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Monthly Archives: March 2010

Art Pour l’Art

Book #15 (March 21, 2010): The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe

One of my most vivid memories of college concerns a class on American Cinema where, one day, we got sidetracked into a discussion of art and whether it was necessary for art to communicate something —  a feeling, an idea, even just the molecular presence of pigment on canvas — in order for it to be art. I don’t know why we were talking about this; maybe there was just too much auteur theory in the air that day. But there was this young woman — a grad student, I think — who stridently insisted that the idea of art as communication was ridiculously restrictive and bourgeois. All art had to do in order to be art was exist. In fact, existence wasn’t even a prerequisite. She got into an argument with a 20-something British guy (or at least somebody with a Brit-like accent) who insisted that, yes, art did have to communicate something to be art. The young woman reacted as though her civil rights had been violated: “Are you saying my thoughts can’t be art?” she shrieked. “Are you saying that I have no right to THINK?!

The room then descended into a chaos of shouting voices and it was several minutes before the panicked teacher could get it back under her control. Afterwards, though, what I mostly remembered about the event was the sheer ferocity of that young woman’s anger and her insistence that her thoughts were art. Not the precursor of art, mind you, or some spark that would eventually result in art, but the art itself.

Which brings us to Tom Wolfe and his feelings about modern (post-1945) art. When I took art history in college (a much saner course than the one on American Cinema), it was clear that there was a certain through-line to the development of art and that those artists who are considered great are the ones who fell along that through-line and who pushed it in the direction that it was, as viewed in retrospect, clearly going. The qualifier “as viewed in retrospect” is important here. Wolfe’s contention in his 1975 book The Painted Word is that at some point in the 1940s this process began operating in reverse, with art critics deciding in advance the direction where art was headed and the artists deliberately tailoring their work to fit their theories. The most influential theory, according to Wolfe, was Clement Greenberg’s concept of “flatness,” which held essentially that a painting should be no more than it was: a flat surface with paint on it. Any painting that tried to be more than this, to be a representation of something other than what it was, was hopelessly — to use Wolfe’s term — bourgeois. Abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock began altering their style to fit the theory, but by the 1960s even the abstract expressionists were considered hopelessly evocative and sentimental, and an increasingly rapid succession of artistic movements began stripping art of every quality that might give it some meaning separate from the flatland of the canvas, including brush strokes, color, frames, the walls the art hung on — even the physical presence of the work of art itself. At which point all that was left was the theory, which had effectively become the art. A gallery exhibit could consist of some tiny objet — or even the absence of an objet — accompanied by several paragraphs of text explaining why the objet or its absence was art. Thus Wolfe’s title: The Painted Word; the art, if it had any physical existence at all, was little more than an illustration of the text.

Wolfe is clearly having fun here at the expense of what he calls the culturati, the small coterie of Manhattan elites who affect Bohemian ideals as a way of giving themselves artistic street cred, effectively atoning for the sin of having too much money. I would suspect Wolfe of having skewed the facts a bit here to support his own satirical theory — but then I remember the young grad student who believed her own thoughts were art. Maybe they were, at least for their audience of one person, but all the rest of the world would have seen was their description, perhaps hanging on a gallery wall. Wolfe has no patience with literature that pretends to be something nonliterary and I think he would have sided with the young British man who seemed to feel that the grad student was completely out of her bloody mind.

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Science Fiction Isn’t Dead…Yet

Book #14 (March 18, 2010): Asimov’s Science Fiction (February 2010)

The science fiction genre is slowly imploding. Fewer and fewer science fiction books are being published and the flood of new novelists into the field has turned into a trickle. However, the genre still seems to be thriving, at least to the extent it ever has, in short story form. By my count, there are still five major magazines regularly publishing science fiction and fantasy short stories on a monthly (or slightly less often) basis: Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Realms of Fantasy, and Jim Baen’s Universe. (There are some smaller magazines too, but I doubt that any of them would be considered more than semi-professional publications.) Two of these magazines, F&SF and Analog, have been around longer than I’ve been alive.

It’s been many years since I last read an issue of a science fiction magazine. For a change of pace, I decided to read an issue of Asimov’s SF as this week’s book of the week. Lest you think this is cheating, consider that this issue contains at least 60,000 words, which qualifies it as novel length. (For most purposes, novels are considered to be 40,000 words in length and up.) If it helps, think of it as an anthology of short stories.

The science fiction magazines have always been the gatekeepers of the field, the point at which short works enter the literature prior to subsequent anthologization and awards. (There are other sources of short sf, but these magazines are the major ones.) As such, the stories in them only occasionally turn out to be classics and are often no more than serviceable as either literature or entertainment (and, believe it or not, science fiction can serve as either of those things). In the 1980s, Asimov’s SF was the top of the rank in terms of quality and probably produced more award-winning stories than any other magazine in the field, though the lower paying F&SF sometimes ran a close second. Things change, though, and I notice that F&SF now seems to pay slightly more than Asimov’s, so these days it may be publishing fiction that’s at least as good.

Everything in this particular issue was good, none of it was extraordinary. The standout, to the extent that there is one, is Bruce McAllister’s short ghost story (yes, there’s fantasy here too) “The Woman Who Waited Forever.” As a ghost story it’s only mediocre and suffers from an overly convoluted explanation at the end, but in the first half of the story McAllister paints a vivid picture of class distinctions in the armed services circa 1960 that would seem to be informed by his own childhood as a military brat. The characters are well realized and make up for the story’s flaws.

The story that dominates the issue is Stephen Baxter’s novella “The Ice Line” — in fact, almost a third of the issue is devoted to it. Baxter is one of those sf writers that a friend of mine would call “science-y” (not all sf writers are science-y), but he’s in his alternate universe mode here. The story is set in an early 19th century England beset on one side by invading aliens not unlike the ones in H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds and on the other side by Napoleon, who in this universe beat Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. (Napoleon is simultaneously invading the U.S.) The story is fun and not terribly serious. It falls into the science fiction genre known as steampunk, which postulates relatively advanced technology — in this case, spaceships and submarines — built using pre-20th century tools. This isn’t immortal prose, but Baxter captures a certain style of 19th century storytelling reminiscent of Verne and Wells.

There are two novelettes written by women authors, Caroline M. Yoachim and Aliette de Bodard, that are remarkably similar. Each is set in a vaguely dystopian society that may be in the future, the past or even on another planet, with technology that seems more mystical than concrete. (In the Yoachim story, the technology is left over from a distant and mostly forgotten past.) Both stories are good, but the Yoachim story comes across like a highly compressed novel and probably would have worked better if it had been given the entire 60,000 words all to itself. I suspect in the current market this isn’t likely to happen, so it wound up in novelette form instead.

There’s a bizarre and funny story about a squid who invents a reverse bathysphere to explore the surface world, as told by a drunken redneck in an alternate post-Civil War history where…well, never mind. It’s clever and it’s slight. There are also book reviews and an interesting essay by one of my favorite science fiction writers, Robert Silverberg, reflecting on the work of the late Arthur C. Clarke. Although I think he’s a bit harsh on Clarke, I always find Silverberg worth reading.

I’ll probably read some more of these magazines soon. However, there’s something oddly exhausting about reading science fiction short stories — I think it’s the sheer quantity of exposition I have to absorb in a relatively brief time span — and I think I’ll move on to something else for my next book. It may even be an actual book.

Take Me to the River

Book #13 (March 11, 2010): To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer

Philip José Farmer, who died a little more than a year ago at the age of 91, was a science fiction writer notable for big, sweeping concepts. These concepts were often so big and sweeping that they couldn’t be contained in a single book and so Farmer would not only parlay them into multi-book series but would farm them out (no pun intended) to other writers so that they could play with the concepts too. His biggest and most popular idea was the Riverworld and this was the 1972 novel where he introduced it. On the Riverworld, everybody who ever lived, from dim prehistory to 2008 (when the world effectively ended), finds themselves resurrected along the banks of an immense river. Nobody knows how they got there or who was responsible for bringing them back to life.

The marvelous conceit of the Riverworld books is that anybody can be a character, from Jesus to Napoleon to, well, you and me. The hero of this book is Sir Richard Burton, the 19th century British polymath who explored Africa in search of the sources of the Nile and translated the Arabian Nights into English. Farmer even puts himself into the story as a writer named Peter Jarius Frigate. Frigate’s role is largely to serve as Burton’s interlocutor, squeezing out exposition for readers who may find him unfamiliar. Burton, who is rather pissed off about his unexpected second chance at life, decides to hunt down the unknown forces responsible for it and get some kind of explanation (and perhaps an apology) out of them, preferably using intruments of torture.

I first read To Your Scattered Bodies Go when I was just out of college. I reread it because I’d like to finally read the later books in the series and find out how it ends. The Riverworld books are a lot like the TV show Lost: A large cast of characters finds itself marooned in a desolate place where mysterious things are going on. (Not surprisingly, the SyFy Channel has a Riverworld miniseries in the works for later this year.) As on Lost, Farmer raises far more questions in the early novels than he answers. Supposedly the fourth book in the series, The Magic Labyrinth, finally offers explanations and after all these years I’d like to read it. Still, it can be heavy going. Farmer’s writing style, which is at best functional, doesn’t in itself provide a reason to keep reading and the characterization is the minimum necessary to put the story across. It’s those big, sweeping concepts that make his fiction work and I’m not sure I find the Riverworld as compelling as I did when I first discovered it. So instead of plunging immediately into the rest of the series I’m going to put it aside for a while. I may or may not come back to it later.

I still want to know how it ends, though. Damn it.

Losing My Religion

Book #12 (March 7, 2010): The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is one of my favorite writers. His 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which I read quite a few years ago, provided me with one of those rare moments as a reader when a single book caused me to look at the world in a completely different way. It’s about the evolution of altruistic behavior, the instinct in organisms (including humans) to perform acts that benefit other organisms at some cost to the altruistic organism’s own survival. The striking insight of the book is that natural selection, the process by which organisms evolve over time, doesn’t work at the level of the organism but at the level of the organism’s genes. Dawkins demonstrates, with almost mathematical rigor, how behaviors that may seem counter to the survival of the organism are actually conducive to the gene’s survival. It is — trust me on this — an exciting idea, and it helped me understand evolution in ways that a conventional understanding of natural selection didn’t. From what I’ve read elsewhere, it helped a lot of scientists to understand evolution better too.

Dawkins is an amazingly lucid thinker, clearheaded and capable of putting his ideas down on paper in a way that’s rarely boring and easily accessible to readers without degrees in biology. The God Delusion, from 2006, is his most recent book. It’s about atheism and why there’s nothing wrong with it. He doesn’t have to convince me that there’s nothing wrong with it, because I’ve been an atheist since I was 12, but it’s nice to see someone turn out nearly 400 pages of reasons why my decision in that regard was a fine and intelligent one. Here are some of the things that Dawkins talks about:

  • The vast majority of scientists are atheists and science really does have something to say about the existence of God.
  • There’s no such thing as a logical proof for the existence of God
  • No openly atheist politician can be elected to public office in the U.S. (putting atheists roughly in the position of gays 40 years ago).
  • Having faith in things for which there is no evidence is not a noble thing. It’s an idiotic and dangerous thing.
  • Morality is quite possible in the absence of a belief in God and much of what’s in the Bible is flagrantly immoral.
  • “Scientific creationism” is complete bullshit.
  • Indoctrination of children in religious beliefs before they’re old enough to make up their minds is a form of child abuse. (I’m guessing this will anger people more than anything else in the book.)

There’s more, which is why it requires a 400 page book for Dawkins to talk about it. If you have strong religious convictions, I don’t recommend that you read this. It will just make you angry. But if you’re wavering on the subject, I beg you to please, PLEASE read it (or at least the first 100 pages; after that it starts bogging down a bit in scientific details that are well explained but that are still heavy going). And if you’re an atheist who thinks that there’s something wrong with your own beliefs or who is tired of other people suggesting atheism is some kind of character defect, you owe it to yourself to read it.

My girlfriend Amy pointed me to an Internet video of Dawkins answering questions after a talk on religion at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, VA. It’s an excellent introduction to Dawkins and his ideas on the subject, and if you’re curious about the book you should probably watch it first. Heck, you should watch it even if you don’t plan to read the book.

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Book #11 (February 28, 2010): What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank’s 2005 book tackles what is for me the single most baffling issue in American politics today: Why do working class Americans persistently vote for Republican candidates when this is patently against their economic interests? Republicans are the party of big business. They work for tax cuts and deregulation, policies that often hurt those at the lower end of the economic scale. Why, then, is it those very people at the lower end of the economic scale who have become their most passionate supporters? He uses as an example the state of his birth: Kansas. (Frank, a journalist, currently lives in Chicago.) A century ago Kansas was a breeding ground for radical progressives; now it’s deeply conservative and deeply Republican. Much of the state, at least in Frank’s description, has been stripmined economically by large corporations like Con Agra and Boeing, yet the poorest Kansans vote for the very politicians who are in the hip pockets of these corporations. Frank suggests that the wealthier Republicans cynically manipulate the vote by creating an unwinnable class war against elitist liberal strawmen who resemble real liberals less than they resemble the moderate Republican elitists who benefit from this deception. Although in the end Frank spreads some of the blame to Democrats who have backed away from their own values and begun vying for the business vote themselves, most of his snark is reserved for what the Republicans have done to the people of his former state, largely with their acquiescence.

Frank is a sharp, witty writer and the book isn’t the dry political screed that it really ought to have been. (Thank God.) I think I’ve maxed out on politics for the moment, though. When I recover there are some other books along this line that I may read, including a more recent title by Frank that looks interesting (The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation). I can hope that by then the American public will have regained its sanity, but I’m really not holding my breath.

Dream On

Book #10 (February 21, 2010): Number9Dream by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is a British writer currently living in Ireland after quite a few years as a teacher in Japan. His short story “What You Do Not Know You Want” was my favorite in the Michael Chabon anthology I wrote about a few posts back. He’s written four novels with another coming out later this year. This one is about a young Japanese man in search of his father, who he’s never met. It takes place largely in modern Tokyo and Mitchell’s description of the city and its inhabitants is vivid and occasionally (as the protagonist slips in and out of his ongoing fantasy life) phantasmagorical. Mitchell’s writing style is energetic, frequently snarky, often funny, and if I have a problem with it it’s that he sometimes skips a little lightly over the surface of believability. Case in point: The encounters between the protagonist, Eiji Miyake, and the Yakuza (i.e., the Japanese mob) are so violently and comically over the top that I began to wonder if Mitchell might be secretly hoping that the Coen brothers will buy the film rights. But he manages to pull the story back from the brink of absurdity (a precipice it spends many pages teetering on) and occasionally creates something rather moving, especially in the parts where Miyake reminisces about his dead twin sister. There’s a John Lennon motif threading through the novel; hence the title, after a 1974 Lennon song. The ending is both cryptic and apocalyptic, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

Based on the two works I’ve read by him so far I can make the probably unwarranted generalization that Mitchell’s talents, of which he has quite a few, work better at the shorter lengths. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the stories within a story — for instance, the children’s stories about halfway through the book featuring a goat, a hen and a caveman, which Mitchell uses to make some not-at-all-childish points about human behavior. At this point I admire his work more than I love it, but I’m still interested in reading the rest of Mitchell’s novels and I’ll probably read at least one more of them before the year is out. In fact, Cloud Atlas is already sitting on my bookshelf.

It’s Good to be…Oh, You Know!

Book #9 (February 14, 2010): On Writing by Stephen King

There seem to be two fairly extreme views on the writing of Stephen King. Either people see him as a hack who writes sensational but worthless prose (a view that I suspect is based more on all those Stephen King movies churned out in the 80s than on the novels themselves) or they see him as a god. Neither view makes sense to me, though I probably lean more toward the latter view than the former. I think a good argument could be made that King is the greatest popular writer of his generation and perhaps of my lifetime, in the sense that he writes fiction that engages readers on a deep and intuitive level, fiction that makes no pretense at being literature but that often manages to be literature anyway. In that sense — and I’m hardly the first to say this — the “literary” writer he most resembles is Charles Dickens, in that the two writers have both popular and enduring appeal. When I read Dan Simmons’ novel Drood, about Wilkie Collins and his gradual realization that he could never be more than a fraction of the writer Charles Dickens was, I couldn’t help but wonder if Simmons wasn’t describing his own feelings about King.

On Writing is about half memoir and half avuncular advice (inasmuch as King often refers to himself in his Entertainment Weekly columns as “Uncle Stevie”) to aspiring writers. The memoir half (and it’s almost exactly half of the book) is about King’s gradual discovery of his writing talents and the experiences that shaped his writerly perceptions. The advice half — and in terms of my own interests it’s the better half of the book, though I enjoyed King’s description in the first half of his days as an out-of-control alcoholic — relates King’s philosophy of writing and warns against misconceptions that potential writers may have about how writing is actually done. The best part, I thought, was his description of the difference between situation and plot, which is something he’s thought out more clearly than I ever have. (When I was writing Hardy Boys novels, the distinction between the two was that you pitched your book on the basis of a situation but you didn’t get a contract until you’d plotted the book within an inch of its life, something that King advises strongly against.) There’s a nice emphasis on the importance of grammar — King was an English teacher before he became a bestselling author — and some interesting thoughts on organizing your writing space. (Close your door, shut your window and maybe listen to music, but don’t let the desk dominate the room.) I don’t know if any of this will be meaningful if you have no interests in writing fiction (there’s relatively little here about other forms of writing), but the first half should certainly be of interest to anybody who’s a King fan.