Five Fathers: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of fictional dads that doesn’t lead with Atticus Finch, so here he gets a category all of his own. This guy had it all. A lawyer raising two kids, teaching them to be real humans (the audacious character of Scout alone is testament to his fathering abilities) and defending the indefensible from the vilest aspects of human nature, all the while dispensing ageless advice to his children on the front porch of their Alabama home.

In tribute to Father’s Day (and the reality that some will find it a mixed affair), here are a few of the best, the worst and the strangest dads in literature.

 

The Good

  1. Jean Valjean

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

“Because things are not agreeable,” said Jean Valjean, “that is no reason for being unjust towards God.”

At the bequest of a dying Fantine he rescued Cosette from the despicable Thernadiers and despite being a fugitive, remained a steadfast adoptive father and all-round good guy until his death, never once losing faith despite all he endured. That takes some guts.

 

  1. Mr Bennet

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters.”

Some deride him for his sarcasm and his ambivalence toward his wife, but considering what he had to work with these are shown to be quite endearing qualities. It is his relationship with Elizabeth, the knowing-ness that passes between them, which makes him one of the best fathers in literature.

road-cormac-FS-aug-03

  1. The Man/The Father

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

Leads his son through a wilderness of post-apocalyptic destruction and teaches him indispensable survival skills, navigating the ambiguous morality that arises from such desperation. His tenacity alone is enough to garner him father-of-the-year.

 

  1. Arthur Weasley

The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling

“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”

His light-hearted perspective on life and unflinching defense of his children and the marginalised Muggles makes him almost a lovably clownish Atticus Finch. And without exception his seven children are among the greatest humans (?) on the planet.

 

  1. Thomas Schell

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

“Honey! I got to go! Other people need to use the phone! I’m gonna be fine, you’re gonna be fine! You listen to me! You made my life better and I want you to know that absolutely love you. I’m going to call you back in a few minutes.”

Proof that even in absence a father can be fundamentally influential in his child’s life. Oskar goes in search of a perceived secret message from his father who was killed in 9/11, and finds himself again.

 

The Bad

  1. Pap Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated, too, they say—can read and write. You think you’re better’n your father, now, don’t you, because he can’t?”

Drunk, abusive and sadistic, he is everything a father shouldn’t be. The only thing we are grateful for is that he produced such a son as Huck and spawned one of the most famously epic tales of childhood adventure known to literature. We are not sorry to learn of his death at the end of the book.

Lolita with Jeremy Irons

  1. Humbert Humbert

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine.”

Marries Charlotte Haze to get close to her daughter, Lolita, which makes him her stepfather and legal guardian when Charlotte dies, leaving her at his mercy. Enough said.

 

  1. Michael Henchard

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

“MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.”

An alcoholic who auctions off his wife and child, never bothering to find them until they return eighteen years later while he is in the middle of courting another woman whom he has already disgraced. Lovely.

 

  1. Mr Wormwood

Matilda, Roald Dahl

“A book?! What d’you wanna flaming book for? …we’ve got a lovely telly with a 12-inch screen and now ya wanna book!”

This quote alone places Mr Wormwood into the lowest percentile of humans. A used-car salesman who deceives his customers, alienates his genius daughter and terrorizes her lovely teacher Miss Honey, he is the definition of terrible-dadness.

 

  1. Archibald Craven

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

“My mother died when I was born and it makes him wretched to look at me. He thinks I don’t know, but I’ve heard people talking. He almost hates me.”

Yes, we feel sorry for him because his wife died but, no, that does not give him any right to abandon his sick son in a dingy room, especially when all his son needs is a bit of love and natural beauty in order to make a miraculous recovery.

 

The Ugly

  1. King Lear

King Lear, Shakespeare

“…he that makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved, as thou my sometime daughter.”

Definitely not the only terrible father in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, but certainly one of the most memorable. He makes the ugly list because he tests his three daughters to see who loves him most in order to decide who should inherit his estate, all the while completely blind to their true natures. He deserves to succumb to madness, and does so with spectacular pomp.

 

  1. Don Vito Corleone

The Godfather, Mario Puzo

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

You could argue that as a father figure, the Don is actually a great family man. Everything he did was for his ‘family’ after all, including making people offers they couldn’t refuse. Yet his actions lead to the death of two of his sons and the corruption of another. So, yeah, ugly.

 

  1. Jack Torrance

The Shining, Stephen King

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Another alcoholic dad, Jack adds to the mix by trying to kill his family with an axe. You could argue it’s not all his fault. But that doesn’t make him a better dad.

heatch1_2941308k

  1. Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“Linton can play the little tyrant well. He’ll undertake to torture any number of cats, if their teeth be drawn and their claws pared.”

Thus is Heathcliff’s view of his son, another sickly boy confined to a dingy house and his father’s intense disregard. Though it’s hard to really stay angry at Heathcliff because he is so damn brooding and so passionately in love with dead Cathy.

 

  1. Nick Dunne

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

“We weren’t ourselves when we fell in love, and when we became ourselves – surprise! – we were poison. We complete each other in the nastiest, ugliest possible way.”

Though he stays with the crazy wife because of his unborn child, we can all see the direction Nick Dunne is taking by the close of this book, foreshadowed by the misogynistic outbursts of his aging father. You could say it’s all her fault, but then again, is it?

 

Elise Janes

 

A Writer. Who, Me?

I have a writer friend who’s email signature is ‘Artist | Writer’. Each time I get am email from them and see it, I get a funny, uncertain feeling in my stomach.

Let’s get this straight right here – this is my uneasiness. Nothing to do with them.  It’s the same feeling I get every time I’m around someone who goes somewhere I can’t or won’t or don’t know how. Read as, I’m not brave or bold enough too.

So, yes, a sensitive spot for me. Seeing someone who just puts it out there fills me with joy (yes, you can just be a writer) and fear (be wary of the judgement of others).

I recently read Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan. In the introduction he said something that felt like a sucker punch to me:black swan

An amateur writes for themselves. A professional writes for others.

I’d begun my latest manuscript in January this year with one clear aim in mind – to write a book I would want to read. Running concurrent to this was the idea that I was not someone who wants to be a writer or even an emerging writer. I was just a writer. Why? Because I write all the time. I have a dedicated and disciplined practice which nourishes my appetite for creative self-expression.

And yet, I let this statement needle me. The word ‘amateur’ rankled, made me feel small and lacking in character.

My insecurity. My hang-up.

It’s been weighing on my mind for a while and yesterday, I worked out why. As I am writing a novel for my own pleasure and readership, I’ve been unable to reconcile the idea that I am a writer. I was equating the title of writer with being a professional.

jeromeNew York writer Jerome Charyn put it like this: being a writer means you’re an ‘apprentice for life’.

On the podcast The Moment with Brian Koppelman, Charyn expanded:

Each book has its own problem and you’ve got to solve that all over again…each book demands its own melody.

Something clicked. This idea cut deep. I began to mentally uncouple the links in my head. Being a ‘writer’ and being a ‘professional’ are not bound to each other.

Being a writer just means I write and am committed to my practice. Being a professional just means I’m getting paid for the work I’m producing. I can be both, or at least one – the one I want to be.the moment

‘I get it, now,’ I say to myself, self-deprecatingly.

A writer. That’s me. Why? Because tonight, without fail, you’ll find me at my keyboard. I’ll be working away, getting my manuscript completed, one scene at a time. I’ll be there tomorrow and the day after too if you miss me tonight.

The Dreaded Synopsis

This week I had a wobbly moment. Old fears resurfaced. Past anxieties tried to sink their claws in.

Efforts to prepare my work for submission saw me make blundering attempt after blundering attempt to write a synopsis. What is it with these short forms of message conveyance that terrify me so?

writing_humour_synopsis-scaled500

Over the years I’ve had no shortage of conversations with fellow writers on this subject. We say their names with scorn and undisguised disrespect: Log lines. Blurbs. Outlines.

A common question is uttered with disdain: How am I expected to condense my entire novel into 25 words, 1 paragraph, two pages? (choose your poison)

We sigh. We cringe. We try not to show how daunted we are at the prospect of doing these very things.

And so, for my part, I remained dismissive of these stalwarts of the publishing world’s submission requirements. I put those unaddressed fears in an envelope, put the envelope in the post addressed to a day that’s always tomorrow.

Except, this week, I was forced to peek inside the envelope. And there it was – the fear that my inability to address flaws in my last project were back and a ticking time bomb at the core of this current project.

These flaws include:

  • An overreliance on back story
  • Key moments that occur outside of the scope of the novels’ time frame (that possibly should not)
  • And the worst one of all – that the character’s struggle does not make sense.

Questions (criticisms and self-chastising) ensued.

  • How could I end up here again?
  • Have I learned nothing?
  • Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?

I wobbled. My stomach did a few flip-flops. I spent a testing 50 minutes on the train home from work wondering whether eight months of work was about to slip through my fingeman-writing-booksrs. It was all disappearing and the version of reality where I am not good enough was bearing down upon me.

Then I made the decision not to accept this – to fight back. I swallowed my pride. I reached out. Through social media and email I asked friends for help with writing a synopsis. Saviours came to my aid. Their kind words and offers of assistance gave me renewed hope.

The wobble passed and I was still standing, my latest project still intact. And the synopsis?

It’s three pages long with aspirations to be a slender two. I’m getting there…with a little help from my friends.

The Many Forms of Form

Literature and philosophy have been inseparably entwined in the thoughts of humankind since we first had such thoughts about such things. Almost all our modern thinking about narrative structure and form has its foundations, at least in part, in Aristotle’s famous examination of story, Poetics, which itself was a product of centuries of development of dramatic art and narrative experimentation.

school of athens

The stories we tell have impact far beyond narrative content and plot elements such as character, place and time. Indeed the way we say something is just as important as what we are saying when it comes to the influence and interpretation of meaning in narrative art.

Form is a many-faceted concept for just this reason. When we try to list form or define it in some way, we inevitably find a myriad of cross-overs between other literary elements, most particularly structure and genre (even Wikipedia has trouble). These techniques and concepts become indelibly linked in our cultural consciousness as a byproduct of the way we develop certain constructions around certain types of stories.

Literature can be said to be divided into the grand dichotomy of poetry and prose. But even there we have problems when we start to identify the way in which these two literary metrics can be presented.

Then we may try to list the grand narrative media in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of constructs, from longer narratives:

  • Novel
  • Epic poem
  • Drama

To shorter narratives:

  • Poem
  • Novella
  • Short story
  • Vignette
  • Legend
  • Myth
  • Folk tale

And then we should consider the performative arts who often have their own distinct formal constructs:

  • Theatre
  • Film
  • Song

And then we ask, should dance be included or is it non-literary, even though it is also a narrative form?

Then consider informative texts. Do they have their own structural conceits? Do they classify as separate forms of writing?

  • Historical novels
  • Literary non-fiction
  • Biography and autobiography
  • Documentary
  • News
  • Persuasive arguments
  • Thesis & analysis

What about functionality and purpose? Does that play into the divisions of form?

  • Fairy tales
  • Morality tales
  • Teaching parables
  • Analogy & symbology

And of course broad-spectrum genre is a major form qualifier:

  • Fantasy
  • Epic
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Drama
  • Quest

And the many derivative narrative structures that have sprung up over the most recent decades as technology plays into the way we communicate our stories to each other:

  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Music videos
  • Short films
  • Tweets
  • Status updates
  • Flash fiction
  • Vines

All of these forms, from the grand multi-volume works to the one-hundred and forty characters, have intricately linked cultural associations attached to the way they are presented. A play in the Shakespearean style may have five acts, employ poetic metre, follow the conventions of tragedy or comedy, and even include songs and musical numbers. A fantasy narrative may take the form of either a multi-volume novel or an epic poem, media themselves bound in pre-conceived structural nuance, employing well-rehearsed act-divisions and conventional literary techniques such as catalogue, dialogue, monologue, and even deeper formative layers of allusion to legend and myth.

Narrative form as a classifiable entity came under specific academic study in the 1950s, after the great revolutions of the Modernist period threw all previous conventional understandings of form into flux. Since then several schools of thought have sought to demystify the question of form for philosophical and technical reasons, in aid of both the audience and the auteur.

Clearly this is a topic too vast for one discussion, or even one series of discussions. So over the coming weeks we will explore the modern concepts of form and structure and how they apply to narrative art in contemporary practice, examining the theories of narrative form developed since the 1950s. We will touch briefly on the works of structuralists such as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, to that of post-strcuturalists like Michel Foucault and then on into the most recent decades where the advent of screen culture has brought about the revival of the oldest known form of story-telling, the ubiquitous and oft-bemoaned three-act narrative.

To get yourself started, have a look at the seasonal myth theory of Northrop Frye and then this brilliant introduction to Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative.

Look close enough and you will see these monomythic stories everywhere, leaving us to wonder whether there are a myriad of different forms as diverse and nuanced as life itself, or if there is really only one true story, told over and over again in many different guises, tracing back over all narratives since the beginning of time.

 

Elise Janes

 

You Can’t Climb a Wall with a Broken Arm

Thumb-Game-of-Thrones-Season-3-Trailer-Wildling-the-Wall-westeros

Kylie Chan, best selling author of the Dark Heavens series, recently published this article online for WQ, the Queensland Writers Centre periodical. Her insights on plausibility in fantasy fiction touch on some very real questions of voice in ensemble casts, in such clear concision we just had to recommend it to you for today’s Cringe read.

READERS tend to be extremely forgiving when a good story grabs them, and we fantasy writers rely on this suspension of disbelief to pull our readers down the rabbit hole of our twisted imaginations. It doesn’t take much though for the reader to pop back up out of the hole with an expression of disappointment when we betray their trust and push their credulity too far. And what sort of thing can do that? Let’s see what will drag a reader out of the adventure of following your Merry Band through your Fantasy Landscape…

Read the full article online here.

 

 

The Genre Gap

In this glowing age of equality us literati still happily overlook one of the more entrenched and obstructive ideological discriminations that, if we’re honest, is now largely irrelevant: the cold war between literary and genre fiction.

It is a strange war indeed, a war waged most enthusiastically by certain mass-media critics, awards juries and pseudo-intellectuals, clans seemingly ignorant of the fact that the rest of the world has moved on without them. In reality, the strangely-evolved notion that internal monologuing and odd pronouns are superior in some way to an active plot is beginning to lose traction.

100421FranckenIIThis notion of superiority evolved out of the world’s rebound from the Modernist period, as we trundled through the mid-20th century and mass-market paperbacks became a mode of dissemination and academia dug it’s fingernails into Joyce and Faulkner. One could argue that the publication of Ulysses was tantamount to the commencement of an arms race between the literaries and the hacks.

I myself am a bachelor of literature. I have read Ulysses cover-to-cover (an alarming life-achievement). Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Pynchon are among my favourite authors. I appreciate a well-strung sentence and a verbose description of madeleine cakes as much as the next snob. I believe in the art of experimental framing, the poetry of precise imagery and the power of lyrical cynicism.

However I do not consider the writers of such to be superior to genre authors simply based on a legalistic classification.

You see, the truth is much more straightforward: some writers are simply good and some are simply bad.

Unfortunately many bad writers are writing genre fiction, which has given genre an unjustly bad aroma of clunky prose. But, in much the same way, plenty of bad writers are also writing ‘literary’ fiction.

Not so long ago I stumbled across a marvellous and highly controversial dissertation from the well-known journalist B.R. Myers, in which he holds vehemently forth on this exact issue. His perspective is rather traditional, mainly in that he despairs of the plight of contemporary literature exclusively, but in doing so he highlights some of the greatest cons of modern literary pretension:

More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L.

[…] Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.

What once may have been a useful designation for the purposes of academic study in the mid-20th century is now as obsolete as the floppy disk.

He goes on to explain:

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Is it possible that Stephen King is more ‘intellectual’ than David Guterson? Quite.

SnowFallingOnCedarsThe distinction between literary and genre writing is no longer necessary. Our entertainment has evolved, like our audience, to the point where literary fiction is now itself a genre, not a ruling class as many ‘highbrow’ reviewers would still have you believe.

I direct your attention to the screen arts. Here is a medium that has far overtaken literature as a means of popular entertainment (gasp!), partly because of the responsiveness of screen artists to the demands of widening opinion. Much of that comes down to a bottom-line matter (by comparison no author these days will be a millionaire unless their work becomes a movie franchise) but people tend to put their money where their mouth is so perhaps it’s worth a thought in this discussion.

220px-BagofbonesIn film twenty years ago the gulf between ‘blockbuster’ (genre) and ‘indie’ (literary) was vast and easily depicted: one mindless, crowd-pleasing and action-packed, the other thought-provoking, character-driven and (possibly) meaningful. But directors and producers have since become wise to the fact that audiences themselves are becoming wiser, more discriminate and better educated. In response they’ve invented a whole new class of filmentertainment that manages to span the genre gulf: films that are both thoughtful and active, both character and plot-driven, both smart and entertaining.

And why not? Why can’t we admit that perhaps we are no longer the hallowed few, the only beings on earth guarding the keys to taste, intelligence and sophistication? Why can’t we admit that people are getting smarter? That perhaps they want their insightful discourse on humanity with a touch of action? Or their tightly-woven plot framed with beautiful prose?

Are we afraid that we’re not up to the challenge?

In 2009 The Guardian unwittingly (or perhaps very wittingly) shed light on this disparity between what readers (intelligent readers) actually enjoy and what the critics think they should enjoy when they published this article asking people to comment on the decade’s worst books.

Expecting, no doubt, to see a flurry of finger-pointing at the Dan Brown’s and Stephanie Meyers’s of the writing world, the result was actually quite startling. Many of the 875 comments named awards-listed books, Cloud Atlas and White Teeth among them, and others listed widely acclaimed novels such as Kite Runner and The Falling Man.

No one, however, was prepared for the particular quality and quantity of rage that generated around Ian McEwan. Commenter StuartEvers summed it up nicely:

StuartEvers 8 Dec 2009 21:54
In a shit -soaked field of its own is Saturday by Ian McEwan.
It has it all: smug, self-satisfied and completely unrealistic characters, tediously over-written “research”, plot holes you could drive both Branson’s spaceship and his ego through, quasi political noodling (isn’t it lucky that the central character knows an Iraqi?) and an ending so ludicrous it’s hard not to be personally affronted. Oh and a squash match! A bloody squash match!
On Chesil Beach was at least short and provided a good joke on Peep Show.

The ‘noodling’ alone makes me wonder if Mr Evers himself might write a better novel than McEwan.

I declare it’s time for our self-important gatekeepers to emerge from out of the dark age and embrace the new literary rainbow. It is possible for a work of fantasy to win the Booker Prize, according to Salman Rushdie. It is possible for an author to be ‘good’ without writing literary fiction, declares Stephen King. It is also just as likely that a writer can be ‘bad’ while trying to be literary, thank you Ian McEwan.

Myers sums up with a concluding anecdote in his trademark candour:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter’s sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison’s reply was “That, my dear, is called reading.” Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing. Great prose isn’t always easy, but it’s always lucid.

It’s time to move into the future, people, hand in hand with the rest of the world in declaring once and for all peace between literary and genre fiction; that all writers should be held to the same standards of good writing regardless of the affectation of their prose.

Equality for all.

 

Elise Janes

On “Debaser”

There’s been a lot of steam lately about the novel and whether literary fiction has more inherent value and weight than fiction classified by genre and what separates the two. When is a novel about love a romance, or a novel set in the future science fiction, or a novel underpinned by a felony of some kind a crime novel? Like The Trial. Crime and Punishment. L’Etranger.

And why are novelists recognised by a genre so readily dismissed as lacking the poetry of craft to be stylists, or the intellectual vocabulary to address issues like identity and meaning and morality and art and the slippery composition of truth?

It’s a complex debate, and is as much about the quality of a work as it is about the arbiters of quality and the climate in which that quality is being judged. And it isn’t unique to writing. The division of the novel into genres all vying for a place in the canon, or not vying for a place in the canon but questioning and rejecting everything the canon stands for, can be seen across all the arts. In music, the white European canon begins with the baroque, classical, the romantic, then across the Atlantic to jazz, blues and gospel, all fusing together to form the rebel teenage sound of rock’n’roll.

Nowadays, rock’n’roll has been carved up into so many camps it’s hard to keep track. Hard to say where easy listening ends and becomes the ballad or folk, becomes modern rock then heavy rock then metal. Then there’s the commercial mainstream and the artists who tough it out independently and the experimental, the alternative, which is generally regarded as more introspective than the mainstream, more socially aware and sympathetic to wider and more inclusive expressions of being human until it gets appropriated by the mainstream and turned into Johnny Rotten selling Country Life butter on British TV.

Pixies

The Pixies

And then there’s The Pixies.

Ivo Watts-Russell from the UK indie label 4AD wanted to pass on The Pixies when they were first brought to his attention, believing they were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally ‘rock’n’roll’ for 4AD’s small but eclectic roster. He reconsidered, and the label is still releasing B-side and session compilations to this day. But the thing of it is, Ivo Watts-Russell’s initial misgivings were right. The Pixies were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally rock’n’roll for 4AD. They were all those things to the point of combustion. They were straight and normal like the guy next door who turns out to be a serial killer’s straight and normal. They were conventionally rock’n’roll with a surf pop twist and the stop start phrenetics of a jackhammer. The Pixies were like nothing that preceded them and everything at once. Their music was too happy to be Punk, and they didn’t appear to be protesting about anything or particularly angry or cynical or even art school clever. But they rocked. They juxtaposed the sordid with the mundane, the extra-terrestrial with the flesh and bone, sang in bad Spanish and English and bad English and threw it all together as if at random. Without trying, The Pixies were surreal, as epitomised by the opening track of their second album, Doolittle (1989).

“Debaser” is a song about a guy. It may be the band’s chief singer songwriter Chris Thompson (aka Black Francis, or Frank Black), but we’re not sure. Whoever he is, he’s got a movie. And he wants us to know he’s got a movie because he says so.

Got me a movie / I want you to know

The movie’s the 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The film features a scene where the eyeball of a slaughtered calf is sliced open by a cut-throat razor. The scene’s referred to in the song.

Slicin’ up eyeballs / I want you to know

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou

We’re then introduced to a girl. We’re told she’s groovy, but the second she appears she vanishes without a trace, because the guy seems more interested in being the title of the movie, an Andalusian dog, and telling us that when he grows up he wants to be a debaser. Whatever that is. Frankly, it’s all a bit confusing. But then that’s the point. Like Un Chien Andalou, Debaser isn’t really about anything. Something Luis Bunuel and Dali would have applauded no end. Their divining rule of thumb in making Un Chien Andalou was to make as little sense as possible and to entertain no idea or image that lent itself to rational explanation. Debaser is an anti-song, the words chosen more for their sound than their meaning and delivered like they’re falling off a cliff. Fast, sharp, brutal. And it doesn’t mess around with dead weight. They’re in and out of the song before you can say boo. Which is trademark. The Pixies wrote adventures you didn’t listen to so much as buckle up for and hold on until the end. They were to music what William Burroughs was to literature: outlaws on the edge of form, substance and taste. And like William Burroughs – – crime writer, criminal, iconoclast, author of fantasy, science fiction, horror – the mischief and nonsense at the heart of every Pixies’ song, the cryptic allusions to avant-garde cinema and incest and oddball pathologies and the Bible, all prevented them from achieving the kind of commercial success they deserved.

It’s been said of the Pixies that, like the Velvet Underground, not everyone bought their albums but those who did went out and formed a band, or were indebted to them in some way musically. Like the boys from Nirvana. Radiohead. The Smashing Pumpkins. A band’s band, perhaps. Or just hard to pin down. A fierce light that still burns today but burnt brightest between 1986 and 1993. An accident of musicians in the right place and time who rewrote the lyrical and melodic songbook, and in many ways demonstrated Henry Miller’s observations on nonsense and its unsuspected affinities with the profound. In On Writing, Miller talks of his literary relationship with nonsense, his fear of it, his terror, and draws on the ‘pure nonsense’ of fantasy to extrapolate on how the imagination, given wings, is driven to create worlds with their own laws not bound to the earth by gravity but desire, and how threatening these worlds are to the mainstream, the top 40, the social realists, the purveyors of all things literary and tasteful, circling their prize-laden wagons so the crime writers and the fantasy writers and the romance writers and the Pixies and William Burroughs and Henry Miller can’t get in.

William Burroughs

William Burroughs

The complex debate around the novel and the canons of art is as much about the quality of a work as it is about sameness and fear. The literary novel, no matter how well written, how well produced and sold, how beautifully realised its ideas, has become a snobbery of aesthetics that’s being called to account by the so-called trifles of the penny dreadful. The pop novel. The novel that gets picked up by filmmakers or flaunts a stand at airport bookstores. Or the pure nonsense and escapist fantasies of spec fic, science fiction, novels populated by people of all ages, in love, on the run, biological hybrids, animals that talk, in English, bad Spanish, bad English. This is not a new writing conceived in the hallways of academia or literary journals but a groundswell following the success of a few genre writers that’s disrupted establishment fiction. It’s old school rock’n’roll. And although it’s not new writing in the experimental sense of the term, it may very well lead to a new novel that isn’t bound by the same pedestrian laws as gravity and history and sense.

 

Sean MacGillicuddy

 

Debaser – Recorded 1988 at Downtown Recorders in Boston Massachusetts written by Black Francis. Label 4AD.

Spec what now?

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Over the past few months, three friends I consider to be prolific readers have asked me, ‘Speculative fiction? What’s that?’ And I have to confess that with every asking my response has mutated by degrees from faint incredulity to scathing exasperation, made worse when they respond with a haughty sniff and a muttered, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ following it with the more dismissive, ‘But it’s not real literature, is it?’ and ‘Yeah, I don’t read that stuff.’ Because, yes, often it is and yes, they probably do. And while sci-fi is speculative, speculative fiction is not restricted to works of sci-fi.

The publishing industry is just that: an industry. A business that classifies and categorises and shelves its products like a pharmacy does its face creams. It’s all about marketing, hailing one book as literary fiction to appeal to the more (often self-professed) discerning reader, branding another as fantasy for lovers of genre. But why can’t a novel be both? And why do sci-fi and fantasy and horror engender disparagement from readers of mainstream ‘realist’ literature? Particularly when so many of those readers will have already read and admired and recommended books that fall into such genres (The Road and 1984, anyone?) Just as the shoehorning of books featuring young, school-aged protagonists into the YA category doesn’t deter adult readers, nor should labelling a particular book as sci-fi put off the more literary minded.

Beneath its wide awning, speculative fiction houses sci-fi, fantasy (high, urban, contemporary and soft), apocalyptic (pre- and post-), utopia, dystopia, cyber-punk, solar-punk, horror and paranormal. Supposing the impossible, it proposes the probable and, when both writing and vision are accomplished, it can open readers’ minds to some very disturbing questions. But it’s not always done well. A rash of vampiric and uber-lupine romances sparked by Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series has caused many agents and publishers to retrieve the welcome mats and nail crosses on their doors. Zombie apocalypse stories, too, are becoming dead in the water. Yet writers still persist, and Amazon et al are flooded with highly questionable speculative fiction, much of it self-published.

But when it is done well — when the probable becomes utterly believable and the horror settles uncomfortably and won’t be shifted; when a reader is transported from reality and their only regret is that they don’t have a one-way ticket; when the novel transcends genre and crosses over into the hallowed halls of literary fiction — the work can be extraordinary. Such novels don’t (usually) feature fantastical undead creatures; instead they delve deeper to reveal the monsters within us. They place ordinary people in re-imagined worlds and subject them to terrible trials, always posing the question, ‘what would you do?’

Historically, speculative fiction has provided the building blocks of civilisation. A grandiose claim, you say? Not so. What are ancient myths, legends and religious teachings, if not speculative? What is our enduring fascination with heroes and anti-heroes (both ordinary and super) if not speculative? What is mankind’s obsession with — and fear of — death, if not speculative? And the emergence of science through the ages has done little to dispel our interest. If anything it just prompts further speculation. No sooner do we break through one scientific barrier, than authors are imagining another.

Raymond Coulombe of Quantum Muse answered the question very simply: The classic answer is that [speculative fiction] is the fiction of what-if? Whether fantasy or sci-fi or any other speculative genre, the list of authors whose what-if fiction has propelled them to fame is long and illustrious: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, JK Rowling, Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman, HP Lovecraft, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick, Douglas Adams, Stephen Donaldson … the list goes on. Even I-wouldn’t-touch-speculative-fiction-with-a-bargepole fans of literary classics will have heard of these authors, and many will have read them.

ursula-le-guinAt last week’s US National Book Awards, the great Ursula Le Guin, (whose work includes both sci-fi and fantasy and who is probably best known for A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness) was honoured with the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Instead of humbly accepting her award (as perhaps many were hoping), the 85 year old author began her speech thus:

“Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it 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.”

Speculative fiction might not be to everyone’s taste, but to dismiss it as inferior smacks of arrogant ignorance. Perhaps more than any other genre, it embodies all that is human, exposes our flaws and lauds our triumphs. It holds out for a better world, for redemption of the human spirit, and for justice and freedom.

So if you’ve never read anything speculative, maybe it’s time you did.

Jane Abbott

This article was first published in November 2014 on Jane’s website, Big Bad Words.

Cultural Soft Spot

The 2015 HARDCOPY* program began last week, with esteemed editor Nadine Davidoff directing a series of workshops with the successful non-fiction applicants for this year’s program.

In the same week, the e-journal Softcopy was launched, showcasing an anthology of fictional work from writers who participated in 2014’s inaugural HARDCOPY program.

The Cringe spoke to the editors of Softcopy about their vision for the e-journal and how both HARDCOPY and Softcopy are opening up further avenues for emerging Australian writers to develop and promote their work.

Softcopy picLiterary magazines have provided an outlet for Australian writing since 1821 when the Australian Magazine, printed by Robert Howe, debuted in Sydney. Today, publications such as Meanjin, Overland and Southerly are the bastions of this literary tradition, but increasingly, Australians are turning to digital offerings to satisfy their cultural curiosity.

The new e-journal, Softcopy, taps into this growing trend. With around 15 million Australians accessing the internet at home on a regular basis, creating an online opportunity for emerging writers to showcase their work seemed the natural choice for the creative team behind Softcopy.

Softcopy is the brainchild of founding editor, Christine McPaul, a Canberra-based writer/editor and participant in the HARDCOPY 2014 program conducted by the ACT Writers Centre, and funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Along with fellow HARDCOPIERS Lesley Boland (Blemish Publishing) and George Dunford (Canberra-based writer/editor) they saw an opportunity to harness and display the range of talent brought together by the program.

‘We are excited to launch Softcopy as a vehicle for emerging writers,’ said Christine. ‘The online option is an easy and cost effective way to provide readers access to new writing and to support cultural production in Australia.’

Lesley Boland agrees that the decision to make Softcopy an e-journal was a deliberate choice. ‘We wanted to be able to have our work available to the widest possible audience,’ Lesley said. ‘As emerging writers, being able to build an online profile is a prime consideration.’

Whether you are interested in Poland or parrots, bullies or blind dates, murder or mercy, coaching or cricket, torture or tumbling, diplomacy or dancing, fire or friendship, ambition or adultery, the first edition has something for you.

‘Our aim is to broaden the range of contributors for future editions,’ George said. ‘We hope that over time Softcopy will become a vibrant place where many emerging writers can present their work.’

Softcopy will be produced regularly. Keep an eye out for the next call for submissions when emerging writers will be invited to submit a previously unpublished 500-1000 piece.

Explore Softcopy

*HARDCOPY is a professional development program for emerging writers run by the ACT Writer’s Centre with support from the ACT Government and the Australia Council, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body.