Monday, April 26, 2010
My first outing as a token woman
Two years ago I made a new years' resolution not to internet-search myself, and I've pretty much managed to stick to it. This has been good for my mental health, but it does mean I can be a bit behind if someone else points me towards something. Here's something interesting: in February, the science fiction magazine SFX featured an all-horror issue which, as this blogger points out, had some serious lapses in its gender balance: naming few prominent women in its features and interviewing thirty-four people about their favourite 'hidden treasures', all of them male, and generally presenting a very male-heavy sheet.
(I am well behind the times commenting on this; here the blogger follows up, for those who would care to be more up to date than my late hide.)
I'm reluctant to attribute this to deliberate malice, though I quite agree with the blogger that it's a big mistake, and one very easy to avoid. SFX certainly don't exclude women entirely - they've reviewed my work before (and I'm not just trying to give them the benefit of the doubt because they reviewed it positively), and of the reviewers that I've met, one was female (a nice lady I encountered at a BSFA panel I'd been invited to speak at), and the other is my husband, who's occasionally written reviews for them, is male, but doesn't have anything against women - in fact, a fair proportion of the authors he reviewed were female. I do agree with the blogger, though, that this really is an oversight, and one that would be artistically as well as politically good to avoid. Horror has a long history as a male genre, but that's precisely why keeping one's eyes open for female examples of it is important, because in genres with lots of boys, female exemplars can bring a new and fresh perspective - not that women have ever been absent from it, as Mary Shelley can testify. It's a great shame to miss the opportunity, and any horror compendium that mentions me and leaves out Shirley Jackson really needs to re-evaluate its priorities.
Because yep, they mentioned me. I was the only female novelist who made it in.
Which is, of course, interesting to me for personal as well as feminist reasons. SFX interviewed thirty-four artists (all male) and asked them to name their favourite obscure or under-appreciated work, and one of them mentioned Bareback, my first novel.
This is notable in itself, as it's not the first time lately that I've shown up on a list of under-appreciated authors. This is the kind of compliment that tends to give you mixed feelings, having a certain air of 'I think you're great, isn't it a shame no one else does?' for which the complimenter cannot be blamed at all, but on the other hand, the fact that it's happening in lots of different places is rather promising. I seem to have gone from 'moderately successful new author' to 'creator of under-appreciated gems'; from there, perhaps the giddy heights of 'really successful' might be the next step. Recommendations are certainly a fine thing, and recommendations as someone who ought to be more famous than she is do carry a certain cachet. Remember, my friends, if you buy lots of copies of my book now, you might just be buying boasting rights of 'I always liked her even before she got so big'!
But to return to the point. That all the rest of them mentioned male works is something I'd blame more on the selection of people interviewed than on the interviewees themselves. The majority of my most beloved authors are female, and I'd expect most men to have male favourites likewise, not out of prejudice but simply because a book that speaks out of our own gender's experience may resonate with us more; a more balanced group might have produced more balanced suggestions. But somehow I managed to slip under the wire, meaning that Bareback has now, finally, got the set, having been classified as literary, science fiction/fantasy, crime, and now horror as well. (Romance, war and Western are probably out, but I'm not giving up hope.)
Given that I tend to shrug off genre, this broad spread pleases me no end. But I'm rather pleased and interested to note my inclusion as a horror author.
The first reason for this is that, I hope, it shows someone responding more to the spirit of the book than the superficial content. Bareback isn't exactly a traditional horror plot - nothing's hiding under the bed - but I would certainly classify it as social horror. It's a book primarily interested in the interactions between the structures of society and the psyche of the individual, in how your position in the world changes you, and particularly in how your exposure to horrors makes you more capable of horrors yourself. The heroine, if you can call her that, is exposed to werewolves, but more important is that she's exposed to a world where, at least as she experiences it, you can be sued for self-defence, you spend childhood nights unprotected from the abuses of your supposed friends, and you can be defined as a monster for trying to live the role that your society has imposed on you against your will. Lycanthropy is as much a metaphor as a trope in the book: for the heroine, the majority can turn a wolfish face towards you, and it's being a majority that makes it wolfish as much as any nocturnal shenanigans. As a result, it's a first-person narrative from a flawed narrator who is herself capable of turning a blind eye to torture, and sometimes even taking a kind of bitter satisfaction in the concept: the physical reality tends to distress her, but she's highly susceptible to the notion of the boot being on the other foot for a change. All of this takes place within a plot that involves few spooks hiding in the mirror or gateways to Hell opening up, but what you see in the mirror isn't comfortable and Hell is diffused throughout nonetheless.
So I'm happy to put on the horror hat. The other reason for this is that, while I don't really consume things by genre, as genres go, I rather like horror. As is the case in any niche genre, there's a lot of rubbish out there, but still, if you blindfolded me as said, 'Okay, pick a story: we've got one science fiction, one fantasy and one horror [to pick the categories I'm usually classed as]', I'd pick up horror every time. If literary were in there too I'd probably pick that up instead, but I don't see literary as a genre in quite the same way: if one ignores the assumption, made by genre snobs on both sides of the literary/genre divide, that something must be sci-fi or whatever instead of literary if it's got sci-fi elements - one of the silliest assumptions in the world - it's more a classification by quality than by content, and quality is a lovely thing to behold. But if, as I said, I had to pick a genre piece, horror is generally my choice.
Why is this? I think the simplest way of putting it is this: horror is a genre that, whatever its faults, always tries to invoke passion.
You can, of course, invoke passion in any genre. But in horror it's pretty much an essential: if you don't frighten the audience, you aren't working. And fear, while a simple emotion, is also a primordial one. In attempting to touch it, artists can produce images and phrases that have a kind of transcendent newness to them. And newness - not just novelty, but real, different, drawn-straight-up-from-the-well newness is a thing to love in any work of art.
Horror doesn't always do this, of course. For a genre that lives to surprise us, it's also frustratingly fond of recycling tired old tropes, especially in the movies; I'm thoroughly disgusted with Hollywood's current round of let's-remake-anything-and-everything-from-the-seventies, and not in the good, horrified-disgust way. (Do we really need another Texas Chainsaw Massacre? They did it right the first time. Do we really need another Last House on the Left, for goodness sake? Why remake a gurning mutant of a film whose main interest was in going so nastily, lollopingly far that it pretty much exists to question whether a film like itself should exist in the first place, never mind the second?) Reheated horror is boring, and that's something horror should never be. But on the other hand, at least reiteration is understood to be a problem in horror, not just at the conceptual level but at the visceral: if it's too familiar to scare the audience, it ain't working. Horror tends to go in cycles, and while that brings with it a limping brood of shoddy imitations, it also allows for the sweeping entrance of a totally new and profoundly frightening blast of cold air from outside.
As with all genres, freshness rather than imitation is where we get the really fine work. The two horror writers I love best are M.R. James and Shirley Jackson. There are, of course, many differences between the two. James's ghastly creations ('stained-glass monstrosities', in the perfect encapsulation of author Poppy Z. Brite*) creep half-invited into a world of oak-panelled cosiness where Jackson prefers to tilt the domestic at a mild, dizzying angle from the start and send us all staggering downhill. Perhaps more crucially, James was primarily an academic who wrote ghost stories to amuse his students while Jackson was more seriously dedicated to the art of fiction: James wears his genius lightly where Jackson plunges into hers with passion. But there's genius in both of them, and it comes from the same place: beginning in the world - the real world, the tactile where we all live, not the conventional world of a thousand shaken-together old tales - and looking at this world of ours with newly affrighted eyes.
If science fiction and crime are intellectual genres, horror is visceral. I think one of the reasons I love it - or at least, retain high hopes of good things despite the rubbish - is that in a way, you can classify horror in the same way you can classify literary fiction: by a qualitative rather than a content approach. If literary fiction is literary because it's well written and shows a degree of sophistication, which is basically my definition, horror fiction is horror because it frightens you. Crime is a genre of structures: there has to be a crime committed and engaged with somewhere in the plot. Science fiction is a genre of ideas: it takes a concept and bases a story on that. Fantasy is, loosely speaking, a genre of stuff: magical powers or supernatural creatures or imaginary settings or whatever props the author chooses to pull out of the cupboard or cobble together out of their own imaginations. Nothing wrong with any of those things; heck, I do all of them myself to some extent. But horror is a genre of emotion, of mental states, of passion in the author and/or the audience, and at its best this leaves room for a tremendous flexibility of thought combined with a genuine depth of feeling.
Because - and this is the other reason horror occupies a special place in my heart - it's also a genre that lends itself to the numinous. Good fiction needs some kind of line to the subconscious: there be dragons, and also vivid images, deep waters, new thoughts; the subconscious is the alchemical cauldron from which genuine art arises. And the subconscious needs fear: if we're in actual danger, our survival depends on reacting as fast as possible, and the fastest way to react is to fire straight from the subconscious without routing through all the complex upper wiring; that's why people find themselves primed for flight before they've consciously worked out that the bang was or wasn't a gunshot.
Likewise, one of the best ways to freshen one's writing is to reach back into childhood, the newness and strangeness and unignorable realness of the world that appears when we look at it through a consciousness still working hard to sort and separate the tangible from the conceptual, the seen and understood from the unknowable and the illusory. And not coincidentally, childhood is also the time of greatest fear. The monster lurking under the bed, the flickering spook in the mirror, the bad stranger who might hurt you? These are childhood terrors, primal nightmares that horror artists recreate. Children is the time of waking dreams - I still remember the terror I felt at four years old where I saw, I swear I actually saw, the green-skinned, black-nailed, vampiric hand placed with a climber's firmness at the foot of my bunk bed - and that sense of fractured reality, when you can't quite be sure that there won't be a grinning skeleton behind your bedroom door if you open it or that your parents won't suddenly bare bloody fangs and devour you, can be seen in the dislocated wrongness that haunts many horror stories where the ghost has gotten out of its grave and reality may waver at any moment.
So horror, at its best, has an ability to connect directly with the imagination, not just as thought but as sensation and emotion and direct experience. It's for that reason, more than any other, that leaving women out of it is a bad mistake: the sensations and emotions and direct experiences of people are distinct to them as individuals, but the sensations of a female body, the direct experiences of a woman in a gendered society, are not the same as the sensations and experiences of a man. The more we reach into ourselves, the more we need to hear from a multiplicity of selves. Horror can be beautiful, and the more diverse, the more kinds of beauty we will be able to see.
*Quoted from her introduction to The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Happy birthday Beverly Cleary!
Chatting about Beverly Cleary on a discussion forum today, I went to look up my favourite author of childhood to see if she was still alive. Well, wouldn't you know it? She is. And today is her ninety-fourth birthday.
If any author ever deserved a long life, it's Beverly Cleary.
Children's authors have been more on my mind of late, as I'm beginning to think in terms of bedtime reading for my expected son. (Yes, according to the sonographer, I'm going to have a little boy!) Bedtime stories were, both for me and his father, one of the golden notes that rang through our childhoods: moments of intimacy and comfort, and also moments of emotional education - where books about people like or unlike us gave us the opportunity to walk in other shoes, to learn and feel out what it meant to be a person in the world. My son may find he prefers other reading matter, of course, and if that's the case it'll be good practice in the lifelong discipline of bending-your-head-around-the-idea-that-your-kid-isn't-obliged-to-be-exactly-like-you, but it's certainly my intention to at least give Cleary a go. My mother read Cleary to me, and it was one of the nicest things she ever did for me.
For those of you unfortunate enough to experience childhood without the works of this marvellous author, a brief explanation. Cleary began her career as a children's librarian with literary aspirations, quite agreeing with children's complaints that they could never find the books they wanted: as she comments in her introduction to Henry Huggins, her first novel (written in 1949):
There was very little on the library shelves those boys wanted to read. Finally one of them burst out, and the other agreed, 'Where are the books for kids like us?' Where indeed. There weren't any.
Moved by the justice of this outburst, Cleary abandoned her first thoughts of writing a book about girls and sat down to write the story of Henry, the enterprising hero of her early work. Living in a fairly ordinary family on Klickitat Street, Henry's life is much like the lives of the children she grew up with - persuading his parents to let him keep a stray dog, raising money to buy himself a bicycle, trying to enjoy playing with friends despite the disruptions of younger siblings - and is written with an energy and compassion for the little incidents that loom so large in childhood that makes the book instantly likeable.
It's the disruptive younger sibling, though, that marks where I came in: Ramona Quimby, the wilful, turbulent younger sister of Henry's sensible friend Beezus. (Ramona's mispronunciation of Beatrice.) Oh, Ramona. One of the earliest, and one of the greatest, literary loves of my life.
What can I say about Ramona? On the surface, it's a simple story. Cleary populated Klickitat Street with children and wrote from the viewpoints of several, Ramona first getting protagonist status as a five-year-old entering kindergarten in Ramona the Pest and continuing through numerous further outings. Cleary's view through Ramona's eyes is immediate and raw, full of the natural egotism of childhood, presented with no sentimentality but with profound sympathy. How can you not love a girl who begins this way:
'I'm not pestering,' protested Ramona, who never meant to pester. She was not a slow-poke grown-up. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.
... And then, faced with the humiliating possibility of being taken to school by an older girl who likes to play at mothering her:
Nobody but a genuine grown-up was going to take her to school. If she had to, she would make a great big noisy fuss, and when Ramona made a great big noisy fuss, she usually got her own way. Great big noisy fusses were often necessary when a girl was the youngest member of her family and the youngest person on her street.
Ramona is a girl of passions, volatile, vivid and overwhelming. From an adult perspective, her moments are small: the excitement of an extra-large pumpkin for Halloween (and the fury when the family cat eats some of its face); the worry that a teacher does not like her (and teachers are supposed to like children); the deep pleasure of getting a new pair of pyjamas (and, in her reluctance to remove them in the morning, her rash decision to put her school clothes on over them while pretending to be a fireman dressing in haste, and the dizzingly hot and embarrassing day that follows) ... But there's nothing diminutive about the sincerity, the intensity, the drama with which Ramona lives her life. Ramona may be a little girl, but she isn't a small one: her personality crackles through the stories with all the blazing energy of childhood. And young though she is, Ramona's worries aren't all about trivia: the fear that her father's smoking will lead to lung cancer, the anxiety when he loses his job and the Quimbys become hard-pressed for money, the tensions and conflicts within her close but imperfect family, are all vitally present on every page.
What I can most say, as a personal testimony, is this: it is to Beverly Cleary, and the Ramona books in particular, that I think I can most trace my love of literary fiction. Childrens' books are frequently full of magic and high adventure, and while I would never knock such delightful fare, it's a rare and precious thing to find novels that deal instead with the small frictions of ordinary people - the stuff of life as I, in my childhood, was experiencing it - and make of it as thrilling and gripping a ride as any epic. More than that, even, to treat it as the stuff of genuine drama and concern, rather than as boring stuff that happens to negligible people who don't go a-questing. Because the thing is, children do go a-questing, all the time. They just have to quest for things within their reach. And it's the balance of normality and extremity, the deeply felt moments of ordinary life, that makes the books shine.
What it came down to was this: Cleary draws Ramona with a steady-eyed respect, far from blind to her faults, but giving her, more than any other writer I found in my childhood, both the genuine childishness and limitations of her age, and simultaneously the real dignity of a full human being. It was the first time I found books that treated real life as the tumultuous, fascinating place that I found it.
Through Ramona, Beverly Cleary told me I was not alone in the world: that my experiences were legitimate - and at the same time, not unique to me. I remember moments of actual shock as my mother read out certain passages, thinking, 'Other people have had that thought? I'm not the only one who ever felt that way?!' Ramona's periods of fear and worry, her outrage when misunderstood, her flights of imagination (and her deep embarrassment at the thought of having them exposed), her anxious expectation of being loved, her hunger to grow up and be taken seriously, all spoke to me - another imaginative, passionate, full-of-faults little girl, separated from the fictional Ramona by thousands of miles and more than a child's lifetime of years - to tell me that I was a human being, connected by common experience to the rest of humanity.
Would I have grown up to love adult books that treated people's internal lives as legitimate subjects for a story without Ramona? Probably; if I hadn't had a yearning for such books, Ramona might not have struck me so strongly as she did. But in a world full of fun books about children taking on magical adventures that real children never could - not only because of the magic, but because they often required attributing quasi-adult qualities to the supposedly child characters in order to get them through - it was something truly special to have what were, in effect, mainstream books for children: books that set aside every priority except the feelings and lives of real people, and treated those lives and feelings with such a natural grace and depth that they became what they are in reality: filled with meaning.
So happy birthday, Beverly Cleary, and bless you. I wish you many more birthdays in health and happiness. Thank you.
Thursday, April 08, 2010
BBC in trouble!
Aside from being a producer of lots of really cool stuff, the BBC is the only media institution we have in this country that's owned by the British public rather than a corporate body - which is to say, it's the only outlet for media that has to stay relatively neutral about politics if it's going to serve its mandate rather than being owned by a hyper-rich conglomerate who have a strong interest in putting out a message that's as right-wing and corporate-friendly as possible.
Under pressure from such thugs - excuse me, commercial rivals - as Rupert Murdoch, the BBC has announced plans to cut two radio stations and half its website, apparently under the impression that feeding the sharks makes them go away.
We've seen this happen in politics over and over again. Compromising with the ruthless and greedy doesn't satisfy them. It shows them you're responsive to pressure, and they come back and back and back. If we don't hold firm now, the damage to our free press may never be repaired.
Please sign the petition here against this terrible, terrible idea. And soon, because there's some hurry involved.
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