A Golem and a Jinni Walk into the Singleton Center…

cover of golem and jinni

The Golem and the Jinni

Last night Helene Wecker spoke in Richmond, talking about the success and route to publication of her first novel, The Golem and the Jinni (Amazon|B&N|Powell’s|Goodreads). Her book has spent time in the awards ring already, and she was in town because it was this year’s winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. After reading she shared the stage for a Q&A with her agent, Sam Stoloff, moderated by VCU creative writing MFA alumna Shannon O’Neill. The reading was good, the discussion was lively, and the line for the signing afterward was off the chain.

I attended in part because I was volunteering, given the nature of my work at the library, but I was also attending out of my own interest. I read The Golem and the Jinni late last year when I was temporarily laid up with a bad back, and the book was very much part of the medicine that made me well. It’s the kind of book that could sweep you away by virtue of its lyrical prose alone, even if the story weren’t excellent. Both are excellent, in fact, and I encourage you to give the book a try if you like folklore, things mythopoeic, or the turn of the last century.

It should go without saying, but this book is one of that new breed of novels that straddles with remarkable comfort the old divide between genre and literary. The conceit of the book arose, as she said on stage, from her years of reading in genre and thinking about its tropes. The prose benefits from years of revision and what she learned in getting her MFA. I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Helene at the end of the signing, and what she had to say was of a piece with what you can find on her site and what she said on stage: she genuinely loves and is knowledgeable on a range of fiction.

Helene Wecker on Stage

Helene Wecker on Stage

Tomorrow I’m headed off to the World Fantasy Convention, where The Golem and the Jinni is up for the Novel award. She faces some serious competition, but whatever the outcome of that may be, I think the book will have legs. It’s a cliche to say that genre’s strength is story, and literary fiction’s is style, but I think this is one case where the author has welded together the best of both worlds. I usually sketch speakers in one medium or another at readings or events, and last night I was powerfully struck by Helen’s words about her process (and I hope, should she read this, that she’ll forgive my artistic license). The publishing treadmill rarely seems to allow for books that percolate for so many years. Hers is, of course, an object lesson in why more should.

Throwback Thursday, You Say?

In the mood for some Throwback Thursday action? Below are links to the top five posts I’ve written here…

On the Existence of the Female Tentacle” — 312 views — All about women who write Lovecraftian fiction.

Release the Leeches!” — 175 views — Release day and my writeup, lo those several months ago, for The Children of Old Leech.

Mary Chiaramonte / Land of Strangers / Eric Schindler Gallery” — 134 views — Review of Mary Chiaramonte’s 2012 show.

All the Colors of the Night” — 134 views — Review of Thomas Van Auken’s 2012 show at Eric Schindler Gallery.

Writing Year 2013: Statistics, Lies, Stagnation, and the Human Heart” — 115 views — An analysis with charts and statistics of my writing activities over a seven-year period.

On The Existence of the Female Tentacle

“Is appreciation of Lovecraft and the Mythos a Guy Thing, like the Three Stooges?” That was the beginning, a couple days back, of a lengthy conversation in a Lovecraftian group on Facebook. As far as I can tell, the editor who asked the question wasn’t setting out to irritate, enrage, depress, or offend a large number of dedicated aficionados of the Old Gent, but it happened nonetheless.  As the shitstorm he inadvertently brewed up has waned, I’m still quietly boggling.

One can understand, studying tables of contents and looking back on the long run of Lovecraftian, Mythos, and generally cosmic horror, how one might come to ask if it’s just a “Guy thing.” There are, for instance, a grand total of three female Cthulhu Mythos writers listed on Wikipedia. Most of the Old Guard are or were men, and Lovecraftian fiction hasn’t historically been a place to go looking for strong women.

The problem is that this conversation happens constantly in publishing, genre and otherwise. Someone looks around and asks, in apparently willful ignorance of past discussions and the thousands and thousands of women who read and write every stripe of fiction, “what about those women?” Asking this is itself a kind of erasure: it’s staring obliviously into the face of those women and asking if they exist. Lovecraft is no longer a cult author, and readers of things Lovecraftian are no longer a coterie: from Hellboy to Hello Cthulhu to a geek President of the United States who undoubtedly knows his Cthulhu from his Yog-Sothoth, the tentacles have crept into everything.

There were a number of articulate responses in the discussion on Facebook, some polite and some caustic, but for my money, this comment by Molly Tanzer was the best:

As a new thread gets going in this community asking the tough questions like “What are women writers? Are they like… regular writers? I mean, they’re women, right? So, like, what do they write about? What’s their stuff like?”, I just don’t know what else to say. Especially as the first comment is basically “I can only think of three lady Lovecraftian horror writers!” So, awesome. Anyways, I am happy to say that I have felt welcomed and valued by the editors I’ve worked with within the Lovecraftian horror community, very much including Mike [Davis, editor of Lovecraft eZine, who did not initiate the discussion]. But this whole conversation is starting to wear me out. Apparently in 2014 women writers must still do double-duty–by which I mean, it’s not enough (for some) for us to just, like, write and publish quality Lovecraftian horror. We must do that, while enduring comments about how women don’t mythos because baby-makin’ hormones, while also taking our time to alert people to the fact we exist, AND remembering do so very, very politely so as not to offend the sensitive souls of editors who apparently don’t like to be reminded that part of their job isn’t just publishing their friends, but paying attention–actively reading what is being published by strangers and newcomers alike–trying new things and new people and new voices. Oh, and doing all that while also somehow preserving our sense of humor about life and publishing while being talked down to about how historically “masculine” means this-or-that, or Lovecraft such-and-such. Jesus. I mean, I have a degree in Gender Studies, and a Master’s in humanities that focused on history. And I write in this community. So… yeah.


Here are links if you want to do some reading. No consistency to these, really, just grabbed a bunch. I wasn’t able to find explicitly Lovecraftian/Cthulhuvian free online fiction for all of the authors listed, or wasn’t sure which to pick, and so left things as I did, which looks a little odd on the authors list. If you have suggested links about women who write Lovecraftian fiction, feel free to drop them in the comments.

Commentary

Women Who Write Lovecraft

Women at the Lovecraft Film Festival

Favorite Women in Horror

All-Female Authors Issue of Lovecraft eZine

Lovecraftian Archetypes: the eternal feminine

Joanna Russ and Lovecraftian/Mythos fiction

Authors

Caitlín R. KiernanWikipedia. Amazon.

Ann K. SchwaderInterview. Story.

Elizabeth BearInterview. Essay. Story.

Molly TanzerInterview. Story.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaInterview.

Gemma FilesProfile.

Lois GreshCollection. Interview.

Amanda DownumInterview.

Livia LlewellynInterview.

Anthologies

Lovecraft Unbound

Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath

The Book of Cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu II

New Cthulhu: the Recent Weird

Cthulhu Unbound, Vol. 2

On Liking Popular Things

Past a certain threshold of popularity, artists, musicians, writers, and other creators leave obscurity and enter the zone of public judgment. While it’s not quite celebrity, there are parallels, and whatever rules of decorum and reticence come into play with new or minor artists tend to wane. Fandoms emerge, worship and denigration blossom, stalkers slowly emerge (or not) from the woodwork, and online commentary metastasizes and sprouts hairy tendrils.

cover for the ocean at the end of the lane by neil gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Such is the case with authors on the scale of Neil Gaiman. His new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a wistful morsel of delight. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, to judge by some of the 1800+ Amazon reviews, but certainly to mine. The incantatory tone of the opening is as clear a call to rich veins of myth and Story as you’ll read this year. The plot and characters are somewhat familiar types, if you’ve read his work before, but so it is with things mythological or Jungian. On finishing it, I felt a sense of readerly satisfaction at hearing a tale well told.

My reaction as a writer was rather different. Now, I’ve written previously about my deep affection for Gaiman’s work, particularly Sandman, but also American Gods, Coraline, et al., back to Don’t Panic. It’s not hard to like Neil Gaiman, and his thoroughgoing presence in the worlds of F/SF/H and comics has long since passed into a richly deserved and truly broad-based popularity.

Even while reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, though, I couldn’t help but remember the dozens of pot-shots I’ve heard or read taken at the man, the bulk from other writers. The green-eyed monster has a share in this, to be sure. Gaiman is beloved, well-remunerated, has actually influenced the culture, is a topic of continued popular, genre, and scholarly interest, and by all reports is also an exceedingly decent human being. And yet, whenever the topic of him or his fiction arises in discussion with other writers, the knives come out. Critical judgment, or personal preference is one thing, but I can hardly remember being party to a discussion of Gaiman’s work with other writers that has not incorporated at least a token amount of insecure posturing.

To digress, I recently made a minor decision about my grammatical comportment. Thenceforth, I decided, I’d happily reply to such inquiries as “How are you today?” with either “good” or “well” as the mood took me. I’ve passed some sort of personal Rubicon, perhaps due to aging, that means I’d rather be disliked for my preferences than liked for toeing the linguistic/Party line. Since then I’ve been on the receiving end of more sour looks than one would think a predilection for the popular, if improper, response could elicit.

When it comes to Neil Gaiman’s work, I’ve never denied, or even tacitly omitted, my regard, but here is the thing (news flash!): on some level, witting or unwitting, the Mandarins of writing do not much like popularity. From collapsed backlists to Barnes & Noble death-spirals to almost intentionally unprofitable academic fiction, the landscape for writing fiction ain’t what it used to be. Self-publishing, e-books, the Web, etc. have all brought new freedoms, but also new problems, and making a buck as a writer of fiction is tough stuff these days. Seeing the success of anyone else, let alone a cheerful-seeming fellow like Gaiman, well…

This isn’t a review, obviously, but still: go read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Read it because it’s a delight and will make you grin. You’ll hear about others reading it, and you’ll hear the eye-rolling from the jaded corners of coffee shops, but that’s all right. If its author’s literary reception is hindered in any quarters by popular success, I doubt he will much mind, nor should he. It’s a good book that deserves to be read, and I’m glad I had the pleasure.

Literary DNA

Literary Inspiration on Display

Literary Inspiration on Display

Top Row: Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Lewis Carroll, Shirley Jackson, H. P. Lovecraft. Second Row: Frank Miller, Donna Tartt, William S. Burroughs, Edward Gorey, Thomas Ligotti. Middle Row: Bram Stoker, Haruki Murakami, Harvey Pekar, Jeff VanderMeer, Caitlín R. Kiernan. Third Row: Stephen King, Robert E. Howard, Neil Gaiman, Sylvia Plath, Clark Ashton Smith. Bottom Row: J. R. R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, Mary Shelley.

This project was something I had planned to do for a long time and finally carried out in the spring of 2009. The board hangs on the wall next to my writing desk.

Disclaimer: I claim no ownership of the images contained in this photo, will not use them for profit, and will happily oblige any owners of said images who do not wish them to appear here. Please comment or e-mail if you wish a photo credit listed.