But when I ask her about her writing routines, she laments the “shaming culture” that dictates “all these didactic rules” one must follow to be considered a writer – like having to write every day.
“Everybody has their own process … You’re not a machine,” she says. “I feel like as long as you’re reading, you’re fine. If you’re a writer and you stop reading things that don’t relate directly to your work, for pleasure, then you’re fucked. What are you even doing? How can you expect people to read your stuff for pleasure if you’re not?”
One of the more hideous things you have to do when you have a book coming out is suck up to other authors in the hope they’ll give you a blurb for your jacket. Everybody in this process hates it: the people doing the asking, the people being asked, the third-party friends leaned on to lean on their own contacts. And yet, in the absence of any better ideas, the quote economy chugs on.
I’ve been thinking about blurbs lately, not only because my own galley is out for approval, but because of two recent references to the practice, both of them exceedingly grumpy. The queen of the gentle letdown was the writer Nora Ephron, who – I just looked up an email I received from her many years ago – would respond to friends and acquaintances begging for endorsements with the joke that she gave up giving quotes when her gynaecologist “wrote a book and asked for one”; or her vet, or other versions of a line that evolved over the years and that, with characteristic generosity, she used to make the asker feel slightly less of an arse.
At the other end of the spectrum is the novelist Rose Tremain, who said in the Times last week: “I hardly finish any books. Our so-called literary world is now choked with the mediocre and the banal, piles of which arrive through my letter box, soliciting endorsements, every week.” One feels her pain: no one wants big slabs of text dropping uninvited on the doormat. On the other hand, cheer up, Rose – maybe one day these dreadful people will go away, and then you’ll have problems indeed.
Put your mind to it, and you can write a slender volume of verse on the back of till receipts with a stolen Argos biro.
Martel experienced “a crazed euphoria, like a ravenously barking dog that’s finally eating,” when she finished the novel [Zama] for the first time. As she wrote in El País last year:
What we call masterpieces of literature manage to weave a very particular toxin into their letters, one that sickens, maddens, and then transforms humans into better animals. It’s not something you can explain by describing events or characters. It’s something that happens in the writing. In the order and selection of the words… The particular way Di Benedetto makes use of language in Zama allows us to see something we’d never seen before. A region of the planet only made visible by passing through those letters.
There was no edition of Zama in the English-language book world until August 2016, when my translation of the novel was published. […] Martel’s Kabbalistic understanding of Zama’s original language – the sorcerous power of the exact sequence of those letters and words in that particular order – is entirely betrayed by any translation, which has no option but to present different letters and words in different sequences. As I adapted the novel from Spanish to English, though, what I struggled with most were not words but silences: the imperative that the translation not say what the original leaves unsaid. Each sentence of the story’s first-person narration constitutes a self-portrait of its narrator; the silences between them are the blinkered, beleaguered being of Don Diego de Zama.
What is this blog? A scrap-book, a dialectic (even if only with myself) on the process and purpose of writing? Some way to show that I exist (the name was chosen a decade ago, I wouldn’t be that smart-arsed now)?
Most of the reviews on this blog are negative; if I think something is good, and my opinion fits with the mainstream consensus, I have nothing to add, but if something is getting high levels of praise in the mainstream, and I don’t agree, then I do have something different to say.
Since reading H(A)PPY, I have re-read John Gray’s Soul of the Marionette (non-fiction, but of interest to any serious sf fan), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, and Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections.
I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia (a lovely Library of America edition, borrowed from my local library; from its pristine condition I suspect I am the first person to borrow it). Malafrena, the main novel within the collection, is, to me, the most impressive of Le Guin’s works in terms of worldbuilding: to invent a central European country, and for it to be convincing, takes not just imagination and intelligence, but also knowledge, of hundreds of years of European history, culture, politics, religion, and language (she invents a new language too). Le Guin is also refreshingly modest about what she is doing, in the introduction she says: “Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.”
I do not deny the existence of ‘good writing’, ‘good’ as in aesthetically pleasing, and ‘good’ as in tells some truth about the human experience. Perhaps it is reviews themselves I should be wary of, the whole cynical commercial infrastructure of reviews and interviews and click-bait headlines competing for attention? (It is not a coincidence that the above are all re-reads, or from a known and trusted author.)
I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and it was wonderful to finally read something that stood up to all the hype. It is a very good book, that doesn’t flinch from the ugly psychological truths of oppression and how it can warp a personality. I have read Beloved, I watched the remake of Roots, I can kid myself that I ‘know’ what this period of human history was like. I also trust, from interviews and the book’s afterword, that Whitehead did his research, that even the most gruesome acts of violence have historical precedence.
But, it isn’t science fiction! From reading (or maybe misremembering) reviews, I imagined something like the modern-day London Underground joining up all the towns and cities across the US, and was curious to see how the author made it all fit together, but the technology is contemporaneous – even if nobody was building underground trains in the rural US back then, they theoretically could have (The London Underground was started in the Victorian era, and the earliest trains were steam trains). Despite what I said before, about science fiction’s ability to make the metaphorical literal, I still don’t think this counts as science fiction. As well, I don’t think the underground trains really added anything to the story, the characters could have been moved around conventionally (or stepping through magical portals in the backs of wardrobes) and the story wouldn’t have changed in any meaningful way.
I signed up to Netflix for a month (leave your account idle long enough and they give you another free month!) to watch Annihilation, which is a very effective sci-fi/horror film (the end scenes are absolutely terrifying), but not as profound as some reviewers seem to think. Although it was interesting, briefly, to speculate whether the alien phenomenon is a force of nature that only appears to have a conscious drive because of its encounter with humans, or an alien consciousness attempting first contact or an invasion, I can’t say that any of it stuck with me in any meaningful way.
I watched season 4 of Black Mirror, which I think was stronger overall than season 3, even though there were more episodes relying on tosh-science (you can’t recreate someone’s personality from their DNA, and the claim that we only use a certain percentage of our brain is an old myth), rather than speculative technology, but didn’t have a stand-out episode like ‘San Junipero’; ‘Hang the DJ’ was good, but not as good as ‘San Junipero’.
(I also watched The Cloverfield Paradox, which really is that bad.)
I watched most of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams, which was mostly meh, some episodes were 40 minutes of obvious and dull set up, then 20 minutes of obvious denouement, while others were basically nonsensical. Only ‘The Commuter’ and ‘Safe and Sound’ stood out, the former for the strength of its emotional narrative, the latter because it was most like a Black Mirror episode.
On Saturday, I went to the cinema to see Zama, a fever-dream of colonial hubris that I am not sure I entirely understand yet. It had a genuine dream-like quality, there are only a few explicatory concessions to the audience, which gives it that feeling of having to go somewhere and do something, with no idea where or what or why. There are jumps between places and times, with no sense of where locations are in relation to each other; characters that appear without explanation; in one scene the protagonist walks through a rich lady’s salon, into a stable, into a brothel, which seems to be all one building (I know people lived close to their domestic animals in ‘the past’ but everything seems too close and crowded in that scene); there are objects that take on significance without understanding, a letter, a handwritten book, a pair of desiccated human ears.
In the 1903 preface to his translation of Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, Lu Xun wrote:
The typical reader is bored by the tediousness of science books and cannot finish them. But when dressed up in the form of fiction, the science can seep into readers’ minds without boring them…. As the reader’s heart is touched, the reader gains insight and wisdom without taxing the mind, knowledge that would break down legacy superstitions, improve their thoughts, and supplement our culture. What a powerful tool is such fiction!
“The progress of the Chinese people,” Lu Xun declared, fifteen years before his own first satirical stories were published, “begins with science fiction.”
Throughout the early twentieth century, Chinese science fiction authors took advantage of the genre’s possibilities for social criticism. In 1932, Lao She attacked the weakness and divisions of Republic-era China in Cat Country, a novel set on the surface of Mars, where a cat-like people are addicted to opiate “reverie” leaves and turn to a new ideology called “Everybody Shareskyism” – a thinly veiled stand-in for communism. China’s real Shareskyists didn’t share Lao She’s sense of humor, and for decades after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, sci-fi was either suppressed or molded into Communist propaganda.
If the science fiction of a century ago was preoccupied with utopian dreams of progress, this new wave, made up mostly of younger writers, is more concerned with the rifts that have been opened in China’s social fabric now that such progress has been achieved.
The new sci-fi is now in many respects the most biting mode of social and political commentary in China. Long derided and marginalized by China’s literary establishment, it has slipped past the censors who so stringently watch realist fiction. And while much of the genre remains escapist entertainment for the nation’s surplus of engineering students, its more literary practitioners have reclaimed its place at the vanguard of China’s national introspection. They are using it as a Trojan horse to sneak in truths obliquely, offering not feel-good bromides but twisted visions of what modern China has become.
In his book Celestial Empire (2017), the scholar Nathaniel Isaacson called Chinese science fiction “a vehicle for expressing anxieties and hopes for modernization and globalization.” China’s urban transformation and vertiginous growth have bifurcated society: some live in a rich, privileged world of comfort, cashless payment, facial-recognition software, and high-speed trains; others suffer quietly, building that world. Realist literature often can’t keep up with the pace of the change that China is undergoing. Fictions set in the future are not only safer from censorship but also especially good opportunities to comment on such a hurtling present.