Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Who Was Supposed to Bring the Stakes?

What is fantasy? How comprehensible is the "fate of the world?" Yesterday, all I could do was keep reading Fair Peril, Nancy Springer's fascinating trip through the idea of frog kings and the perils of love's fantasy. As I was thinking about the book after I was through, I realized that my definition of fantasy was congealing.

This could be dangerous, since a definition already formed may not admit of other examples that don't adhere to a previous rigid standard. Yet, I need some way to explain, at least for myself, why something speaks to me and another work doesn't. Yesterday, fear made sense as something that is often missing. And it is, along with the idea that we are hazarding something more than ourselves in a fantasy novel.

Fantasy is the acceptance that our experience is far from a solid state rational evaluation of rules and needs. Fantasy that contains that risk of transformation (whether into a new creature or into a new state of understanding) will contain an element of fear, a familiar dread of things that are currently navigable (whether they are good or bad or a mix) being drowned in a new set of experiences that are less so. This is much different from a simple story of discovering a talent that one then exploits or putting a character in physical danger over and over again until he or she is a patched rag doll of a hero. Stakes are more than what happens to our bodies and what punishment we take changes our perceptions.

Transformative stories give the character the chance to be something different--no longer a child, no longer a neutral force in the world, no longer a recognizable part of this village. Part of my dissatisfaction with certain series is that the characters only risk harm, they don't risk change. They can't move, they can't get a new circle of friends, they can't truly risk transformation. It's not the "in" monster, the "in" metaphor. It's the character who is willing to take the chance that he or she will be something different at the end of the book.

As I was composing this, a friend posted an interview with an author regarding her new werewolf novel. The interview is interesting and the book sounds like a story that moves into the areas that I've discussed above--a true fantasy about negotiating and surviving a transformation, the willingness to make a difficult choices and risk not just oneself but also one's society. Check it out and let me know how you define fantasy and what you look for in a good story.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Fear and the Fantastic

Recently I've been reading The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs and Fair Peril by Nancy Springer and they've both helped me to reconnect with something that I had been missing in other works of fantasy--the dread of the unknown and a sense of sadness for things that pass through our lives. When I was reading Tolkien as a child, giant pony-eating goblins were frightening, as were spiders large enough to carry off small children. The bright passages were stunning and the dark ones were chill, but this is something that I see less of now than I did then.

It could be that fantasists don't write about bright and dark the same way, but it could also be harder for me to find the wonder that I did then or corral my anxieties into fear for a work of fiction; yet, these authors brought me into their worlds and populated them with that pleasant unease that makes you creep toward the door behind which is a faint banging...

Perhaps its just that at the turn of the year I'm looking for a good ghost story, something to shiver me out of the drought my tiny bit of Texas is undergoing (and over which rain clouds with a mean sense of humor linger and then fade). It's this sense of unease and possibly outright fear that feeds the stakes of a fantasy novel and it's something that is difficult to do well if you're focusing on a fantastic escape or a fantastic romance. So far, both of these books are charming me deeper down the hallway. The banging is still faint, but I'm thinking it may become louder very shortly.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lead Me Not Unto Distraction

The only thing I can hear in my head is "The Sound of Silence" playing over and over as a familiar darkness crawls through me. However, I know that this is just a symptom of a more immediate letdown--that of finishing Ted Kooser's "The Poetry Home Repair Manual." It's rare to find a book on writing that inspires me to put pen to paper and blue moon/hen's tooth amazing to find one that inspires me to revise.

Kooser's work isn't about a set of publish-your-bestseller-now rules, it's a manual of close observation, of vocabulary in all its farmer's market glory, fresh, ripe, and meaningful to the dish. His examples prove his points and his deconstruction of those examples into less polished imagined drafts seem painfully familiar. I've made these mistakes! But, thankfully, I now understand the ways they break the structure or undermine the meaning.

This insight is what I look for in books about writing. I understand how to put a sentence together and I am familiar with story forms, but I get impatient and I hurry and I skip drafts that I shouldn't. Kooser reminds me that I should take the same care and joy in the crafting that I did in putting together a set of procedures. He calms a little of the I'm-getting-old, everyone-else-is-better fear and reminds me to focus.

If you've ever picked up a writing guide, you may have come across the breathless insistence on simplification, formulas just obscured enough to get by, and general treatment of writing and just another way to make another disposable product in everyone's hand today and pitched for the next one tomorrow. If you treat it like a distraction, it will be nothing more, something screaming from the sidelines and sliding away from you like sweat. The Poetry Home Repair Manual is about works that are the towel that helps you see more clearly, despite the distractions and the effort of the day (a million apologies for the graceless metaphor).

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Artifacts of My Future

There it went, the future in a Reynold's wrap. The delicate, wood grain console future, with its primary-colored lights blinking behind opaque plastic and humming with an internal, transistorized focus: my future, the one rumored with professions of competence, even if it was only competence in weilding the machines that would allow me to keep house. Maybe this seems old-fashioned, the kind of inanity that allowed the SciFi channel to bastardize its acronym in the hopes of a better trademark--we look forward in hope and back in silliness.

Oddly enough, the latest art exhibit at the MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts Houston) focusing on the existing Latin American art collection, seemed redolent of that future. Color and transparent glass, wire work hanging in a graceful suspension of shadow and breeze, and the dream of pods floating above a city, naked to its gaze. Not the silliness (although there was humor), but the best kind of vision where your eye is given over to the artist, to play in a different outlook.

What I remember from the imagined futures of the past is that I didn't expect to be here, online, connected...educated and yet not able to understand the new futures that proliferate daily. The exhibit gave back my expected future and in doing so gave back some of the joy that I had taken in anticipating it. It broke a logjam I hadn't realized inside.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Looking for a Good Book

First, there was the recommendation: Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop. Then there was the long Sunday and looking it up on the 'net, finding the cover picture that promised a different but welcome tale, followed by the realization that a book published in 1994 could be thoroughly out of print, absent from the local used bookstores, and relatively (though not completely) unobtainable.

Now, the crash. A good book from a previous decade gone as if it had never been, flushed away from the shelves by mixed formula genres, extended role playing tie-ins, and several shelves of an imported genre into which I've yet to find my way. Not that I need another book--every flat surface around here is piled with them, including a different title by Michael Bishop, the aforementioned mixed formula books, and not a few role-playing tie-ins.

At this point, however, I'm going to regret the better books that get away. Reading is no longer a slightly subversive immersion, sinking into different perceptions while watching the world go by, it is the thing that I have five minutes to catch in a waiting room, a self-selected commercial break, twenty minutes away from the tottering list of chores before my house slips into Gormenghast territory. Better books make that immersion possible, even in short periods of time, whereas other books slip past with the speed of the present.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Working in the Mythos

In keeping with yesterday's topic and because I'm still not adjusted to my new schedule and not reading much, today is about everyday mythology. Recently, I attended a convention that included panels on using mythology in fiction, which were evenly divided between "use what works, however it works" and "do your research, know your sources." These aren't mutually exclusive in fact, but may be in outcome.

As a reader, I tend to fall into the first category. I've had the privilege of reading works done by friends that updated or used the bones of existing stories and made of them something newly compelling; not for their adherence to origins or use of ornamentation, but because of the characters through whom we see the story. What these characters experienced and how they acted had nothing to do with the way someone would have perceived the world 300 years ago or even 50 years ago, nor did it have anything to do with an official, academic understanding of a myth or fairy tale. Instead, they told an interesting story. For a brief moment, one was able to slip through the soap-slick boundary of the story and suspend oneself within for the entirety of the reading of it, without piercing that boundary and melting one's concentration with spikey aggregates of uncoalesced detail.

On the other hand, I would expect a story that sets itself firmly in the realm of existing mythologies to have a recognizable relationship to our existing understanding of such mythologies. Since I don't have a degree in this area, I wouldn't read such a book looking for this type of inaccuracy anyway. Fiction is the circumventing of our actual chain-of-event reality and cuts many corners to achieve this (eating, elimination, POV shifts, setting, etc.) and adherence to existing ideas, research, or cultural accuracy may be one of these corners. What struck me as interesting in the discussion, however, was the notion of respecting a culture through research. What does this mean?

We live in a society and time when there is a tremendous amount of information lurking in our stream of consciousness; where we could find leprechauns used as bathroom gender markers, thunderbirds scrawled across motorcycle chassis, and crosses dangling from the breasts of rockers and celebrities. What kind of respect is due in a story that arises from this mix? Is respect itself even a responsible goal for fiction? Whom are we respecting? In avoiding cliche, one might avoid stereotyping and the like; however, in writing a fictional acount of a fictional world, what responsibility does the author have to assess and include current and existing myths and folklore? If my thunderbird rises from the back of a motorcycle and swallows a couple of Norse-speaking ravens, is that disrespectful? If she then gives birth to a cat that senses the snarls of North American magic and untangles it so that a mage arises who begins a new tradition, is that disrepectful?

How should we be working in the mythos? What is considered disrepectful and why?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Density Intensity

Are fairy tales expanded or fairy tales updated anything other than an excuse for ornamentation? Since many of these tales are short in their "original" form, are longer versions necessary?

For me, the answer lies in whether the writer is using the bones of the story as an excuse for ever more outre or thickening detail or whether they are being used as a subtle guide for a plot that runs of its own accord, not slowing down to admire itself in the mirror as it passes. As a writer, I am in love with detail, with the single image and the way words ring together or perpetuate a discord through a paragraph. As a reader, I prefer a story in which each part (action, description, characters) become an indivisible whole. Even freakishly detailed pieces can accomplish this, provided the author is aware that details serve the story.

Lately, I've encountered a few stories in which the opposite occured. These were fairy tales that were expanded like taffy, impossibly rich narratives in which the plot gave way beneath you, slowing you down and smothering you. The fact that I "knew" the story in each case made me impatient for the plot to move forward. Why linger on the side of the road staring at the magic-laden bushes when there is an evil sorceress after you? Why spend time nattering on about your wedding night, the color of the carpet, or the rude staff when your husband is the equivalent of a murdering pirate? Although some of the phrases are beautiful and the images arresting, the rest of the work is the equivalent of a slog through muddy paths leading to the next camera-ready view.

Short stories typically have an easier time merging the details with the action and miss most of the over-indulgency of the longer works.

Where do you stand on reworked fairy tales? Any favorites that I might have overlooked?