Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Weird skies and CGI golf courses

Most mornings on my way into work I bike past a golf course.* It's over now, but there was a period of a few weeks recently when the ~8:00 AM weather and light tended most mornings to transform the golf course into, oddly enough, a vision of almost otherworldly beauty: the sharply contrasting shadows cast by the low sun over the rolling green hills softened by the thin but pervasive mist rising off of the dewy grass, rays of light cutting through the air, all that expanse of open space revealing a transformation of distance into indistinctness, and so forth. I'd look at it as I went past (or really around, as the bike path encircles the golf course, and the changing angles were an important part of the effect created) struck by the beauty, and try to suppress the thought--or perhaps more accurately the feeling--that so often came unbidden: it looks like a CGI effect.

*Which, incidentally, is there any better symbol of the wasteful and destructive decadence of this culture than a golf course?

Having begun operation in 1982, my brain neatly straddles a great divide. During my brain's most radically formative years the world of the visual arts was still almost exclusively analog, but just as my brain was reaching what is usually called "maturity," whatever that means, the digital technologies that had been making inroads all along reached a critical mass and became dominant. Even leaving aside all the disturbing material questions this shift raises, just in terms of look the change was enormous.

I can remember in my childhood and early youth looking at the sky, particularly cloudy skies and sunset skies--eventful skies--and thinking "Wow, it looks like a painting!" Even when I was very young this thought would usually be followed by a lot of fretting (I was a fretful child): "No, the sky doesn't look like a painting, some paintings look like the sky, oh god, is it bad that I thought it the other way around, do other people think this too, probably not, oh god, I'm weird and stupid, but maybe it's not stupid, is it good or bad, how do I know," etc., hopelessly muddled. Now when I look at the sky, I often still have largely the same thought process*, except that instead of "a painting" it's usually "a special effect" that I think the sky resembles. And these of course are only the moments when this process, no doubt always ongoing, comes to consciousness.

*Though more complicated now, as I realize that the statements "the sky looks like a painting" and "a painting looks like the sky" have a much more complex relationship than simple opposition or reversal, and both have a much more complex relationship to "truth" and "falsity" than I'd imagined.

(A side note, probably an important one but one I'm not quite sure what to make of: I think it's interesting that my earlier point of comparison was paintings, where now it's mostly things I see on TV and in movies. It's not like I spent my childhood leaving the TV off and gallivanting to museums. My older brother has always been a visual artist, and I was somewhat exposed to painting through him but never really "got it" the way he did; and I certainly watched a lot of television and movies. I find this shift particularly worrisome--especially if it's not "just me"--because I suspect that the more comparable our surroundings are to the most commodified forms of art, the more commodifiable those surroundings become.* On the other hand perhaps it just has to do with what I mostly was watching as a child; after all, it's not like the bizarrely beautiful and totally unreal skies of original series Star Trek planets could ever be mistaken for something you might really see, looking up.)

*An observation I owe in large part to Lyn Hejinian's prose poem beginning "The lamb butts its head against the udder," in The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which I happened to read in the midst of writing this.

But, to return to the transition from analog to digital. I might be wrong, but I don't think I'm just being contrarian or nostalgic when I say that I don't find this a change for the better. I'm not very happy about the world's often looking to me like something James Cameron maybe mocapped. True, sometimes I'll see something (often, indeed, the sky, or that same golf course) and instead of thinking "this looks like CGI" I'll think "this looks like a VHS landscape," which in its way is actually quite an expansive and lovely experience, and yet I confess I still find it a bit disturbing.

Heidegger says, very roughly, that art does not "represent" a world but rather creates it, founds it. He also says that art might very well be dead, no longer capable of this founding. I find myself in mixed agreement and disagreement with both notions, to whatever extent I can say I understand them.* At the very least art, or whatever it is that we find at the multiplexes, powerfully mediates "between" our selves and whatever it is that we're referring to when we say "the world."** Before the advent of CGI it would have been impossible to say that the sky looked like CGI--not just because the acronym would have been merely a meaningless sequence of letters, but because the sky in fact did not yet look like it. And it is certainly fruitless to ask what the sky "really looks like" in the absence of prior artistic intervention, because it's not as though we can choose for art not to have already intervened.

*And to whatever extent one can be said to "agree" or "disagree" with them, whatever that might mean.
** I am deeply unhappy with this formulation, not least because I doubt there is any such "between" and because the question of "the world" remains unasked.

All this is why (or at least one very large reason why) art is so scary and important, and why I feel so strongly that we need to take it seriously, both as creators and as recipients. I've only discussed visual art here, even though that's not my usual field, because in the realm of vision these effects are particularly dramatic and immediate; at least on this extremely basic level they are fairly easy to talk about. But think about the impact of written art, as well! What, for example, is all this "narrative" doing to us? What has it done?*

*Of course television and movies usually combine narrative with the visual, which makes them particularly worrying along these lines.

Even the language itself needs to be considered suspect. What does it mean that "to understand" and "to grasp" can be synonyms? Do the meanings of unrelated words that sound similar leak into one another? Why is it so hard to talk about art without using terms like "value" and "use", "explore" and "pioneer", "aesthetics" and "expression"; and what do these words say about our relationship to art, to ourselves, to one another? Why do we usually tell stories in the past tense?; when we tell them in the present tense, why do we do that?; and why do other options seem so nearly impossible? Why, in English, is the verb almost always placed like a wall between "subject" and "object"?

We need to be careful and thoughtful about what we expose ourselves to, and in what manner; we need to be careful and thoughtful about how we understand what we expose ourselves to. If we thoughtlessly assume that "realism" can in fact give us the real, we will find our own experience of reality radically shrunken and dimmed. If we recognize the problems of realism but ignorantly and ahistorically misattribute them or glibly consider them solved easily (and only!) by our own little endeavor, the problem will be no better. And all the talk, so common in sf circles, of "new twists" and "subverted tropes" constitutes, as I see it, not an engagement with these problems but merely their entrenchment.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I changed my mind

Last weekish I said that I had suppressed a lengthy ranting post about Lee Konstantinou's LARB review of two Kingsley Amis novels, feeling it was petty and mean. But last night I read over what I'd written and, you know what? It might be mean, and despite all the negativity recently here I really don't like being mean (I do have some thoughts swirling that might lead to posts about things I actually like soon, though I make no promises), but I no longer think it petty. Because Konstantinou's article is really really bad, a slipshod piece of ignorant hack-work, and he is not just some guy--he's an associate editor at LARB, which, I don't know what specific roles go along with that title there, but it at least puts him firmly into the gatekeeping apparatus, helping to determine what kind of work sees the light of day, and also a professor at UMD, which means that he is one of the people shaping the methods of the next generation of critics. This is, simply, an intolerable situation, one which cannot go unopposed.

My aggravation refused to cohere into any kind of continuous argument, so I've used a format of blockquote-followed-by-comment. We're going to be here a while.

IT MAY SEEM strange that many of the best science fiction writers are also the genre’s best critics. After all, facility in an art, even a verbal art, only very rarely correlates with critical fluency.
And so it begins, with these the opening sentences. I realize that Konstantinou's second sentence here is a common claim, so all I can blame him for here is repeating received opinion--something, we shall see, he is extraordinarily good at. But it's just very silly; the list of artists who are among the very best critics of their own field is endless (off the top of my head, in contemporary non-sf "verbal arts" alone: Gabriel Josipovici, Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson, Ron Silliman; this not to mention the long and delightful tradition of the unhinged manifesto). And if we think for half a second (an activity which, I acknowledge, gets in the way of most people's critical methods) the reasons for this are apparent: most obviously, good artists think hard about what they're doing; just as importantly (and relatedly), when artists approach criticism they do so from the inside of the artistic act, rather than the outside; they are thus less prone to the sort of infantile reduction of art to puzzles that I've been complaining about recently.

I'd also like to add here that, for most artists, perhaps especially "verbal artists," the distinction between "art" and "criticism" is not so complete as Konstantinou would have it. To name a particularly obvious example, Samuel R. Delany frequently writes stories into what is usually regarded as his criticism; and his "novel" Triton contains at least as much in the way of "criticism" as it does of "novel" (from what I gather his Nevèrÿon stories push this tendency to an even greater extreme, but as I haven't yet read them, I can't say for certain). Michel Houellebecq says he thinks of his study of H.P. Lovecraft as his "first novel"; and (moving outside of sf) if we must maintain such rigid distictions what are we to make of Pascal Quignard's The Roving Shadows, or Kate Zambreno's Heroines?

And yet our most talented SF writers — Brian W. Aldiss...
...Stanislaw Lem, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Adam Roberts, among others — have also written the best analyses of the genre.
OK, so, sorry for that outburst; and perhaps here is not the place for me to make my argument that to call Aldiss one of "our most talented SF writers"--indeed to put him first on the list!--is just, oh, wrong, wrong, wrong. I seem to be in the minority with that opinion anyway. But to claim that he has written one of "the best analyses of the genre" is just objectively false; Aldiss's Billion (or, god help us, Trillion) Year Spree is not an analysis, it is a history; nor is it a good history, rather it is merely a glorified list; and despite Aldiss's pretense it is not a list of sf writings, but rather a list of (what Aldiss considers, sometimes erroneously, to be) gothic and utopian writings followed by an even more cursory list of a handful of writers who wrote in the sf magazines, whom Aldiss mostly seems to despise and exclude from consideration as "true" sf. To the extent that there is analysis in the book, it is in Aldiss's claim that what we point at when we say "sf" is not in fact sf, sf is actually this other thing (or, depending on your own view, this tiny little bit of sf) that isn't as crass and low as what you're pointing at, which perhaps makes Aldiss feel better about what he's doing but is hardly useful for the rest of us.

Also, though Konstantinou makes no claim that his list of sf writer-critics is comprehensive, I nevertheless feel that his having left off Joanna Russ is telling, as we shall perhaps see later on.

One reason for this confluence may be the generally low regard in which Anglophone critics have held science fiction.
...a generally low regard that for all practical purposes came to an end at least thirty years ago, sure, but let's keep stoking the fire of that inferiority complex--because that's done us all a lot of good. On another note, I have nowhere near the energy to explore all the irritating ways in which Konstantinou at times conflates Anglophone and non-Anglophone sf, and at others implicitly excludes the one from the other; not to mention the way that that term "Anglophone sf," while justified in some contexts, here mostly serves to obfuscate the fact that British sf, for most of its history, was not in fact held in low regard or even considered a wholly separate endeavor from the so-called "mainstream" of literature, as American sf was. As I say I have nowhere near the energy to explore this nonsense fully, but I do feel I should note it. Keep it in the back of your mind, perhaps, as (or if) you read on.
Though readers have always loved the genre, systematic studies were once surprisingly rare. By necessity, SF writers filled in the gaps themselves, composing their own histories, theorizing their own artistic practice, and becoming astute critics of their chosen genre.
In the real world, the earliest, foundational analyses and histories of sf (which can only mean American sf if these sentences are to resolve into any semblance of sense whatsoever, despite the fact that Konstantinou's subject is British) were done mostly by non-writing fans, but by all means let's continue to erase their invaluable contribution, a product of staggering amounts of unpaid love-labor that continues to sink into oblivion as contemporary writers on sf by and large prefer to remain ignorant of the field's history.
The second, more important explanation is that science fiction is inherently a cognitive genre. As the structuralist critic Darko Suvin once wrote, science fiction can be defined as “the literature of cognitive estrangement.” It takes a familiar world and rigorously alters it by introducing an innovation that Suvin calls a novum. On this view, the genre’s many pleasures are fundamentally intellectual. We revel in discovering how an initial deviation from what Suvin calls a “zero world” (the empirical world) can lead to astonishing but appropriate extrapolated situations.
So that the point may not be lost, allow me to remind you that we are now on our second explanation of a phenomenon that is not in fact unusual and that requires no explanation.

Meanwhile, I would like to call for a moratorium on any use of Darko Suvin's work. I have not read it, so it's entirely possible that it is in some way worthwhile in and of itself, but I have almost never seen it used in any good way. Since I cannot comment on Suvin's work itself, I will mostly leave it there, but if there seems to be a demand for it I'll try to expand on my problems with the general use of it at some later time. For now, suffices to say: almost any time I see someone mention Suvin's name, I think "Oh, here comes a bunch of trivial nonsense," and only a tiny handful of times (mostly those times when people are disagreeing with him) have I been wrong. "Inherently a cognitive genre" is meaningless gobbledygook of the same order as anything you'd hear in a corporate board meeting.

Finding the right novum isn’t easy. So to be a good writer in the genre, you might need first to develop a sophisticated theory of science fiction.
OFFS. Finding "the right" novum, if we must use that word and whatever it means for it to be "the right one", not to mention that nearly any sf worth reading does not contain one and only one so-called novum...um, I lost track of what I was saying. Oh, right: finding "the right novum" is practically the only part of writing an sf story that does not require sophisticated theory. "Finding a novum" is simply a matter of thinking "whoa, what if we were in space?" or "whoa, what if computers were sentient?" Writing a story using these notions is an entirely different, much more complicated, and much more difficult thing.
To the pantheon of serious SF writer-critics, we should add Kingsley Amis.
In 1960, he published a foundational analysis of the genre called New Maps of Hell, based on lectures delivered at Princeton during the 1958-1959 academic year. It’s a slim book, but packed with wit and insight.
People, I have read New Maps of Hell, and let me tell you this: it bites. It is truly awful. It is stupid. It is worthless. Amis is able to view sf through only two lenses: utopia and overtly comic satire. Anything that does not fall into these two categories he either forces into one of them anyway, doing severe violence to it along the way, or is unable to comprehend and can only decide that it must be "bad." His so-called "wit" is more accurately arrogance; his so-called "insight" is nowhere to be seen, unless we decide that his claim that sf and jazz are like totally the same thing counts. (In the course of this claim, incidentally, he sets up an equivalence between the oppression of American black people and the American literary marginalization of almost exclusively white sf, which, have you vomited yet today?)
He defends the genre, but often seems as if he were confessing in a twelve-step recovery program. He repeatedly describes science fiction as a sort of virtuous addiction.
RECOMMENDED READING: Joanna Russ, "SF and Technology as Mystification." (If you don't have time to read the whole thing, at least read the introductory stuff about addiction.)
We might well be tempted to imagine that he professed love for science fiction out of his characteristic contrarian impulse, the same drive that led him to reject modernism, to embrace the left as a young man, and to embrace conservatism during Labour’s ascendency. In an introduction to Spectrum 5, Amis and his co-editor Conquest defended the genre as a harbor against the “well-policed province of today’s or yesterday’s literary ideologies.” Perhaps Amis promoted science fiction precisely because the literary-ideology police held it in such low esteem.
I do suspect that Amis's so-called love for science fiction is related to his rejection of modernism (and both to his glib consideration of political outlooks as faddish, whimsical affectations), but in order to explore this we would have to have some kind of grasp on what modernism means (and more importantly what it doesn't mean), on the specific nature of Amis's total misunderstanding of what sf is all about, and on the actual nature of "the left" and "conservatism", none of which Konstantinou seems willing or even capable to explore; but anyway he seems to view all of this as irrelevant on his way to the triumphant proclamation:
The recent republication of The Green Man and The Alteration by NYRB Classics should, one hopes, put to rest such suspicions. Kingsley Amis is the real deal, a science fiction writer of great power and imagination. These books deserve to be recognized as the classics they are.
At this point I should mention that I have read neither The Green Man nor The Alteration and, touch wood, I never will. In what follows I make no claim whatsoever about either novel, because, as Konstantinou would benefit from learning, one should not make claims about things one knows nothing about. (Obviously I strongly suspect that both novels are terrible, but that's largely irrelevant.) What I am criticizing are Konstantinou's claims only; when I fly off the handle at his descriptions of things that happen in the books, I am reacting only to these descriptions, and not to the books themselves.
It may be surprising to learn that Amis’s 1969 novel The Green Man is a ghost story. After all, Amis disliked fantasy. “While science fiction [...] maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact,” he wrote in New Maps of Hell, “fantasy makes a point of flouting these.”
First of all, the ghost story is its own, very venerable tradition, overlapping at times with but historically and in nature quite distinct from what we normally think of as "fantasy" (that term is vague enough that Konstantinou really should include some description of what he means by it, but his immediate recourse to New Maps of Hell suggests that he is probably referring to "genre fantasy"). Second of all, where did Konstantinou learn to write? He presents his quote from Amis as though it proved the claim immediately preceding it (namely, that "Amis disliked fantasy"), but it does no such thing. The quote from New Maps is non-evaluative; it could just as easily be followed by "Therefore, fantasy is better than science fiction" as by the reverse. It's entirely possible that Amis does in fact dislike fantasy as compared to sf (I frankly can't be bothered to recall from my own reading of New Maps), but the point is that Konstantinou seems both to think that the claim requires textual evidence and to be unaware that he has totally failed to provide it.
But close inspection instantly dispels any easy description of The Green Man as a fantasy novel. Amis has written a very peculiar ghost story, one almost naturalistic in its approach to world-building, rigorously committed to explicating rationally every seemingly fantastic phenomena. As Amis told Clive James, hinting at his method, The Green Man was inspired by the question, “What happens when the man who sees ghosts is an alcoholic?”
If there ever was something "peculiar" about a "naturalistic" ghost story (and I doubt there ever was, at least not since the advent of "naturalism" itself), there certainly was not by the time Amis was writing; look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman's or Muriel Spark's ghost stories, for example. I'm not certain there is any good reason to use the term "world-building" to describe a story set in a world no different from our own save for the indisputable presence of ghosts. And I dare you to explain to me how that last quoted sentence follows from what precedes it. I dare you. Keep in mind as you attempt it that Konstantinou is not in fact suggesting that the rational explication is that the ghosts are delusions brought on by the alcoholism.
What happens is this: The ghosts, which are real enough within the novel’s world, become the least scary part of the story.
There is an implication here that this is in some way unusual, which it of course is not.
They’re almost pedestrian in their motives.
Ditto. It is clear at this point that Konstantinou knows nothing at all about ghost stories in general, and yet feels the need to compare this novel against his totally imaginary and erroneous concept of what they might be like.

He then gives some description of the novel's narrator, Maurice Allington, which I will pass over in distaste. Then:

Maurice devotes much of his considerable drunken intelligence trying to convince his wife, Joyce, to get involved in a threesome with another woman, Diana. He’s a pathetic, often hilarious case.
Um, ha ha ha.
The environs around the inn, meanwhile, host a mythical “wood creature” known as the Green Man, which Underhill can summon, and which almost kills Amy.
Whether due to poor writing or ignorance (or both), Konstantinou betrays no knowledge here that the Green Man is, like, a real thing in the old religions, not just one of Amis's totally well-chosen nova.

Then comes some stuff about God, whose literal presence, Konstantinou tells us, factors into the book when Maurice has a "bizarre encounter" with Him.

Even in this visitation, Amis remains a clear-eyed (or, let’s be honest, slightly inebriated) rationalist. The Green Man envisages a peculiarly science fictional God. After Maurice offers Him a drink, the Supreme Deity is relieved, explaining, “I was going to warn you against making the mistake of supposing that I come from inside your mind.” Maurice coolly concludes, “I suppose I couldn’t get into the passage because all molecular motion outside this room has stopped.” The conversation continues in this manner, grounding this peculiar heavenly visitation in one technical explanation or another. With proper science fictional verve, Amis cares deeply about the mechanics of divine manifestation. At its most fantastic, The Green Man insists on its facticity.
Konstantinou's representation of the dialogue in this sequence is utterly incoherent. Beyond that, his attempts to establish the essentially science fictional nature of The Green Man (sfnal, remember, specifically as opposed to fantastical) are a total failure. One vaguely senses that Konstantinou is trying to present the notion of a divine manifestation that literally and physically drinks as intrinsically sfnal, but a) he has not in fact done so (what he has actually done is to suggest that a divine manifestation claiming not to be a hallucination is sfnal), and b) if he is trying to do so, one wonders if he has heard of, oh, random example, Jesus Christ. If talk about scientific concepts ("molecular motion") is sufficient to make something science fiction, then, say, Proust is science fiction. Nor is insisting on facticity specifically sfnal; indeed, it is a key aspect of the novel as a genre itself, all the way back to its beginnings; the only reason that the 19th-century "realist" novel which we are all used to taking as our model doesn't go out of its way to do this is that the generic conventions had by that point been so well established that they could be taken for granted. And on the other hand, this insistence is specifically not characteristic of sf, in which, as Joanna Russ (ahem) has ably demonstrated, what would in other literature be considered verisimilitude is precisely the least "believable"!

On another note, Konstantinou seems to think there is something unusual about being concerned for "the mechanics of divine manifestation," for its specific and literal physical nature. But even I know that an enormous amount of real-world theological writing, done over a period of thousands of years, both pre- and post-dating the advent of modern science, has been concerned precisely with this very question--and the tininess of my knowledge of theology is vaster than the ocean. Once more Konstantinou insists on comparing his subject against his own fevered imaginings of a whole huge world he clearly knows nothing at all about, and, conveniently, finds that world lacking.

The creator of the universe makes every effort to conceal his own existence. His occasional visits to the earth reflect a self-indulgent impulse, a wish to “be down on the board among the pieces, just for two or three moves, to get the feel of it, without at the same time stopping running the game.” God’s omnipotence is rule-bound, following a careful, logical progression, which Amis outlines at length. Existence comes to resemble “an art and a work of art rolled into one.” Reality is not only an artwork for Amis, but also specifically a work of science fiction.
"Reality as an artwork" is a notion that, in Christianity, is as old as Christianity itself, and in other religious traditions is I would suspect similarly ancient. And, ok, seriously, once more: I dare you to explain how that last claim--"specifically a work of science fiction"--follows from what precedes it. I don't deny the possibility that this is in fact what Amis is doing (though given Konstantinou's track record I have no faith whatsoever that his interpretation of The Green Man in any way reflects what is actually in the book), but QE very much not D here. God has rules, ergo the world is a work of science fiction? God doesn't want us to know He exists, ergo the world is a work of science fiction? God runs the world but also sometimes goes into it, ergo the world is a work of science fiction? What is the argument here?
This picture of God not only gives rise to a bit of metafictional cleverness...
I mean it certainly sounds like Amis uses the presence of God in a metafictional way, but meta science fictional is just a leap too far, from what Konstantinou gives us; and "cleverness," well. I'll be polite and just say eye of the beholder. Actually, no, I'll say more: even if we allow that this is cleverness, if a work's only reason for being metafictional is to be clever then I see no reason why that work has any claim on our time; if a critic's only sense of why the metafictional is valuable is that it is clever, then I see no reason why that critic has any claim on our time. Metafiction is indeed important, but "cleverness" is not the reason why.
Amis’s pop-theological vision comes with a literary corollary. Realism as a mode or genre can only capture a narrow part of this destructible reality.
Here Konstantinou begins (inconsistently) to engage in that obnoxious and frankly stupid tendency of many sf critics, namely to use "sf" and "realism" as mutually exclusive, opposite, and (between them) comprehensive terms describing all of fiction. If it's not sf, it's "realism." We see clearly that this is Konstantinou's belief in the quote from The Green Man that follows this bit, in which Amis's narrator talks about the limitations not of "realism" but of "all prose fiction" (and just wait til you see the hijinks Konstantinou plays with that). What's extra funny about all this is that this problem, that "Realism...can only capture a narrow part" of reality, the problem that is described in Amis's book (or at least, as Konstantinou quotes it from Amis's book; I'm not sure I even trust his ability as a transcriptionist at this point) as "the pitiful inadequacy of all prose fiction to the task it sets itself"--it is precisely the awareness of this problem that is at the center of the modernism that Amis rejected. I believe very strongly that sf too can live in the awareness of this problem, but far too often it allies itself with realism (as did Amis himself) and thus perpetuates the lie that prose fiction can be, unproblematically, adequate to its task.
Maurice’s view seems less easy to dismiss if we understand this passage not as a commentary on “all prose fiction” but traditional realism’s (and modernism’s) failure.
That parenthesis is doing hugely more work than Konstantinou thinks it is, and at any rate it strikes me as irresponsibly glib to rewrite the book the way he does here ("When he says 'all prose fiction' what he really means is 'everything except sf.'"). Too, "Maurice's view" (again as Konstantinou represents it) is not actually easily dismissed.
Conventional fictions fail in two ways. On the one hand, they’re unable to represent a “total world” in their “field of reference.” On the other hand, they too quickly propose singular explanations for unrelated phenomena. They’re bad at grasping contingency.
Goodness, something I can agree with.
Genre fiction, and science fiction in particular, gave Amis a seductive alternative to realism and modernism. Science fiction is, as he wrote in his introduction to Spectrum 5, “a natural and liberating complement to the novel of character.”
Well, that didn't last long. Look, you have to realize that these are enormous claims you're making, claims that strike at the very heart of what writing, fundamentally, is. If you're going to make a claim like this, you really need to understand what you're doing; you need to understand what "realism" is, and "modernism"; particularly if you're going to posit them as two separate things (which they, kind of, mostly, sort of, are), you cannot use the incoherent and useless standard definition of "modernism" ("Ehhh, that stuff they did in the 20s, right?"), which it seems at least Konstantinou, who does not elaborate on what he means by it, is doing.

Also, "a natural and liberating complement" does not an "alternative" make. Look up "complement" in the dictionary and you'll see why.

If Konstantinou has his way--and in this he does, alas, more often than not--then sf, far from being a salutary "alternative" to realism, merely compounds--indeed "complements", in the sense of making complete and total--the problem of realism. For the problem of realism is precisely that it pretends to give us "reality," when instead it can only give us a distorted, simplified lie; if we add to this a claim that sf somehow is able to correct the problem merely by being different, we've only made the lie more intractible.

And, I might add, if we combine this latest claim with Konstantinou's earlier endorsement of the Suvin "definition" of sf, we are left with the farcical suggestion that sf solves the problem of realism merely by adding to it a "novum". "Realism" is inadequate, but "realism in spaaaaaaaaace" can...well, let's see, what can sf do? Tell us!

Only science fiction can give us a glimpse of totality and contingency.
Excuse me? And I thought you were making huge claims before. Let's ignore the "only" for a moment. "Science fiction can give us a glimpse of totality and contingency." OK. Y'know, I actually almost agree; I have vague thoughts about what it actually is that people describe with the semi-adequate term "sense of wonder" that dovetail pretty nicely with this. But I think you have to emphasize that "glimpse" a whole hell of a lot more than this; and even then it seems dangerously overstated to me. It might be better to say that science fiction can make us aware that, somewhere outside the wholly determined and necessarily partial world of the constructed work of fiction, there exists totality (though I wonder if Konstantinou is using the word to mean the same thing I do), and there exists contingency.

But then add the "only" back in and the claim falls apart anyway into specious, arrogant nonsense; and that's before we consider that, as I said above, Konstantinou seems to think that sf constitutes this remedy merely by being sf (and that sf is sf merely by virtue of having "nova" in it), which just makes things worse.

A ghost story about the incapacity of realism or modernism to address death, The Green Man deploys the resources of science fiction to disclose, however fleetingly, the precariousness and destructibility of existence. Now that’s a ghost story.
After spending half an essay trying (and, notably, failing) to explain why this specific ghost story, unlike most ghost stories, is actually science fiction, Konstantinou closes his discussion of The Green Man by treating "ghost story" and "science fiction" as interchangeable terms. (P.S. Plenty of ghost stories deal with "the precariousness and destructability of existence," try reading one sometime.)

Then begins the section on Amis's novel The Alteration, which begins with the passage I discussed the other week. To what I wrote there I want only to add that, though Konstantinou's writing is so ham-fisted that I can't be sure, I think he is trying to suggest that writing an sf novel that includes talk about sex is tantamount to writing a "brilliant metafictional analysis of science fiction['s] limitations."

Amis’s novel constructs an alternate version of 1976, in which the Reformation never happened. The ascendant Catholic Church represses science and technology, and Europe continues to live in a state of arrested development. Only New England is free of popish influence.
The way Konstantinou has written this suggests that New England is in Europe (and for all I know in The Alteration there is a place in Europe called that, but if there is, Konstantinou hasn't told me). The only other interpretation I can think of is that that "only" is doing an enormous amount of work. Is everywhere else in the entire world under "popish influence"? There is no way of knowing from what this review gives us. If there is in fact no way of knowing from Amis's novel, then that is (probably, though not necessarily) a serious problem; but again, it is impossible to say based on what Konstantinou has written.

I also find it odd that nowhere in his discussion of The Alteration does Konstantinou mention Keith Roberts's Pavane, that other, genuinely classic, sf work set in an alternate-present England in which the Reformation never happened. I'm not one to say "that idea was used once so it can never be used again," but it seems important to mention it. Another issue which I may as well address here: throughout this section, though too diffuse to admit of specific citation, one gets the sense that Konstantinou thinks that anti-Catholocism is somehow brave, or witty, or clever, out of the mouth of a patrician midcentury Englishman, an implication that I hope most of us can agree is repellent. Roberts's novel (or collection of stories, depending on how you want to take it) also has a whiff of anti-Catholocism about it, but its take on the matter is vastly more nuanced and thoughtful than, at least, Konstantinou's description of Amis's novel, which makes it sound like nothing more than simple-minded Enlightenment propaganda.

Hubert Anvil is a ten-year-old chorister whose voice is so beautiful that Rome decides he ought to become a castrato, to be forcibly frozen in pre-pubescence to ensure that his divinely gifted talents will not be lost. The novel’s plot turns on the attempt to prevent Hubert from being altered.
Because it is unclear for quite some time, I will point out now that Konstantinou does, in fact, seem to be vaguely aware that castrati actually existed in the real world; but as we shall see, he (seemingly following Amis) totally misunderstands their significance. (I will pause here to note that a castrato's voice, while it does not develop in the standard way, is most assuredly not "frozen in pre-pubescence.")
Much of the fun of the book comes from Amis’s impish world-building...
All I have to say about this is that, tone-wise, it seems a bit tasteless coming, as it does, immediately after the rather grisly passage I quoted before it.
Though Amis’s alternate world deviated from our world many hundreds of years before the time of the story, many figures from our timeline make cameos in altered form.
It is unclear throughout whether Konstantinou or in fact Amis thinks this makes any kind of sense whatsoever, so I feel obliged to drop in here and say that although in the right hands this technique could be artistically justified, as a matter of possibility it is of course sheerest nonsense.
We learn about Monseigneur Jean Paul Sartre's “new commentary on De Existentiae Natura”; William de Kooning's “large, colorful and popular” paintings of Adam and Eve...
But now I really must object. I'll pass over de Kooning with sealed lips (except to say, um, that's not his first name), but Sartre? People. In a world with no reformation, Sartre as we know him would not exist. He wouldn't be the same guy with the same concerns shaped differently to fit "popish influence." FFS, existentialism itself would not exist in any form whatsoever in a world in which there had been no reformation. Seriously. Seriously seriously.
...and Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle. With the last of these alter-historical cameos, Amis’s metafiction becomes truly dizzying.
Oh god. There follows some discussion of how Dick's novel is in real life an alternate history which itself includes a novel about an alternate history that bears some resemblance to our reality (though not as much resemblance as most critics, who don't read books, claim), and how now Amis has made Dick's novel into an alternate history about a world much like ours, except that, judging from the excerpt Konstantinou quotes, in that world the propaganda claims of technological capitalism are all actually true (Konstantinou, of course, betrays no awareness that this is a different thing). "In his passing reference," Konstantinou writes breathlessly, "Amis takes Dick's already complicated, intertwined set of alternate histories, and he adds another vertiginous layer to them." After his three-paragraph summary of the vertiginocity, he has to pause to fan himself:
So: Amis’s alternate version of Dick’s actual alternative history novel (which itself contains an alternate history revealing to Dick’s fictional characters actual reality) turns out to be a story about our actuality [sic, you 100% ideologically blinkered fool]. Got that?
I do indeed got that. Here's the thing, though. Dick's novel is indeed complicated and layered (which contributes to, but is not sufficient to explain, its greatness). But merely placing something complicated inside of a box does not make it more complicated—and even if it did, that isn't automatically a move of any importance. It does not mean you've "added another vertiginous layer." It is not "truly dizzying." It's Christopher Nolan.

Just because you can write a complicated sentence about something doesn't mean that it's worth doing. Nor does it mean that the complicated sentence is worth writing.

No wonder (the real) Philip K. Dick claimed The Alteration was “one of the best — possibly the best — alternate world novels in existence.”
Yeah, well. Dick was an intermittently important writer, to be sure, and a fascinating personality, but I don't have to agree with him about everything, thank god, or I'd find myself forced into agreement with other opinions incomparably more revolting even than this.
As if this multivalent reference to Dick’s most acclaimed novel weren’t enough...
FYI, you made an argument (a failed one) for the reference's being multilayered, not multivalent. Unless--did I miss a valence or three? I count only one: that it enables one to write sentences that seem deep to stereotypes of stoners.
...Hubert and his friends on several occasions have informed conversations about science fiction.
The writer of this article would not know an "informed conversation about science fiction" if one punched him in the face, so I'm choosing to disbelieve this claim; as such I ignore the rest of the inane discussion of it.
The Catholic Church might be more fruitfully read as figure for literary realism, the very “novel of character” that failed to represent all sides of life.
But here's the thing: "literary realism" itself, and very very specifically "the very 'novel of character'" itself, arose at the moment when the Reformation--and the other historical strands leading into and related to it--began to unseat the Catholic Church's authority. Extraordinarily important as it is, now is not the time to go into why this might be (though I highly recommend Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, and Steve's and Richard's crucial posts about it, on the subject). But regardless of reasons, as a matter of fact it is readily apparent, and that alone makes this metaphorical interpretation--whether it comes from Konstantinou or Amis--suspect at best.

There follow some truly hideous remarks that do not directly touch on, but could not be made without, a deeply entrenched combination of and investment in macho masculinity, heterosexism, and transmisogyny on the part of their writer, which in the interest of not breaking down into tears I am mostly going to pass over.

One can also, without much difficulty, argue that Hubert’s threatened alteration is the specific sort of cruelty one might expect of the novel’s alternate Vatican — and the sentimental, sexually dysfunctional medievalism with which Amis associates it. (Amis reportedly was inspired to write The Alteration after listening to a 1909 recording of the Italian soprano castrati Alessandro Moreschi.)
MEANWHILE IN THE REAL WORLD CASTRATI WERE A PART OF THE OPERATIC TRADITION, WHICH ITSELF AROSE ONLY AFTER THE REFORMATION DISMANTLED THE CHURCH'S AUTHORITY, MUCH AS WITH, AND FOR MUCH THE SAME REASONS AS, THE NOVEL. (Yes, I'm aware that there were castrati before there was opera, but there hadn't been in any significant numbers for several hundred years beforehand, and the particular role that those earlier castrati played seems to have been very different than what we are dealing with here, which, again, is precisely a product of the dissolution of what Konstantinou and/or Amis is declaring its cause.)

I mean just obviously, someone who survived long enough to have his voice recorded cannot in any meaningful sense be described as "medieval." Alessandro Moreschi lived out his entire life in a world in which the Church's authority had already been curtailed by the Reformation (this being relevant despite his being Italian), in which the totalizing worldview of post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, imperial industrial capitalism already held sway. Just for comparison, he was born ten years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto. And he was a castrato.

In general the propagandists of the Enlightenment have been very successful in convincing us that things that happened up until very recently, things that still happen, and many things that happened only after and because of the cluster of events (the Reformation, the colonization of and genocides in the Americas and Africa, the Enlightenment, the formation of capitalism, the advent of modern science, and so on) that went on in roughly the 15th to 17th centuries, are somehow "medieval." I've gone on about this too long already, so let me just recommend Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch on the subject (specifically focusing on how very modern the witch trials were), along with the aforementioned Josipovici (and their consideration together in Richard's posts, as linked above), and simply note that Konstantinou simultaneously falls for and perpetuates this destructive myth here with his comments on castrati.

Though unsettling anti-Catholic and heteronormative shadows hover over The Alteration, Hubert’s situation also serves as an ingenious allegory for science fiction’s cognitive power.
That "though" is much too handwavy for my taste. Also, the shadows are hovering? Also, "cognitive," go away.
Explaining the future to someone who has not been there is, Amis wants to show, somewhat like explaining mature sexual desire to a ten-year-old boy or a castrato.
And who better to explain mature sexual desire than Kingsley Amis, am I right? (Meanwhile, if this is what you meant by "ingenious allegory," yeeeesh.) (Meanwhile meanwhile, what do you mean "the future"? This book takes place in an alternate present.)
Hubert has an especially pointed discussion with his brother Anthony on this question. Anthony laments that explaining the significance of sex to human life to Hubert is like trying to “explain the colour red to a blind man.” The best he can do is to compare sexual desire to “kissing a girl while it feels like playing with yourself but it’s like . . . wonderful ice-cream.” This is the sort of peculiar sensation that, I think, only science fiction has the means to help us feel.
Hahaha, your terrible writing has made you say that "kissing a girl while it feels like playing with yourself but it's like . . . wonderful ice cream" is "the sort of peculiar sensation" that we can only feel in science fiction. Did you mean to say that the peculiar feeling that reading these passages makes us feel can only be had in science fiction? That's the best sense I can make of this, although since neither sexual desire nor prepubescence are in any way sfnal (most of us have in fact experienced both in our own lives), I don't think you've particularly justified that claim.

After a banal paragraph closing off his discussion of The Alteration Konstantinou proceeds to his conclusion where, due to the pressures of his form, he feels a panicked need to write something conclusiony.

One hopes the reissue of these two genre novels will reawaken our sense of his oeuvre’s true richness, and will help put Amis where he belongs: in the canon of major SF writer-critics. Doing this wouldn’t only be a way to honor Amis’s literary and critical achievement. It might also, in time, help further erode the ghost of “yesterday’s literary ideologies,” which, though mostly in the grave today — science fiction is more accepted than ever before — still haunt how we think and write about the genre. Amis’s science fiction offers us a powerful talisman with which we might exorcise such prejudicial specters, and is itself a masterful example of what the genre can do at its best.
Unfortunately this conclusionyness is so incoherent that I can't even begin to do justice to it. Konstantinou hopes, he tells us, that these books will make people take Amis seriously, because science fiction is really popular and respected now, so maybe the fact that everyone already takes Amis seriously will make people take science fiction seriously. Huh? I can't even deliberately construct something as nonsensical and self-contradictory as what Konstaninou writes here. Amis's reputation needs rehabilitation, then it doesn't. SF is respected, then it isn't. Onward and upward into the glorious world where literary ideologies are in the grave because Amis has taken his place in a canon and every science fiction novel is but a clean and clear window on the world. Wait, what?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

When I call science fiction a "field"

"Field", in one of its common senses, is sometimes used as a quasi-metaphorical description of collective endeavor, of a group of people working together, though usually individually at any given moment, not toward a specific or shared goal, but for many different reasons, along individual but nevertheless somehow parallel lines. In this sense sf most definitely is a field. But also:

Martin Heidegger, very roughly paraphrased, speaks of us, beings contemplating Being, as finding ourselves thrown into an open space, a clearing: a field?

Gabriel Josipovici, discussing Robert Pinget's novel Passacaglia, writes:

It leaves one, as one finishes it, with the sense of having lived through half a dozen or more potential novels... of having lived through them or half lived through them, and through so much else.... But more than that, the book leaves one with the sense of having participated in the birth of narrative itself. And, naturally, having no beginning, the book has no end, no third part, as Kierkegaard would say. When the field has been thoroughly plowed the book stops, for nothing more can or needs be said.
In terms of the single life--which of course ends, is bounded--the field can indeed be "thoroughly plowed" with nothing more able or needing to be said; but what of a field of such fields?

And Joanna Russ writes: "A story is closer to the interaction of magnetic fields than to what we think of as life. And perhaps life is, too." And stories themselves interact with one another, in the way of magnetic fields; and we must try to grasp, too, the relationships between the way we think of stories, "what we think of as life", and what, "perhaps", life is.

PS Come to think of it I think we can pick up resonances from almost every definition wiktionary has for the word.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lines from H.P. Lovecraft's "Dagon"

I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain... you may guess, though never fully realise... I must have forgetfulness or death... I had but little idea... I could only guess vaguely... I knew nothing... for uncounted days I drifted aimlessly... Its details I shall never know... one might well imagine... other less describable things... Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable... nothing within hearing, and nothing within sight... innumerable... unfathomable... I could not detect... an unknown goal... I know not why... immeasurable... black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine... fathomless... unfashioned... I cannot definitely analyse... no light had yet penetrated... I cannot express... unknown to me... unlike anything I had ever seen... unknown to the modern world... I dare not speak in detail... beyond the imagination... beyond the conception... I think I went mad then... I remember little. I believe I sang... I have indistinct recollections... some time after... In my delirium I had said much... my words had been given scant attention... knew nothing... they could not believe... I cannot think... I dream... The end is near.

Monday, November 4, 2013

What is "the New Wave"? What is "sex in science fiction"?

Well, yet again I've written and suppressed a very very very long and cranky post, this time a reaction to Lee Konstantinou's rave review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of Kingsley Amis's two "science fiction" novels. Konstantinou's review is a mess, a terrible, terrible mess, in which I could seldom read longer than two sentences without going "What? That's just plain wrong," or "You have no idea what you're talking about," or "What you've actually written is the opposite of what you seem to think you mean, and both options are terrible." This weekend I wrote a, basically, paragraph-by-paragraph reaction to it, but looking over it now it feels petty and mean. Konstantinou, as an associate editor at LARB, is a part of the gatekeeping apparatus, which makes his apparently total cluelessness (and his terrible writing) galling. But still.

There are two parts of his review, though, that I do think need to be addressed. This post deals with one of them; I will write about the other later this week.

Konstantinou writes:

Throughout [Amis's atrociously stupid book about science fiction] New Maps of Hell, Amis repeatedly laments that science fiction is nearly asexual. It “unshackles the libido but seldom, often appearing to go out of its way to be chaste,” he writes. Indeed, for all its imagination, “the nature and direction of sexual interest in science fiction is almost oppressively normal.” An attempt to correct this tendency, The Alteration might justly be viewed as belonging to the New Wave’s historical unshackling of the genre’s libido, just as much as any work by Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, or Joanna Russ. Amis finds in human sexual development a potent metaphor for thinking critically about the nature and significance of SF.
I'll start with "the New Wave." Contemporary usage is, I acknowledge, against me here, and as such I'm not blaming Konstantinou specifically for this, but I do think it's important to have a historical awareness of what lies behind this term.

The term "the New Wave" first entered the science fiction field when Judith Merril compared the work of a very small number of writers, most of them British, all of them associated with the British magazine New Worlds under Michael Moorcock's late 60s editorship, to the famous (and then-current) French New Wave in cinema. It was a moderately useful comparison: they were a group of writers who were conscious of trying to do something different, who were under the sway of a certain set of critical theories, who were tied together by one venue, a shared audience, and a central personality. Very soon, however, sf readers and editors started applying the term willy-nilly to anyone anywhere who was doing work that was in some notable way different from that of the so-called "Golden Age" of the 30s and 40s. What this ends up doing, though, is flattening out this "difference," making it appear as though all these different people were doing much the same thing for much the same reason; not only that, but it ignores the crucially important decade of the 50s.

The New Worlds writers, to all appearances, really did want to break with the entire tradition of sf; so too did some of the other notable writers of the 60s (Vonnegut, say), but many others (Russ, Delany) did not. They wanted to change things, they wanted to do their own thing, but they very much saw their contributions as a part of a continuous tradition--one which, significantly, included that work done in the 50s, which itself was much more varied than what had come before it. (Some others, like Le Guin, would have us believe that they gave all this no thought, though I often wonder how literally true this is.)

I think that, if we are to retain the term "New Wave" at all (a big if), it should be applied only as Merril originally meant it. In this usage, it makes sense to call J.G. Ballard New Wave, and Brian W. Aldiss, and the Americans Pamela Zoline and Thomas M. Disch. They are all very different writers--much as, say, Truffaut, Godard, and Varda are all very different directors--but there is a cohesiveness to their enterprises (as there is with those directors) that there simply is not with the other writers. To call not only these New Worlds writers but also people like Le Guin, Delany, and Russ (and all the others who often get lumped in with them, everyone from Tiptree to Ellison to Zelazny) "New Wave" flattens their differences just as much as it would to say that, for example, Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Anger are also "New Wave" directors, because they also made movies notably different from those in the main stream at very roughly the same(ish) time as the French directors did.

Next let's deal with older sf's lack of sexuality (a tendency, incidentally, which had begun to break down long before the advent of the New Wave or of the specific writers Konstantinou lists). There are two very different but equally crucial things to think about here.

First, there are the material conditions under which that older sf was created and distributed. Algis Budrys, having been there at the time, discusses this far better than I ever could in essays like "Non-Literary Influences on Science Fiction," but basically: the companies that distributed the pulp magazines, that got them on store shelves, had near-total monopolies. What this meant in practice was that a distributor, by deciding not to handle a given magazine, could singlehandedly destroy that magazine, for good. And these distributors, for their own material reasons (operating in areas with varying prevailing "moral" standards, for example), were extremely censorious of any sexual content. In order for their magazines to survive, editors had in turn to be similarly censorious. Thus, the lack of sexuality in these older sf stories is neither intrinsic to the field nor reflective of any psychological "failing" in its writers, but rather imposed, basically, by corporate interests. This does not of course change the fact of the absence, but it does require a different analysis--and a different response from those trying to change it. Amis is very plainly not aware of any of this in New Maps of Hell, and Konstantinou follows him unquestioningly.

Second, though it was not by choice, this lack of sexuality as it actually manifested in older sf does not need to be seen as automatically a bad thing; in many ways it can be seen as a small shelter against the overwhelmingly compulsory forms of sexuality pushed in nearly all other areas of culture. Sexuality is an important part of life for most of us, it is true; but it is not the only part of life, and many are the people who find its constant discussion and expression just as stifling as the total inability to discuss it at all. (Indeed, for an example of the discussion of this very feeling in — pre-New Wave — sf itself, see Theodore Sturgeon's story "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff".)

Even more seriously, it is difficult to see or even to talk about in today's climate of usually unreflective "sex positivity," but cultural expressions of sexuality as such are not necessarily to the good. Think about the violence, the vicious misogyny of the sexuality in the "mainstream" of American literature at the time*; are we to be sad that the sf of the 1940s had no equivalent to Norman Mailer? And my god, look at the person who's pointing out the "problem." Do we wish that sf had had the "freedom" to write about sexuality in the ways that Kingsley Amis did?

*I say "at the time" only to create the parallel; I do not mean to imply that "things are better now." They aren't.

And all that brings me to my final point, which is that Konstantinou has unconscionably feministwashed, if you will, the "unshackling of sf's libido" by naming Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Samuel R. Delany as those who accomplished it. Because far, far, far more often what the entrance of sex into sf meant in practice was the importation of the sexual attitudes of the likes of Mailer and Amis (or more accurately the newfound opportunity for men who already shared these attitudes to express them explicitly). If you read, really read (rather than fondly recall a story or two from) Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies, for example--and they prided, nay preened themselves on their "mature," "honest" sexuality--you'll see what I'm talking about. Read the two stories about Jack the Ripper, by Robert Bloch and Ellison himself. Read Piers Anthony's "In the Barn". Read Henry Slesar's "Ersatz". (NOTE: You'd probably be better off if you didn't.) "Sex," in the context Amis is using it, most often translates into "brutal violence against women." It is long past time we stop uncritically valorizing its entrance into the field, and certainly long past time that we stop pretending that the nuanced explorations of Le Guin, Russ, and Delany are in any way representative of "sex in sf" in general.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Bullet points on Perloff's 21st Century Modernism

Some things I don't like about Marjorie Perloff's 21st-Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics:
  • Her periodization and movementization of modernism
  • Her apparent stance that "experimentation" and novelty in art are valuable in and of themselves
  • Her seeming belief that there is nothing but embarrassing reaction and suppression in the later T.S. Eliot
  • Her sometimes tyrannical decisions as to the "meaning" of Gertrude Stein's works
  • Her sometimes overly definitive interpretation of Marcel Duchamp's "infrathin" concept
  • Her admiration for and faith in technical virtuosity as such
Some things I do like about Marjorie Perloff's 21st-Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics:
  • Her anti-periodization and anti-movementization of modernism
  • Her understanding that the impulses and struggles of modernism are not solely the product of now-past historical forces but are always relevant
  • Her insistence that World War I, far from "causing" modernism, disrupted and deferred an already-in-progress modernism
  • Her ability in general to see past many common received opinions
  • Her examination of sound, form, and "meaning" in the early Eliot simultaneously, never treating them as somehow separate entities
  • Her openness to the multiplicity and/or irresolvability of "meaning" in Gertrude Stein's works even as she ably explicates them
  • Her decision to treat Marcel Duchamp as a poet (which he is!)
  • Her treatment of the "infrathin" concept as important and central to modern life and art
  • Her silent but ever-present insistence that women are just as important as men, both as poets and as critics, and her related, unapologetic tracing of the influence of some women on some men rather than only the reverse
  • Her ability to discover unexpected sympathies between different poets' enterprises without ever homogenizing these enterprises; her insistence on difference even as she uncovers similarity
  • Her palpable excitement about her subjects, both poets and critics