Tainted by Influence?

Iowablog: “I think everything I learned at Iowa is wrong.”

These are good, honest words to hear from a young whipper-snapper who wants to write. If there’s a positive spin to this, it’s the fact that Concho is willing to question the lessons she’s learned. I’ve never been in a nuts-and-bolts creative writing class (screenwriting, nonfiction and journalism classes don’t count) and I have only a second-hand idea of what goes down in Iowa, but I do know the merciless world of rejection notices weighed against the ocassional acceptance and/or check. If anything, the pivotal lesson that any writing class or seminar should include concerns the world not giving two fucks about the writer’s circumstances, and a publishing industry that is worse than Cthulhu in its callousness. Any writer hoping to break in must have the thickest hide. Anything less than an iron carapace, a firm resolve and a dedication to the work will send out “AMATEUR” in bright neon lights.

Some folks may recall last July’s Clarion-Wolfe debacle, where an extremely sensitive gentleman mistakenly informed Gene Wolfe that the class disagreed with his hard criticisms. Wolfe bolted. An imbroglio ensued. And there was some controversy over whether Wolfe’s perceived ruthlessness was good or bad for the students. The authoritarian impulse that had gone unquestioned before was replaced by a general sense that workshopping should involve a back-patting atmosphere to foster encouragement.

Well, I cry foul. Constructive criticism is one thing. But personally, I could never trust anyone who would do nothing but praise every element of a lengthy piece I’ve written. Something I’ve observed of so-called “writer’s groups” is that their formation involves stroking egos rather than improving writers and preparing them for the harsh battlefields of Manhattan and beyond. Some of the finest criticisms I’ve received were from people who were honest enough to eviscerate every nicety that was slightly off. To do anything less is a betrayal, a celebration of monkey-clapping amateurism that’s as hypocritical as The New York Times running some bullshit story on sexual fetishes and failing to include the word “fuck.”

The rise of books about writing (and, to a similar degree, screenwriting) has unleashed a Pandora’s box where hope is more prominent than it should be. An “I can do it too!” spirit has emerged, but the hard truth is that writing is difficult work, that even if you manage to finish something, it can be torn to pieces in a New York minute. Even if you get your book published, you will face savage reviews and emerge from the fracas to convince frugal folks to lay down the twenty-five clams to buy the sucker on a book tour.

So why the contentment? Why the entitlement? Why the anti-snark movements?

The answer lies somewhere within the atavistic feel-good jungles that have permeated almost every facet of the liberal arts. The air stinks of softness. Nurture is certainly necessary, but there comes a point when the writer must understand that it’s a tough racket. If a writing instructor doesn’t have the effrontery to call a piece of shit by its true name, then he has no business instructing.

(Iowa lead via Maud)

Gene Wolfe, Fantasy Maestro

Ultan’s Library: A journal for the study of Gene Wolfe.

James B. Jordan interview: “I used to belong to a chain letter that included Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann, Chelsea Quinn Yarborough, Mike Bishop. And we would write long newsletters about our doings and then put them in a packet and they would be sent around. This was before they had computer bulletin boards and all that sort of stuff. And I could almost invariably identify the writer from the first paragraph or two. The writer was only overtly identified with the signature, because it was done in letter form. But the styles of the people who were writing were sufficiently different that I could very easily pick out most of them without difficulty. And I am a good imitator. I could write imitation Shakespeare that you would think was probably legitimate Shakespeare because there is a lot of Shakespeare for me to look at. I have sort of knack for doing that sort of thing.”

Excerpt from Knight, Wolfe’s new book (part of the Wizard Knight series).

“Under Hill” — short story

“Castaway” — short story

“Copperhead” — short story

Wolfe on Lord of the Rings: “Philology led [Tolkien] to the study of the largely illiterate societies of Northern Europe between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the true Middle Ages (roughly AD 400 to 1000). There he found a quality — let us call it Folk Law — that has almost disappeared from his world and ours.”

The influence of Borges on Wolfe’s work.

Disappearing Books & Some People Just Don’t Understand

In Singapore, Starbucks cafes have initiated a used-book program to get people reading. Read a book, drop it off at a Starbucks, and get $1 off a drink. Of course, there’s one chief problem with the plan beyond this failure to encourage people to read it. (Hypothetically, you can just move a book from the National Library to one of the 17 Starbucks outlets participating.) If the book is bad and likely to put you to sleep, shouldn’t the coffee discount apply before you read the book, rather than after?

At the Three Creeks Community Library, books on the occult are the most likely titles to be stolen. More so than tomes on test preparation or sex. I leave the conspiracy theorists to figure out if the occult books are hexed or not.

Publishers looking for a quick way to pulp their overstock may wish to contact Ed Charon, who holds the Guinness world record for tearing phone books into shreds. Or not. Ed Charon, you see, was just unseated by a thirtysomething. This young upstart can tear 12 1,000-page phone books apart in 12 minutes. “There’s no age or race barriers,” Charon said. “Everybody enjoys this.”

A.S. Byatt writes on the enduring power of the fairy tale and concludes that its legacy can be found on the Web.

The Sunday New York Times reviews Wolves of the Calla and refers to Oy as “the talking dog-badger companion,” while also comparing a conversational exchange involving stew to Widow Douglas’s cooking in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Highbrow attempts to understand popular fiction don’t get any funnier than this. Or maybe they do. Also in the Times: Heinlein’s “first novel,” For Us, the Living is unearthed. No real conclusions about the quality. More of an undergraduate-style summary than anything else. But it does include the blurb-whoring revelation that “the belated publication of this early work is a major contribution to the history of the genre.” Thankfully, John Chute has also taken on the book. He notes that For Us, the Living “promulgates the kind of arguments about sex, religion, politics and economics that normally gain publication through fringe presses, not the trade publishers Heinlein submitted his manuscript to.”

The Green Man Review asks a few spec-fic names (including Charles de Lint, Gwyneth Jones and Ellen Kushner) to spill their favorite books.

And, just as Gene Wolfe’s new book, The Knight, has escaped the floodgates, the folks over at Infinity Plus have an interview up with the maestro.