Friday, June 25, 2010

it's two twenty, dickbrain

So I'm reading Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is a collection of his transcribed recordings from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest book tour. It's fascinating stuff, and also a sobering insight into just how insecure and human DFW really was. He's gone now, so we of course all knew that already, but this book offers the full extent of it.

It feels weird to describe writers as "human," and I'm sure part of DFW's folksy groundedness was a show - he all but admits it outright at various points - but it also explains how his work was simultaneously dense/complex and readable.

Anyway, DFW and Lipsky talk shop a lot, and DFW says that avant-garde fiction has gone the way of poetry, i.e. that it has forgotten the reader, and that both genres (for lack of a better term) exist as a plaything for other writers and people who like decoding books. Further, DFW asserts that poetry/experimental fiction will "come awake again when [writers] start speaking to people who have to pay the rent." I'm not sure what that means, but Ben Marcus has echoed that; his biggest regret about The Age of Wire and String was that there wasn't enough of a coherent narrative, and that he also wants an audience beyond academics and hipsters.

The trouble I have with statements like that is the unspoken operational definition of "real" people - it's often a backhanded and generalized condemnation of the lumpen masses who need to be milked for book sales, but who aren't sophisticated or smart or perceptive without guidance. They're authentic in that they aren't rich and over-educated, but there's not much respect in these discussions of "real" people.

That said, I agree that a lot of poets don't provide much reward for the stylistic/linguistic/thematic demands they make on readers, and that experimental fiction sucks out loud when similar demands aren't matched by good characters or plot or keen observation. People who mostly read mass market fiction and aren't used to those demands will entertain them, I think, if there's a payoff to make that effort worthwhile. I've probably made that point before, but it's good to remind myself of this - I don't always write experimental work (steampunk and sci-fi mostly adhere to traditional storytelling, albeit with different props), but when I do, I want it to be good, and I want people, real or fake or whatever, to read it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

hat still in hand

Finished a couple more books! Add Light Boxes and Homunculus to the "read" pile, and not a moment too soon. I've got a lot of stuff to finish, and of course I keep accumulating more books because I have a problem.

I really enjoyed Light Boxes; complex and unsettling imagery was created from very simple words and structure, and I didn't get the sense, as some reviewers did, that it was precious or pleased with itself. I'll concede that there was some kitsch appropriation in the writing, but so what? That's totally fine as long as you do something cool and thoughtful with it. More to the point, Light Boxes occupies that weird space of not being a dense literary tome or an effortless popcorn book - it's somewhere else on the spectrum. It's a short book, with lots of white space in the layout, but the language and sensory images are challenging. And it's nice to see otherworldly settings celebrated in a literary scene that's often too obsessed with understated, detached realism.

Homunculus is another matter. It's an early work of steampunk and a Philip K. Dick prizewinner, but it's also way too busy and cluttered with neat ideas (secret societies, religious doomsaying, a dirigible piloted by a skeleton, etc.) that aren't developed enough. A lot of steampunk fiction does this. It took a while to get going, which is fine, and the language streamlined into less of a hyperactive Dickens homage as the plot progressed, but I didn't feel like the central characters really changed anything. That said, the often-confusing plot still kept me gladly turning pages to see where it went, and one character (the shiftless and high-strung Bill Kraken) went against type into interesting territory. So I can't say that I didn't like it. I can actually say that, warts and all, it was an enjoyable read. But it was also frustrating because of its pulpy, self-imposed genre limitations.

That said, I've got some ideas rattling around for a few steampunky yarns. I've also got a fun little book project, tentatively called Gouts of Angry Mist, coming together. More on that as it develops.