Scratching & More Scratching

What’s new, pussycat? A couple of largely news-free writing months for me. As I expected a while back, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple months raising my voice, doing my best to help hold power accountable, etc., etc. No glory in it, but when your elected representatives don’t just disagree with you or ignore you, but actually lie to the media regularly about your existence… you have to speak up.

scratchAlas for missing AWP, given it was just a couple hours away, but I have other things on the go, and hours and dollars are finite. This year I plan to attend ICFA and NecronomiCon, both with my scholarly hat on (though I’m participating in a group reading at ICFA, and TBD about NecronomiCon). If things go as planned, I’ll also be participating in some group readings around Richmond this year. Details forthcoming.

Are you a writer? Do you aspire to make any money from your writing, but aren’t quite there yet? Read Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin. It’s new out this year, and it’s got some really good stuff in it about aspects of the writing life that often go publicly unaddressed, and about which many people are not well informed. All sorts of good essays and interviews in it, and worth its weight in gold for the blend of windows it offers into the life of the “full time writer.” In some regards it’s of a piece with Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better, which I’ve previously mentioned, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife.

Blowing the Doors Off Those Crypts

vintage halloween costumes~

The better to see you with…

Lately horror and the Weird have each been going great guns, entering an efflorescence unlike anything we’ve seen for decades. Tobias Carroll put up a fine essay at Electric Literature the other day about the state of literary horror—”‘Then, a Hellbeast Ate Them’: Notes on Horror Fiction and Expectations.” It captures the breadth of the authors who are making free with all things horrific these days, often in places where the word “horror” previously was unwelcome. Whenever I encounter a meaningful and unapologetic treatment of literary horror (or literary fantasy, for that matter) I feel a kind of excitement that goes bone deep.

Genre and literary snobs look down their noses at each other, particularly around formations like “literary [GENRE],” and phrases like “slipstream” or “magical realism” have both lost and gained precision over time, but at least that latter is finally a little less likely to be used as a term of contempt in genre. That said, literary genre work is a strange beast, and, pace Carroll, I think not actually all that common, to judge by the shelves at B&N. Little of it appears in the F/SF section, or to stay for long if it does, and so it’s off to sift through literary fiction to find eloquent novels about disaffected werewolves.

The Weird has had similar success of late, with a high-water mark being Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding Southern Reach novels. He has a piece over at The Atlantic, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” that is about as clear as sign as you’re ever going to see that this strange little niche is seeing more daylight than I ever could have hoped. Jeff’s piece is very well written and introduced me to, as every time I see something from him, writers of whom I’ve never heard.

The VanderMeers should bear, of course, a huge part of our gratitude for the recent surge. Jeff’s fiction was a part of the New Weird when that came along, of course, but it’s grown since then, strengthened by his omnivorous consumption of fiction in all forms and his well-documented efforts to focus intently on his writing. Ann VanderMeer’s stint as Fiction Editor at Weird Tales put the cat so much among the canaries that a veritable legion of living fossils rose up and cried “to R’lyeh shalt thou go, and no further.” Though flags have repeatedly been planted in the sand about the end of the avant-garde, such flags are ever meant to be torn down. Jeff and Ann blew the doors off with The Weird and everything that followed, debunking some of the Old Weird/New Weird/That’s Not Weird stupidity in the process. I do so love the Weird of the early 20th century, but people too often think of those guys as a terminus, when they were actually a phase.

Yesterday Laird Barron posted “New Blood,” calling out some of the current leading lights of horror, springboarding off of an introduction Stephen Jones wrote at the start of his 2011 A Book of Horrors that led with “What the hell happened to the horror genre?” I won’t repeat Laird’s excellent roll call, but I will point out that the average age of the contributors to A Book of Horrors (2011) was 55. A similar book with the same lineup could, with the right twists of fate, have shown up in Horror at B. Dalton Bookseller around 1989. Laird’s list is a little harder to suss, age-wise, in so far as the people he names haven’t all cast such long shadows yet that their biographical data is easy to find, but the “new blood” moniker is pretty apt.

This is no complaint about Olds: many writers come into their prime a lot later than people do in other fields of artistic endeavor. Some of the names on the roster of Jones’ anthology are ones that I respect and have loved to see work from for decades. And while some of what Jones has to say is distinctly get-off-my-lawn-y, there’s a certain truth in what he says that’s clear from the work of many of the authors on the list: many of them share a certain idea of horror, one that’s faded away. I expect that’s hard to deal with. When literary horror goes fallow a couple decades down the road, I’m going to be irritable.

Some months back I had a lengthy conversation with a friend about horror now vs. horror in the 1980s. As my friend said, while I was busy lamenting that Young Me never got to read Barron or Llewellyn, “you know, it was just a very different scene.” And that, folks, is truth you can take to the bank. Jack Williamson, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Bloch, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, Charles Grant, Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Justin Cronin, and Lauren Beukes all have something to do with horror, but they are not all doing the same thing. Not by a long shot. (To which I personally say “thank God,” but I digress.) While one writer may be more skilled than another, what we are writing now is… what we’re writing now. It’s generally more self-consciously literate, and much of it profits, one way and another, from the overall greater attention to good prose that prevails in U.S. fiction these days, thanks primarily to the development of BFA & MFA pedagogy, and the ripple effect it caused throughout literature.

Today, on this best, scariest, and most ooga-booga of days, I’ll say that I’m grateful for masks of all kind. A mask-maker who uses burlap and twine is trying to do something different from the injection molded and painted horrors of Party City. One’s no better than the other, and we’re the happier for having both. It’s a shit game, trash-talking your elders, and it’s likewise a shit game to trash-talk the young turks. You’d be smart to avoid doing either, not least because you either were once the New Blood, or will, with luck, wind up part of the Old Guard.

Happy Halloween.

Today Is Book Day, The Day on Which We Book

Cover for Handsome Devil

Handsome Devil, by Steve Berman, ed.

Today’s release day for various books. Two may be of interest to you. The first I’ve discussed here at length and with much gusto, Steve Berman’s anthology, Handsome Devil: Stories of Sin and Seduction, which contains my short story, “Her Sweet Solace.” It can be purchased at finer bookstores everywhere, but for your convenience: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound. My short story first appeared in an anthology several years ago, and it was my first anthology publication. This marks my first reprint. I love the cover here, and I think the story’s in some very good company. Thank you, Steve.

cover for annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

The second book you want to know about is Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first in his Southern Reach trilogy. All volumes in the trilogy will be released this year in a host of formats, and the rights have already sold to Hollywood. Jeff was already an accomplished and excellent writer, but this trilogy is a level-up for him, on various counts. With years of writing, editing, and publishing behind him, he’s entered prime time for writers, and it shows on every page of Annihilation. It’s a gripping, beautiful, thought-provoking read. You can buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores everywhere, independent, chain, or otherwise.

Writing Books That Work

If you’re reading this, the odds are that you are a writer, have considered writing, or like reading about writers. Most writers (perhaps fewer than should) read an awful lot, and into every writer’s life must come at some point a book about writing. Whether it’s Strunk & White or The First Five Pages, that book is the first in a long series of epiphanies and disappointments.

A book about writing that resonates with you can change your writing life, especially early on, but most books about writing suck. Not the “your favorite band sucks” kind of suck, but the suck that comes from being average and not striking lightning. Some writing books are better or worse in terms of their prose or organization. Some are targeted so excruciatingly close to the current market that they’re useless ten years later, let alone twenty. Many of them won’t resonate with you because the author is a hack, prude, panderer, aesthete, jackass, moralizer, nobody, or other type that just doesn’t jibe with you.

What books work for me? I listed a pile of these in a comment to a post on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog several years ago, and if you’re looking for a survey of writing books, check out that post. Of the long list there, I regularly go to John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist and Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing. Both are complex and opinionated enough that they reward rereading, and they get me to rethink my own opinions, as well as helping me past rough patches.

wonderbook by jeff vandermeer

Wonderbook, by Jeff VanderMeer

To my long list of writing books that work, I would now add Jeff’s new book about imaginative fiction, Wonderbook. (Amazon; companion website). Whether I’ll be going to it ten years from now, only time will tell, but there are many features to recommend it…

  • Difference. This is not like other writing books you’ve read. It looks more like an art book, or (to some extent) a graphic design book than a writing book.
  • Multiple voices. Sidebars, comments, etc. feature conflicting viewpoints. I value having my writing assumptions challenged, and this book does that. The list of contributors is long, but includes a host of people, such as: Joe Abercrombie, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, George R. R. Martin, Nnedi Okorafor, and more.
  • Well made. How many badly typeset, illustration-free writing books printed on pulpy paper have I read? Reader, you don’t want to know. Every one of these pages, however, is a delight to the senses.
  • Visual richness. The web can be blamed for many, many things, but we can thank it for the widespread dissemination of new ways of displaying information. Wonderbook has this down pat, from diagrams to sidebars to layout to lists to “recurring characters.”
  • Recommendations. Many suggestions for authors to read more of, from non-fiction to fiction.
  • Multiple levels. This is a book I could have gotten help from at age ten… and from which I am getting a lot of useful stuff right now, in my current superannuated state.

I’m not an unbiased reader of this book, but my comments above are made with a clean conscience. This is a good book about writing, and frankly it’s good for you regardless of what kind of fiction you’re writing. What didn’t I like about it? At this point, nothing. The one thing I’ll say that could throw some people off is that is is a dense book, physically and otherwise. There’s a lot here. If you’re looking for a quick, mono-focus book about how to do X writing task more effectively, this ain’t it. Instead, it’s a book that attempts to say a little about everything in creating imaginative fiction, from many different perspectives. I think it’s beautiful, I’ve learned things from it, and I intend to keep it nearby for rereading. Here’s a trailer, if you’d like to know more.