George Saunders on useless art.
I always flinch a bit when I hear a phrase like “writers’ responsibilities.” Which writer? Who’s doing the judging/enforcing? A writer is a person who does what she likes. She makes beauty (or ugliness, whatever) in any way she wants to, just because she wants to. It has to be that way. You can’t conditionalize it. The culture has to allow this place of extravagant freedom if it is to get the gift that is art. And that gift might not do any good for anyone. It might be silly, or decadent – whatever. The critic Dave Hickey has written about this idea – that the way to weaken and infantilize your art is to require it to be useful. What art gives a culture is weird and deep and…inexplicable. Irreducible. Now, a citizen, an essayist – that’s a different story. Citizens have responsibilities, essayists are, roughly speaking, in the business of doing conceptual analysis, advocating and all of that. But an artist has to be a radical defender of the right to do useless work.
Long overdue announcements first: as of nowish, I’m co-editing the fiction section of Bull Spec alongside Natania Barron. The first two years of the magazine were a tremendous accomplishment, both as an important new genre magazine and a centerpiece for the science fiction community in North Carolina. I’ve enjoyed watching it grow and I’m honored to be a part of it now. Watch out for some big updates on the Bull Spec front in the near future, but in the meantime…
Please consider pitching in to our Year Three Kickstarter drive! There are three days to go, and every dollar counts. If the important magazine/community centerpiece stuff isn’t enough to persuade you, take a look at the rewards. Books, art, story critiques by the pros, and more. And speaking of fundraisers for badass magazines…
I think of this time of year as my “pay-what-you-want subscription renewal period,” and every year I try to remember to renew with Strange Horizons through their annual fund drive. I think of Strange Horizons as the model of what a genre magazine can aspire to be: wise, witty, and genuinely progressive, with a non-fiction section just as eclectic, challenging and imaginative as the fiction. And because (or perhaps in spite) of all that, they’ve managed to stick around for over a decade. To top it off, they’re a non-profit. So send a few bucks their way. Future You will thank you for both the excellent reading and the tax deduction. And while we’re on the topic of Future You’s wallet and reading list…
This November, Prime Books is publishing an anthology collecting the first year of Lightspeed, including my story “The Harrowers.” There are a hell of a lot of fun and thoughtful and beautiful things here, including fiction by George R.R. Martin, Alice Sola Kim, Stephen King, Charles Yu, Nancy Kress, Genevieve Valentine, Ursula K. Le Guin, and many more. I suspect Future You will want to pick it up.
As part of my current job, I take job descriptions and translate them into simpler (and usually more general) language. Today I was working on veterinary descriptions, one of which said that would-be vets would have to “participate in the euthanization of animals.” According to the translation protocols I have to work within, the only way I could translate this was “kill pets.”
To be clear, I don’t mean to criticize vets–my best friend is one, euthanasia’s often a sad moral necessity, etc–but I appreciated the directness, the clarity of the translation. “Kill pets.” When you cut through the mistakes-were-made passivity of professional language, you start assigning responsibility. And isn’t that preferable for everyone? “Kill pets” tells our prospective vet exactly what she’s going to have to do–kill people’s pets as kindly and humanely as possible–and it tells her that she’s going to have to be the one to do the killing. It’s a nice reminder that there’s a moral quality to clarity, both in fiction and elsewhere, and it reminded me of a passage from a George Saunders article (“Thank You, Esther Forbes”) that really ought to be assigned in every composition or creative writing class ever:
A petty bureaucrat writes to his superior: ‘The lighting must be better protected than now. Lights could be eliminated, since they apparently are never used. However, it has been observed that when the doors are shut, the load always presses hard against them as soon as darkness sets in, which makes closing the door difficult. Also, because of the alarming nature of darkness, screaming always occurs when the doors are closed. It would therefore be useful to light the lamp before and during the first moments of the operation.’ The bureaucrat was the ironically named ‘Mr. Just,’ his organization the SS, the year 1942.
What Mr. Just did not write–what he would have written, had he been taking full responsibility for his own prose–is: ‘To more easily kill the Jews, leave the lights on.’ But writing this would have forced him to admit what he was up to. To avoid writing this, what did he have to do? Disown his prose. Pretend his prose was not him. He may have written a more honest version, and tore it up. He may have intuitively, self-protectively, skipped directly to this dishonest, passive-voice version. Either way, he accepted an inauthentic relation to his own prose, and thereby doomed himself to hell.
Working with language is a means by which we can identify the bullshit within ourselves (and others).
Saunders goes on to say that one way we learn to distinguish more clear and honest language from evasion and elision is by exposure to the former, and I think that’s true. I have that last line, the one about bullshit, posted on the wall in my office. It’s a useful reminder for those times when I start to feel that writing stories or working with language is frivolous, and I think it makes a nice foundation for the mission statement of any writer/editor/teacher. We’re at war with bullshit. Hard to argue with that.
My new story “The Harrowers” is up at Lightspeed. The magazine describes it as “a tale of shotguns, zombies, whiskey-drinking, and salvation,” which it is, but I can also personally guarantee a dystopian Asheville, North Carolina, several unhappy outlaws, and roughly a dozen bioengineered monster bears. Hopefully that all adds up to an enjoyable story. You should definitely check out the audio version, read by Stefan Rudnicki, because it’s the best and most badass reading I could have hoped for.
You can also pick up an ePub copy of this month’s issue, including a timely interview with the director of SETI, as well as fiction by Tessa Mellas, Alastair Reynolds, and Nancy Kress. (Side note: Beggars in Spain really got me into science fiction as a kid, so sharing a table of contents with Kress feels both humbling and bizarre.) The ebook should be available for the Kindle shortly, and I’ll post a link when it’s up. In the meantime, check out the story, and let me know what you think either here or over at Lightspeed.
has been a little wintry.
But relaxing! And I really, really needed relaxing. Good to see the family, good to see Virginia, and I’ve finished some books. Adam Roberts’ New Model Army is almost as good as Yellow Blue Tibia, which is to say that its narrator, Antony Block, also worms his way into your head in order to narrate your life, just maybe not quite as cleverly or permanently as Skvorecky. The Wavering Knife, Brian Evenson’s fifth story collection, felt inconsistent but ultimately worthwhile — the best four or five stories are worth the price of admission, and even the filler is inspirational in a writerly sort of way, but it feels like there’s an awful lot of filler. Evenson reminds me of Michael Chabon in the sense that his style is so rich, reading him makes me impatient to sit down and write myself.
Also saw The Adjustment Bureau. Devin Faraci’s review at Badass Digest is right on the money: it is indeed the sweetest Philip K. Dick adaptation ever. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have fantastic chemistry, and John Slattery is perfect as a weary, bumbling agent of fate. This is a movie where even the bad guys are pretty decent people, and the worst thing that happens to anyone is basically a playground injury. And somehow that works — it feels like a Miyazaki film in both the simplicity of its magic and in its desire to believe the best about not only people but the universe. It’s maybe not always a very bright movie, but it’s awfully charming.
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