When the Student is Ready

Bill Carroll appears.

So in my last post, I gave a quick synopsis of what I thought the book group’s overall reaction to Vampires in the Lemon Grove was, as well as my own reaction– people, I was way off. I like Bill Carroll’s response best:

Writing was really uneven, sometimes even within stories. Too often I felt like the stories started with a really cool intellectual idea, and then the writer built the story around it. That may work for some readers, but I really want the writing and the experience of the narrative itself to be worth the price of admission (e. g. The Night Circus). There were moments when the story of the silk-workers did this, and it happened to be the story I most enjoyed, but in the end, it left me wishing I had read Elegance of the Hedgehog instead. In this genre, I would recommend anything by Neil Gaiman over this, and if you can handle grittier subject matter, Stuart Neville’s Ghosts of Belfast or (drop in quality a bit) Paul Cornell’s London Falling.

People, I totally missed that this book fit with Neil Gaiman et. al. A book containing a story in which women are slowly transformed into silkworms, who then murder their captor– I missed that this might fit with horror/suspense/general eeriness. If I had realized this, 1. I would never have given it to Whitney for her birthday (SORRY WHITNEY!), 2. I would have waited until October to recommend reading it with the book group (SORRY, BOOK GROUP!), and 3. I would NOT have described it as “quirky but serious.” (SORRY, ENGLISH LANGUAGE!) In fact, I am banning myself from using the word quirky for, oh, a year at least. (Or until I forget I’ve banned myself. You, dear reader, are welcome to remind me.)

This is why I need to talk about what I read with people, because I miss even really obvious stuff. Yay for communal learning.

I also didn’t notice the writing being particularly uneven, but I think it’s clear my powers of observation were on vacation while I was reading this book. I did notice there were some stories I preferred to others, but I thought it was just a matter of taste. I agree also with Bill’s assessment that the stories start with an idea, and then the story is built around that, but that kind of writing works for me, so I didn’t see it as a fault. As for suggesting Neil Gaiman’s work in preference to this– well, obviously anything by Neil Gaiman is better. If Neil Gaiman’s work is an option, always choose Neil Gaiman.

So here’s another question related to this, and not meaning to cause trouble or anything, but I can’t help but notice that all of Bill’s recommended reading is all male, and the author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove is female. Bill Carroll isn’t sexist, I happen to know, but I wonder if this genre might be? A little? I’m hard put to think of any female writers of speculative horror fiction (Anne Rice, right? But I think she’s more pulp than any of the writers listed above. Is that sexist of me?). So I’m wondering if part of the reason Vampires in the Lemon Grove  is less enjoyable is because it requires a different way of reading this genre than we are used to?  I out of my depth here (OBVIOUSLY, SINCE APPARENTLY I CAN’T EVEN RECOGNIZE THIS GENRE WHEN I READ IT), but I know many of you are more familiar with these books than I am. So what are your thoughts?

Also, here’s an interview with Karen Russell that I quite enjoyed reading.

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5 thoughts on “When the Student is Ready

  1. Umm, hi all. I am really glad Susan pointed out that I am not a sexist (and hoping it is worth more than Glenn Beck saying someone is not a nazi –rough humor ahead–http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/04rkt0/back-in-black—glenn-beck-s-nazi-tourette-s), but posting in the first five minutes of reading this post I am sitting here wondering if gender is playing some kind of role, even a role that reveals some fissures in my generally pro-feminist attitude. I am feeling really thankful that The Night Circus was the debut novel of female writer Erin Morgenstern, and is recommended in my quote above. But I like her style so much because it reminds me of Oscar Wilde, which complicates things.

    So, while I really don’t want to be sexist, I think Susan raises a really important question, and one that should be pursued without worrying about the implications of what it says about me. I like the question, and would be delighted to see how this plays out. I think there are certainly categories and genres that have been and/or are sexist (Ian Fleming-type spy novels anyone?). I like gothic/fairy and the modern iterations of these a lot more than true horror, so defining the genre might be tough, but my reading preferences in the category seem to be heavily populated by male writers (unless romance becomes a central theme–as in Morgenstern’s Night Circus–but just as in Wilde, the central love story reveals some substantial narcissism).

    Way too many digressions on my part. Susan–I think your observations are astute, and I hope you get a community response. I think you are right, and I am a little worried about what it says about me. But, let’s get at this idea. I think gender is playing a role, and I am very aware as an academic how the academy has privileged male voices/authors, and not only privileged them, but labeled the style of these male writers as “standard” and then taught students to like this style and dismiss deviations from it. Particularly in fiction, I recognize that the academy has influenced my taste. So does this gender influence represent bias, and perhaps even sexism?

  2. Well, I’m belly-deep in the pit of exam reading (and still trying to finalize small details like what is on some of those lists, and who all is on my committee), so I didn’t read Vampires in the Lemon Grove and I can’t comment on it. I also haven’t read very much speculative horror fiction, so I’m not sure I can really comment on that either. But if grad school and academia have taught me anything, it’s how to relate everything back to my own interests. (Just kidding. Sort of). Your question about whether the genre is sexist immediately made me think of two things.

    The first, by total coincidence, is that I went to a panel at DragonCon this weekend on Robert Heinlein, who if I’m not mistaken coined the term “speculative fiction.” And it wasn’t a very good panel, but the paper did convince me solidly that Heinlein was both misogynist and racist. But that has nothing to do with anything here. 🙂

    Second, I thought of women in the Irish poetic tradition. There are very few Irish women poets before the middle of the 20th century. Like, so few that I couldn’t name one even if I sat here and thought for a while. Women were writing other things, but not, apparently, poetry. Or, at least, they weren’t getting published if they were. While there are probably a lot of reasons for that, the main one seems to be related to the function of the woman as a figure in the Irish poetic tradition. Women in the poetry were mostly there as some kind of muse–either a specific woman as the poet’s personal muse (ahem, Maud Gonne), or the speibhean (sky woman) who appeared in dream-visions to incite Irish men to fight on her behalf, or the old hag (Mother Ireland) chiding her children for turning their backs on her. That left little room for the voices of actual women in a semi-sexualized, heteronormative space where the category of woman was endlessly conscripted as symbol and object of address. Irish poetry has traditionally been a masculine space, and Eavan Boland and other Irish women poets have written about the difficulty of trying to find a voice and make space for it within that tradition.

    So, now that I’ve connected your question to my interests, what I’m actually interested in here is not just about women writing speculative horror, but how the genre treats women. Are women symbolos? Objects? There to define masculinity? Is there space in the tradition for the female voice? What I’m driving at is that it might not really be an issue of taste so much as a problem built into the tradition. But, as I’ve already said, I’m in no position to comment on speculative fiction specifically.

  3. As the gothic became popular in the late 1700s/early 1800s in England, women’s roles were limited, to say the least. And thus, even when women such as Ann Radcliffe (whose stuff is great–read The Italian if you ever get a chance) wrote in the tradition, women were characters to be rescued rather than autonomous, active characters (though they at least have some emotion, thought, will in Radcliffe, even if their realm of influence is quite limited). In fact, the gothic on the whole, is read as a conservative genre reacting against the social upheaval caused by industrialization and the rise of a non-aristocratic middle class. Thus, it seems like a central character in all of the old gothic novels doesn’t know who his parents are or has been lied to about his lineage, falls in love with someone above his station who is kidnapped or taken by a supernatural creature, and in the process of saving his beloved, discovers that he really is born of a class that allows him to woo his beloved. Thus, reinforcing old social norms about not marrying out of your class.

    Fairy/faery is much more interesting. It is older, and thus I would assume women would have even more limited roles. And, in many ways they do. But fairy is all about disrupting norms as well. And women get to be–wait for it–witches! Okay, so there is a lot of baggage with witches, and in many ways the treatment of witches symbolizes masculine fears of women with autonomy. But many old and many more new stories reclaim witches (Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, anyone?) as perhaps deservedly scary, but possibly only scary because of how our patriarchal readings of stories has taught us to read them. Morgan Le Fay is powerful. She occupies an interesting complicated space, and has done so since at least the 1100s.

    In my reading, the modern fairy story continues doing complicated things with men, women, hetero- and homo-sexuality, as well as race and socio-economic status. The modern gothic does not seem as conservative os the earlier gothic, but it is, in many cases, still conservative.

    And Susan, I feel like I am talking like an academic. My apologies if my comments go in a direction that doesn’t seem like it welcomes conversation.

  4. Yeah, you are talking like an academic, but since you ARE an academic, how else would you talk? I’m enjoying reading your thoughts (and Shanna’s), and thinking about what you’ve said. I can only assume other readers feel the same. Everyone has their own perspectives, and every perspective has something unique to add to the conversation. If all were the eye, where were the hearing, and all that. I think when the conversation begins with “Let’s talk about gendered reading,” an academic response is pretty much inevitable.

    And I totally agree with what you’re both saying or implying about the space for female voices in a genre that typically silences and victimizes them. If the only acceptable speech act is a scream(so to speak), what does a calm, reasonable voice look like? And is there a way to speak without adopting “the language of oppression?” (Which sounds so dramatic, hence the quotation marks, but is still a legitimate question.) I think those are mostly rhetorical questions– I don’t have answers and don’t know what an answer would look like– but I think they highlight the writer’s dilemma.

    One other thought I’ve had as we’ve been talking is about aesthetic standards. I mean, if we just say, “Well, this is just how this writer writes (because gender, race, phase of the moon, whatever), and it’s a different sort of writing than you’re used to, so that’s why you don’t like it,” well, then how can we determine if we like something? I’m typically indifferent to matters of quality assessment: I don’t care if something is objectively good or bad, because I don’t think there’s any such thing as objectivity. My own standard is, do I like this? Why (not)? And that’s about all I can say. I can only determine what my own standards are. But I think if I say, “I don’t like it, but only because I have been educated in a system of discrimination–” Well, then even my own authority for self-determination is undermined.

    I think we should be able to say, “This is terrible writing” without having to resort to, “At least, from a standpoint of privilege. Other perspectives might embrace hyperadverbial and imprecise language.” (Or whatever it is that makes writing bad.) Like, I just think we should be able to say “I don’t like this” without adding tons of qualifiers.

  5. This seems relevant to the conversation: http://www.amazon.com/Stealing-Language-Emergence-Womens-America/dp/0807063037

    It has some really good theoretical points, but I remember thinking “I wish this was 100 pages long rather than 300 pages”.

    Another thing on aesthetics and good writing. Harold Bloom (horrible man, good critic) says J. K. Rowling is a terrible writer. She relies on cliched dialogue (how many times does Ron use the same exclamations?), repetitive adjectival description, and her characters flatten out rather than grow, he claims. And, thus the HP series is terrible. I agree with his main critiques of her weaknesses, and reading her against Coraline or Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series reveals that. But, I would also argue she is one of, if not THE, master storyteller of her generation of children’s writers. Her story arc builds/reveals the archetype of pushing back against a world of individual and systemic bullies and the pressures against self-identification that helps us conceive of one of the central struggles of early and late adolescence that in our generation. And I think she will still be read in one hundred years because that experience is not going away in the near future.

    So, while I typically choose my readings based on a style she doesn’t write in, I still love the HP series because her story-telling style still has power. I think it lies in her construction of a narrative arc and the way she approaches the internal conflict (and complexity of the internal conflict) of good and evil. Good story-telling is not just about diction and sentence-patterns. And I worry a little that people will see me calling her a story-teller and think I am dismissing her as a writer (as Bloom does). In my mind, if you are turning to fiction and don’t care about the story, you are missing the point.

    Finally, a tangent. I know your list is pretty contemporary, but at some point, Isak Dinesen really ought to be an option.

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