Thursday, November 20, 2014

Here's Ursula K. Le Guin's Fiery Speech from Last Night's National Book Awards

Give that woman an mic so she can drop it! Last Night the National Book Awards honored Ursula K. Le Guin with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. You can read more about it at NPR and Motherboard. It would be enough that one of my favorite feminist, science fiction authors won a prestigeous literary award, but then she gave a speech that encapsulates and articulates the zeitgeist of the world of letters right now.

She starts out by recognizing the importance of fantasy and science fiction in literature, and then wades into speak truth to the world of publishing. This vast and chaotic, somewhat broken machine that commodifies our art and letters for mass consumption. She uttered a battle cry that both gave no quarter and inspired hope - at least in this writer.   

According to NPR, at the after party, Le Guin said of her speech: "I hope it goes outside this room."
Parker Higgins transcribed her entire speech. I'm reblogging most of it below. Check out his post for her speech in its entirety, and stick around to check out his super cool parker higgins dot net blog.

"I rejoice at accepting [this award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom."

Neil Gaiman presents Ms Le Guin with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Naturalism and the Fantastic in Snowpiercer

I’m continuing my tradition of writing about movies long after they’ve been released.
I was lucky enough to see Snowpiercer in the theaters this summer. It was, refreshingly, not a typical summer blockbuster. I expect no less from the always-interesting Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Actually, I first heard about this movie because of Bong’s feud with Harvey Weinstein, the producer who bought the U.S. rights to the movie. Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer to make it more appealing to American audiences. Bong felt the movie should stand as it is, and so did many of the fans who’d already seen it in its international release. In the end, the twenty minutes stayed, though the movie got a more limited release.

Now, I don’t know exactly which twenty minutes were on the chopping block, but I can understand why a big name producer might want to fiddle with this story. Snowpiercer worked for me, but it’s an odd movie and definitely not for everyone. Even my genre friends were pretty divided about it. To me, the main difficulty that this movie faces is one that affects genre storytellers more than others.

I believe it has to do with science fiction and fantasy’s tricky relationship with naturalism in storytelling. According to the dictionary:

“The term “Naturalism” was given to a 19th-century artistic and literary movement, influenced by contemporary ideas of science and society, that rejected the idealization of experience and adopted an objective and often uncompromisingly realistic approach to art.”

Great genre stories often employ naturalism. In science fiction, outrageous premises and alien worlds, when rendered in a naturalistic style, gives the fantastic elements a sheen of believability. It’s a literary of sleight of hand. When it works no one complains, when it doesn’t the audience will find the story “unrealistic” and pick apart every detail exclaiming, “But that’s impossible!”

Great fantasies are often grounded in naturalism, too. The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones are drenched in naturalistic details of our physical world and grounded in modern theories of social behavior. This backdrop makes the magic and strange creatures that populate these worlds seem immediate and possible. The fantastic elements are given the weight of reality by details that we recognize, objectively, as part of our world.

The use of naturalism in science fiction and fantasy stories often works without us really noticing. But stories like Snowpiercer are different. On one level, Snowpiercer is a grim dystopia and an action flick with a social agenda. It also stuffed with many strange, scenes and elements that don’t immediately make sense. The movie employs gritty, naturalistic effects, but the story is not realistic, it’s symbolic.

I was just getting around to this realization when I came across a post examining Snowpiercer as an allegory. Go check out Michael Hughes' excellent: How an Obscure Second Century Christian Heresy Influenced Snowpiercer.  Later, in an online discussion about the movie, Ted Kosmatka, wrote: 
 "Here’s the deal I made with the movie: Spin me a good parable, and I won’t hold you to reality."
Allegories and parables are both species of metaphor. In the case of long works, like Pilgrim’s Progress, they are extended metaphors that reveal hidden meanings and illustrate concepts.

Symbolic stories like Snowpiercer that employ naturalism risk creating a kind of cognitive dissonance in a viewer who takes naturalism as a cue that the movie is realistic. As I watched Snowpiercer, I quickly realized that I needed to decouple the idea that the movie’s naturalistic detail had anything to do with reality. Once I did that, I was free to enjoy the story on its own terms.

This is a challenge particular to speculative writing. Not only must the storyteller tell a compelling story, they must make clear to the audience just what type of story they’re telling. Of course, success also depends on active participation from audience. I have no real solution to this aspect of the genre, as I think the best stories; the best art pushes exactly these boundaries, forcing our brains and hearts to reach for new levels of understanding and connection.

Many of my favorite stories fall along these lines: KarenRussell’s novella, Sleep Donation, which I read (among other things) as an allegory for the cost of giving set in a fantastic tale of modern day epidemiology; The movie, Gamer, which I saw as a dark, inverted fairy tale. These layers of meaning double the fun for me, because every scene, every action, every line of dialogue has one meaning while other meanings move along underneath, underpinning and obverting every moment.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Check out the Literary Landscape with The Review Review

As a reader, one of the things I love about literary magazines is that they are all so different, each with their own particular aesthetic and editorial style. Perusing the shelves at a bookstore or looking online, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the breadth and depth of different voices out there, and by all the different packages they come in.

As a writer, one of the things that is so daunting about literary magazines is that they present an ever shifting and varied landscape, where a writer with work to submit can easily get lost. Each magazine, with it’s own quirky voice is looking for a particular type of writing. But that’s no reason to be discouraged! You, dear writer, have your own unique voice.

Anyone would be hard pressed to keep up with the thousands of literary magazines out there. What writers (and readers) need is a kind of speed dating service where you can meet a whole bunch of them in order to find the ones you click with. One of the best resources for both readers who want to find their particular flavor of magazine, and writers who are looking to place their work is The Review Review, run by Becky Tuch.* I’ve been getting their newsletter and using their website for market research for a while, and now I’m reviewing for them.

In the about page Tuch says:

 “Here, writers can get a deeper sense of the journals by reading reviews of the latest issues. This is not intended as a substitute for the actual journals, but merely a way to guide writers toward the journals that most interest them.”

The site includes a listing of literary and creative nonfiction magazines (with brief descriptions for titles that don’t yet have reviews), a searchable database of reviews, informative interviews with editors from literary magazines, and publishing tips.

But it’s the newsletter that I find most useful. I peruse it and note one or two literary magazines that I want to investigate further, either to read or to put on one of my “submit to lists.”

So, if you write stories that defy genre, or just want to check out the rich landscape of literary magazines, check out this great resource.

* For more about Tuch and her work, check out her interview over on Bustle.