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Archive for November, 2011

There is Only the Text

Hoo boy…

…I have always been skeptical of the whole contemporary critical scene, in which the text is regarded as some immutable miracle, to be worshipped and dissected as if it were the story itself.  What anyone trained as an editor or rewriter knows is that the text is not the story—the text is merely one attempt to place the story inside the memory of the audience.  The text can be replaced by an infinite amount of other attempts. Some will be better than others, but no text will be “right” for all audiences, nor will any one text be “perfect.”  The story only exists in the memory of the reader, as an altered version of the story intended (consciously or unconsciously) by the author.  It is possible for the audience to create for themselves a better story than the author could ever have created in the text.  Thus audiences have taken to their hearts miserably-written stories like Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, because they receive transcended text; while any number of beautifully written texts have been swallowed up without a trace, because the text, however, lovely, did a miserable job of kindling a living story within readers’ memories.

(Orson Scott Card, Maps in a Mirror, 121-122)

Funny, because I find Tarzan of the Apes more engagingly written than anything I’ve read by Orson Scott Card.  Seriously, though, this is the classic bad prose defence that Isaac Asimov deployed, and I just don’t buy it.  Yes, there’s a complicated thing going on between reader and author, but part of that relationship lies in the way the words are shaped and fitted together.  Prose is an essential part of telling the story, and there are some of us who just aren’t going to tolerate clunky prose because it mars the experience so much we don’t give a flying fig for plot, characters, and the like.  The way you tell a story is intrinsic to the story itself.

As the “contemporary critics” would have it: There is only the text.  Or, at least, the text is all the author can give to the reader, before setting off a whole new process called reading.

Deal with it.

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I’ve become weary of stepping into the sf community at large, since the whole place is so volatile even the slightest stumble can set off a spark leading to mass conflagration. The fantasy vs. science fiction debate is bad enough (just…why?), and while watching various authors bump heads is fun for a while I ultimately just end up feeling sad and more than a little conflicted about what the heck I’m doing with an sf blog when the community as a whole is, sometimes, downright insane.

However, I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is, unsurprisingly, a great novel (I never thought I would say that about any book featured in Oprah’s book club): McCarthy’s prose style is simply wonderful even if the content is extraordinarily bleak. However, thoughts drift from an America crawling with cannibal conquerors to the sf community-at-large and its hugely negative reaction to outsiders stepping into its territory. Outsiders like Cormac McCarthy, daring to write some post-apocalyptic goodness and winning a Pulitzer for his efforts, even though he never wrote no science fiction before. Whenever a “literary” writer starts up on a science fiction or fantasy project, expect a vehement outcry from authors and readers alike in some corner of the internet.

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I’ve already sung my praises for Guy Gavriel Kay, but I’ve been a bit remiss with addressing Charles de Lint, the other half of my “big two” Canadian writers. Whereas Kay opts for fantasy with a heavy historical influence, de Lint specializes in fantasy set in the contemporary world. We usually call it “urban fantasy” (a label I’m starting to have problems with—surely any city-centred fantasy would be urban?), and de Lint likes the term “mythic fiction”, but I’m settling on “magic realism” for now. Despite the contradictory nature of the term and Gene Wolfe’s annoyance with it, magic realism does suggest an injection of magic into the mundane, everyday, “real” world. Jack the Giant Killer (1987) is probably de Lint’s best work and if you haven’t read it, go read it now, or else I’ll never forgive you. Simply put, de Lint’s grasp of language and rhythm is quite impressive, his characters are well drawn, and his work carries an air of awe beneath the surface. A real touch of magic lies beneath the words, and Jack manages to carry a serious undercurrent of wonder while also being incredibly fun.

That out of the way, something really struck a chord with me when de Lint wrote the following about magic realism in North America, in response to Norman Spinrad’s assertion that magic realism springs from “the central North American Myth”:

What becomes rapidly clear, when considering the cultural background of North Americans, is just how varied those backgrounds can be. When Spinrad talks of the central North American cultural myth … he is ignoring the work of French Quebec writers, of Native American writers, of writers whose cultural backgrounds are Chinese, African, East Indian, Jamaican and European. Many such writers live and work in North America. Their voices are tied as much to their own cultural pasts as the voices of the Latin American magic realists or to their cultures, for all that they remain residents of the northern continent. In fact, it’s for that reason that their work can so invigorate the field of North American fiction. (Charles de Lint, “Considering Magical Realism in Canada”, 116)

De Lint is certainly on to something here, if only because his words apply so much to my own development as a reader and writer of fantasy.

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Having recently finished A Dance with Dragons, I feel the need to confront the following question: “Did this book really need to take six years for George R.R. Martin to write?”

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