Two reviews of reviews (sort of)

Ursula LeGuin wrote a very useful review of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood that I just finished reading, in which she touches on one of my favorite conundrums: what does it mean to call oneself “genre” versus “literary”? Atwood apparently likes rejecting the sci-fi designation, based on an arbitrary definition that I frankly find bewildering. (The dynamics of of genre/literary “tribes” are discussed in greater and amusing detail on Jeff Vandermeer’s blog here. This, of course, is all following the enormous brouhaha made by Lev Grossman’s bizarre less than carefully argued* editorial  in the Wall Street Journal about the so-called Victory of Plot in contemporary fiction. Sorry to link-fling if you haven’t been following this from the beginning, but I find it all pretty engrossing.)

Anyway, LeGuin provides a great review of the book, as well as very delicately, very incisively nailing Atwood for her fallacy in evading the designation of sci-fi. Being considered as a work of science fiction, LeGuin tells us, is not a limitation, but something that enriches the experience of reading a novel, gives us another dimension from which to analyze and celebrate a book’s creativity, fullness, and success.

Damn straight.

Separately, The Mumpsimus has become my favorite blog for reviews and discussion of speculative fiction. That its author, Matthew Cheney, is an English professor (as well as a writer of assorted fiction and nonfiction, and editor of Best American Fantasy) is not surprising: his reviews are lucid, accessible, and literary, filled with useful allusions and fun, thoughtful analyses. Every time I read a review of his of a book or story that I’ve already read, I want to go back and read the work again.

The excitement in his reviews is tangible – reading them is like sitting with a good friend and discussing the story at hand, tossing ideas back and forth and unraveling knotty plot points together. I also think that he tends to appreciate a lot of underappreciated and misread works. Case in point: his ecstatic, playful review of Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” (which I loved and briefly reviewed here). Judging from the comments following, said story was not so well-received by many readers; I think it’s a shame that none of them seemed to get anything further from Cheney’s review. Note that his review is somewhat spoiler-y.

Unfortunately, his blog is also rather unwieldy to navigate, but the material is all so good that I don’t mind trawling.

*correction made following the reading of Grossman’s comments in response to all the heated criticism.

Valente on The Red Tree and horror

Author Catherynne M. Valente made a beautiful blog post yesterday on her reaction to reading Caitlin R. Kiernan’s newest release, The Red Tree. She discusses how she read the book, her early relationship (read: obsession) with horror novels, New England’s unique signficance in the horror genre, and what really lies at the center (or bottom) of horror – that is, not gore, but death, and secrets, and the horrible tension of not knowing them:

I just want to know. I always want to know. I want to know the secret at the bottom, and maybe horror as a genre still eats at me because it will not give me that answer, and so I can stay at the swollen, drawn out moment before revelation, the pre-orgasmic stretching before the inevitable tumble into disappointment and continuity errors. Good horror almost never shows all its cards, and yet I know the Queen of Spades and Clubs, oh, my terrible black Queens are there, and they would tell me all their worst deeds, if I could only keep my eyes open when the scary parts come, if I could only go down into my own basement, where the earth is frozen and lumpy and moldy, where I cannot bear to look.

I, for one, would be way excited to see Valente do a horror novel, which is what she certainly hints at wanting to do at the end of the post. Also, of course, this makes me want to get on top of reading Kiernan’s work – Alabaster came in the mail for me just this week!

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Catherynne M. Valente

Awards season

I can’t say I’m qualified to blog about genre fiction awards season, given that I generally straggle at least one year behind current offerings in the field, but I’m still having fun following the buzz surrounding the 2009 Hugo Awards and World Fantasy Awards, the shortlists for which have been released.

SF Signal has an interesting panel feature asking a dozen-odd genre folk the following questions about the Hugo Awards:

1. How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?
2. How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?
3. Which of this year’s finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
4. Which of this year’s finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
5. Which books do you think were missing from this year’s list of Best Novel finalists?

It went on a bit long for me, so I stopped halfway through, but of what I read, I found Paul Graham Raven‘s answer to #2 particularly interesting and well-articulated. Steve Davidson’s responses were also useful in considering the history, scope, and overall “purpose” of the awards – mainly, that the Hugo Awards were not primarily conceived of as writing awards, but as gestures of recognition to a variety of figures in fandom. I guess that the idea of “best” is compelling enough that that ends up being the focus, as with all awards.

The top two trends in responses:

  • The Hugo Awards, being based on the votes of a small subset of people, are more likely to reward a particular sort of popularity than, necessarily, literary merit. This is expressed with varying degrees of resignation and ire by nearly every panelist.
  • Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book seems the top pick for best novel, with potential but unlikely competition from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. (It’s a battle of the Nei/als, as one panelist put it.)

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Hugo Awards nominees
World Fantasy Awards nominees