Easter Gothic | BILA, Camilla, Inheritance

Easter is approaching on this once-aggressively Catholic island, which is only marginally less so nowadays, as this snap I took a couple of days back gloriously, dramatically illustrates:

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Easter of course also means spring in full swing, and the twisty turny weather that it brings with it has left me feeling a bit ‘off’ on a few days here and there, where drowsiness becomes the order of the day and where you feel abandoned to the mercy of the uncontrollable climate-gods and their whims — they are in you, controlling your moods and there’s not much you can do about it. Both humbling and annoying in equal measure, but I also know it’s nowhere near the deluge that is the summer-swelter juggernaut, for which I am subconsciously preparing with no small amount of trepidation.

But come rain on shine, my penchant for the cooling moods of Gothic melodrama will remain unquelled, and it’s not just the above photo that stands as proof of this. Recently, the punk-metal band BILA (no, they’re not all that sure about their genre-configuration either — I asked) got me on board to participate in the music video for their song ‘Belliegha’, in which I was tasked to play a folk monster by the video’s director, Franco Rizzo.

The no-budget, three-day shoot ended up blossoming into a glorious display of pulpy goodness, and it was about as fun to shoot as it is to look at, I reckon. You can check out the whole thing here. For those of you on the island and keen to hear more, BILA will be performing at Rock the South on April 14.

The Belliegha’s aesthetic certainly lies on the (deliberately) crummier side of what I’ve just been talking about, but we also had a chance to once again showcase our more elegant attempt at the Mediterranean Gothic during past couple of weeks, as the National Book Council invited co-writer/director, producer Martin Bonnici and myself to speak about our short film ‘Camilla’ at the Campus Book Festival.

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Flanked by Martin Bonnici (left) and Stephanie Sant (right) at the Campus Book Festival, University of Malta, March 29, 2019. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

The event was focused on adaptation, translation and subtitling, and to this end we were thankfully joined by Dr Giselle Spiteri Miggiani from the translation department, and someone with tangible experience of subtitling for television and cinema.

Despite having premiered back in November, it feels as though ‘Camilla’s journey into the world is only just beginning. Some encouraging feedback and an overall sense of enduring satisfaction with the work as a whole — bolstered by the memory of just how smooth a project it was to put together — leaves me with a decidedly un-Gothy optimism about its future.

But true to the spirit of fertility, resurrection and renewal that also characterises this season and its many associated festivals, there’s another bun in the oven that appears to be just about ready for consumption.

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After some five-odd years of rumination, regurgitation and tinkering, the fifth draft of a horror feature I’ve been working on under the auspices of the aforementioned Martin Bonnici appears to be production-ready.

Of course any number of things can happen in the run up to finally getting this thing filmed, but I can’t help but let out an extended sigh of relief at finally finishing a draft of ‘Inheritance’ that’s about as smooth as I’d like it to be — with the required suspension of disbelief being dialed down to a minimum, the dialogue as lived-in as it’s ever been, and the narrative beats aligned to both character motivation and the story’s thematic underbelly.

I’ll have to keep mum on details for the time being, not least because a jinx at this stage of the film’s evolution would be particularly heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that the project marks the fulfilment of a vow made back in 2014, on national media. A vow to make the Maltese cinematic space just that little bit punkier and weirder.

This all feels like good juju, since summer is approaching. And carving out a pretty alcove of darkness feels like just the thing. Take it away, Banshees…

banshees

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Palermo & Other Pulp

Haven’t updated here for a while (he says, as if we’re still in Livejournal-world, as if our ‘updates’ aren’t energetically diffuse and many across various platforms now), though I’ve been wanting to for quite some time.

It hasn’t happened for the usual reasons — as ever, time and energy — though a meditative pit stop over at the blog would have been just what the head-doctor ordered (if I still visited one, that is, so this is all speculation).

Hectic times require a time-out, but sometimes a time-out is not possible because hectic time leaves very little time for anything else. As the current leader of our supposedly “free” world might say, “Sad!”.

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So while my nerves are in a slightly calmer state at this point in time, as I sit back at home freshly showered and returned from a long weekend in Palermo, the mind remains scattered, and this blog post will be scattered too. In fact, I will use it in an attempt to un-scatter the mind as much as possible. It will be bitty. It will be chaotic. But it will also be, I think and hope, true. 

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Speaking of scattered, ramshackle, shambolic and words of that type — pejoratives designating ‘chaos’, as the Pedant Mind would perhaps put it — I have thoughts on the Tom Hardy-starring Venom. Though this is mostly because I’ve been paid to have them, and the result of all that can be read through here at your leisure should one be so inclined.

But beyond what I thought about this uneven and certainly messy corporate love child between Sony and Marvel, the reaction to the film also gave me feelings.

A big fuss was made on how audiences and critics were divided on this one — with the punter giving the thumbs up while the boffins gave it a thumbs down — this isn’t really the talking point that impressed me the most. Though it’s certainly interesting that the divide was so great this time around, what got to me is how critics in fact kept bringing up the issue of ‘tonal consistency’ as the main problem with a film like this.

Colour me unconvinced, because tonal consistency is the last thing I’d expect from a film like this, and if that really is a sore point for you in a film about a gloopy black alien ‘symbiote’ looking for a human host to get psycho with (on? through?) then, you know, priorities.

If anything, tonal consistency is really something we could do with far less of in mainstream cinema. The Marvel Studios film may hit the mark way more often than when they miss, but it’s hard to deny that their over-curated approach hampers style and invention.

A recent example of the opposite approach worming its way into the mainstream is Gareth Evans’ Netflix Original feature Apostle. Sure, it’s a mess that outdoes Venom on the ‘grace and coherence’ front — feeling more like a mini-series cut down to feature length size (while remaining lumberingly sizeable all the same) and whose sudden shifts and escalations will have one believe Evans way maybe — just maybe — taking a teensy bit of a piss as he hammered out the script for his own feature.

But it’s also a delightfully bonkers ride that plays with your feeling with the same intensity it juggles genres. Anything can happen in the manic micro-climate that Evans has created, and very often it actually does.

It strikes me that ‘tonally uneven’ stories are actually the best suited format for popular narratives. Are the folk tales we told ourselves by the campfire for centuries ‘tonally consistent’, for example? (They may be formally rigid – but that’s another thing entirely.)

I want my mainstream blockbusters messy. Because anything the alternative appears to be a deliberate flattening of nuance and the random energy that seeps into a work and makes it its own.

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Hope does show up in strange places, though. Just as we were about to board the flight to Palermo, I decided to go against my usual habits and actually pick up those collated Panini UK editions Marvel appear to have designed specifically for airports.

One of these anthologised and slapped-together storied featured a Ghost Rider-Venom hybrid. Now that’s the kind of pulpy chaos that I wanna see in these things.

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Speaking of things that are best left messy, Palermo was an utter delight. One does not want to romanticise decay and deprivation too much, of course, but coming off from our own Capital of Culture year — an initiative that actually extols the opening of over 40 boutique hotels in Valletta as something positive — witnessing the crumbly decadence of Sicily’s capital city, especially during their own run at an international contemporary arts festival (Manifesta 12) was nothing short of inspiring.

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While similarities to Sicily and Italy certainly abound — though the climate is ever milder and the Arabic influence is very much felt in the architecture too, sliding into the Maltese language instead over here — my impression this weekend is that where Malta is over-curated, Palermo runs on a kind of studied neglect.

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I couldn’t imagine the Maltese artistic establishment to ever work up the nerve to display artworks in an exhibition commanding international renown with as casual and lax an approach that we found at Manifesta 12; weaving through palaces long past their hey-day, and — one assumes — walking a precarious tip-toe across health and safety regulations.

In Malta, we are perhaps a little bit too afraid to fail. But that fear clamps down any nooks and crannies of possibility that may open up.

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Back in Malta now though, and a crazy week of deadlines will hopefully give way to a long-awaited month to geeky opportunity and plenty. First out of the gate is a talk my dear friend and collaborator Stephanie Sant and myself will be giving at Malta Comic Con, concerning out short film ‘Camilla’, which you can read more about here.

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‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant) stars Irene Christ (left) and Steffi Thake, and premieres at the Malta Book Fair on November 10

But wait! The real hook here is that the event will also serve as the trailer premiere for our short! So should you be at Malta Comic Con this weekend — and you definitely should be, given that it’s the 10th anniversary edition of one of the most enthusiastically put together and consistently strong celebrations of comics and pop culture on the island — do stop by on November 3 at 15:00 to watch the trailer and hear us speak about the evolution of the project.

I will also have a table at the Con all weekend, and would very much appreciate chatting to whoever passes by (I mean it — despite my lowkey misanthropy still going strong after all these years, these things can get dull for long stretches, to the point where human interaction suddenly becomes a welcome prospect).

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More stuff! 

I will be chairing the Literature in the Diaspora conference at the Malta Book Festival on November 7 at 19:00. I will then be having a one-to-one live interview with one of the conference’s participants; the fiercely intelligent Croatian writer Nikola Petkovic, on November 8 at 17:30.

‘Camilla’ will then premiere on November 10 at the MA Grima Hall of the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. The show starts at 20:30, and also forms part of the Malta Book Festival.

And after that’s done, I jet off to Glasgow to see Slayer and a bunch of other nutcase-loud bands. But that’s a story for another day — should I survive it, and whichever shambolic shape I’ll be in at the time.

 

Asking for permission

The island and the island

You need to ask permission before doing anything, anything at all.

This remains one of the most persistent take-aways from growing up as an immigrant — or as the official lingo would have it, a “third country national” who in the estimation of the host country’s powers-that-be, is kind-of-like-us, but not quite.

When lining up in special queues for the airport becomes a matter of standard procedure, even familial habit. When even securing permission to take that same trip requires its own previous bout of queuing and rubber-stamping and waiting, waiting, waiting.

When the limbo state becomes your true home, so that you develop habits like taking long, rambling walks alone, even when the surroundings are inadequate or ugly, rather than committing to hanging out with friends, to going somewhere outside your prescribed orbit. A headless chicken.

When anything is perceived as a risk because you quickly learn that you’re always under surveillance — turning 18 is all it takes, and suddenly your home country is calling you for military service (grandpa shoos them away by telling them you’re studying abroad) and suddenly your friends are doing light drugs they could get busted for but you getting busted would mean something far more serious. These are things you cannot ask permission for, anyway.

When getting expelled from school — your official “excuse” for being here — could also mean getting expelled from the country wholesale.

When you develop a skill at writing in a language that isn’t your ‘native tongue’, but which, luckily for you, remains the lingua franca. When you then have to deal with the niggling brain-worm telling you that you will always be second-rate, that these things are determined beforehand and that ‘learning’ to write with the requisite depth and intimacy in a language “not your own” is a delusion.

(I imagine the worm to be black and luminescent, shorter but somehow more industrious than its numerous, pale and lazy peers — all the stacked insecurities that would plague anyone else — on whom it lies like a bed, drawing in their energy before its tip turns into a sharpened drill that pokes and pokes until it draws blood. Blood which turns into scabs that you cannot help picking at, again and again.)

When you look back on these years with strange gratitude. To be clear, these are the years of supposed youthful abandon, which were robbed of any breeziness by the weight you were made to carry. But you sail past them, as in a solitary boat. Your friends are partying on a large yacht nearby, and they’re imploring you to join them. But you need to ask permission, and there’s no officials in sight.

So you sail past it all, and you reach a small rock made just for you. It’s been festering for quite some time — you’ve paid countless visits there, and planted the strange mushrooms you’ve been growing in your room for years. These are the mushrooms that expand, that can even harden into something resembling rock.

By the time you’re halfway through college, the mushrooms have grown into a spongy, stringy mass that can hold you like a hammock. You still hear the blaring music of the yacht as you hop in, proud of your construction though sad that your friends can’t join you. Not just yet.

But the hammock brings you calm, and from this calm comes gratitude. It swells in your breast with the knotted, unexpected and freakish deliberation of your mushrooms. Because, as they grow tired of yelling at you to join them on the yacht, one by one your friends borrow the yacht’s lifeboats and pay you a visit themselves.

They groan, they complain. I was so free, and now life it taking over. When I was a kid, I felt so innocent, I didn’t have a care in the world. Now, I can only care for the world itself.

And you feel grateful. You feel grateful for being spared this pain, at least. Because you don’t ever remember childhood to have been carefree. You don’t ever remember having the luxury of forgetting about the world and its machinations. As your friends begin to groan about leaving bliss behind, you start to settle, you start to experience hints of bliss yourself. You know that finally, you can build something. And that you no longer have to ask for permission.

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Otherness, exile, the diaspora.

It is of course a heady theme, and one that will haunt me till the end of my days, I suspect. I will get a chance to expound on some of the strands expressed above, thankfully in the company of a group of accomplished authors, when I chair the conference on Literature in Diaspora at this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, as well as during my conversation with the Croatian author Nikola Petkovic.

But it is also at the heart of the upcoming exhibition to be [defined]; the culminating event for this year of the RIMA project, which opens at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta on October 5 and some of which I’ve had a chance to sample, owing to the fact that V. is its curator.

With a generous geographical sweep and an open-ended approach to the question of exile, to be [defined] short-circuits hackneyed assumptions about migration and displacement, opening up a crucial space for some oxygen to get in.

These are the events that can truly serve as a reminder of how art can be a balm at times like these. How, far from being a simple distraction, it articulates something deep and true. Something that would otherwise have been little more than a worm. Difficult to articulate, impossible to communicate to others, but burrowing with great force into your mind nonetheless.

Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018 |Literary Intersections at Fort Manoel

To say that I’m deeply honoured to have been invited to participate in the 13th edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival is something of an understatement. While I can’t claim to have attended every single edition of the event, organised by local literary NGO Inizjamed, with the help of a number of crucial satellite bodies and initiatives, I certainly have fond memories of it which go way back.

I’ve covered the festival for MaltaToday back when it was still the “day job”, and you can check out some interviews on that score here and here. As it happens, the festival had also hosted one of my favourite writers, Marina Warner, and her conversation with Prof Gloria Lauri-Lucente during the festival’s 2015 edition was sensitive and illuminating, so much so that I took to Soft Disturbances to muse about it.

It is a festival put together with care, taste and conscientiousness, bringing together as it does local and international writers while boasting an unwavering political commitment that feels particularly urgent at this point in time.

I also get the impression that meeting and hanging out with the eclectic mix of writers who form part of this year’s edition — and which hail from countries as varied as Turkey, Iraq, Iceland and beyond — will be rather fun indeed.

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Press conference announcing the festival – Studio Solipsis, Rabat – July 11

This year’s edition of the festival will be taking place at Fort Manoel in Manoel Island, Gzira on August 23, 24 and 25. I am slated to present my work on the second night, and will also be participating in the following festival pre-events:

August 17 – ‘Building a Story‘ – Gozo (VENUE TBC) – 10:00 to 12:00

This presentation will use the Reljic’s recent work — both already-published and currently in progress — to explore how stories in different media can be constructed. Taking this proposition somewhat literally, Reljic will speak about how locating the right tools and devices for a given story helps to make the narrative more robust and coherent, and keeps writer’s block and other crises at bay.

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August 19 – ‘Losing my Space‘ – Malta Society of Arts, Valletta – 20:00 to 22:00

Moderator: Immanuel Mifsud
Participants: Roger West, Arjan Hut and Teodor Reljic

Nature has always been the focus of literature, a source of renewal, spiritual, pure. The relation of authors with nature has changed because our landscapes and seascapes have changed, but nature remains a source of inspiration and concern, a concern transfixed by agony. How does the lack of natural environment and open spaces translate to literature? How do we write trees and fields when trees and fields are no longer? How do we write the colour of the changing sea? Our space and light are being stolen by buildings that reach for the sky. How does literature deal with this daylight robbery? How does it document our struggle for space?

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The participating writers for this year’s edition of the festival are:

Juana Adcock (Mexico/UK) | Clare Azzopardi (Malta) | Massimo Barilla (Italy) | Asli Erdogan (Turkey) | Jean-Rémi Gandon (France) | Arjan Hut (Ljouwert, Netherlands) | Laia López Manrique (Spain) | Caldon Mercieca (Malta) | Teodor Reljić (Malta) | Philip Sciberras (Malta) | Sjón (Iceland) | Ali Thareb (Babel, Iraq)

For more information and the full programme, click here

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Short and Bittersweet | Pick of the Novellas | Neil Williamson, Immanuel Mifsud, Jonathan Ames

I like novellas. There’s something about their in-between state which really speaks to me, and makes me feel as though I can forge a more intimate connection with them than other genres and formats on either side of the word-count spectrum.

‘Full’ novels demand a commitment and immersion by proxy. They are to be consumed across various intervals, and the stops and starts make them more of an organising principle than something to be savoured — just like the prestige (or not-so-prestige) TV series a lot of them are ending up as these days, they need to be scheduled into your day until you finally complete them, before moving on to the next one.

And while the membrane separating short stories and novellas can be quite thin at times — a couple of thousand odd words here and there can land the tale in either one category or the other — there’s still something different in the experience of either.

Short fiction has the punch of the impressionistic moment in its favour — the sketch, the instant of revelation (or put another way, epiphany — as exemplified so often in that landmark short story collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners).

The novella, on the other hand, allows for the core ideas to unspool just enough to give them breathing room — at its best, it can be the perfect, attention-grabbing marriage between ‘thought experiment and narrative.

IMG_20180506_163237I thought a lot about this particular facility of the novella as I dug into The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2017). Set in a world where surveillance is paramount, the story focuses on Rhian Fitzgerald, a wordsmith for hire currently charged with ghost-writing the biography of Eloide Eagles, former lead singer of the subversive punk band The HitMEBritneys.

I was familiar with the Scottish writer’s short fiction prior to diving into The Memoirist, his first novella, and I found the same penchant for quirky ideas and sensitive portrayals of human beings — specifically, how they deal with situations that might feel off-kilter.

The Memoirist is also a masterwork in building up a near-future science fictional world without any recourse to crude info-dumping, all the while keeping the narrative threads working towards a fine, crystalline target.

This is also very much evident in his short fiction, and his amusing, politically sensitive story ‘Fish on Friday’, from the collection Secret Language, is one of my favourite examples of this… and a close thematic fit to The Memoirist, which offers a similarly low-key take on what would otherwise be considered technological dystopias.

While her subject — an aging punk rocker famous for her anti-surveillance stance — would slot in comfortably as the protagonist in more cookie-cutter cyber-noir stories, here Williamson has the far more laissez-faire Rhian experience that journey.

After watching a historical live performance by Eagles — in which she angrily denounces the new surveillance status quo — Rhian confesses to finding it “difficult to sympathise with her anger”.

“No one had ever been going to strip the public completely of their privacy. If anything, now, your private things were more private. There were clear lines. As long as you observed them, you were fine. So what if we all had to be on all the time these days? To pay more attention to our appearance and watch our P’s and Q’s a bit more, under the gaze of family, friends, schools, bosses, colleagues, clients […] It was all about being a better public person. A small price to pay for a safer world.”

Such a cloyingly ‘neutral’ position is a perfect vantage point through which we can be introduced to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, and Williamson deftly calibrates both the necessary exposition and our sympathies for the protagonist.

This is a character-driven slice of cyberpunk, with a clear idea at its centre and a satisfying structure that perfectly fits the novella format.

The Memoirist takes advantage of the narrative economy offered up by the novella, operating on satisfying narrative beats that hearken back to the noir genre that’s always lying nested in any cyberpunk work worth its salt. But while the slim, ‘movie-length’ page count can give us a certain satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, the ability to depart from narrative convention without taxing the readers’ attention all that much is another advantage of the novella, I find.

IMG_20180506_163200I certainly found this to be the case with Immanuel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem Tal-Missier (u Tal-Iben) (‘In the Name of the Father (and Of the Son’)). Nestled as it is somewhere between novella and memoir — with frequent and appropriately-footnoted recourse to literary theorists like Helene Cixous — Mifsud’s landmark work of contemporary Maltese literature, now translated into several languages, packs both an emotional and intellectual punch.

“On the 21st Dec 1939 I joined the British army and was enlisted in the 2nd Battalion. The King’s Own Malta Regiment, this regiment was stationed at St. Andrews barracks and we were instructed by the NCOs of different units. The first day that I spent at the barracks I was very happy, my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment and how to clean the Rifle.”

So Mifsud introduces us to the voice of his late father, soon after his death, and just as Mifsud has become a father himself. He plucks the entry verbatim from an old diary, and prompted by that same fount, Mifsud applies an impressive intellectual rigour to what is, clearly, also a richly emotional landscape.

Scholar, poet, prose writer… the amorphous format of the novella allows Mifsud to tap into all of his varied talents. Some of the passages in the book build precisely with the musical crescendo of a poem, but then Mifsud also dips into a rich found of contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to explore the implications of his father’s legacy on his own psyche.

It’s a profound and utterly honest work that bears revisiting, and fortunately, the novella format makes repeat readings an all the more palatable experience.

IMG_20180506_163054But the final novella I’m going to look into is so ringed with bleakness that repeat readings may not exactly be the thing you end up craving as you put it down… however, that’s not to say that Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here doesn’t encourage you to keep those pages turning… thus ensuring that you’ll likely have it done and dusted in roughly the same amount of time it’ll take you to finish its superlative film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay.

Mining a furrow of contemporary noir so dark you’d be forgiven in assuming that Ames was really just arranging the genre’s grisly puzzle pieces to get a rise from the readership (a pinprick-accuracy that is reflected in the book’s sparse style), the book finds former FBI agent and Marine, Joe, take on a case that leads him into a spiraling underworld of corruption and sexual depravity.

Though Ames certainly does get mileage out of Joe’s effectiveness at meting out calculated violence, this isn’t a book that’s dripping in machismo — which, again, gave Ramsay an excellent entry point from which to construct a tonally rich though no less harrowing thriller — but rather, in a legacy of fatherhood that’s far more toxic than anything we see explored in Mifsud’s volume.

Left to care for his sickly mother, Joe is in turn hollowed out by years of abuse at the hands of his father. His attempts to find redemption leave him stuck on a loop; he rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, but this rarely salves any of the pain left by his father — pain inflicted even by implements such as hammers. And in what becomes a clear-as-crystal illustration of the cyclical nature of abuse, hammers end up being Joe’s favourite tool of the trade because, “He was his father’s son after all.”

“Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone. It held some universal place of terror in the human mind. The unexpected sight of it raised in Joe’s hand would always momentarily paralyze his enemies, and those few seconds of paralysis were usually all he needed.”

Made up of perfectly pruned sentences that move the narrative along as if it were a film just unfolding in front of you, the adaptation feels like something of a foregone conclusion. But leaving that aside for a minute, Ames’ slim-and-grim story made me crave for more of this stuff. Because dark as it is, being able to slip into such a world in the full knowledge that the story will never drag, that its moments of violence and revelation will soon peak to a crescendo without the risk of getting lost along the way… these are the things that make me thankful for novellas.

We Need to Talk About Genre | Individuality vs Community

Argument: We divide fiction up in genres because of our chronic fear of loneliness.

I’m invested in this question, which is evidenced by my foolhardy effort to write a parallel-narrative novella incorporating both the fairy tale idiom and the very ‘real’ world, as well as my attempt at getting at what that multi-faceted mongrel genre ‘the New Weird’ is all about for a Master’s dissertation.

But first, some (recent) observations on the matter from more articulate and well-versed people than myself.

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  1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at this year’s National Book Awards

“I rejoice at accepting [the award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

 

  1.  ‘A Better Way to Think About Genre’ by Joshua Rothman (New Yorker)
Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye

“It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed. As it happens, there is such a system: it was invented by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, and laid out in his 1957 masterwork, Anatomy of Criticism.”

  1.  The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally. by Nick Mamatas (Los Angeles Review of Books)
A young HP Lovecraft

A young HP Lovecraft

“Lovecraft’s quality is obscured by his difficulty, and his difficulty is obscured by his popularity. If Lovecraft isn’t seen as a difficult writer, it is because of the pulp idiom in which he worked. [Jonathan] Franzen points to college as the place where people are made to read difficult books, but Lovecraft is an adolescent fascination. Lovecraft demands the careful attention that only a teen boy with little else to do – no high school romances, no sports practice – can muster. Lovecraft’s pulp provenance, and early spike by Edmund Wilson, kept Lovecraft’s work from being taken seriously. Only over the past twenty years, with reprint volumes via Penguin Classics and Library of America, with champions such as Michel Houellebecq and Reza Negarestani has Lovecraft earned a place in what we used to call the canon (while making quotation marks in the air with our fingers, notch).”

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These are all problems that have been burning at my brain in some form of another for as long as I can remember (slight exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way). Because I take this very seriously for whatever reason – friends and family who know me intimately can feel free to psychoanalyze away – I’m driven to find an evolutionary root to our need to divide up literature into genres, and then argue about it endlessly.

Cards on the table: if I’m a follower of any critical school on this front at all, I’m a follower of Frye’s. His organic view of genre both suits my needs as a writer and provides me with an inclusive argument about genre that, ostensibly, short-circuits going-nowhere binary arguments on the issue. Also, there’s a pervasive paradox in the way I process this whole thing: I hate the idea of genre as segregation, but I don’t want us to do away with recognizing genres, because there’s an aesthetic pleasure in picking out what belongs to which tradition.

That Edgar Allan Poe influenced Lovecraft who in turn influenced Ridley Scott and Stuart Gordon and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Nick Mamatas and Cradle of Filth and countless others, and that the details stolen from Lovecraft by each of these artists are traceable to Lovecraft but still distinct, and that this intertextual richness evokes a kind of hopeful reminder of the prodigious human imagination, as it stretches across generations.

But on a more universal note, I will suggest that genre stems from a combined need for both INDIVIDUALITY and COMMUNITY. In this pantomime debate between the ‘literary mainstream’ and the ‘genre community’, the literary side is ‘clubby’ in the original sense of the word: the domain of an elite that gatekeeps itself into a privileged minority, with all the attendant ‘real world’ social implications of that.

While the ‘genre’ community, on the other hand, is seen as a regressive ‘cult’ circle that turns its back on the ‘real world’ in favour of a vacuum-sealed aesthetic that often favours the tried and tested over any attempts at current social commentary or formal innovation (perhaps the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is an iconic example).

But this perception – the pantomime is very much a perception – is made doubly complicated by the fact that we’re discussing works of art here. Leaving aside value judgements of the individual works of art in question, the reason why the genre debate will never settle into a peaceful resolution is because we’re asking the works of individuals to answer to the needs of a community, however large and nebulous this community may be.

There will always be mavericks, trailblazers, and ‘exceptions to the rule’. But even declaring that the mavericks are all that you like places you in a double bind: each maverick will have their influences, and in each influence – much like Lovecraft’s fish-god mongrels from Innsmouth – lies a genetic code that can’t be denied, and which ties back to a tradition.

Traditions are what genre is built on, and tradition will be something not even the most opaque of ‘literary’ fiction would be able to deny… strain as it might for originality and freedom from market constraints and critical labels.

We all want to be ourselves, but none of us want to be lonely.

READ RELATED: Getting it Ass-Backwards: The Genre Binary at LonCon

Getting it Ass-Backwards: ‘Booty’ and the Genre-Mainstream binary at LonCon

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez's single 'Booty'.

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez’s single ‘Booty’.

Considering Iggy Azelea and Jennifer Lopez’s collaborative single ‘Booty’ as a pop single – complete with an accompanying promo video that is arguably more of an ‘event’ than the song itself – is, I think, a fundamental category error.

Taking the aesthetics of both the song lyrics and the video (dir. Hype Williams) into consideration, it becomes clear that what we have here is less to do with music and more to do with pornography.

This isn’t a moral statement, it’s purely a matter of taxonomy, for what it’s worth. When the morally enraged tend to point their guns at supposedly decadent pop culture artifacts, there’s often just enough ambiguity in the equation for them to come across as uptight fuddy-duddies to their opponents.

But it is difficult to make a claim for ambiguity when a song calls itself ‘Booty’ – thereby making it clear that its priorities are purely limited to amplifying the erotic appeal of the bodily feature in question. Though it could also be seen as a collaborative attempt to dethrone Nicky Minaj from booty-pop dominance, the Azelea/J-Lo duet is also something of no-brainer considering both singers have put their backsides as the forefront of their brand.

Their effort is also significantly different in degree to Destiny Child’s now-classic ‘Bootylicious’. Where Azelea/J-Lo repeatedly and aggressively thrust their sculpted backsides to the camera in an attempt to entrance us with their particular anatomical prowess, Beyonce and co. go anthemic: the song understandably became a rallying call for amply-bottomed women to celebrate their bodies. While DC don’t of course deny the intrinsic erotic value of her subject, ‘Bootylicious’ emphasizes a feel-good factor, calling on listeners to cultivate confidence in their bodies.

But as they participate in what is essentially a Booty Dream Team, Azelea/J-Lo, like good capitalists, collaborate purely to maximize their own assets (!), and empowerment for the big bootied masses is clearly not on their agenda (‘Prepare Audience For Maximum Impact’, an opening scroll teases in the song’s promo video).

It’s Booty Degree Zero, and can therefore be seen as nothing more than pornography – a fetishisation of the flesh bolstered by pinprick-precise brand management that has the advantage of a far larger budget than other productions we would be less ambivalent about filing under ‘Porn’.

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The issue of taxonomy appears to be a consistent bugbear in some of my most frequented cultural circles: namely, the field of literature, particularly the strands of what can broadly be termed genre fiction when offset against what – again, with a disappointing short-hand – can be termed ‘mainstream’ literature.

It was a distinction – one with any number of attendant polemics – that appeared once again as a consistent theme during my visit to LonCon (or WorldCon) – a predominantly science-fiction based convention that took place in London in mid-August.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Amid a rich variety of panels – it would have been physically impossible to attend enough of them to get a representative sample – I was disappointed to find that a victim mentality still reigns supreme among certain elements of the science fiction and fantasy community.

I think this reduces our – ultimately quite human and universal – need to clarify and classify into its least productive mode.

While a discussion entitled ‘When is a fantasy not a fantasy’ did yield to some cogent and perceptive observations about the ways we tend to process fantastical works of fiction, it all unfortunately returned to a rather depressing cul-de-sac: that what we’re discussing here remains the purview of dedicated fans, whose passion the ‘mainstream’ world will never understand.

This, despite the fact that “Death to binaries!” ended up being an impromptu slogan of the panel, which included among its ranks Catherynne M. Valente, Jonathan Strahan, Paul Kincaid, Graham Sleight and Greer Gilman (it was moderated by Miriam Weinberg).

'The Wasp Factory' at the LonCon Dealer's Room - an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

‘The Wasp Factory’ at the LonCon Dealer’s Room – an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

Valente, a writer whom I greatly admire for her effusive baroque sensibility and her inspired weaving of myths and folktales into contemporary and often erotically charged narratives, disappointed me by assuming a boringly predictable stance towards ‘the mainstream’.

Though it was buttressed by an interesting central point – that people who aren’t all that familiar with fantasy literature are actually more comfortable with reading ‘straight’ fantasy than any slipstream variation that mixes various narrative registers – Valente dismissively waved away “Booker Prize books or whatever” as if they’re a homogenous, over-privileged bunch that deserve our derision by default.

The old chestnut that mainstream writers use “genre ingredients” with less rigour than genre writers, often levelled at the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, was trotted out once again, with Valente observing that this amounts to “playing with a shiny new toy without reading the instruction manual”. These writers use genre elements as “just a manner, a flash of colour”, favouring emotional impact at the cost of cogent, convincing world-building.

But I would argue that these writers are to be commended for accomplishing their narrative goals without having to worry about finicky world-building details. A writer is, among other things, an illusionist: they are supposed to convince you to plunge into the world they’ve created, and they shouldn’t be “shamed” if they succeed in doing so in a way that you don’t like.

This isn’t to say that categories of literature shouldn’t exist. Beyond commercial considerations – i.e., in which section of the bookshelves you’re expected to stuff certain books in, and how you want to ‘target’ your marketing – I still maintain that it’s useful to discuss how boundaries reflect on our reading experience and expectations.

It’s a factor that the above-mentioned panel did in fact grapple with, which makes the overall notes of victimization all the more deflating.

Paul Kincaid rightly complained that “fantasy is the wooliest word in the English language” – an apt opening salvo for a discussion which then sought to edge out some particulars about this all-embracing genre, or more specifically, our perceptions of it.

While Jonathan Strahan pointed out that certain books are “demonstrably” works of fantasy – the kind of books you wouldn’t hesitate to slide into the Fantasy shelf in bookstores – and that cover illustrations can in fact powerfully calibrate our expectations of the text, almost to the point where the text is altered completely (there goes branding again), this strand of thinking also accommodated a richer part of the discussion: that it is ultimately only the reader who can define a genre.

This is where art triumphs over pornography, I think.

Pornography is not narrative. Pornography is not interested in stories. It is uni-directional: Set phasers to ‘Arouse’. Storytelling allows for ambiguity, but the best stories take advantage of established boundaries – even when they aggressively run counter to them – to maximize the effects of stories.

LonCon/BarCon - alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

LonCon/BarCon – alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

To obsess over a perceived, looming bogeyman called ‘The Mainstream’ is to miss the wood for the trees. Let’s focus our attentions instead on what the literary traditions we want to work in have left us. If it was anything, LonCon was a celebration of the kind of communal fellow-feeling that creating distinctions in the first place can create. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that these distinctions can exist to give us a starting point: to add texture to our work and our discussions.

Otherwise we risk of them turning into something they turn into all too often: marks of segregation and exclusion.

January commemoration: Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Robert Burns

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882.

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882.

One of my favourite things about the internet is the easy availability of material that has been released into the public domain.

Literature fans are especially fortunate in this regard, with sites like Project Gutenberg providing a rich variety of writings ‘only a click away’, as the cliche would have it.

One thing I like to do is to commemorate dead authors, and the internet certainly helps to a) remind me about birthdays/death days of the authors in question and b) provide me with enough material to commemorate them properly, for free.

Said commemoration usually involves just reading out something of theirs to mark the occasion. I try not to miss out on any of my favourites, dorky or obliquely cult-like as it may sound, mostly because I never really grew up with any real sense of ritual.

Books and stories are my ritual. Having grown up in a family that wasn’t in any way religious and that had to find its place in a foreign country while still getting on with day-to-day affairs, stories were always a welcome mental buttress through which I tried to make sense of the world.

I took this behaviour to its conclusion after I resolved to study English literature at university, though I may not have known it at the time.

I channel my academic years somewhat too, I suppose, when I look back at authors I want to remember and commemorate. This sense of history is important to me, but being outside of the academic sphere now also makes it possible for me to come at it more casually, playfully.

Writers commemorated this month

Edith Wharton – January 26 (birthday)

Can’t say I’m terribly familiar with Wharton’s work. Save for a BBC Radio adaptation of Ethan Frome and Martin Scorcese’s Age of Innocence, I have had no direct contact with her novels and stories. So I looked her up last Sunday and came across this, a Christian allegory that reads like a folk tale and/or, at a stretch, a fantasy story.

Again, this is probably a superficial assumption, but the story popped up as a bit of a surprise to me given that the Wharton I know is the buttoned-up early 20th century chronicler of high society – much like her compatriot Henry James.

READ: The Hermit and the Wild Woman

Virginia Woolf – January 25 (birthday)

One of my favourite authors of all time. Woolf’s work made me realise that prose fiction can explore the psychology of character in a way that is natural and beautiful, though often crushing.

READ: A Room of One’s Own

Burns Night – January 25

I never had the chance to delve into the works of Scotland’s national poet properly. But that’s one great thing about being alerted about these celebrations – they remind you of the authors whose works you’ve missed and might want to catch up with.

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With this in mind, I should really be getting back to my own fiction writing. Later!