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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

One Fish (not Stanley) In Search of An Author

Posted by John Holbo on 07/20/05 at 06:10 AM

Having criticized Vernor Vinge for letting awareness of heroic fantasy genre conventions seep into the consciousness of his characters, to ill effect, let me note how it is done right. (I hereby repeat myself. This post, for example. My hobbyhorse is Empson and pastoral, ‘the complex in the simple’. It is tricky, pouring psychological complexity into narrow, genre vessels to make them bulge distinctively without bursting parodically.) In comments to my Vinge post, Brad DeLong mentions Elizabeth Bennett, in Pride and Prejudice, which was an example that hadn’t occurred to me. (A different genre, obviously.) Rich Puchalsky mentions John Crowley’s Little, Big as first rate fantasy fiction. Little, Big may be my favorite novel, so I would have to agree. Rich doesn’t mention that the novel’s intense, sustained, uncanny mood is spun out of the very thread that trips Vinge: characters’ dawning awareness that they must be inhabiting a Tale. Obviously this is not a new trick, but Crowley is better at it than everyone else. What other examples can you think of? Characters realizing that the laws of the universe are the laws of genre. Non-parodic, please. I’ll just quote a bit from Crowley that I have handy:

Spears of moonlight struck the silken surface of that pool, and were bent and shattered in the depths. Stars lay on it, rising and falling with the continual arc of ripples which proceeded from the foamy falls. So it would appear to anyone at the pool’s edge. To a fish, a great white trout almost asleep within, it seemed very different.

Asleep? Yes, fish sleep, though they don’t cry; their fiercest emotion is panic, the saddest a kind of bitter regret. They sleep wide-eyed, their cold dreams projected on the black and green interior of the water. To Grandfather Trout it seemed that the living water and its familiar geography were being shuttered and revealed to him as sleep came and went; when the pool was shuttered, he saw inward interiors. Fish-dreams are usually about the same water they see when they’re awake, but Grandfather Trout’s were not. So utterly other than trout-stream were his dreams, yet so constant were the reminders of his watery home before his lidless eyes, that his whole existence became a matter of supposition. Sleepy suppositions supplanted one another with every pant of his gills.

Suppose one were a fish. No finer place to live than this. Falls continually drowning air within the pool so that it was a pleasure simply to breathe. Like (supposing one were not a water-breather) the high, fresh, wind-renewed air of an alpine meadow. Wonderful, and thoughtful of them so to provide for him, supposing that they thought of his or anyone’s happiness or comfort. And here were no predators, and few competitors, because (though a fish couldn’t be supposed to know it) the stream about was shallow and stony and so was the stream below, so nothing approaching him in size came into the pool to contest with him for the constant fall of bugs from the dense and various woods which overhung. Really, they had thought of everything, supposing they thought of anything.

Yet (supposing that it was not his choice at all to be a swimmer here) how condign and terrible a punishment, bitter an exile. Mounted in liquid glass, unable to breathe, was he to make back-and-forth forever, biting at mosquitoes? He supposed that to a fish that taste was the toothsome matter of his happiest dreams. But if one were not a fish, what a memory, the endless mutliplication of those tiny drops of bitter blood.

Suppose on the other hand (supposing one had hands) that it was all a Tale. That however truly a satisfied fish he might appear to be, or however reluctantly accustomed to it he had become, that once-upon-a-time a fair form would appear looking down into the rainbow depths, and speak words she had wrested from malign secret-keepers at great cost to herself, and with a strangulating rush of waters he would leap - legs flailing and royal robes drenched - he would stand before her panting, restored, the curse lifted, the wicked fairy weeping with frustration. At the thought a sudden picture, a colored engraving, was projected before him on the water: a bewigged fish in a high-collared coat, a huge letter under his arm, his mouth gaping open. In air. At this nightmare image (from where?) his gills gasped and he awoke momentarily; the shutters shot back. All a dream. For a while he gratefully supposed nothing but sane and moonshot water.

Of course (the shutters began to drift closed again) it was possible to imagine he was one of them, himself a secret-keeper, curse-maker, malign manipulator; an eternal wizard intelligence housed for its own subtle purposes in a common fish. Eternal: suppose it to be so: certainly he has lived forever or nearly, has survived into this present time (supposing (drifting deeper) this to be the present time); he has not expired at a fish’s age, or even at a prince’s. It seems to him that he extends backwards (or is it forward?) without beginning (or is it end?) and he can’t just now remember whether the great tales and plots which he supposes he knows and forever broods on lie in the to-come or lie dead in the has-been. But then suppose that’s how secrets are kept, and age-long tales remembered, and unbreakable curses made too . . .

Rich says that he doesn’t particularly like Crowley’s Beasts. But one thing from that novel that sticks with me, for which I am grateful, is a speech from Timon of Athens, the epigraph:

If thou wert the lion, the fox would
beguile thee; if thou wert the lamb,
the fox would eat thee; if thou wert
the fox, the lion would suspect thee,
when peradventure thou wert accused by
the ass; if thou wert the ass, thy
dullness would torment thee; and still
thou livest but as a breakfast to the
wolf ... What beast couldst thou be,
that were not subject to a beast?

Crowley omits Timon’s last line, which I think makes the speech more powerful: “and what a beast art thou already, that seest not thy loss in transformation!” Obviously this is political metaphor, but it somehow expresses as well the pathos of Grandfather Trout’s precarious psychic state. (Also, Hobbes declaiming these lines would have made a good, if obscure, conclusion to one of Calvin’s ill-advised forays into the transmogrifier.) I can’t remember who I was discussing this with, but one or the other of us realized the Timon speech is probably a counter-argument to Machiavelli’s Prince:

A Prince should ... understand how to use well both the man and the beast. And this lesson has been covertly taught by the ancient writers, who relate how Achilles and many others of these old Princes were given over to be brought up and trained by Chiron the Centaur; since the only meaning of their having for instructor one who was half man and half beast is, that it is necessary for a Prince to know how to use both natures, and that the one without the other has no stability. But since a Prince should know how to use the beast`s nature wisely, he ought of beasts to choose both the lion and the fox; for the lion cannot guard himself from the toils, nor the fox from wolves. He must therefore be a fox to discern toils, and a lion to drive off wolves.

Yes, but will he be happy?

The Timon speech also applies especially well to something else I’m reading - Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm. I’m finding out what it took to win the Republican nomination for President in 1964. (And I don’t mean that they are nasty, more than averagely; just that it truly is a tale of transformations.)

And really I enjoy Vernor Vinge’s space opera very, very much. I shouldn’t complain.


Comments

OK, I didn’t really search my memory for examples of realizing-we’re-in-a-genre-tale before, but now that I’ve been quoted so many times, I probably should.

The first example that comes to mind is from one of the grandparents of the fantasy genre, E.R. Eddison.  In “The Worm Ouroboros”, probably his best-known work (published 1926, I think), the various heroes struggle throughout the book to overcome the King of Witchland and his attendant evildoers.  Just before the end of the book, they win.  But the book doesn’t end there. They have nothing left to do; their own nobility can not be expressed without a great villain.  So a queen with the power to change reality grants their greatest wish, and brings back the villains as they were.  John links to an article on Kirby above, so I’ll quote a bit so you can get the Doctor Doom-like flavor of the bad guy.  Here the queen is seeing whether her world-changing prayer worked:

Queen Sophonisba looked again, and in a while said, “There is a terrace facing to the west under the inner wall of that fortress of old night, and walking on it in the torchlight a man crowned like a King.  Very tall he is: lean of body, and long of limb.  He weareth a black doublet bedizened o’er with diamonds [...] But scarce may I mark his apparel for looking on the face of him, which is more terrible than the face of any man that I ever saw.  And the whole aspect of the man is full of darkness and power and terror and stern command, that spirits from below earth must tremble at and do his bidding.”
Juss [one of the main heroes] said, “Heaven forfend that this should prove but a sweet and golden dream, and we wake tomorrow to find it flown.”

So, it’s as if Frodo and Gandalf looked around after the celebrations were over, and said, let’s not sail into the West, and let the world fall into some Fourth Age of mundanity.  What we really need is Sauron back again.  He’s our sweet and golden dream!

OK, the repressed homosexuality may start to look parodic when I put it that way, but it is not played in the original as parody.  If you want parody of this exact syndrome, here it is from Hitherby (with added Charlotte’s Web): Gandalf’s Secret.

What this passage also has is a kind of child’s understanding that what happens at the end of a good fantasy text is that you read it again.  The characters in “The Worm Ouroboros” accept this and wish for nothing else.  (The main hero and queen are, quite possibly, actually played by characters in our world, or vice versa.  But that’s a complication that I don’t see a need to address here since this is getting long.)

By on 07/20/05 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve had time to think about this a little more, and I’m not coming up with many good, non-parody examples of what you’re looking for that really have character awareness of genre conventions, like Eddison’s characters’ awareness that they really needed a good villain.  (I’m sticking to fantasy/SF, figuring that someone else can think about other genres.) Sure, there are moments of self-parody (e.g. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s chief Lensman goes undercover as a writer of space operas), in-jokes (China Mieville’s description of his characters as always looking for “treasure and experience"), and many examples of the characters finding out they’re in an artificial world and re-writing it (say, Michael Kandel’s “Captain Jack Zodiac”, in which the protagonist rewrites his world from Dickian incoherence and tragedy to comfortable middle-class domesticity).  But I haven’t thought of anything besides “Little, Big” that really fits the case.  I’ll toss out my closest matches.

Here’s one possibility.  If you define “Dickian” as a sort of subgenre, then at least one of the protagonists in PKD’s “The Man in the High Castle” finds out that she’s not in the real world—effectively, that she’s in a place that’s like a PKD novel.

Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist features a society that tries to keep out “fairy fruit” that are at first seen as cognates for drugs, but eventually and very clearly cognates for fantasy itself, and the protagonist seems to make this connection.  Neil Gaiman very highly recommends Lud-in-the-Mist.

My other examples are embarassingly low-market, and I don’t recommend actually reading them unless you want something unchallenging.  In David Eddings’ Belgariad series, the characters discover that they are all being manipulated by a contest between two ancient prophecies that requires a series of confrontations.  Ah ha, they say, that’s why we seem to keep having the same kinds of stereotyped things happen over and over.  Too bad that no one has yet thought of having their fictional world being actually haunted by the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkein as an excuse for yet another knockoff.

Speaking of Tolkein, Kage Baker’s “Black Projects, White Knights” includes three characters in a future world who attempt to model themselves on the Inklings.

And there must be many fantasy novels where the characters cross over from the real world into what they recognize as an role-playing-game-based world that works by game rules, though (possibly because of trashiness) I’m blanking on actual titles.  Joel Rosenberg’s “Guardians of the Flame” series tries to invert the formula by having characters from the real world trapped in their game personas find that their genre conventions have in part gone missing, and that they can actually get sexually assaulted, or killed meaninglessly.  The effect is rather sadistic, and its only real interest is that the characters suddenly view features of their world that they treated as harmless exoticisms while it was all a game (like slavery) as being moral outrages to be stamped out now that they are real.

By on 07/20/05 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have only just discovered this site through Henry Farrell’s alerting me to comments on my work, but an addition to this discussion occurs to me—characters who believe, or hope, that they are in an adventure story—the characters in R.L. Stevenson’s The Dynamiters or The Pavilion on the Links for instance—wanting to be heroes of remance.

Enjoyed the comments…

By on 07/21/05 at 08:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

!

By ben wolfson on 07/21/05 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that genre fiction is the descendant of a long unofficial, unrespectable line, most prominently the romance. The romances were actually elite literature more than popular, but unphilosophical and untheological. They’re always described as “profoundly Christian”, but I think that that’s off the mark. Romances escaped from the official Church channel and produced an alternative Christianity, and the church was always wary of independent beilief, which tends toward heresy (as many romances did). Adultery, monsters, and gratuitous violence were a staple.

Anyway, most romances have episodes of storytelling, where the romanceur telling the romance tells about a storyteller in the story telling a different romance.

I believe that epics are much the same. There’s a storyteller in Beowulf, and I believe in the Odyssey.

There’s also a long tradition of non romances with romance-reading as a theme: Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Paola and Francesca, probably Chaucer, probably Rabelais.

It’s sort of a broad stretch from the epic through the romance to genre fiction, but wrongful violence, illict sex, and the uncertainty of order always seem to be part of the story.

By John Emerson on 07/21/05 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Ben. (Sorry, John Emerson, I can’t quite focus on what you’re saying - something about genre, I suppose - because John Crowley just left a comment to my post.)

By John Holbo on 07/21/05 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’m glad that the comments were enjoyable!  I’m also glad that I didn’t go into detail on my perceived problems with “Beasts”, which was going to be the next thing I posted about.  I know that I really should re-try Aegypt/Love and Sleep/Daemonomania; perhaps this is a good time to ask whether there is going to be another in this series?  I haven’t read “The Translator” yet, though I’ve heard a rumor that it’s good.

John Emerson, I’ll comment on your comment while everyone else is preoccupied with “!”.  It’s certainly true that a lot of genre fantasy is descended from the romance; James Branch Cabell, for instance, thought that he was writing romances, not fantasies.  I’ve never been entirely clear on where the genre boundaries are.  But at least part of the modern fantasy genre seems to me to be also descended from the older genre of the fairy tale.  Fairy tales were not always simply children’s material, as Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen among others illustrate.

By on 07/21/05 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, that is, John Emerson, I think you’ve allowed “romance” to slip from a genre into a mode.  You’re in good company, however: Frye, McKeon (if you buy his critics) and Jameson all consider romance the structuring principle (i.e. mode) the novel, if such a beast exists, struggles to escape.  For Frye it’s the mythic in the modern; for McKeon and Jameson, it’s the utopian yearnings of a given historical moment which will--surprise!--eventually win out when the Marxist dialectic finally stops swinging.  (And, presumably, we win.  No, I’m not sure who “we” are either.) In other words, as is the case with most discussions of the distinction between realism and romance (both modes); or romance and the novel (both genres); or romance as a mode and romance and a genre; as is this case in all these instances, the distinction’s tied to an agenda, a larger argument the critic wants to make about the development of literature (if you’re Frye) or “narrative as a socially symbolic act” (if you’re Jameson).

The larger problem with all these distinctions is that it’s fairly easy to demonstrate the existence of any one definitively one-or-the-other criterion in the artefact you’d prefer it not to exist in.  Name a critereon for romance and I’ll point to its existence in Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  That said, I’m not Fishing here; like everyone else, I want these differences to be meaningful, and in my unguarded moments I know them to be. 

So what should we do?  I think John, that is, John Holbo’s suggestion that some texts define themselves generically by means of an immanent theory of genre is as good a place to start as any.  (The claim that some books “teach you how to read them” is most often associated with Ulysses, Finnegans Wake and other modernist works, but as I hope to show, I think it’s generally applicable.) Any book--novel, romance, whatever--alerts its readers to its understanding of the fluid boundaries between genres, modes, &c.  Even though those boundaries are, in a larger historical sense, constantly in motion; and even though they demarcate what are, again in an historical sense, empty categories, they can still be made meaningful in any single text.  That is, even if they’re useless as abstract generalizations about all works of literature, they’re the means by which we make sense of whatever it is we’re reading. 

In short, I’m expanding the scope of Holbo’s argument: sometimes characters are aware that they are in a Tale; but writers are always trying to impart meaning to their work, and are therefore constantly negotiating the terms under which their narrative will be meaningful with their characters, their structure, &c.  Readers pick up on that.  Alright, I’ve now veered so far from my original point that I’ll have to rephrase it:

Yes, John Crowley excels at the depiction of the moments in which characters come into awareness of their status as players in a Tale; but John Grisham does the exact same thing in all his novels, only artlessly, un-self-consciously.  So does Tom Clancy.  Every threat-assessment Jack Ryan makes in the course of a Clancy novel entails Ryan and the reader’s awareness of the presence of a structured narrative from which the former must select the best possible outcome and the latter must understand the implications of that selection (lest there be no narrative tension).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/21/05 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Have just done a post on CT on Paul Park’s “A Princess of Roumania,” which seems to me another example of self-awareness in literature, but employed to a very different purpose.

Seems to me that the relationship between self-awareness and Story is a constant in JC’s work. Rush Who Speaks is literally trapped within his own tale in “Engine Summer.” There’s a persistent sense in the “Aegypt” quartet-to-be and “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines” that the characters are trapped in stories which are ending the wrong way. There should have been a turn in the world and there wasn’t. Even “Little, Big” seems to me a a more melancholy text that many readers give it credit for being - the closing lines suggest strongly that all the doors to the limitless heartlands of Faerie are closed (if they were ever open in the first place).

By Henry on 07/21/05 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Characters conscious of their genre roles are not unknown in mystery stories. Wasn’t “Edmund Crispin“‘s Gervas Fen given to describing himself as “the only literary critic turned dcetective in all of crime fiction”?

By on 07/21/05 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In genre fiction, romance novels, blood and guts thrillers and crime novels, fantasy, and cowboy stories seem pretty clearly descended from various forms of romance. Science fiction and whodunits don’t.

I was broadening “romance” to include various types of story-telling which include violence, sex, magic, and cynicism in a way that violates the canons of official, correct, theological, philosophical, ideological literature. Really without regard for the established vocabulary. I think that true epics come from a pre-theological pre-theological world and romances are survivors. I don’t distinguish fairy tales—in the Lais of Marie de France many stories are both.

Over the course of 1000 years there’s been a tremendous amount of back and forth interplay. The unrespectable becomes respectable. (For example, opera was cheesy and dangerous in the XIXc, a kind of slumming or counterculture, but now it’s a boring elite social-climbing thing.)

Maybe I should be called “Emerson” and John “John”.

By John Emerson on 07/21/05 at 10:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Dickson Carr’s characters occasionally point out that they’re in mystery novels--as I recall, both Gideon Fell and Henry Merrivale make observations to that effect.  Sherlock Holmes is a different case--he’s a character complaining about being fictionalized, instead of a character aware that he’s in a fiction--but he “knows” perfectly well that Watson’s stories abide by the rules for tales of romance and adventure.

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein on 07/22/05 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An obvious example comes to mind: Harry Potter. The genre awareness is built into the structure of the book. The main character travels back to boring old Muggle Reality in between his adventures in the Wizarding world at Hogwarts. Harry is aware of the dichotomy that exists between the worlds in a very different way than the other Magicians, because he lived for so long in one and only discovered the other world of magic when he most needed it. The whole rest of the series deals with Harry coming to terms with the fact that this fantasy world of Magic is far more real, frightening and appealing than the mundane world; that an ordinary boy in boring old reality is the Chosen One in the magical world. that the two worlds overlap in surprising ways (such as the superb first chapter of book six, in which the Prime Minister of England has his mind blown by interacting with the Minister of Magic) underscores this built in awareness without pulling a Vinge.

By Keith on 07/22/05 at 01:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose you could arrange these instances in a kind of hierarchy—at the botom level would be characters who say (authors have to make an effort to resist this kind of joky metafiction) “I feel like I’m stuck in a mystery novel!” when indeed they are; and then the insights of characters like Park’s Miranda or Harry Potter who understand that their world puzzlingly resembles a genre fiction, without taking the next step of understanding why; above that would be the interstingly insouciant remarks of characters like Gideon Fell (I remember as a child being puzzled by them) which are a kind of chummy nudge to the avid reader; and then the characters who suspect that indeed they are characters in a fiction and that their own discovery of this is the substance of the fiction they are in (some of my books attempt this; and lastly, characters who discern their ontological status and try to rebel, like beings in a Gnostic univers who understand that their physical existence and life in time are the working of a second-rank tyrannical god who wants not to be noticed.

By on 07/22/05 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The Circular Ruins” has--if not exhausted--at least explored this territory very thoroughly.

By Jonathan on 07/22/05 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wrote a not very successful narrative poem on a similar theme as the last step of the hierarchy above after watching too much children’s TV: Gnosticism.

By on 07/22/05 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hubbard “Typewriter in the Sky”;Fredric Brown “What Mad Universe”;Heinlein “Glory Road”

But I think I am missing something here. If you are talking about fictional characters who self-conciously use myth or story or archetype as a way of understanding or structuring their positions I come up with Flannery O’Connor and N West and Thomas Mann and countless others. I guess it is trite to say that people actually used to use myths or the Bible as tools but as Henry mentions above(maybe), what I got from Crowley when I read him is that we have lost some ironic ability to see ourselves as characters in a story while simultaneously unique individuals.

I guess you are looking for some kind of second level wink at the author or reader, when the character realizes she is in a story, complains that it is isn’t her story or doesn’t flow the way she would like and blames the Author. Reminding me of Kierkkegaard’s comma.

By on 07/22/05 at 03:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

...characters who discern their ontological status and try to rebel, like beings in a Gnostic universe who understand that their physical existence and life in time are the working of a second-rank tyrannical god who wants not to be noticed.

To be deadly literal: the Valis trilogy, anyone?  A “second-rank tyrannical god” captures the playful relation of Horselover Fat to Phillip K. Dick perfectly; “who wants not to be noticed,” not so much.  But, generally speaking, the parallel works.  Now, I know the dangers of “generally speaking" and do believe I avoid them here.  (The link’s to my extended meditation on matters generally spoken.)

Also, I’ve installed a basement beneath J. Crowley’s bottom floor; actually, I installed it earlier, but did so in the midst of a ramble too thick to follow.  What I said--he says, his crossed-fingers a prayer for brevity--is that most characters understand the conventions of the narrative in which they find themselves; the issue then is self-awareness.  They need not say or think “I feel like I’m stuck in a novel!” for them to profess an awareness that their situation is kin to the conventions of mystery, science fiction, &c.  I say this because only the rarest and most remote of novels can feature characters who aren’t, themselves, readers.  (The one exception I can think of off the top of my head is Clute’s Appleseed--scroll past the armored puppy and kitten bit for an excerpt--in which the central characters inhabit a world so alien that Clute’s readers know no more about the narratives in which his characters are involved than the characters themselves do.  I’d say more, but don’t want to ruin the read.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/22/05 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"and lastly, characters who discern their ontological status and try to rebel, like beings in a Gnostic univers who understand that their physical existence and life in time are the working of a second-rank tyrannical god who wants not to be noticed.”

The canonical example is Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. Others are Raymond Queneau’s The Flight of Icarus, Gene Wolfe’s “The Last Thrilling Wonder Story,” a short story by A. S. Byatt whose title I forget (iirc, it’s in the collection with the novelette about the literary theorist who finds a djinn), and the manga and anime Fushigi Yuugi. Occasionally some of the characters in “Pogo” would attempt to quit the strip and start a comic strip of their own.

To return to John Holbo’s original topic, in which the characters’ world is real but also bound by the laws of genre, I can only think of one example offhand. One of Jack Chalker’s f-sf series (it’s embarrassing to admit I’m even acquainted with his work) took place partly in a fantasy world in which the rules of genre were ironclad: thus, for instance, if you were a “good” character, you couldn’t do anything evil (I think so; I can at least say that I didn’t actually read it, but only skimmed through it.)

By Adam Stephanides on 07/22/05 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d immediately thought of “At-Swim” too, but I don’t think that Wolfe isn’t really a Gnostic in this sense; no flawed demiurges to be overthrown at this address. More typical than “The Last Thrilling Wonder Story” is “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories,” in which the characters’ ontological crisis seems intended to pull the carpet from under our own feet, make us realize our own contingency as images in the mind of God (he has another short story, the name of which I’m forgetting, which makes this point even more bluntly; see also “The War Beneath the Tree,” “Forlesen").

By Henry on 07/23/05 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"isn’t” should be “is” in the above, obviously.

By Henry on 07/23/05 at 10:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"and lastly, characters who discern their ontological status and try to rebel, like beings in a Gnostic univers who understand that their physical existence and life in time are the working of a second-rank tyrannical god who wants not to be noticed.”

As I hinted in another recent thread, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren can be considered a case in point. There the hero’s rebellion is made especially difficult since, although the confining universe’s “genre” is science fiction, its “mode” is free-indirect-discourse realism of the sort which pretends to convey everything conveyable in human experience.

By Ray Davis on 07/23/05 at 01:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suspect that part of the greatness of John Crowley’s “Little, Big” is that it stopped at the right place along the hierarchy that he set out here.  Going a step further to characters who distinguish their ontological status and try to rebel against the author always struck me as a false note.  After all, characters have no independent existence, they can’t really do anything that is not directly written by their author, so once they are written to acknowledge that they are characters, the situation is fundamentally unlike the perceived situation of at least partial free will that led to real-world Gnosticism.  So the entire thing reads like a simple displacement of the author’s Gnostic anger at God, or as a kind of false guilt that an author can have for arranging the lives of characters that have become psychologically real to them.

By on 07/23/05 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well I agree, though I have in other books committed just those errors.  I think the only saving grace (how did I get into this religious lingo?) is irony about the process—that is, it has more to do with the author’s attitude toward himself (and the readers) than the characters’ (nonexistent) attitudes toward him.  The only thing that could make it anything but arid would be a kind of compassion or pity that the author might feel (and smile at himself for feeling) toward those beings.  It actually takes a sort of constant self-trickery to think that your charcaters are NOT your own invention, and it’s sometimes hard not to make this process, and your “success”, the subject of your writing.

By on 07/23/05 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why the religious lingo?  Well, my guess is that there’s a long-standing connection between fantasy/SF and Gnostic concepts; I remember that James Branch Cabell used to use Demiurgy as a metaphor for writing romances.  You can also see it in later terminology such as “world building”.  The need to design a (to some extent) new setting seems to put a sole author in the place of God with respect to his or her creations; naturally they realize that they are imperfect, so they think of themselves as a Demiurge.  Writers of other genres of fiction need only create characters, so they are only in place of Dr. Frankenstein.  Tolkein attempted to explicitly de-hereticize the concept by calling it “subcreation” and theologizing that “those who aspire to Creation can only make echoes (good) or mockeries (evil) of truth. The Subcreation of works that echo the true creations of God is one way that mortals honor God.” (from wiki).

By on 07/23/05 at 07:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<Bragging> I managed to continue the metaphysical play of Little, Big, by causing it to erupt into physical reality.  When I finished it, I wrote a note into the cover page instructing future readers to always find an anonymous way of handing the book on to others.  “That way the story never has to end.” I gift-wrapped it, addressed it “To: Anyone, From: Someone”, and had a messenger put it in a place where it was likely to find a receptive reader.  This was around Christmas time.  I wonder where it is, now.  Last I heard it was hibernating in the Lost & Found.  Seemed like a good place for a novel whose characters keep losing and finding again the thread of their own tales.

By Indie on 07/31/05 at 10:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Indie --

The idea and its fate remind me a little of the anarchists in AMsterdam in the 60s who tried to promote greening & community by leaving free yellow bikes around the city—take it where you need it and leave it for someone else to go on with—then the police interfered because city regulations said bikes had to be locked.  Your/my book locked up in thr reformatory for being a street person, waiting for Someone to come take it away.

By on 07/31/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Your novel does inspire this sort of gifting fanaticism, John. I received my first copy as a sudden gift from a friend of my wife who - upon learning I hadn’t read it - ran straight to the shelf and pulled down her last copy (a house should have at least two: ours now does) and pressed it, like a religious tract, into my curious hands. Came complete with Beasts and Engine Summer. Those came in very handy. I think I remember reading on Neil Gaiman’s blog that he’s given away sixteen copies, or something of the sort. (He must be a member of the “Little, Big” of the month book club.) But now I can’t seem to find any such entry, so maybe I just had a dream that Neil Gaiman gave away lots of copies of your book and blogged about it.

I’m not sure whether compulsive literary potlatch is good, bad, or neutral for sales. But it’s a testament to devotion. (I think Mervyn Peake is another case. I’ve given away a couple pounds of Peake in my time. I know others who have done the same.)

By John Holbo on 07/31/05 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Engine Summer” was a compulsive giveaway for me back in the bad old out-of-print days (and, come to think of it, that’s how I got my own copy). Barbara Comyns’s novels, too. Books that I know people are unlikely to hear about or to pick up by accident....

By Ray Davis on 07/31/05 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would add Stephen King’s Dark Tower sequence to the list of books in which not only the characters, but the author himself become aware that they are “stuck in the story” so to speak.

By on 07/31/05 at 05:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Coming in late on this, but Duck Amuck seems an obvious member of the top level of that hierarchy.

By Jim Flannery on 07/31/05 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think animation and comics (Pogo has been mentioned too) are a fertile field for metafictional gesture. There’s the opening to all those MAx Fleischer cartoons where the characters come out of the inkwell at the beginning and then jump back in (often pursued) at the end—the invented character’s version of “Then I woke up,” maybe? (Rescued from trouble by their own status as inventions, like the philosopher at the end of Nabokov’s Bend Sinister.) And their’s Winsor McKAy’s Little Sammy Sneeze, one of whose potent sneezes breaks the frame of the panel he’s in --he gazes in awe at the shattered pieces—“breaking the frame” literally.

By on 08/01/05 at 08:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson mentioned Beowulf, which brought to mind John Gardner’s sublime Grendel, and the scene in which Grendel listens as the new storyteller tells Hrothgar and his men their own life story.  He makes them out to be heroes, when we (and they) know that they were simply robber barons who pillaged and murdered their way to power.  In the act of telling, the storyteller transforms his listeners into his characters, until even Grendel the iconoclast longs to be a part of a story that he knows to be false.  Later, of course, Grendel comes to realize that his role is that of the villain, even though he is no less moral than Hrothgar or Beowulf.

It’s not exactly what John (Holbo, we seem to have an excess of Johns here) was talking about, but it’s similar.

By Abigail Nussbaum on 08/01/05 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Following this thread, as much as I am able, with interest, especially as I am charged with reviewing Lord Byron’s Novel sometime before hell freezes.

This is kind of a rehearsal for that review.  Maybe somebody else will say something smart that will make it easier for me.

Probably this is an incurable side effect of having been trained in psychotherapy, but I see the endless layers of fiction and metafiction in Crowley not as literary devices but as disguises.  The out-of-control ex-therapist in my head is always trying to find the secret being disguised: the story the author ‘really’ wants to write, veiled and false-moustachioed under layers of literary device.

Myself I’ve tried writing a specific story for about forty years, and every time fallen back, defeated by its nearness.  The only version that ever got past about twenty pages was ‘about’ some other character whose story happened to commingle with my real heroine’s story.  That one’s still not done.  So perhaps I’m just projecting there.

To get back to Crowley, I’ve been noticing innumerable examples of the layering of individual truths to create confusion, disguise, and a blurring of (perhaps) guilt in story after story.  Card-reading in The Deep.  Multiple and variant iterations implied in the ending of Engine Summer.  Engine Summer’s palimpsests of (dang, what were they, braids, cords?) genealogies.  In Aegypt Frank Walker Barr’s bald description of a medieval story told over and over, in different guises, until ‘the story seems to have been told often enough.’ The notion of infundibularity from Little, Big.  The scrambled and blurry recordings of a lover’s life in ‘Snow.’ The denial of individual experience postulated --and enforced-- by the mathematician-technocrats of ‘In Blue,’ even while they affirm and then erase the statistical significance of multiple persons, multiple experiences.  Layers of story and history and false history in Fellowes Kraft’s novel inside the Aegypt cycle.  Sometimes he simple chucks in a slice of the ‘wrong trouser of time’, as happens toward the end of Daemonomania when Pierce finds himself visiting the Saint in the trailer.  ‘Didn’t happen.  Might have, though.’

Lord Byron’s Novel is so veiled in every part that digging for the secret is like looking for the bug in a spider’s web; the nugget is likely to shatter into fragments by the time you get through all the layers.  No dialogue between real persons; only email.  The real persons have names, that is, identities, yet their emails are not from those identities but nicknames or surnames or the like.  Ada is present officially only to make notes, to give fragments of her own thoughts and experience which slip in, almost against her intention, between academic remarks on her father’s work.  Her father, who is supposedly the core personage of Lord Byron’s Novel, appears veiled in the identity of the half-Albanian protagonist of The Evening Land, and Ada helpfully points to other real persons similarly veiled, including herself.  Ali’s story itself is in disguise, for Crowley is using a Byronic voice to tell it. Occasionally the character of the author passes through, wearing his leather coat and his earring, and thumbs his nose.

Really, this morning I don’t have any great insight to pile on top of this mass of incident; I haven’t even tried to list exhaustively.

Just a question for Crowley, since even the extherapist in my head knows enough not to bank on projection: 

What’s the point of all the disguises?  All fiction is a disguise, since it purports to be unreal.  Why more, why extra?  It’s got to be like wearing three condoms.

By on 08/15/05 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Or like an indefinitely postponed climax? I tend to react to Crowley’s method as an extension of pleasure rather than a frustration of pleasure, and as getting at something real about human experience that couldn’t be gotten to any other way. A readerly difference, maybe. The biggest let-down I’ve felt in reading Crowley’s work was at the big battle resolution of Daemonomania—did you find it more appealing?

By Ray Davis on 08/15/05 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In this regard, it’s interesting that you mention a background in psychology, since the history of psychiatry shows such a vexed relationship with hedonism. Pleasure is taken as something to explain from more “primary” motives, and often as something to cure, rather than as a self-evident goal. I don’t mean to imply that this is some sort of motiveless maliciousness—clearly, much of the pressure that led to the discipline’s founding and continuation had to do with eliminating “undesirable” pleasures in some more scientifically justifiable way than exorcism. And clearly, part of the delight of practicing psychology—for both producer and consumer—lies in creating explanations for what might otherwise be dismissed as opaque givens of human behavior. But it’s led to some odd impasses through the years when faced with “unproductive” pleasures such as the aesthetic and the erotic.

I think the first time this was brought to my attention was when, as a teenager in the mid-1970s, I read a “Gay Lib” poem where the writer’s therapist reasonably pointed out (I paraphrase in prose) “But after you’ve sucked those cocks, what do you have to show for it? Only the memory of having enjoyed sucking those cocks!” And then, rational argument having failed—on to the ECT!

By Ray Davis on 08/15/05 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Three comments in a row is pushing it, but given the sometimes tense atmosphere around here, and given that I’m sort of out of it today, I worry that the first two will be read as confrontational.

I honestly find the variety of possible readings interesting as a thing in itself, and don’t think there’s much point in ranking them competitively—aside from the trivial point that it’s nicer to find a way to enjoy something than not to. But, for example, I feel a certain frustration when reading most (not all) of Vladimir Nabokov’s or Gene Wolfe’s writing. I wouldn’t describe it in exactly the same terms Jennifer Stevenson uses, but it feels as if it might be a similar shape.... Topic for future research, I guess.

And I don’t believe (and wouldn’t say) that her frustration with Crowley’s approach is determined by having worked in psychology. Like her, though, I thought the idea of therapy seems somehow to go along with that frustration—there seem to be patterns that may (or may not) be worth bringing together.

A perhaps more productive route to pursue, though, is how and why the creation of narrative art is so often dependent on distancing oneself from one’s original purpose. (That was part of what went into the “Liebestod” piece I posted a while back.)

OK, I think I’m done now. And Jennifer, if you’re still reading this, congratulations on the great reviews!

By Ray Davis on 08/15/05 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laughing my butt off at Ray’s comments.  Good, Ray!

Ray writes,
>The biggest let-down I’ve felt in reading Crowley’s work was at the big battle resolution of Daemonomania—did you find it more appealing?>

No, I didn’t get that either.  As a reader I was frustrated.

Speaking as a writer, I think it may be that Beau was in grave danger of upstaging Pierce, and if we had actually seen Beau in action we might have pardonably wished to abandon Pierce and his woffling for this more clearly noble and heroic character.  In brief, ‘it isn’t that kind of book.’ So, no obvious heroics.  I have a problem with that stance, too; I’m addicted to commercial fiction, and this series has been trending steadily away from commercial fiction into Bloomland for a goodly while now.  Leaving me speechless.  For which I’m sure John is grateful <g>.

To that point, I feel that a commercial approach (such as an open description of Beau’s battle with Honeybeare) would in fact be more pleasurable (for this reader).  Whether productively or undesirably, I honestly don’t care.

The psychiatric ideas Ray refers to remind me of Jungian thought, which is all brain and no genitalia or taste buds, no matter how juicy the titles of their papers may be.  ‘Unproductive pleasure,’ forsooth. I’m firmly in the camp that says you can’t change readers’ minds with learned analysis.  You have to entertain them.  And slip the message in like a drop of medicine in a cup of sugar.

My training isn’t Jungian but in structural family theory: all about loyalty and self-sacrifice and protecting family secrets.  Functional stuff.  So that’s my shrink-wrapped lens.

<A perhaps more productive route to pursue, though, is how and why the creation of narrative art is so often dependent on distancing oneself from one’s original purpose.>

Well, there you touch on my problems with this forty-year-old story that won’t work if told directly.  If you sugar-coat it, if you lie, if you change the principals’ names, if you move the reader’s viewpoint into a bit player and relentlessly hold it there, can you tell the story now?  John refers above to a writerly technique where the author wilfully forgets that he is the creator of his characters, so that they can behave in ways he does not have to acknowledge controlling.  (I’m paraphrasing here, rather deliberately and provocatively.)

I recall also something Joe Haldeman has said, that when Vietnam veterans have tried to write about their experience, their work goes in three phases.  First, a straightforward autobiographical account.  Second, an more fictionalized story, an attempt to include more experiences by different sorts of people and to make the account more accessible to a broader audience.  Finally, often twenty years or more after the war, a return to autobiography, but now a different sort of personal truth, the emotional truth, clothed of necessity in fantastical garb because emotion is too large to fit into little phrases like, ‘The jeep blew up.’ Emotion is grandiose and overwhelming, like a titanic battle between good fairies and evil orcs.  It =needs= the orcs to be truly told.

Pausing for breath.

<OK, I think I’m done now. And Jennifer, if you’re still reading this, congratulations on the great reviews!>

Thanks!  I’m pretty happy about ‘em.

By Jennifer Stevenson on 08/15/05 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(I feel a little bit like JRR Tolkien applying humbly for membership in the Tolkien SOciety in the 60s—he noted that in addition to general interest he did have a store of information others might be interested in.)

I am completely in sympathy with Ray Davis’s frustrations with how narrative goes on in my work, esp. DAE.  I think the trouble is generated by the problem of their being ABOUT stories—the expectation of them, longing for them, fear of them (claustrophobia, duty, limits, endings)-- rather than actually BEING stories.  That is, they come disguised as fictions that have beginnings, middles and ends, and then turn out to have none of these things, except as baffles, or circularities, or hopes or fears.  Why I feel compelled to write such things I don’t know.

ABout the big battle at the end of DAE though—the good guys do win—the shekhina is saved from the darkness—and if Pierce hadn’t been brave enough to go to Conurbana, and foolish enough to go the wrong way and come home again, it wouldn’t have happened.  I bet Beau knows that.

By on 08/15/05 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jennifer, thanks for taking my comments in such good spirit.

Distancing at its most productive, I think, doesn’t sugar-coat or name-change. (I mean, I know writers who seem to work that way, but I don’t think the results are very exciting.) It doesn’t coat at all. It transforms, so that the people who started off being the ones you thought you admired and the ones you thought you hated and the one you thought was you turn out to be interesting strangers instead. (Some writers seem to require at least one massive re-write per book for that reason.) My pet theory is that this seeming paradox about the distancing that’s needed to get at the “truth” of a story is, in fact, key to why we generate stories in the first place, and that the supposedly transparent autobiographical narrative is an afterthought. (To doodle another caricature of psychiatry on the border, how far would Freud’s talking cure have gone without starting to bring in dreams...?)

“Why I feel compelled to write such things I don’t know.”

It’s an awfully uncouth guess, but my guess is that it has something in common with what makes some of us readers derive such deep pleasure from the approach. (Jennifer expressed the frustration; I was the fanboy who thought it got “at something real about human experience that couldn’t be gotten to any other way”. My biggest frustration with the Aegypt series came when something definitely important happened!)

Now, of course, that just shuttles us on to the question of why I should feel compelled to read such things. The short answer, I gave. Being a critic, I naturally also sometimes give longer answers. But upon compulsion? ‘Zounds, an I were at the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion.

(Actually, it just turns out that my “sort of out of it” was an understatement and I don’t trust myself with the job right now.)

By Ray Davis on 08/16/05 at 09:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

>>just a question for Crowley, since even the extherapist in my head knows enough not to bank on projection:

What’s the point of all the disguises?  All fiction is a disguise, since it purports to be unreal.  Why more, why extra?  It’s got to be like wearing three condoms.>>

Hi, Jennifer—I always wear three condoms—just in case—doesn’t everybody?

You have to drop the psychotherapeutic and go farther into the Bakhtinian. The great virtue of prose fiction as it has evolved is its capacity for heteroglossia—multiple voices without a hierarchy, voices not always attributable, speaking out of the surrounding culture and context.  It’s what makes novels like life.  I hoped that Byron’s novel would not only _be_ such a voice but _contain_ others too:  voices _he _ heard out of popular fiction, shakespeare, the societry papers, whatever.  I don’t think they’re masks—or if they are, no one’s underneath them.

By on 08/16/05 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear John, I feel silly writing posts on the literary Wittgenstein when my favorite novelist is showing up in comments. I should really just say: ‘the event is cancelled. We’re all going to talk about Crowley until he gets bored or embarrassed and walks away.’

I’m halfway through Lord Byron’s Novel, which I am enjoying but you won’t mind being spared my premature judgments. Along the way I took a break and finally read “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines”, which was fantastic, beautiful! So now I need to do another update to my genre series because, as any fool can plainly see, this is a perfect example of what we were talking about before: working within an apparently crude or at least confining genre; deriving a pathos from its simplicity. Childhood dreams and adult difficulties. A kind of “well, how did we get here?” melancholy. In this case, the crude genre is very demurely offstage: it’s those Mary Cowden Clarke tales (Ophelia’s is available on the web). Too, too Mary Sue. It’s very strange to write Mary Sue fanfic, and conclude with “What to this was sequent, thou know’st already.” And what the audience knows is that complex, adult tragedy looms over these immature - in every sense - dreams of childhood. Of course in your story, the dreams of childhood ARE the adult tragedies our young characters are blissfully staging in their happy summer ... whose sweetness blows a beautiful twisty spiral into the simple genre form you are indexing with your title. The complex in the simple. I don’t want to spoil any plots. I loved the story, sir.

So, re your self-criticism above:

I am completely in sympathy with Ray Davis’s frustrations with how narrative goes on in my work, esp. DAE.  I think the trouble is generated by the problem of their being ABOUT stories—the expectation of them, longing for them, fear of them (claustrophobia, duty, limits, endings)-- rather than actually BEING stories.  That is, they come disguised as fictions that have beginnings, middles and ends, and then turn out to have none of these things, except as baffles, or circularities, or hopes or fears.  Why I feel compelled to write such things I don’t know.

Well, I certainly don’t mind the disguises. But it’s clear to me that one reason “Girlhood” works so well is that the tale you are playing off is soft-pedaled to such an extent that the tale you are telling is told, but with the nice pedal work in the background.

Once all this Wittgenstein nonsense calms down I’ll write a bit more, I hope. Thanks again for visiting. (We are not worthy.)

By John Holbo on 08/17/05 at 12:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John Crowley writes:
>>I think the trouble is generated by the problem of their being ABOUT stories—the expectation of them, longing for them, fear of them (claustrophobia, duty, limits, endings)-- rather than actually BEING stories.  That is, they come disguised as fictions that have beginnings, middles and ends, and then turn out to have none of these things, except as baffles, or circularities, or hopes or fears. >>

Huh.  So these characters are written to be more, I dunno, true-to-life?  Because real people don’t like the claustrophobia of narratological imperative, and fear to think about the ending of their own ‘story’?  I’m totally extrapolating on your comment.

I guess that’s where I would be driven crazy trying to write this; one of the huge conveniences of writing fiction--commercial fiction anyway--is that your reader expects ‘a round tale’ and the author can deliver it and the characters by-god put up with existing in a ‘just the good parts version’ of their lives.  The characters are unconscious of the conceits of story.  Bloody convenient for the writer.

In fact I have been driven crazy at intervals about this very matter.  I’ve been working on a book in which the first half of the book (we discover in mid-book) is being magically written by the main character on the pages of a book into which he was transformed by the wicked magician in the first half.  He spends the rest of the book a) trying not to go mad b) trying to lie to the magician, who has placed a compulsion on him to record certain things c) trying to get out of his predicament.

The first two are my real problems.  The lying-to-the-magician part and the fact that since he is nothing but his account, he must tell the truth (even the boring parts?) or risk madness through the loss or contamination of his memory, which is all he has.  The second problem is partly the author’s problem: nobody wants to read “the maid swept the stairs again” for one hundred years.

Anyway, back to John’s comments:
>> I hoped that Byron’s novel would not only _be_ such a voice but _contain_ others too:  voices _he _ heard out of popular fiction, shakespeare, the society papers, whatever.  >>

Everyone’s voices are like that, aren’t they?  Compounded from the stuff they take in.  I thought that worked well; I read a hell of a lot of stuff about Europe in the Regency period.

>>prose fiction as it has evolved is its capacity for heteroglossia—multiple voices without a hierarchy<<

Last four words is where I boggle.  Have you ever read a book called Divina Trace?  Fascinating first novel, three or four tellings of a single story set in a Caribbean village, including a vast, messy, glorious pseudo-Vedic account smack in the middle and divided (over-the-top conceit) by a page of mirror milar.  Only other example of this multiple voices thing I can think of off the top of my head, though I know I’ve read others. Can you really say Lord Byron’s Novel is without hierarchy?  I wouldn’t.

By Jennifer Stevenson on 08/19/05 at 09:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember the book about the book, which when I last saw it had generated so many (hierarchical) tales-within-the tale that the author’s need to find some way to tell the whole story became itself the central character/concern/tale: will she make it? 

Which is an odd place for an aspiring writer of “good round tales” to find herself. 

No the Byron voices are arranged in a hierarchy—tho’ the voices those voices echo or mimic aren’t—maybe a key difference between the good round tale and the modernist/self-conscious/writerly fiction is that in the GRT the hierarchy of voices is always clear to the reader.

By on 08/19/05 at 09:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

<<No the Byron voices are arranged in a hierarchy>>

Yes, I felt that there was a vertical hierarchy but also an outside-toward-inside hierarchy that shifted.

<<I remember the book about the book, which when I last saw it>>

Yes, you were a tremendous help there.

<<maybe a key difference between the good round tale and the modernist/self-conscious/writerly fiction is that in the GRT the hierarchy of voices is always clear to the reader. >>

Parsing this.  This can’t be right: A self-conscious writer doesn’t want the reader to identify his hierarchies.  I got that wrong, didn’t I?

Maybe this writerly fiction correlates more closely to mystery fiction, which engages the reader’s intellect in a contest with the author.

By Jennifer Stevenson on 08/19/05 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Crowley writes,
>>I remember the book about the book, which when I last saw it had generated so many (hierarchical) tales-within-the tale that the author’s need to find some way to tell the whole story became itself the central character/concern/tale: will she make it? 
Which is an odd place for an aspiring writer of “good round tales” to find herself.  <<

Yes, this is a really hard one for me, and if writing it with a ‘veil’ is hard, well, I have to write it with a veil because the content of the core story is so difficult for me.  This is what Ray and I were talking about; tackling psychologically difficult material because I can’t not write about it, but coming at it slaunchwise because it’s so emotional.

I haven’t had anything like this trouble with the last twelve books.  Just when I thought I had novels figured out.

By Jennifer Stevenson on 08/23/05 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hierarchies:  I only meant that within a standard novel or GRT the voices tend to be distinct and nested:  Marlowe starts to tell his tale; within his tale others are told; those tellers hear and report other tales.  Only later do writers start to CONSCIOUSLY allow voices to leak into the main text without a fixed source (Ulysses is the classic instance).

I know what you mean about the material being too close, and the need therefore to multiply the masks.  Oh yes.  But I think it’s a different question, and it IS psychological, and does involve writers marring their own work out of fear—no big examples come to me but one will.  My own soul having been cleared for good by L. Ron Hubbard, I have no need for THOSE masks.

By on 08/23/05 at 04:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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