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Entries in #fiction (6)



Food for thought from Roxane Gay over at Buzzfeed. I'll be thinking more about this myself as I continue with my next novel. The sneak preview will confirm that she's most likely going to be a narrator that people may like, but in spite of her actions. Or maybe they won't. Or maybe it will be more complicated than all that.

I have been known to say that I can read anything so long as I like the characters, but maybe I need to elaborate a bit more on what I mean by "like," because it's not the grade-school kind of emotion that Gay describes people often falling into with fiction. I'll be giving this more thought.


Writing Across Gender Lines

I've been giving a lot of thought to the project of writing from a gender perspective different from one's own lately, for fairly obvious reasons. At The Atlantic, Michele Willens has posted a nice meditation on some of the questions and potential roadblocks that arise with projects like these. 

I chose to write a male main character precisely because of these roadblocks. Had I written a female character instead, the reflexive shift into my own experience in China would have been too hard to avoid, and when I began my novel, that experience was still so close that it would have colored everything, and not in a positive way. By following a young man around, rather than a young woman, I was forced to sit at a slight distance, and it was this distance that allowed me to write fiction, rather than thinly-disguised memoir. 

As time has gone on and Will has survived more drafts than I can possibly count, other benefits to his being male have slowly emerged. For one, the experience of a white male expat in China is still quite different at times than that of a white female expat, and that allowed me to explore certain themes that would have remained at arm's length had I been writing a woman. That said, I am very aware that the majority of the supporting characters are decidedly female, and it would be dishonest of me to say that they weren't easier, in a lot of ways, than Will himself has been.

Some people have suggested to me that this might just be the main character effect, and that it's always trickier to figure that person out compared to those who are not so spotlighted. But I do think that writing a man is harder for me than writing a woman in a similar situation would be, even if it has been better for the project overall. 

That said, Sally Koslow, as quoted by Willens, may well be correct. It may be more difficult for men to effectively cross that gender line. Koslow believes that "By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex, because our whole lives we've been reading vast amounts of literature written by men." But even if we take this as truth, I have to wonder to what extent women writers are influenced by our years of reading women--as written by men. What have we internalized as somehow "necessary" or "true" about literary representations of women that may only be necessary/true because it became conventional through a long line of male authors? (Women's Studies 101, right here.) And assuming that there is at least something that's come out of that long line that's worth challenging, do women writers have a responsibility to represent ourselves in a fictional space that we create and control? 


In Which I Make a Confession

Despite being heir culturally to many, many of his concepts of the horror derived other worlds adjacent to our own, until this weekend, I had never actually read anything by H. P. Lovecraft. With great shame I confess that this was true even though I had even bought my husband one of those big Barnes and Noble nicely-bound anthologies that we all know are just a guise to make money off of non-copyrighted works of literature (but buy anyway, because they look kind of nice). At least this meant that when I finally came to my senses and decided to rectify the situation, I had the texts close at hand.

I started with "The Shadow over Innsmouth." From the first paragraph, it was clear that while I had never read this particular story before, I already knew it. Lovecraft has been so absorbed into our collective cultural consciousness that I had already experienced so many of the tropes and plot twists that he employs (not that I'm going to give anything away). I put the book down with great satisfaction, enchanted to be in the hands of this writer.

That said, from what I can tell as I page through the rest of the giant book, Lovecraft is guilty of overuse of his Lovecraftian self, a bit repetitive, and apparently was a really interesting guy (not that that casts shadow on his work in any way). Some of his stories sidle up really close to the too-florid-to-read line. 

But so much in this book I have never read is familiar, including but not limited to:


  • Creepy inbred ("degenerate") New England towns
  • Monsters with interest in humans ranging from nefarious to indifferent to haphazardly desctructive just for the fun of it, often at the same time
  • Narrators who go insane based on what they've seen or experienced (shades of Poe are very evident here)
  • Drunk informants who tell the truth that no one believes
  • Arkham Asylum/Sanitorium
  • The Ancient Ones


What really resonated with me is a concept that the introduction alludes to, the idea that true terror comes from imagining a world in which humans are nothing more than a speck of dust, or a fly to a curious child, simply irrelevant to the larger powers that we so often assume are invested in our lives in a very tangible way. How close this comes to your own (or my own) view is a post for another time, but I can easily imagine how frightening this concept would have been in the '10s, '20s, and '30s, in light of the incredible scientific advancement that was taking place. For the first time, this horrific idea was all the more horrific because there was evidence that it might be true. And we all know that the best horror works with what we are all actually afraid of in the realm of fiction, thus making it just safe enough to finally consider.

So a belated salute to Lovecraft. And I hear that Del Toro might be looking into adapting the novella Mountains of Madness for the screen. Seems an appropriate combination to me.


On my list

I'm very ready to pick up this one by Nick Turse, hopefully in physical form. The process by which we are capable of mentally shifting humans from the "human" category to the "essentially insect" category is both terrifying and fascinating.

I like to think that fiction is an exercise that helps combat that sort of thinking by requiring readers to humanize mere figments of a writer's imagination--training in humanization, 101, strengthening and inclining us towards empathy. However, it would not surprise me at all if the two psychological procedures are related more closely than I'm comfortable thinking about.

And if I'm on to something with that, it means, naturally, that it's critical we investigate further.


A George Saunders article--but not that one

There's been a lot of buzz online about the New York Times' recent piece on George Saunders in honor of The Tenth of December, his most recent short story collection. And while I read that article a couple weeks ago and enjoyed it, I don't actually remember all that much about it, save for his description of being on a plane that was quite likely to crash. (What can I say? I'm a mildly nervous flyer who lives abroad.)

However, I absolutely adored this other George Saunders piece in Slate, an author-editor book review that's a conversation between Saunders and his longtime editor, Andy Ward. Fellow Stockholm writer Angela Mi Young Hur sent this one my way, and it's definitely worth your time. (No matter who you are, if you read this blog at all, ever, I can guarantee the time-worthiness.)

Saunders is a devotee of the short story form, pointing out that " least three of the stories in this book were 'novels' until they came to their senses. That seems to be the definition of 'novel' for me: a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief." We don't have this in common, him and me; I wrote short stories in grad school, because it seemed as though that was What One Did (and they were way easier to discuss and review in workshop), but they couldn't make me like it. Nor could they make me particularly good at it. However, he goes on to talk about knowing when a piece is done, and it rings so very, very true for longer pieces as well:

I have an internal standard for when a story is done that I can’t really articulate. Maybe it’s just: I know it when I see it. Or: I know it when I don’t see it. It has something to do with making the action feel undeniable. There’s a feeling I get when (in the rereading) the language passes over from language to action: What was mere typing before starts to feel like something that has actually happened. So that can take a while and it’s not just about the language—it’s also a structural thing. If the story is tight and all the scenes are necessary, it helps me to understand what the current section is supposed to be doing—and hence I can know when it’s right and done.

People say this over and over, but there's just this feeling of rightness that comes when things begin to fall into place of their own accord, and this man, as any of you who've read his stories knows, is pretty good at getting his work to that place. He's also very good at talking about that work. So I'll finish with his words:

Part of the process of moving on and doing more work is to regard all past stories as these small clay rabbits you have made and brought to life, which you loved very much during that process, but which then go running off across the barnyard into the mist, with your blessing. So no favorites. I just feel slightly fond of them all.