From Charlotte Cuevas’ new blog project, wherein she committed to writing 52 flash fiction pieces in a year. Last week’s was also pretty damn good. And if you’ve never read her 365 Poetry Project, check it out as well.
I’m somewhat getting back into my blogging schedule, though I’m still not sure if I like the various things I do on the various days. If you have suggestions, send me a note. I’m up for just about everything, as long as it doesn’t involve pepper spray. Still, I’ve found a few things that inspired me over the past week, so I’m going to drop them at your doorstep and see what you think.
In addition to the Malazan series that I’ve been working through for the last twenty months (I’m in a curious place where I really want to know how the series ends and really do not want to step out of that world) I’ve been reading a lot of novellas and old fiction. Really old fiction. From the Völsungasaga:
Better to fight and fall than to live without hope.
In context, this is referring to the death of one of the Völsung Kings, that family of larger-than-life heroes that gave birth to The Ring Cycle, Beowulf, and The Lord of the Rings, among others. I picture most of the heroes in this as something of a cross between Conan and Robocop, and not more than a passage goes by without reminding me of a similar trope in fantasy fiction. But this quote resonated in another fashion. For those of us who struggle with depression or other mood disorders, this passage is significant. Or at least, I took a different layer of meaning to it.
And perhaps this is another reason I read the old myths. True, I have to read them in doses, since they are nowhere near the same fashion of fiction that I grew up reading. But like most things you take in small doses, it’s well worth the effort. In an article from The A.V. Club about six years ago, Keith Phipps made the argument that if he could, he’d convince everyone to read The Canterbury Tales.
And—and this is where I tend to lose people—not in translation, either. It takes about half an hour to learn the basics of reading Chaucer’s Middle English, assuming it’s well-annotated, and the payoff is worth it. It’s another language, sure, but it’s a language you already know on some level, just waiting for you to reclaim it. You may never read Dante in Italian or Flaubert in French, but reading Chaucer in its original form is the birthright of anyone who speaks English.
That phrase, “the birthright of anyone who speaks English,” holds true for anyone who reads fiction and wants to get to the roots. The early epics… this one, the Eddas, Snorri Sturlson, Beowulf, The Niebelungenlied, and many others I’m neglecting to mention or haven’t gotten around to reading yet… are the root of epic fantasy. Without the epic, we’d have no Tolkien, and none of the authors who inspired him. Reading these works is like peeking at the source code that runs the application that is modern fantasy literature, to use a programming analogy. It’s like getting a sneak preview at what makes our mythic mind tick.
That’s the tease for today, and the inspiration I myself need to finish this story and study a bit more as well.
EDIT: Holy Crap, I forgot to link back to the blog Should Be Reading. Among other things, it hosts “Teaser Tuesday,” where readers and bloggers tease two sentences from the book they’re reading, (I just quoted one, but then I talked about it for three paragraphs, so I hope that’s okay.)
Today’s Banned Books post is going to be short, sweet, and to the point, since I have a few other things to put up in the course of the day, and I still have to finish a story for an end-of-month deadline. Researching today’s book also dragged up a lot of memories that I’d like to nail down to actual facts and share with you. But for now, we’re just going to talk about one book, Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, and the country which saw fit to ban it as an affront to its morals. This particular country’s government was so concerned that its citizens might be led to do things that were immoral, rude, or anti-Christian, that they completely banned the book. I’m talking about South Africa. Apartheid South Africa, in particular. The book was banned from the early 70s to 1993.
Good thing they had every other problem settled, right?
As a side note, I’m most definitely not a Satanist (Jewish-Taoist more than anything else) but Satanism, at least Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, does not equal Devil Worship. At its core, it’s worship and idealization of one’s self. The label definitely stirs up a visceral reaction among people who hear it, though.
Later, maybe we can talk about Satanic Panics… especially the conviction in the 1980s that every town hosted a Black Mass that kidnapped children from day cares and made them eat babies because a Judas Priest record told them to do it, and other such nonsense that people actually believed. I blame the extreme amounts of hairspray floating around.
Today is the 77th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. I was going to post a small review of this book, or a little bit about what it means to me, but everyone in Hobbiton is doing the same thing today. This is going to go in a slightly different direction.
I discovered The Hobbit entirely on my own when I was 8. I was in a pilot AIT program (Academically Interested and Talented), it was winter in Michigan (that curious season that lasts roughly from October to May… I think that might have been the year I wore a snowsuit under my Hallowe’en costume…) and we were in the library waiting for a bus to take us… somewhere. Not sure if school had been canceled halfway through, or if we were spending recess inside because of the snowstorm (which should alone tell anyone from the midwest exactly how bad the storm was), but for whatever reason, it was an extra library period which meant I could not have been happier. Sometime during that half-hour wait, I found a brown library-bound book that featured wonderful glossy illustrations of Dwarves, and Dragons on Treasure Piles, and other magical things. I brought it home and read it along with my Dad; I read a chapter during the day, and he read one at night.
A little while later, one of my Mom’s friends, who was something of a pleasant hippie who loved opera and weird fantasy told me that there was even more to the story than that one book, and she gave me a very tattered and well-loved copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Yes, I might have been a little young for it, and I confess to skipping over parts of it during that first reading, but the story absolutely enthralled and enchanted me. Everything in my life then was either Star Wars (which was NOT called “A New Hope,” though word-of-mouth among the kids of my time spread concepts like “The Journal of the Whills,” and “The Clone Wars” and Obi-Wan beating Darth Vader (who also was nobody’s father, not that we knew of) in a lightsaber duel) or Tolkien. I fell hard for it, and a lot of my childhood memories are still linked to which chapter I was reading. I’m not entirely sure of what my parents thought of me reading adult fantasy, but they never said anything to me, not that I can remember.
Someone who did say something to me was a man I still think of as my foster Uncle. My blood kin were all on the west coast at the time, so my parents adopted other families; Bob and Sue were my parents’ age, they had two boys my age, and I can barely remember a time when I didn’t know them. We saw each other at least weekly, if not more, we eventually went to the same church, and he and my Dad played guitar together. They were definitely family, so far as I was concerned.
One thing I didn’t know about Bob, though, was that he was a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan. Not until he saw me reading The Fellowship of the Ring and didn’t believe that an 8-year-old actually was reading and understanding that book. I don’t remember exactly what he asked me, but I do know he quizzed me on what had happened so far. From that moment on, he became my fantasy book buddy; the worlds of Pern and Prydain and The Land (of Thomas Covenant) I explored directly because of him. He also gave me a nicer boxed set of the four Lord of the Rings books, and this brings me to what I’m rather obliquely going to write about.
The books had prefaces and introductions, including one by Peter S Beagle (whom I’d later come to love as the author behind The Last Unicorn) that told me that “FRODO LIVES!” was common graffiti in NYC. But in the blurbs from various publishers in the front of The Two Towers (then and now my favourite of the trilogy, though the film version of The Return of the King is by far the best of that series) there was one that stuck with me all these years.
This… is not for children; nor is it for whimsy-lovers and Alice quoters. Neither is it a dead moral apparatus festooned with poesy… It is an extraordinary work-pure excitement, unencumbered narrative, moral warmth, barefaced rejoicing in beauty, but excitement most of all; yet a serious and scrupulous fiction, nothing cozy, no little visits to one’s childhood.
Boy, did that piss me off when I read it. I was a child, I was reading it. Who was this silly grown-up to tell me the book wasn’t for me? (I feel the same way now when I read an Internet article titled something like “Five Things You’re Wrong About” or “Six Ways You’re Stupid about History” or such.) If anything, I think that quote made me want to read it even more. And yes, there were parts where it was a long slog, especially for a kid who just wanted to read about dragons and Nazgûl and Gollum, but I finished it, absolutely amazed at the ending. And the second ending. And the third ending. I still feel a little cheated when a fantasy novel ends at the death of the Big Bad, and the heroes dont go back and perform their own version of The Scouring of the Shire. And another thing Bob did for me was tell me that I’d read the books multiple times, and he was definitely right about that. In fact, I’m gearing up for another reading, since it’s been about ten years since the last. My fantasy tastes have changed so much since that dark winter in snowy Michigan, but I’ll still always hold that series dear to my heart.
Still, that blurb stuck with me, and years later, thanks to the magic of Rivendell… err, I mean, of the Internet, I was able to find the entire review. It’s short, too short, perhaps. But in its few paragraphs we get a glimpse into what fantasy fiction was like before LOTR hit the shelves. Adult CJ understands (now) that the writer wasn’t trying to cut down precocious children (even the ones who thought they were way more literary than they really were) but rather to tell people that, not only were they not too old to read fairy stories, but they were old enough.
Here’s the essay. Also, if you don’t recognise the works he compares the book to, do yourself a favour and check them out. Some of them are greatly flawed, but it’s nice to see the influence they had on Professor Tolkien and his world.
And now I think I’m going to pull down one of Tolkien’s poems and let myself wander Middle-Earth once more.
I’ve written before about the banning of Doctor Zhivago but I thought it would be good to kick off Really Banned Books Week with this article, and another imperative to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. This truly is one of the greats of Russian literature. Boris Pasternak was a poet first, and the language of this novel, even in English, flows and resonates in a way few other novelists can manage. Also, I’ve always been a fan of being able to do things despite oppressors (whether in my country or others) desperately wanting us not to. It’s practice and preparation in case something really does get banned in this country.
Here is another article about how the CIA, working with the Samizdat (the Russian word for a unofficial publishing and distribution network… an early dark network, if you will) managed to get an important book critical of the Russian Revolution to Russians. And here is a link to its Goodreads page along with a few reviews (not by me… mine would be even more hagiographic than these) that discuss the book itself and not just its impact. Because really, that is still the best reason to read this. The story moved me to tears in places. (N.B.: You may wish to find the original translation. I’ve not compared the two, but Mr Pasternak’s widow, and many other reviewers, claim that the recent anniversary translation robbed the book of a lot of its power.)
Rating: 5/5. It does take a while to really get going, and if you’ve seen the movie, you’re going to be confronted with some of the changes they made right off the bat. Still, this is my favourite book about the Revolution, and one of the best written about that tumultuous period in our history.
I’m spending this morning working on two stories, an old one that needs revision and a new ending, and a new one that I think might have started out as an homage to 1950s-era creature features before making a left turn somewhere in the Inland Empire and downhill to Innsmouth, perhaps. Both stories are frustrating me, but I feel pushed to finish them as well. Rarely has my Muse been so insistent that I finish something. Usually she figures that her job is to just tell me the stories; it’s up to me and the squad of Editorial Elves that live in the basement of my head to turn it into something people might want to read. This time, however, she is bound and determined to make sure I type “THE END” on these things, and in a good location, too… I’m not allowed to get away with just slapping an ending on after the main plot thread is resolved. In fact, that’s the problem she had with the story I’m revising, and I believe she is holding all of the rest of my ideas hostage until I finish it.
However, this isn’t fiction, so I can get away with typing it. This is yet another rant about Banned Books Week here in the US, which starts tomorrow. Or, as I’d like to call it, Spoiled Readers Equating Mild Inconvenience With Censorship and Fascism.
First of all, let me be clear that I think nearly any kind of censorship by any government is bad. Yes, I’m sure the contrarians among us can find edge cases where censorship is justified; works that specifically and purposesly incite violence against a person or group are one such case, stolen nude pictures of celebrities would be another. But by and large, governments have better things to do than block private consenting individuals from reading what they want to read. Parents and private companies censoring things? I don’t like it, but I also don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility to intrude, either. And regardless of who or what is doing the censorship, it would seem that unless your control is complete and absolute (and in the USA, and thanks to Internet disemination, TOR browsers, WayBack machines, and vast caches of deleted material, it rarely is) the only thing an act of censorship will do is drive up demand for whatever is considered naughty. I think I’ve read two or three Playboy magazines since turning 18, and yes, I mean I really did read them, unlike the way I, err, perused them when I was 12 or 13. And the first time I tracked down a supposedly dirty book, I was bored with the blandness of it. (Then again, I started reading Stephen King when I was almost 12, so by the time I was in my late teens, I’d pretty much read it all, from canine-induced castration to sewer orgies.)
I do like how Banned Books Week calls attention to books that school districts have seen fit to remove either from their libraries or their reading lists, since it provides a window into what kids are reading, what adults are writing for them, and what scares their parents and teachers. And, well, those of us who remember their childhood… actually remember it and haven’t just painted a pleasant mural and plastered over the bad things… when we were in Junior High and High School, we all knew at least something about how people looked, how things worked, what drugs were, what abuse was, and how sexual and personal politics and bullying worked. We also all knew that it was hard to talk about it. Finding out that the adults allegedly in charge not only didn’t want us talking about it, they didn’t want other adults talking to us about it, lest we get ‘ideas’ or some such waffling and weak excuse, just made it that much harder to acknowledge or escape a bad situation. Indeed, at least one person I know had no idea she was being abused until she had a grade-school sex education class, and I’d be very surprised if her story is unique.
However, I still draw the line at calling what we do in this country ‘banning books.’ The books are still available. No one is getting jailed or killed because he has a copy of The Catcher in the Rye or Deenie. Police aren’t entering homes looking for copies of Ulysses. For that matter, when the people behind the publication of Ulysses wanted to force a court case in order to challenge its ban, they had to point out the book to the customs officer and insist he confiscate it. Even in the early 1980s in my tiny one-square-mile-town of Vernon, Michigan, we were able to find books if we really wanted them. And now, with more libraries than McDonalds in the US, and with many diverse sources of Internet distribution, it’s silly to say that a book is ever ‘banned’ in the US. It’s akin to a five-year old scraping his knee in the driveway and then screaming that his leg was chopped off. And one further note to school administrators: kids and teens know about the Internet. If there’s a library in their town, or if they have a friend with Internet access (or if they have it) they are most likely going to find whatever you ban. Sorry to have to break it to you this way. It’s hard to plug a hole in a chain link fence.
Do your part to fight the removal of books from school and public libraries. If you have children, talk to them about what they read. That’s what my parents did. They only once told me that I wasn’t ready to read something yet but they also took their time to explain why, and I took their word for it. (Yes, this was before the hormonal shitstorm that was my combined experience of incipient bipolar disorder and puberty hit; I was able to talk rationally once in a while.) With other books and shows, they would explain what they didn’t like about it, or what they did like. That’s the absolute least you can do for your children, really. The same directive goes for librarians and teachers and administrators. Don’t ban the books. If you think it’s a piece of sensationalist sexist racist trash, explain why you think that and let people decide for themselves. And please, please, PLEASE stop calling the mild inconvenience of people living in the age of greatest literacy, intelligence, and information distribution ‘banning,’ or ‘fascism.’ You do nothing but show your unawareness of what the rest of the world is up to when you do that.
For my part, I’ve decided how I’m going to spend the rest of Banned Books Week. Every day I’m going to highlight (and in at least two of the cases, review) a book that was really and truly banned… meaning, people went to jail or died for publishing, diseminating, or reading this book. This is my effort to show that we really and truly are spoiled here in the US when so many cheap or free books are to be had virtually anywhere. Also, I hope to point out, as citizens of the world, that there is still work for us to do when it comes to setting information free. Comments are of course more than welcome.
Have a great week!
In the annals of Things I Really Wish I’d Thought Of First, here is a list of all of Stephen King’s novels, summarised in a single tweet. Some of these are beyond brilliant.
Good morning folks. Thanks for gathering here with me today. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve taken this time to talk to you about a problem I’ve seen in the independent writing community, one that I really hope eventually goes away but might need a nudge or two from those who know better. And really, anyone reading this page knows better, or should. I’m talking about the problem of writers stealing books.
Obviously, I’m not talking about shoplifting* or even armed robbery of a Barnes and Noble delivery truck. (That exact thought may or may not have crossed my mind in the past. We’ll discuss that later, after my lawyer says it’s okay.) I’m not talking about plagiarism either, or the shadowy concept of ripping off someone’s ideas. The former is easy to prove and document, especially in the Internet age, and is universally hated already, and the latter… well, there are really only so many ideas out there. Any experienced writer already knows that the ideas aren’t nearly as important as the way you tell the story and the talent and skill you’ve invested in developing a voice, a voice that other readers will want to experience.
No, I’m talking about online book piracy. It’s tempting to do this, especially if you want to refer back to a book you’ve read before. Or maybe you just want to see if you want to read something, and the book winds up staying on your hard drive long after you’ve ‘previewed it’ to the last page. And even though there are literally millions of free books online (I literally mean literally there… it’s a shame that we have to literally specify that, now, though this author is happy enough that he doesn’t have to write this in Old English, that he can tolerate a changing language) it’s sometimes a matter of finding something a fellow writer recommended, or having to deal with a random wild hair that tells you you need to read that exact something and you need to read it now.
I’m not going to say I’ve never done this myself. And while I can’t speak for all writers, and I sincerely hope I’m not speaking for all writers, I suspect that more of us than not have made copies of books that we weren’t precisely entitled to. This is dangerous.
In my particular case, I made the leap to delete anything I had from a working writer that wasn’t legally acquired, freely or otherwise, because I realised that I was debasing my own work. By deciding that my need to read a new book right now trumped the right of the person who had done the work the right to make a couple of dollars from it, I was conterfeiting my own artistic effort. Why should I get any kind of money for my writing if I myself didn’t want to pay other writers? It was a hard choice… a few of the ten or so that I deleted were in a series of which I own other books, and I have always been quite the completist… but the right thing is very rarely ever easy to do. (It’s also almost accompanied by violent rationalisation by my inner voice… not the nice one, the other guy… who screams louder and louder the more the rest of me realises that something has to be done.) I suppose I’ll always want to preview things, or find the complete source of a quote or passage, but I will also have to force myself to be honest and remove anything with a shady provenance
As I launch a new phase of my writing and programming career, I thought it was necessary to start on as blank a page as possible. I can find books at the library, or through interlibrary loan, or on Project Gutenberg, or on Amazon Daily Deals, or through countless other legally free sources. I myself don’t have the greatest income right now, between trying to build a freelance career, a programming career, and studying, but I have enough to survive and to not be small and petty in my public behavior. I also really can’t stress going to the library enough; if we as writers don’t support them, they may just close on us. I strongly advise anyone reading this to do the same. If we support each other, we can support ourselves.
* I mentioned shoplifting. I truly believe that an author would never shoplift a book, especially if he or she knows what it takes to produce one. Conversely, anyone who does steal a book ceases to be an author, or at least ceases to have any right to be paid for a piece of work. However, I feel (I hope) that this is something that even the worst authors would never stoop to, so I chose not to focus on it.