 200 authors and critics to nominate their choice for the best work of fiction published in the last 25 years. My notations to the side indicate that I've read it (R), that it's on my shelf to read someday (S), that I've neither read nor bought it but have considered doing so (C), that I've never thought about reading it (N), or that I've never even heard of it (H).

Overall Winner:

Beloved by Toni Morrison (R)


Underworld by Don DeLillo (R)

The rest listed received nominations from more than one judge:

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (C)

Rabbit Angstrom series by John Updike (R)

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (N)

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (S)

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (H)

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (C)

White Noise by Don DeLillo (R)

The Counterlife by Philip Roth (C)

Libra by Don DeLillo (R)

Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver (N)

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (R)

Mating by Norman Rush (N)

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson (H)

Operation Shylock by Philip Roth (C)

Independence Day by Richard Ford (C)

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth (C)

Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (C)

The Human Stain by Philip Roth (R)

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (N)

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (S)

To be honest, I haven't been paying that much attention to the NY Times Book Review lately. I just haven't had the time. I found out about the list, being published in the May 21 issue but currently available online, through various listservs and newsgroups I'm on for different genres of writing (sci-fi, fantasy, and experimental lit). Most are complaining about the list, about how their favorite genre is under-represented. Or not represented at all. A quick look at the list of judges will tell you why.

Out of the 100+ judges listed only a handful can really be considered experimental (Ben Marcus, Lorrie Moore, Rick Moody, and maybe Jonathan Safran Foer). The numbers drop even more if you ask about genre writers, with Stephen King as the only true genre writer and afficionados like Jonathen Lethem and Andre Dubus III thrown in for good measure. The playing field's also greatly narrowed by the judges' ties to geography; a gross number of the writers listed are fully immeshed in the NY scene supported by the mags like the New Yorker. They will, naturally, pick books they've read and talked about within their own world. It wouldn't occur to them to nominate a book outside their area of knowledge. So I don't fault the judges at all for the narrow selection; I fault the NY Times for not seeking out a broader spectrum of judges.

I have no personal problem with anything chosen. The books listed are certainly well crafted and many have been very influential. The winner, the runner-up and a couple of others would be on a list of my own if I had to make one (I wouldn't). The list does, however, point out a continual bias with the NY Times to support certain types of literature and certain styles of writing.

For any attending Book Expo this week, they are holding a seminar Thursday afternoon discussing the choices. If anyone happens to go, I'd be curious to know what they say.


Friday, May 12, 2006

DC Dark and Dirty

Once when I went to Cleveland for a writer’s conference I met a lot of people who were surprised and even mystified that I lived in DC –at the time I lived near Dupont Circle. To these people DC was the capital city of the nation, the seat of government and a home for shady politics. Several didn’t even know that people actually lived in DC and those who did asked me how often-not if but how often-I saw the president. I told them the truth: that I see him every night on the TV news.

It’s not necessarily their fault that they have all these misunderstandings about DC. The way the city is portrayed in literature and movies it’s easy to think DC is little more than the capital building, the National Mall, and the Lincoln Memorial with the swanky houses and restaurants of Georgetown squeezed in-between. With all this skewed coverage and perspective it’s nice to see an anthology like DC Noir pulling together stories that create a much more realistic-albeit dark and gritty-portrait of DC.

Edited by local crime fiction author George Pelecanos, the book does a phenomenal job presenting the different neighborhoods and wide variety of residents of DC. From congressional aids on capital hill to petty thieves in Hill East, it shows that DC is a city where people live, struggle and die every day.

As a whole the book holds up a pretty grim view on life. Life for the average person is hard and it only gets harder when your life intersects with the criminal world. College students confronting big time drug dealers, a reporter covering the riots in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, a store owner defending his business from teenage vandal are just some of the gritty yet thrilling challenges. The one story that goes against this is Laura Lippmann’s “A.R.M. and the Woman”; a divorced housewife decides the only way she can hold onto the lifestyle she’s grown used to is by killing her ex-husband and collecting on the insurance money.

Many of the authors in the anthology are not known for fiction; aside from pulling from the normal channels of novelists and short fiction writers Pelecanos used his contacts in television and journalism to bring in writers who carry in their own unique experiences and styles to the page. Each story, regardless of the writer’s background, is taught, grim and thrilling fiction. My only complaint is that one major facet of DC is missing: tourists. Focusing on the local residents is great, but love them or hate them tourists do make up a large part of the feel of our beloved DC. But perhaps wanting to see some na├»ve tourist get caught up in something dangerous is my own issue.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

New Press on the Block

We've got some new kids on the block, kids calling themselves Portal Press. With two books already lined up as well as poster art and a line of very fun alterna-holiday cards, it looks like they've got their act together. So pay them a visit and look around.

To kick off their new press, they're putting together an official launch party tied to opening night of Book Expo on the night of May 19 (if you don't know Book Expo and you read books, you really should at least be aware of it). The party will be held in a hip art gallery downtown and features a number of live bands and roving models dressed in vintage fashion. I can only assume eats and drinks will be available as well. They're certainly doing things right, because there's no better way to appeal the literati of DC than overloading their senses and filling their gullets full of alcohol and caffeine. Check out their site for all the details. Should be a fun time, and although I'll probably be late I still hope to be there. Being just a few blocks from where I work, I really have no excuse.