Sunday, August 16, 2009

Excess! Excess! Read All About It...

A couple of reviews up at the mid-August edition of the SF Site caught my eye this morning.

Paul Kincaid reviews an Aqueduct Press book, Centuries Ago and Very Fast by Rebecca Ore. He seems to think it's a novel rather than a collection of linked short stories. He concludes:

There are passages of beautiful writing in here, scenes of genuine wonder, and a sense of humanity that is palpable. Yet when they emerge it seems to be in despite of the author, whose attentions always are focussed elsewhere. This would have been a much more interesting book if she hadn't chosen to make it about sex.

He also has some general comments to make on slash fiction and on fiction that focuses on sex:

Sex, as a goad for human behaviour and a model for social interactions and relationships, is endlessly fascinating because we still have not discovered the limits to its permutations. Fiction about sex and its ramifications, therefore, is always worth paying attention to. The problem with the sex act, however, in all its limited variations, is that it rarely makes for interesting fiction (it may be arousing, but that is a different thing).

The other review is of Julie Phillips' The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Richard A. Lupoff. His review doesn't have anything new to say about the book. He praises it for being one of the most important nonfiction works published in the field over the last few years. But he picks as one of its "very small flaws" Phillips' "going overboard with her research and wandering into "TMI (Too Much Information) territory." The Sheldons' purchase of a chicken hatchery and Allie's flower garden was apparently too much for him.

De gustibus, and all that...


Josh said...

Dick Lupoff is, I've always thought, a little self-conscious about being a nice middlebrow guy: probably he's internalized such criticisms of his character and felt he had to nitpick to give his review a bit of an edge to it. Reminds me of Martin Gottfried's review of Pacific Overtures, in which he complained that the libretto, score, and scenery were too seamlessly unified.

As for Paul Kincaid, I hope that responses such as his are not widespread, lest we see Rebecca's work suffer the fate of Foucault's (According to Edward Said and Richard Shusterman, among others, Foucault was a great philosopher until he started focusing on this homosexuality nonsense!).

Rebecca Ore said...

Ironic thing is that there was a novel around the stories and I decided that those parts were dull. The other thing is that I certainly was inspired by amateur slash when I began writing it, sort of a what if I used the tactics (linked short stories and lots of sex) with original characters.

It sort of croggles me that writing sex scenes is still something people are that squeamish about in public (some of the slash writers I mention in the afterward asked me to be careful about mentioning names without checking with the writers first).

One LJ woman also wanted more emotional fleshing out.

Anonymous said...

Re: the Kincaid review

Well, that review was dismissive of both slash and CenturiesOAVF in ways that seem to me unfair or unfounded, but at the same time, I don't disagree with several of the key observations that the reviewer made about the style of writing and the narrative structure of the book. I'm not sure Foucault or homophobia are (exclusively) the issue.

I'm queer and generally a fan of gay sexual writing from lits to paralits, and have enjoyed slash and fan fiction and their fandoms, but I had similar 'cold' reactions to the sexual writing in Centuries Old as Kincaid did.

In fact, on first reading, I thought that was the point- I thought the book was a commentary on how "post-gay"(since the terms and identities change with social structures and cultural norms) post-sexual revolution humans will not find bare use of words for body parts or matter of fact descriptions of gay sexual activity to be titillating, or noteworthy even. I read the afterword and found out it was intended to be titillating and got very confused.

Like Kincaid, I didn't find it 'hot' or 'porny,' because of the nontraditional (feminist- critical?) narrative structure of the book and of the sex scenes.

I thought the stories were meant to read like a diary, a non - salacious but open and honest diary: 'here's what happened' instead of centered around conflict or a build to revelation like a traditional short story. (Critique of women's forms of writing vs. men's writing, etc.)

Until I read the afterword, I assumed the intention was to deconstruct people's reactions to gay sex scenes. I took it to have a "just the facts, ma'am" approach from the character of Thomas and take out the titillation and exoticization factor by not creating an emotional or erotic buildup to the sex. I assumed it was a critique of the way people have been using gay men and gay sex in fiction as of late, to add 'edginess.'

But then I saw the afterword, which said it was supposed to get readers hot and be 'porny.' My mileage varied, and not from immunity to slash's charms - much slash uses classical narrative techniques to build up the emotional impact and erotic charge of sex scenes. I sat there wondering why this narrative chose not to do that - is it a newer slash convention?

And then I realized the conventions Ore seemed to be referring to as 'slash conventions' are TV writing conventions - or, really, the result of trying to convey the experience of watching TV shows, with their specialized writing conventions, in writing, not in script form. (I realized this in remembering that an editor in a recent Clarkesworld interview mentioned that he has started seeing that a lot in submissions.)

The characteristics of a great TV show being (per Crafty TV Writing by Alex Epstein) a hook, an attractive fantasy, and characters that do not change (much) - instead, their relationships with others change and you learn more about them and their backstory.

But TV scenes and episodes are also highly commercial writing, and centered around conflict, like traditional fiction narratives.

This book didn't make me jump on board the idea that the use of those TV-show conventions is great for fiction, because I was distracted by the playing down of almost every opportunity to develop conflict between characters or external conflict between society and the characters. Which may be a feminist commentary on narrative - this isn't made explicit.

Those two structural things seemed to me to be in conflict - or too much, overcharging the whole "wierdness budget." (But if I found the sex super-sexy, maybe I wouldn't care.)

All that said, I still enjoyed the book and really admired the prose, and the experiment (which I assume was meant to provoke commentary, and I hope this is received as respectful). It obviously made me have to stop and think again about narrative theory and how TV and film, now online media storytelling, are going to affect the future forms of fiction.

-Carrie D.

Rebecca said...

I wanted to have the sex be erotic (and acceptable to gay men) yet still have it be about the people more than is typical of most porn (where the people are often fantasy stereotypes). A cop may be a gay fantasy stereotype; a detective who tried to be straight maybe not so much. Antique dealer is a stereotype of a certain kind of gay male that Vel is playing against.

The thing that struck me about slash was that women were using men as the erotic pawns in their fiction, not so much that they were using characters from other people's works. And the reactions of some of them to being named in the Afterword suggest that it's still subversive, perhaps not just because of the copyright violations.

Rebecca Ore

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks for your comments, Carrie. As usual you have interesting, thoughtful things to say.

I knew, when I published it, that this book would be read very differently by different readers. (Some fiction is like that, and narrative experiments are almost always like that.) I found much in this book to charm me, but probably nothing charmed me more than that Rebecca's time-jumping immortal, who in most sf writers' narratives would not only be heterosexual, but also spend his long life amassing riches & shaping history, lives as close to an ordinary life as a queer, time-jumping immortal could-- with his most important mission that of keeping his family together over the millennia, as a sort of sustaining "faggot uncle" (to borrow Chip Delany's locution).