literary criticism

Aliens in Science Fiction – A Critical Text

As most of you here are probably aware, most of what I read is fiction, interspersed with magazines around various topics (or maybe it’s the other way around). But I do find the exercise of literary criticism fascinating, and read texts when they come my way.

So it was delightful when I was given a copy of Elana Gomel’s wonderful book Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism.

As the title implies, this one is a scholarly text at a university level and needs to be read carefully. Some of the technical terms on the philosophical and ethics side forced me (an engineer) to do a little bit of studying. Nevertheless, the book is anything but opaque; the arguments and analysis are clearly stated and easy to follow. Gomel also pushes her theories with strong argumentation and vivid exemplification from selected SF novels which helps the reader understand what is being said.

As a reader (and a science fiction reader in particular), the delight of this on lies in discovering books and stories that I wasn’t aware of. Gomel’s genre knowledge is as deep expected of the author of a book of this kind, but it is also broad, casting a wide net that includes more obscure titles and less commercial work from behind the iron curtain.

As for the arguments themselves, the book does exactly what the title says it will: it takes alien encounters and analyzes them through a philosophical lens, focusing on humanism vs. posthumanism in particular. I found it fascinating but perhaps I found it fascinating for a different reason than academic readers will; in my case, a major source of the fascination came from seeing how differently certain beloved classics can be read when one has the critical tools to understand them beyond what a run-of-the-mill reader would see.

I think that exercise is worthwhile for any reader of the genre (especially if that reader, like me, is also a writer). Academic readers with a philosophy background will, of course, be able to absorb the conclusions more fully (and possibly disagree with them), but I simply dedicated myself to reading and learning stuff I’d completely missed.

I enjoyed it, and this one is worth reading regardless of where you stand on the regular-reader-vs-academic-reader spectrum. If science fiction–particularly science fiction about alien encounters–interests you, you will find something to like in this book.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most well-received Science Fiction novel is Siege. You can check it out here.

Writers’ Writers vs. Readers’ Writers

I used to think the phrase “so-and-so is a writer’s writer,” was just a way to indicate a writer that other writers would read and recommend. Hell, even after I became a writer myself, the same attitude prevailed.

It was only after my writing reached a certain level, and my consciousness of the art form became much less subliminal and much more specific that I began to realize why some writers are revered by their peers while others most emphatically are not.

Let’s take Dan Brown, for example. Writers will never, ever accept that there is any literary merit in his work. They describe him as a hack who writes awfully, an aberration that proves that, just because words are in a book, it doesn’t make it literature.

Though I don’t know Dan Brown personally, I imagine he is laughing all the way to the bank. You see, no one told the millions of readers of The Da Vinci Code that it sucked, and they kept right on reading.

In fact, I’ll admit to having enjoyed it enormously (especially the first half of it). I was on a plane and out of books and the only interesting English-language paperback they’d had in Madrid airport was this one. So I bought it and loved it.

Is it well-written in the sense that Brown focuses on the language and the currently fashionable tenets of literary expression. No effing way.

Is it good? Absolutely. It is a page-turner in the classical mold and, like it or not, these are the books that engage readers. No matter how many critically acclaimed auteurs sniff at it, readers are not stupid; they can tell when something is excellent… and they will ignore critics in droves to read it.

So who’s right.

Offhand, I’d say the readers, as they are the people that writers create for in the first place.

But it isn’t that simple. A more nuanced answer would be that both groups are right.

A book that keeps readers reading is good by the most important of all definitions: it gives pleasure, escape and entertainment to its target audience. That can’t be bad, and critics of everything from Harry Potter to Fifty Shades are wrong to forget it. Great storytelling has to be an important part of any great book, and when postmodern critics sit down and disparage anything with a plot that people enjoy, they are doing a disservice to literature (modern critics had the same issue, BTW, this isn’t an attack on postmodernism per se).

Having said that, it’s possible to read for more than just the basic pleasure of finding out what happens next. The plot can be advanced in elegant as well as simple ways… and the texture of the writing can bring pleasure to readers as well. In that sense, arguing for more literary text is perfectly valid.

So why “writers’ writer” and not just “sophisticated readers’ writer”?

I think it’s because of the way writers react when they see a spectacular chunk of prose. While a reader might feel pleasure at the aesthetics, a writer will admire (or be jealous of) the mechanics. Writers, when they manage to turn off their inner reader, can feel awe at another writer’s craftsmanship.

In my case, I see it in Wodehouse, of course. While he is beloved by millions for the sheer sake of his humor and lovable characters, any writer exposed to his prose will leave with a sense of awe and inadequacy that will take a while to shake. There is no writer in the English language whose sentences are as beautifully crafted as Wodehouse. Don’t remember it that way? Then I challenge you to pick up any one of his books and prove me wrong. You won’t.

There are other writers who use language wonderfully (Fitzgerald), or incorporate erudite concepts effortlessly (Eco).

So, yes. There is another level in writing, and these are the books that authors will gravitate to.

But don’t discount readers’ opinions. That a book is straightforward in no way makes it a bad book. You have my permission to ignore the critics who tell you otherwise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books (he hopes) are long on both storytelling and language. In an attempt to prove it, he cites his collection of literary fiction, a novel in short story form, entitled Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Some Books are Just a Pain

I usually try to spare Argentine writers the worst reviews.  After all, a shared background and experience has to count for something, right?  When I don’t quite enjoy a book by one of my countrymen, I simply refrain from recommending it.  I don’t usually feel the need to go any further.

Siete Casas Vacías_Samantha Schweblin.jpg

Unfortunately, the latest book in this list that I’ve read is Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samantha Schweblin and I can’t in good conscience give this one an ambiguous review–you never know who might mistakenly buy the thing and then come after me with a fire axe.

First, let’s get some things clear.  It’s very, very evident that that author is both extremely talented and extremely well-versed in the craft of writing.  The fact that this is a bad book doesn’t mean that Schweblin is a bad writer.  She very clearly isn’t.  In fact, I’d say she is a very good writer.

The second thing I need to point out is that this book–a collection of seven short stories–has one some serious awards.  The main body of the collection won the Ribera del Duero Prize while the story not included in that prize won the Juan Rulfo Prize.  While I’m not as familiar with Spanish-language awards as those given in English, and can’t truly say how prestigious these two are, it’s clear that these stories were highly valued by the judges of two different international competitions in two different countries.

So, please keep the above under consideration while I tell you why I didn’t like this book at all.

The reason Schweblin’s undoubted talent couldn’t keep it from being a massively boring read is down to the subject matter she chose.  So let’s have a look at that.

The overall approach is similar to what I discussed in the O Henry Prize volume I read recently.  Schweblin goes tight into her narrator’s mind and looks at the world from that extremely limited perspective.  The key difference with a typical “woman goes to the laundromat and thinks deep thoughts about menstruation” story that we all love to laugh at is that Schweblin’s characters are mentally a bit off.

It sounds interesting, but in this particular case, it really isn’t.  These characters aren’t insane in ways that entertain, but each one has just a little bit of their personality exaggerated–an obsession taken a bit further than is healthy, a neurosis that comes to the fore and pushes normal behaviour aside.  It’s not enough to make the characters memorable… just enough to make the reader get depressed on their behalf.

Reading a book while alternately feeling depressed and embarrassed at the poor people populating its pages is not what I’d call an entertaining read.  As a writer I recognize that only an excellent writer can maintain a consistent, unbroken sense of depression and ennui through a hundred and twenty pages.  Shweblin is enormously talented; she did this on purpose.

It’s not a choice I would have made myself.  I understand that there is a certain amount of this sensibility in literary fiction but, even when writing in that genre, I try to keep the stories and characters more interesting.  I suppose that the difference is that I deviate just a little more from the everyday.

Speaking as a reader, I would love to be able to enjoy the characters, to find them interesting, likeable or entertaining as opposed to perfect recreations of my more annoying neighbours.  This book failed in that respect despite the fact that it would have gotten full marks in most creative writing classes–and despite all of its prizes.

Anyway, I hope I’ve given an objective review of the volume–you can decide for yourself.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own book of literary short stories is entitled Love and Death, and you can buy it here.

 

 

Woolf Comes Out Second Best

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce

Perhaps she was tired of the comparisons, or of being perceived as a practitioner of someone else’s art form, but when Virginia Woolf famously dissed Ulysses–and she held absolutely nothing back in her assault–she created one of the unintentional ironies of the time.

Her criticism came after she had written the subject of today’s post: Mrs Dalloway.  Incensed by the comparison between her work and Joyce’s magnum opus, she claimed that Joyce was just striving for effect, doing schoolboy tricks to make his work stand out.  She also claims to have been bored by the book and abandoned around page 200… so I assume she never read Molly’s sentence at the end, which would likely have enraged her…

Now, while I’m not going to say that Ulysses is either fun or particularly entertaining–and she joins millions of other readers in having given up on the Joyce–calling any book boring is a bit rich coming from a woman who defended Middlemarch–a paragon of absolute stultification–as one of the few novels suitable for grownups.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s problem is that, unlike Joyce, she appears not to have realized–at least in this book, I still need to read To the Lighthouse to give a final verdict–that interior monologue doesn’t need to be prim and proper.  Where Joyce delves into the deeper depravities of the psyche, Woolf contentes herself with excellent writing and conventional morality.

Joyce has been proven right by history.  His work is more widely read today (or more widely abandoned, at least), and the prurient passages are a big reason for it.  I bet millions of undergrads have opened the book to scan for the masturbation scene.  And the schoolboy tricks–the endless sentence, for example–have attracted an equal number.  I’ve heard Molly’s monologue referred to as “that sentence”.

In contrast, Mrs. Dalloway is… properly experimental in form.  (No matter what we might think of the plot and its comparisons with Joyce today, we need to remember that Woolf was helping to build the foundations of modern fictional style.  Even if her work is dull by today’s standards, it is still hugely influential).  But it’s boring and unmemorable.

My conclusion is that Woolf encountered the same problems that Joyce did in the development of modernist literature: where to cut off the internal monologue to keep the reader from becoming bored.  Joyce decided to use the literary equivalent of clowns and dancing bears to keep his readers with him, while Woolf stuck strictly to the manifesto.

Joyce, apparently, chose more wisely.

So Woolf still has one book that I recommend heartily, A Room of One’s Own, but apart from that, I’ve been unimpressed by both her fiction and her criticism of others’ work.  Perhaps To the Lighthouse will change all that, but I’m much less enthusiastic about reading that than I was after reading A Room of One’s Own.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer with more than two hundred published stories.  His latest collection is Virtuoso, which you can check out here.

An Eclectic Review Publication

From the Earth to the Moon - Swimsuit scene

Anyone truly fascinated by literature, as I am, will, at some point (probably sooner than later) spend a certain amount of time reading critical work.  In my own case, it just felt like a natural progression from reading a lot to learning about the writing. Heck, I’ve even discussed some of these reads here on CE.

Likewise, the leap from reading criticism to writing it felt natural.  Although I still write a lot more fiction than criticism (what I do here on CE isn’t real criticism, it’s more an exercise in exteriorizing my own feelings about books without spoiling them for others).

The first inkling I had that my critical thoughts might be worthwhile to others was when I sent The New York Review of Science Fiction an article about the relative merits of science fiction in the West and behind the Iron Curtain in the sixties and seventies… and it was published.

The best part of that was that I received a short subscription to the magazine.  I downloaded the PDFs, printed them out… and was amazed.

The New York Review of Science Fiction logo

Here was no-holds-barred criticism about… everything and anything under the genre sun (suns?), some of it extremely tenuously linked to the genre, but all of it thoughtful.  The depth of scholarly musings on subjects that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me was simply stunning, and the concentration with which these publications had to be read surprised me.

I subsequently published another piece there, and received another subscription, so let me use those as an example of the kind of thing you’ll find there (the samples are from December 2016 and August 2017).

Apart from my own piece (about SFF in Brazil), you’ll find an analysis of Gregory Benford’s fiction looking at from a pure definition standpoint, as well as a scholarly search for the true origins of a vegetable caterpillar found in Ripley’s… and several literary examples thereof.  And these are just the cover stories of one of the issues!

The rabbit hole gets deeper, the scholarship becomes more specialized and you often find yourself reading about books you’re not familiar with… and writers you haven’t even heard of.

Sound like a recipe for boredom?

It isn’t.  Or at least it isn’t to me.  To me it’s the distilled essence of why I read in the SFF genre in the first place, a celebration of blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality as well as those between different literary genres.

I also understand why no less than the late, great Gardner Dozois always mentioned this publication in his annual Summation… and why he never failed to add the word “quirky” to his description.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novella Branch is both quirky and thought-provoking.  You can check it out here.

Action Packed Medieval Fantasy

There are a lot of fantasy series out there, and I seem to be reading each and every single one of them.  Each has something that makes them attractive – my writeups tend to focus on what that is, and I’ve enjoyed each in its own way.

Perhaps the nicest thing about a series is that sense of being reunited with old friends when you crack a new book open.  It’s a comfortable feeling, perfect for readers who don’t always want to be challenged, and who enjoy stories that take a loooong while to tell.

At the Gates of Darkness by Raymond E. Feist

Of course, some of these series demand more from the reader, while some give more pure entertainment and joy.  Topping the list for the second quality is Raymond E. Feist’s long-running Riftwar series.

I started reading these books when I was about fourteen years old… and have loved them ever since.  They are among the few thick books that require almost no effort from the reader.  They grab you by the arm and take you for a ride.   Time flies by almost imperceptibly, and so do the books themselves.

Critics, of course, will say that the reason for this is twofold.  First, that I am an uncritical reader and, secondly, that Feist is not a good writer.

They are wrong, as critics usually are, especially postmodern critics, on both counts.  I am a very discerning reader who reads widely across a number of genres (just flip through the posts on this site for random examples).  The problem is that I define a good book as one that does what it sets out to do and does it well.  Critics define it as a book that meets their particular literary / political / sociological pet peeve.  This is why critics are made fun of.

The other place they are wrong is in calling Feist a bad writer for his smooth, fast-paced, uncluttered, prose.  Every time I read a critic bashing a writer for transparency, I always suspect that this is a critic who tried to write clearly and failed.  This wouldn’t surprise me in the least.  As a writer, I have nothing but respect for my peers who can drag you along almost against your will.  The men and women who cause you to finish a book before you realize it are masters of the craft–even if their chosen milieu is more popular fiction than high literary expression.

So, if you’d like a good ride, you can do much worse than to pick up a Feist volume (my advice–start with Magician.  The one pictured above just happens to be the most recent one I’ve read).  And then turn off your inner critic and enjoy the journey.

 

Gustavo Bondoni also writes fantasy.  His book The Malakiad was published in 2018.  It’s both funny and poignant.  OK.  It’s not poignant, but it is funny as hell, as befits a book whose main character is called Kopulus.

 

 

And One That Didn’t Quite Make the Grade

The other book I ordered from Folio along with Notes from a Small Island was yet another classic on the cusp from a contemporary writer.  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is another beautifully produced edition, but it didn’t, in my opinion, live up to its promise.

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy - Folio Society edition

The problem here is the content of the book.  No matter how perfect the binding or evocative the illustrations, it’s hard to turn an exercise in experimental fiction into a good read.  Even worse, this book is saddled by the yoke of postmodernism…

So, of course, the critics loved it, lauded the way it plays with the tropes of detective fiction, and basked in its empty nihilism and lack of definition.  After all, we were in the throes of destroying all that had come before and exposing the falseness of underlying assumptions.

And I guess in that, they were correct.  As a piece of postmodern art, this one could be a hell of a lot worse.  By using the structure of a detective novel, at least it doesn’t descend into complete navel gazing, as there are actually things going on, even if they aren’t quite as entertaining as the things that go on in real detective novels, and if the ending isn’t as satisfying as they are in, say, a good noir book.

Perhaps that’s what hit me the hardest on this one.  I’m going through a phase where I’m enjoying noir enormously, and I feel that an author of Auster’s caliber (even here, it’s obvious that the man can write, if he had so chosen) could have done something truly special with the form.

But no… postmodern sensibilities won out.

I often wonder if anything postmodern will be part of the canon in a few years time, or if it will all be consigned to the rubbish bin of history like the dead end it is.  Perhaps a few pieces of postmodernism will survive, in the same way that a few bits of modernism have reached us as illustrations of their particular form.  Perhaps Folio is right and Auster’s trilogy is one of those pieces that will represent the movement going forward.

But I doubt that much else will last.  Cynicism and irony are great if savage and loaded, not when they replace a shrug and a sigh.  The postmodernists are not as jaded as they want to make us believe… and it shows int heir weak output.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside explores posthumanism without attempting to be too optimistic or too pessimistic about it.  But realism can be quite shocking, too.

 

Inscrutable Seventies Spies

The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin by Brian Freemantle

Brian Freemantle was not a name I was familiar with, but the book–an old paperback from the seventies–was sitting, unloved, in my parents’ library, so I grabbed it and tossed it into my TBR pile.  Eventually, The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin cycled through and I read it, not without some misgivings.

While I will be the first to admit that this isn’t exactly classic literature to rival The Great Gatsby for the title of the greatest book of the 20th century, I found it fun, fast-paced and refreshing.  A kind of James Bond story with an anti-hero in the place of the polished secret agent.

The trick seems to be that it’s only about a couple of hundred pages long, enough to give us the good elements of a spy novel: danger, death, sex and betrayal, without the bloat that seems prevalent in all of today’s fiction.  It’s unfortunate that the American public seems to enjoy buying its books by the pound–they’re missing out.

What it doesn’t have is beautiful, drawn out descriptions, fully fleshed out secondary characters aware that they are the hero of their own story or deep reflections of the condition of man.

It a whole heck of a lot better for it, and drives home the point that genre fiction seems to have lost its way over the past few decades.  Readers aren’t drawn to a thriller of this sort to explore the inherent diversity of the modern world.  Most people don’t consume science fiction to ponder the politics of the Western World (and that’s why, in an age when the highest grossing films are all mindless SF blowouts, the written SF genre is dying a slow death) and they don’t read murder mysteries to get an up-to-date moral treatise about the state of a post-truth world.

Unfortunately, critics don’t seem to understand any of the above, and attack novels who fail to pass their silly postmodern standards despite being perfectly good manifestations of their genre.

This is why I always try to pick up books–even ones I hadn’t heard of–from earlier eras.  They remind us of what we’ve lost in this useless obsession with making everything literary.  The humorless drones of postmodernism have managed to take all the fun out of… well out of everything.

Fortunately, despite attempts at revisionism, they are still far from succeeding in removing the old stuff from circulation, or sanitizing and applying revisionist theories to everything.

Here’s hoping they fail, and the old dinosaurs come back into vogue.  If you’ve already read James Bond, then Charlies Muffin is a good place to continue!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Incursion is an action packed romp that should remind you of what science fiction used to be… and that’s a good thing.

Papa Hemingway and Caporetto

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway - With additional endings

Today, we combine a couple of our favorite topics: great literature and war history.  Of course, the very best way to do that is by reading Hemingway.

Now, old Ernest has has a tough time of it lately.  In this kinder, gentler, postmodern world, he is often cited by sad, misguided individuals as everything from a macho dinosaur to the poster boy for toxic masculinity (a silly concept which seems to be in vogue today).

While I’ll be the first to admit that Hemingway was a product of his times, I can only conclude that the arguments against his writing (as opposed to his love of bullfighting, for example) come from people who have never read his work. Sentence by sentence and as the work builds up to a greater plot, even his most virulent critics would have to shut up and admit that the guy could just plain write.  Powerful.  Deep.  Meaningful–and no unnecessary frills.  The fact that it isn’t in the least bit a feminine writing style, and that his themes seem a bit masculine, does not mean it’s bad.  Honest reviewers will accept this and move on.

Having said that, I enjoy his writing on a structural level, but I’m not a particular fan of all his work.  I found The Old Man and the Sea a bit pointless, even if it was, like everything he did, powerful in its way.  On the other hand, his short stories, especially “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” are entertaining and often brilliant.  And yes, though they ignore both modernist and postmodernist concerns to look at things that are much more relevant to actual humans, they pack a huge depth that isn’t apparent on first glance at the sparse prose.

Hemingway with a gun

A Farewell to Arms is arguably his greatest book.  Combining the First World War, a love story and some autobiographical bits, it is an excellent cross-section of what Hemingway is all about.  Even 90 years after it was first published, the book is still easy to read, still resonates with meaning and pathos.  While some of his contemporaries (Joyce, Woolfe) were experimenting with form and finding new ways to publicize their deepest neuroses, Hemingway was telling stories as old as mankind, and telling them well.

I think that’s probably the reason he is still read by casual readers while others, perhaps more celebrated by the literati, are only discussed in college literature seminars.

Was it the greatest book I ever read?  No.  I hated the ending (my question to his contemporaries is: after reading this one and The Old Man and the Sea, why wasn’t he put on permanent suicide watch?).  But it was a good one, and powerful, and the edition I had (pictured above) included a bunch of alternative endings – extremely interesting stuff for any writer: you can do much worse than to learn how Hemingway did it.

So, yes, this guy will still be read when the people today’s critics are gushing over are long forgotten.  He has a history of beating back the literary darlings.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose book Siege made him very popular for about fourteen seconds.

Eco on Literature – An Acquired Taste

I love Umberto Eco’s fiction.  I believe The Name of the Rose is utterly brilliant (to the point where I actually bought a pretty edition of the thing.  And we’ve discussed Foucault’s Pendulum here before.

Eco’s essays, for me, were a different story.  At first reading, I found them a bit dry and boring.  Perhaps a little too philosophical for their own good.  They are certainly well thought out, but you need to be very awake to fully process them.  He was not a big believer in delivering easy to understand wisdom.

Umberto Eco on Literature Cover

So the first time I read Umberto Eco on Literature, I had to read it when I was fully awake and alert, despite finding the subject matter, for the most part, absolutely fascinating.

But then, I discovered the secret to unlock the full enjoyment of this volume.  The trick lies in undersanding that these essays were actually speeches that Eco gave in different elite literary places: universities, institutes and such.

They are meant to be heard, not read.

Therein, however, lies another problem: most of these aren’t on YouTube.

No matter, I disovered.  All you need to do is to watch any English-language interview with the great man – I recommend this one – to see what he sounds like, just before starting one of the essays and, magically, as you read, you will read them in his own accent. That makes them utterly perfect.

Umberto Eco shouldn’t be anything less than brilliant.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, will likely make a lot of Greeks angry, while making other Greeks laugh.  People from other nationalities will invariably enjoy it.