Today I finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and thereby finished a long project to read all 17 of Dickens’s novels.
Dickens is for me the essence of the novel. I admire most of all his genius for character. A character speaks two sentences, and you feel you know him, and could pick him out of a crowd. It’s a mysterious skill, akin to the mystery of Shakespeare’s poetic invention.
Reading the novels together, you also get a sense of a complete world, with surprising insights into human nature, and into its most enduring features. I was repeatedly amused by the things that had not changed, how some of our news is not really new at all, but recognizable to the reader of fifteen decades ago. (Random example: there is a Bernie-Madoff-like character in Little Dorrit — shockingly like our own Madoff, except that he has the decency to feel guilty in the end.)
I’m sad that there is not another discovery before me, another Dickens novel to be read for the first time. I have seen the arch of his genius, up to the unfinished termination. Still: I can always go back to the Pickwick Club, and begin again.
Just returned from the annual SFWA meeting, AKA “the nebs.” I was delighted to receive the Anlab award for short story for my “Julie is Three.” Here’s the crew of 2012 Anlab winners:
- Best Novella: “With Unclean Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (11/11)
- Best Novelette, tie: “Jak and the Beanstalk,” by Richard A. Lovett (7-8/11), “Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms,” John G. Hemry
- Best Short Story: “Julie is Three,” Craig DeLancey (3/11)
- Best Fact Article: “Smart SETI,” Gregory and James Benford
- Best Cover: December 2011 (for “Ray of Light”) by Bob Eggleton
All I can think is: I won an award that Clifford Simak and David Brin won!
I took a tour of the Smithsonian Air & Space museum led by astronaut Mike Fincke, a true Ubermensch, who answered all those questions writers want to ask, like, are the gloves stiff on those suits? (Not in the American ones.) Is it noisy in the shuttle while you’re going up? (It was a smooth ride after the solid rocket boosters were ejected.) Do you get nausea in microgravity? (Everyone does, but for different folks it lasts more or less time.) And I learned lots of details I didn’t even think to ask about: the yanks breathe pure oxygen in their suits, and that it gives you a wicked dry throat. And so on.
Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet legends (Stan Schmidt! Gregory Benford!) and lots of soon to be legends.
End of semester rush. Trying to finish philosophy book on consciousness. All is compressed. But: did find time to discover and buy and read a new edition of “Roadside Picnic,” which is out on Chicago Review Press in a very nice paperback, with an introduction by Le Guin and a fine afterword by Boris Strugatsky and — most importantly — a new translation in between. If you’ve not read — nor even heard — of “Roadside Picnic,” you must go read this edition. It’s a milestone of SF.
Is this a trend? A few minutes at Duotrope will show you how many magazines have response times of 180, 270, 360 days. Many of those magazines actually “require” a no-simultaneous submissions policy. The story is worse for presses. Most don’t take unagented submissions, of course, but those that do take 6 or 12 or 18 months to reply.
I don’t blame these folks much. I assume that editors, agents, and others who manage the channel are drowning in unsuitable submissions.
But how does the math work? Dune, Harry Potter, The Forever War, nearly any decent book you can think of took 15 or 20 or more submissions before being picked up. If those were serial submissions under a no-simultaneous submissions policy, that would mean about 15 or 20 or more years, plus 2 years for production, until those books appeared on shelves.
Generally presses don’t have a no simsubs policy. But mags do. And I’ve had stories that were well reviewed after they appeared, but that took three or four or five submissions before they were accepted. So must such works now take 3-5 years to find a home?
A kerfuffle in fiction! Christopher Priest declares the Clarke Award short list dreadful. Priest is a very admirable writer. So are the people he criticizes. Favorite of criticisms is calling Charlie Stross an internet puppy. I like the internet, and I love my puppy,
But I confess I appreciate the provocation. It’s interesting to watch the prods of a critic, if she or he is thoughtful. It makes you consider about the craft a bit more carefully. And, published criticism of any kind of my own work is sometimes helpful to me.
But here’s the rub: most critics are presumably writing not for the producers but rather for the consumers (or, if you prefer, the ingesters) of art. And I suspect, as a consumer of art, a negative criticism has never done me any good.
It helps me not at all to to be told a book is terrible or a film is inane or a play is a wreck. I would not have read the book or seen the movie or play anyway. Our problem as consumers of art is not to filter out the bad, as if there were so few options we could benefit from excluding one or two. It is not the case that we have so few options that shaking out a few will leave us with only good works as remnants. Our problem is to find the good in a forest of options. We don’t need filters. We need pointers.
If you ask a guide for directions and she points one way or another and says, “don’t go that way,” she has done you no good. She’s wasted your time. There are boundless directions you can take. Ruling out one is nearly worthless. If instead your guide points the way to some specific and beneficent location, she has done you a service.
The great service, and I suspect the only service, critics have done me, as a consumer of art, is to point out something good that I otherwise would have missed. When someone directs me to a body of work I did not know and which I come to love, they have added value. I’m greatly indebted. What a great gift to have first been pointed to Tarkovsky, the Strugatsky brothers, Conor McPherson, Anselm Keifer…. The best criticism in the world would be a list of good things I’ve not discovered. But when the critic tells me something is not good, she is just howling in the noise — indeed, she is just adding to the noise. She has wasted my time (again, I mean my time as a consumer, as an appreciator, of art).
This is why criticism can seem self-indulgent. Who are those snide comments meant to help? Are they really just self-assertion? One wonders if they compete with art — if these critical works all say, don’t look at that, don’t read that, look at me, read me.
In his book Real Presences, George Steiner imagines a polity without criticism, where the artwork is experienced always directly. He recognizes that — at least in the Twentieth Century — criticism (he may mean academic criticism) had become the envy-driven enemy of art. He concludes, however, by recognizing that the polity without criticism is an ideal we shall never have. Fair enough, but why not strive for a polity of positive criticism?
Still, as a writer, I appreciate the negative criticisms. Even if, as I said, I doubt they are meant for the likes of me.
I got mail from the Met today, which reminded me that last time I went there, I saw the show on Alexander McQueen. You could barely move because of the crowd.
I confess to feeling McQueen is our designer. He had a speculative fiction sensibility that did not see SF as an excuse for a costume.
The videos of his final show look like someone succeeded in filming the love children of Neuromancer and “Call of Cthulhu.” Unembeddable but available: