Back from San Francisco

It is a very pretty part of the world.

View

Street art in the Mission district

View from a cable car

Flowers in the Marin Headlands

San Francisco houses

The Golden Gate bridge

Curved escalators in Nordstroms

Sunset over the Pacific coast

Top-to-bottom: view of downtown from Bernal Heights; school mural in the Mission District; view from a cable car; flowers in the Marin headlands; houses, I don’t remember where; the Golden Gate, of course; curved escalators in Nordstroms; and sunset over the Pacific coast. Many more here. It was a good trip: caught up with some old friends, made some new ones, and, of course, bought some books:

Books bought

Again, top to bottom: Bitter Angels by CL Anderson, Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow, The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss, Couch by Benjamin Parzybok, Black & White by Lewis Shiner, Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman (a much-appreciated gift from Terry), and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (because my paperback copy is somewhat beaten up). I now have several books on the Nebula list that I haven’t read, and a couple from the Dick list, and who knows, I may even get around to reading them soonish. First, though, as I mentioned, a post about Stephen Baxter, and something I need to write for Strange Horizons, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. At least, that’s the plan.

The Books of 2009

This is, unfortunately, a somewhat more abbreviated account than I had originally intended. Plan A was to do a complete run-down of everything I read in 2009, trying to get some sense of how my part of the elephant felt. Plan B is a top ten list. Well, a top ten list and some stats.

Stats first, then. I read 69 books in 2009; slightly down on the last few years. Of these, 80% were sf or sf-related non-fiction; 54% were first published in 2009, 39% were by Brits, 41% by women and 22% by people of colour (or, 45% were by white men). Of those books not published in 2009, discovery of the year was perhaps Rana Dasgupta, whose linked story suite Tokyo Cancelled (2005) I picked up somewhat on a whim, and is still lingering with me now; though the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Fever and Spear (2002 trans. 2005) gives it a run for its money, and the book-I-should-have-got-around-to-long-before-now award goes without question to Middlemarch. Also worth mentioning here: Lao She’s Cat Country (1932, trans. 1970), and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To … (1977), which, of the fiction I’ve read by Russ, is the work whose impressiveness is least caveated by the passage of time, and the one I would recommend to those not yet familiar with her. Disappointments in this group were relatively few; neither Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (2006) nor Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) quite lived up to my expectations of them, but as dispraise goes, that’s pretty mild.

Onward! The focus of my interest, of course, is the subgroup of sf or sf-related books published in 2009. I should say that I’m using an inverted version of the Hugo Award’s definition of 2009, here: that is, if it was either first published in English in 2009, or first published in the UK in 2009, I’m considering it a 2009 book. Consequently, including one book read in 2008, and five read this year, there are 41 books in this subgroup, of which 44% are by Brits, 86% are fiction (of which, making broad assignments, 42% are sf, 58% fantasy), 52% are by women, and 17% by people of colour (leaving the white-man percentage roughly the same, at 42%). I had a good year’s reading: it’s hard to pick a top ten that leaves out such books as the first volume of Hoshruba (whether or not I will have the stamina to read further volumes); Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City (first published 1993; a book that addresses some of the same themes as China Mieville’s The City & The City, but to my mind more successfully); Chris Beckett’s Marcher (a very clever, and admirably restrained, many-worlds novel); Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (a first novel that deserves greater praise than “very promising”, though it is); Deborah Biancotti’s A Book of Endings (a first collection of which the same can be said); Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island (mild reservations about the shape of the novel aside, a delight to read); Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (on which I have no doubt I will continue to chew for some time); Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth (an evocative wilderness novel, and a fascinating exercise in sustained uncertainty of genre: I hope to write this up in more detail at some point); Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet (despite my reservations about it); Marcel Theroux’s Far North (under-appreciated, I think); or Jo Walton’s Lifelode (on which I agree with Walton’s afterword, which admits that the book it becomes is lesser than the book she wanted to write; but the first half of the novel, which is closest to her intentions, is extraordinary; one of those books that really should not have appeared only from a small press). Some novels, certainly, left me underwhelmed – Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia, The City & The City and perhaps Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold being the ones that might attract most disagreement – but only a handful stood out as genuine disappointments. Nancy Kress can do better than Steal Across the Sky; and I certainly hope that Jesse Bullington can do better than The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. There are, of course, a great many books I didn’t get to: of those, the ones whose omission I feel most keenly are probably Stephen Baxter’s Ark (given how highly I rated Flood), Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, Robert Holdstock’s Avilion (because I haven’t yet read Mythago Wood; yes, yes, I know), and Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit (because I told myself I’d read the Aleutian trilogy first – yes, yes, I know!).

But anyway: here are the ten books that I recommend most heartily, in alphabetical order by author.

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: a first novel of great ambition and remarkable power, and a work of science fiction that feels grounded in our present like nothing else I read this year.
  • The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham: the most purely enjoyable 2009 book I’ve read, a marriage of the political and the epic that builds fruitfully on the already-solid foundation provided by The War with the Mein (2007).
  • Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin: beautiful, wise, generous, and all the other words that are so regularly applied to Le Guin’s fiction.
  • UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo: a short, relatively quiet novel that, as I said when I first read it, suggests much with its sparing narration, and provokes much in its reader; or at least in me.
  • Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald: the opposite of Guo, in some ways: bold, vigorous stories that deepen and strengthen McDonald’s vision of a future India.
  • The Ask & The Answer by Patrick Ness: a sequel that delights in not providing more of the same; desperately uncomfortable at times, but – I’m allowed to use this once, right? – unputdownable.
  • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi: a brilliant ghost story, but also (this is not said enough about Oyeyemi, I think) at times, brilliantly funny: serious enough to know when to be playful.
  • Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson: for all that Robinson is one of my favourite contemporary writers, I keep missing my chance to write about his work at any length. But between them Adam Roberts and John Clute have said much of what I would want to say about Galileo’s Dream: the marvellous sanity of its fictive universe, the skill with which it dissects time, memory and history, the clarity of its portraiture.
  • The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh: a collection whose only real flaw is that it doesn’t collect all of Singh’s fiction: but what is here should be read.
  • In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield: surely, by this point, I don’t need to say anything else about this one. Inventive; unsentimental; captivating.

Some Books I Want To Read in 2010

Walking the Tree, Kaaron Warren
Generosity, Richard Powers
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
The Bookman, Lavie Tidhar
The Dark Commands, Richard Morgan
Death of the Author, Scarlett Thomas
A Matter of Blood, Sarah Pinborough
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, NK Jemisin
New Model Army, Adam Roberts
Zoo City, Lauren Beukes
Solo, Rana Dasgupta
One Who Disappeared, David Herter
Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
The Secret Feminist Cabal: a Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms, Helen Merrick
The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, Anil Menon
The Golden Age, Michal Ajvaz
Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan
Yukikaze, Chōhei Kambayashi
The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord
Plan for Chaos, John Wyndham
Big Machine, Victor LaValle
Things We Didn’t See Coming, Stephen Amsterdam
Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds
The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer
When it Changed ed. Geoff Ryman
Seven Cities of Gold, David Moles
Escape, Manjula Padmanabhan
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
The Complete Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
Shine, ed. Jetse de Vries
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making, Catherynne M Valente
Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
The House of Discarded Dreams, Ekaterina Sedia
Lightborn, Tricia Sullivan
The Birth of Love, Joanna Kavenna
Chill, Elizabeth Bear
Usurper of the Sun, Housuke Nojiri
Quantum Gravity 5, Justina Robson
Zendegi, Greg Egan
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Samuel R Delany
Filaria, Brent Hayward
C, Tom McCarthy
The Burning City, Alaya Dawn Johnson
Shipbreaker, Paolo Bacigalupi
The Hurricane Party, Klas Ostergren
Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness
Above the Snowline, Steph Swainston
The Dervish House, Ian McDonald
Stone Spring, Stephen Baxter

2010

I’ve decided 2010 doesn’t start until 17th January — that is, the day after the end of the nominating period for the BSFA awards. So no best books of 2009 from me just yet, but they will come, fear not.

In the meantime, I have more half-formed plans for 2010 than I can plausibly keep up. I would like, for instance, to read the back-catalogues of Mary Gentle and Bruce Sterling, two writers whose work I keep thinking I should really be more familiar with than I am. I want to read some of the big books lurking on my shelves: Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy, Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, Paul Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor, among others. Taking advantage of my shiny new Sony Reader, which makes it much more convenient to read short fiction, I have grand plans of writing a monthly short fiction review post, as well as potential story-by-story reviews of more anthologies. I want to keep posting short reviews of books here, as I’ve been doing over Christmas, and save longer reviews for elsewhere; though I suspect I will creep back to longer and less frequent as the year goes on. I want to organise more round-table discussions of new books, of course (any suggestions?), and another run of short story club, independent of discussion of award-shortlisted stories.

On top of all that (or even: before I get to any of that), there’s two issues of Vector coming relatively close together (ie both in the first quarter of the year), which still need some work; and the survey book should be mailing to BSFA members with one of those issues, assuming I get all the author bios done; maybe we can get a new Vector website up and running at some point this year; and there’s the Strange Horizons reviews department (plus new Clute column) to keep on top of, of course.

Anyway. I had an excellent holiday break; hope you all did, as well.

On Holiday

Oh, I had such noble aims. I was going to use this holiday as an excuse to do a proper stock-taking post, looking back over what I’ve read so far this year and forward to what’s still to come. Instead, it’s got to the point where I’m out the door in an hour, and have various things to do before then. So all you get is some raw numbers: I’ve read 42 books this year; and these are, I think, the six best (in alphabetical order by author), that you all really should read.

In fact, if you want me to know which one of these you should read, it’s the Whitfield; really, In Great Waters and Lavinia should both be on the BSFA Award Best Novel shortlist come 2010.

And with that, I’m off!

Down Memory Lane

I got this from Martin who got it from Larry (see also Adam‘s post); the idea is to list the books that shaped you as a reader. I did something similar when Farah Mendlesohn was running her survey a couple of years ago, but it’s always an interesting exercise. My memory is as bad as Martin’s, if not worse, so I’ve gone for 2-year brackets as well, and I couldn’t swear that I’ve got everything in the right place. Commentary in square brackets where I couldn’t help myself.

8
Heidi and sequels, Johanna Spyri
Little House on the Prarie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Adventure series, Willard Price
The Famous Five series, Enid Blyton
The Magician’s Nephew, CS Lewis [and the rest of Narnia, of course, but for some reason it’s this, and to a lesser extent The Silver Chair, that stay with me]

10
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
Swallows and Amazons, and most of the sequels, Arthur Ransome
A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair and Trillions, Nicholas Fisk
The Animals of Farthing Wood, Colin Dann
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

12
The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K Le Guin
The Complete Robot, Isaac Asimov
A lot of Peanuts, Charles M Schulz
An awful lot of Dragonlance, especially the Chronicles and Legends trilogies, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman [I could have included “even more Dragonlance” on my next list]

14
Foundation and sequels, Isaac Asimov
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
Rama and sequels, Arthur C Clarke (and Gentry Lee)
Various Calvin & Hobbes anthologies, Bill Watterson
The Amtrak Wars and Fade-Out, Patrick Tilley

16
Interzone, ed. David Pringle
Voyage, Stephen Baxter [although I had been reading him for some time before this]
Axiomatic, Greg Egan
Red Mars and sequels, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Reality Dysfunction and sequels, Peter F Hamilton

18
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
The Stone Canal, Ken MacLeod
Asimov’s Science Fiction, ed. Gardner Dozois
A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft [this was the hardest of the age bands to do; I think I stopped reading for a couple of years when I went to university. But I spent many an hour playing FFVII, and it sits very close to the book-space in my head.]

When A Fantasy Is Not A Fantasy

Charles N Brown, March Locus:

Of the newest books, I loved The City & The City by China Mieville (Del Rey — June), a total departure from his earlier books. The language is much more spare, the story very tight, and the mystery involved very satisfying. There is no magic at all, and I would catalog it as an alternate world or Graustarkian fantasy since the only element that ties it to our field is the very strange central European country it’s set in.

Blurb:

Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. It is a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen, a journey to Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma.

First review I’ve seen:

What makes this book fascinating is that the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma exist in the same space, sitting one atop the other, and residents of each city have been trained since birth not to notice the other for fear of ‘breach’, the movement or acknowledgement of the other city that is punishable by the folks known only as ‘Breach’ who investigate and severely punish transgressors. Functionally each city is different. They have different architecture, different currency, they work completely independently but they have to avoid collisions while driving in the same space and avoid noticing each other as they walk the same streets; it’s this setting that makes The City And The City such a compelling read.

The book itself:

“You know that area: is there any chance we’re looking at breach?”
There were seconds of silence.
“Doesn’t seem likely. That area’s mostly pretty total. And Pocost Village, that whole project, certainly is.”
“Some of GunterStrasz, though …”
“Yeah but. The closest crosshatching is hundreds of metres away. They couldn’t have …” (16)


“This morning I found a few of the locals I used to talk to,” Corwi said. “Asked if they’d heard anything.” She took us through a darkened place where the balance of crosshatch shifted and we were silent until the streetlamps around us became again taller and familiarly deco-angled. Under those lights — the street we were on visible in a perspective curve away from us — women stood by the walls selling sex. They watched our approach guardedly. “I didn’t have much luck,” Corwi said. (21)


I lived east and south a bit of the old town, the top-but-one flat in a six-storey towerlet on VulkovStrasz. It is a heavily crosshatched street — clutch by clutch of architecture broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the others, so Besz juts up semi-regularly and the roofscape is almost a machiocolation. (28)

I have to admit, so far I’m a bit sceptical: the metaphor is clear enough, but as framed at this point in the book, if it’s not fantastic in some way, then it seems too improbable to believe. (I’m also not entirely convinced that Inspector Borlu’s narrative voice can accomodate words like “alterity”, or elsewhere, “polysemic” and “effaced”, as casually as Mieville seems to want it to, but that’s a separate issue.)

… In with the new

This is what 2009 looks like so far:

… which is to say, these are the 2009 books I’m hoping to get stuck into over the next few months. (Feel free to tell me what I’ve missed.) There are a few books in there that are cheats: Graceling, The Hunger Games and Tender Morsels are 2009 books in the UK, but were first published in the US last year. I think Vandana Singh’s collection The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet is also technically a 2008 book, but I didn’t see a copy until January. Of the rest, I’m planning to review Marcher, Steal Across the Sky, Twisted Metal and Best Served Cold for Strange Horizons, in that order (perk of being a reviews editor: you get first pick). I’m perhaps most looking forward to Singh’s collection, and to In Great Waters, since I liked Whitfield’s first book and Nic tells me this new one is excellent. And the first one I’ll be reading, which you can expect a post about here (after Lavinia), is that spiral-bound book, which is a proof of Toby Litt’s Journey Into Space; I’m extra-intrigued now, because Ursula Le Guin didn’t like it, but Martin and Paul did.

Unwritten

Things I would totally write posts about if I weren’t spending all my time either playing Final Fantasy XII or keeping up with commitments elsewhere, a partial list:

1. Survivors. Watched the final episode last night; I’ve seen the odd post about the series, but did anyone else watch it through to the end? I was much more impressed than not, I have to say. I’m not keen on the Secret Conspiracy, which makes me wary of the second series, since it looks set to play a greater part in the story than it has done so far; and sometimes the plots are a mite predictable. But sometimes they’re not, and I think all the central characters are well-realised. And I’m a sucker for community- and society-building stories, anyway.

2. The return of Battlestar Galactica. While I empathize with reactions like Abigail’s, in that I invariably find that reading what the people making Galactica have to say about it diminishes my enjoyment, if I ignore what they’re saying I can still find much to appreciate. In the first episode of season four round two, for instance, I didn’t much care for the manner in which the reval that ended the episode was handled — clumsy, I thought — but I do like the reveal itself. I like that, this time, it has a greater weight for the previously-revealed cylons than for the humans; I like that the the relationship it references becomes a model for the whole human-cylon relationship (particularly given what we appeared to learn elsewhere in the episode about the relationship between the populations of the twelve colonies and the skinjob cylons). I’m glad that it doesn’t invalidate major character development. And I also find it satisfying, in a perverse way, that I found it initially disappointing, and only found things to appreciate on reflection, because it seems to me that disappointment was an effective way of mirroring the series characters’ disappointment at the end of the previous episode in the audience. I don’t believe for a second that the makers intended that effect — I can’t have that much faith in TV showrunners — but I think it’s there nonetheless.

3. Further adventures in Theory. I’ve still got comments on the previous threads I should respond to, and indeed it’s not like I’ve read much more of the book yet (see above re: Final Fantasy and other commitments). But at the moment I am wrestling with Structuralism. As related, I am not convinced by some of the arguments for the creational power of language (I don’t think we divide the spectrum into individual colours entirely arbitrarily, purely as a matter of language; I think we divide it up the way we do because certain physical phenomena filters light into particular bands of wavelengths, and it is useful to have words for those bands), and I find some of the examples of structralist criticism given to get a bit, er, abstract. But at the same time I am sympathetic to the idea of a mode of criticism that is about relating texts to larger structures — not surprisingly, since I buy into Damien Broderick’s concept of the sf megatext (at least as I understand it from reading discussions of the concept), even if it does take me away from the text I start with.

4. Reading, and particularly reading of shortlists, as social behaviour; although on this one I’m not sure I have anything to add, so much as I want to point it out as a concise statement of something I am often conscious of. The urge to write reviews, in this model, is something of a totalitarian impulse, an urge to make, or at least persuade, people to talk about what you’re interested in talking about. (So is there an extent to which I approve of the BSFA novel shortlist because it consists largely of things I’ve already read? Maybe.)

Restate My Assumptions

So, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, one of the things I’m reading at the moment is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. In the first chapter, he lays out “a series of propositions which I think many traditional critics would, on the whole, subscribe to, if they were in the habit of making their assumptions explicit”, under the banner of “liberal humanism”; and then, later, lays out five core assumptions which describe “the basic frame of mind which theory embodies”. I thought it might be interesting to go through both lists and note down my initial — unexamined, as it were — reactions to each statement, both for my future reference, and perhaps to start being a bit more specific about what “theory”, as used all over the place in that other comment thread, means. (i.e. I’m also interested in other peoples’ reactions to these statements. Heck, turn it into a meme and post it on your blog, if you like.) These are slightly truncated versions of the statements, in most cases — Barry gives some elaboration — but I think they get the gist across.

Liberal humanism, then:

1. Good literature is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature.

Nah. I know from experience that the older the work I’m reading, the more work I have to do filling in historical context to get even a bare minimum of understanding of what’s going on, but more than that, there’s a part of me which believes that one of the most interesting things about literature is precisely the way in which it engages with the limitations and peculiarities of the age it is written in.

2. The literary text contains its own meaning within itself. It doesn’t require any elaborate process of placing it within a context, whether this be socio-political, literary-historical, or autobiographical.

See above; certainly some texts will resist the need for contextualisation more strongly than others, for a longer period of time than others, but ultimately I don’t think anything endures by itself forever; certain texts that appear to have endured have done so, in part, because the contextualisation they require has become part of the cultural air we breathe (i.e. Shakespeare), not because of anything inherent to the text itself.

3. To understand the text well it must be detached from these contexts and studied in isolation. What is needed is the close verbal analysis of the text without prior ideological assumptions, or political pre-conditions, or, indeed, specific expectations of any kind.

Mmf. Sort of. I do place close verbal analysis at the core of understanding a text, not least because it’s something I enjoy getting better at; and I do prefer to let a text suggest meaning to me than to go to a text looking for an answer to a question. But, of course, that is my prior ideological assumption. (I knew that much before I started reading the book.)

4. Human nature is essentially unchanging. The same passions, emotions, and even situations are seen again and again throughout human history. It follows that continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation.

Nope. “Human nature”, to the extent that it can be defined at all, isn’t even the same from culture to culture in the present moment; I sincerely doubt it remains the same over centuries or longer. And, of course, as a science fiction reader one of the things I enjoy is imagination of the ways in which humanity can change in the future.

5. Individuality is something securely possessed within each of us as our unique “essence”. This transcends our environmental influences, and though individuality can change and develop (as do characters in novels) it can’t be transformed — hence our uneasiness with those scenes (quite common, for instance, in Dickens) which involve a “change of heart” in a character, so that the whole personality is shifted into a new dimension by force of circumstance.

This, on the other hand … “transcends our environmental influences” makes it sound like we’re born being who we are, which is clearly rubbish; but individuality as something that evolves but does not transform sounds right to me. I don’t think I’ve ever transformed in the way the process is described here; I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to transform in that way, either. Life isn’t that easy.

6. The purpose of literature is essentially the enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values; but not in a programmatic way: if literature, and criticism, become overly and directly political they necessarily tend towards propaganda.

On the one hand, speaking again as a science fiction reader, I’m not supposed to mind a bit of didacticism in my fiction, and I’m sure I mind it less than most of the people Barry has in mind here. On the other hand, to the extent that literature can be said to have a purpose, “propagation of humane values”, in the sense of making, through literary creation, a sincere and compassionate attempt to understand people and the world, and to communicate that understanding to another, doesn’t seem so bad.

7. Form and content in literature must be fused in an organic way, so that the one grows inevitably from the other.

Must be? No. (Are there any “must” statements that could justly be applied to literature?) Can often very productively be? Yes.

8. This point about organic form applies above all to “sincerity”. Sincerity (comprising truth-to-experience, honesty towards the self, and the capacity for human empathy and compassion) is a quality which resides within the language of literature. It isn’t a fact or intention behind the work … sincerity is to be discovered within the text in such matters as the avoidance of cliche, or of over-inflated forms of expression; it shows in the use of first-hand, individualistic description … the truly sincere poet can transcend the sense of distance between language and material, and can make the language seem to “enact” what it depicts, thus apparently abolishing the necessary distance between words and things.

This seems more or less to be an expansion of point 6, which makes me wonder whether I’m misunderstanding one or both of them; but still, it seems largely sound to me.

9. What is valued in literature is the “silent” showing and demonstrating of something, rather than the explaining, or saying, of it. Hence, ideas as such are worthless in literature until given the concrete embodiment of “enactment”.

Sf-reader ping again: I suspect that what satisfies me as being an “enacted” idea wouldn’t necessarily satisfy the people Barry has in mind here; there’s that touch of didacticism to consider. But an idea that is worked through a text is a beautiful thing.

10. The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader. A theoretical account of the nature of reading, or of literature in general, isn’t useful in criticism, and will simply, if attempted, encumber critics with “preconceived ideas” which will get between them and the text.

I have no problems with the first sentence. As to the second sentence … well, that’s why I’m reading the book, isn’t it?

All of this seems to suggest that I am not, actually, a full-on liberal humanist; but there are several points on that list that I wouldn’t want to let go of.

Now, on to Theory:

1. Many of the notions which we would usually regard as the basic “givens” of our existence (including our gender identity, our individual selfhood, and the notion of literature itself) are actually fluid and unstable things, rather than fixed and reliable essences.

Yes … to a point. Newtonian mechanics isn’t actually a wholly accurate description of how the universe works, but it’s a pretty good approximation for a lot of purposes. Cognitive neuroscience may reveal that my selfhood does not exist in the way that I perceive it to exist, but on a day to day basis my perceptions are what I have to work with. And to bring it back to literature, it is not possible to draw a sharp line between, say, science fiction and fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to talk about science fiction and fantasy as distinct types of literature.

2. All thinking and investigation is necessarily affected and largely determined by prior ideological commitment. The notion of disinterested enquiry is therefore untenable: none of us is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately: rather, all investigators have a thumb on one side or other of the scales.

Yes, again to a point. Necessarily affected yes, largely determined, not necessarily. Acknowledging thumbs-on-scales is good; investigating the consequences of thumbs-on-scales is good; trying to construct systems of thought which compensate for thumbs-on-scales is also good. It may not be possible to carry out a purely disinterested enquiry, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to approximate it; it means we should be aware of the biases that factor into the attempt.

3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see. Thus, all reality is constructed through language, so that nothing is simply “there” in an unproblematical way — everything is a linguistic/textual construct. Language doesn’t record reality, it shapes and creates it, so that the whole of our universe is textual. Further, meaning is jointly constructed by reader and writer.

Define “reality”. Do I believe a physical universe could exist if no language existed to describe it? (Assuming here that the action of observation counts as a form of language.) Yes, I do. A rock doesn’t need to be called a rock to exist. Do I believe that our social reality, how we think and relate and describe, is constrained by the language we have to think in and relate through and describe with? Also yes. I don’t know what “the whole of our universe is textual” means. As for reader-writer interaction constructing meaning: yes, but with the caveat that this appears to be intended as at least a partial counter to “the job of criticism is to mediate between the reader and the text” above, and the two positions don’t seem exclusive to me. Reframe it as the job of criticism being to mediate the construction of a particular meaning, if you like.

4. Any claim to offer a definitive reading would be futile. The meanings within a literary work are never fixed and reliable but always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous.

Yes. I do not think, for instance, that Victoria Hoyle’s reading of Lucius Shepard is inferior to the author’s view of his own work. (But some meanings are more equal than others.)

5. “Totalising” notions are to be distrusted. For instance, the notion of “great” books as an absolute and self-sustaining category is to be distrusted, as books always arise out of a particular socio-political structure, and this situation should not be suppressed, as tends to happen when they are promoted to “greatness”. Likewise, the concept of a “human nature”, as a generalised norm which transcends the idea of a particular race, gender or class, is to be distrusted.

Yes — recognising the obvious paradox inherent in the statement — as long as “distrusted” means “recognise the limitations of” rather than “discard out of hand”.

And that’s the lot. Not quite a theorist yet, then. It occurs to me that the second list is somewhat less interesting to me, at first glance, simply because it says less about reading and interpreting; it talks in generalities, about principles that apply far beyond criticism, whereas what I’m interested in (what I’m reading the book for) is ways to talk about literature specifically. But I suppose that’s what the rest of the chapters will do.