'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

My Forthcoming Ecomonstrous PhD on R. A. Lafferty & Cormac McCarthy

Sadly, I'm still not able to devote more time to this blog and writing about Gene Wolfe.  But here's a peek at what's keeping me so busy.  The PhD's themes are relevant to Wolfe because 1) he's a huge fan of Lafferty, considers him a genius in fact and said of him:  'he is our most original writer. In fact, he may be not just ours, but the most original in the history of literature.'  So I'm pretty sure Wolfe would support the study of Lafferty's works.  And 2) because my burgeoning notion of the 'ecomonstrous' could eventually have a rich playing field in the works of Wolfe himself (e.g. the intergalactic xenobiologies and ecologies in the Solar Cycle or the transmogrifications and other bestial happenings in his fantasy works like the Soldier series and the Wizard-Knight).

If you've ever appreciated what I've tried to write here, I hope you'll give our Indiegogo site a wee look to see if any of the great perks my family have provided are something you'd be interested in obtaining through a donation:  www.indiegogo.com/projects/ecomonstrous-phd. (My 9-year-old son is making Cthulhu crafts for one of the smallest donation amounts, which may interest some Wolfe fans.  But there's other cool stuff there too.  And more to come.)  Anyway, have a look at the video below.  I'd love to hear your critical thoughts on the idea of the ecomonstrous in literature. Thanks.  (Oh, and I'm keeping this blog live because I really do believe I'm going to write about Wolfe's works again at some point!)

For what it's worth, Neil Gaiman, another Lafferty fan, and a Wolfe one too, kindly tweeted our campaign with this comment:

Thursday, January 22, 2015

...on course upon a greater sea to strange new islands.  Good fishing!  Good fishing!  Good fishing!  Good fishing!  Good fishing!


-Return to the Whorl (2001)

I was just reading through some old posts and the wonderful interaction I received from some readers and it makes me hanker to take up this blog again.  Alas, for some time I've only been able to blog about Lafferty because that's related to my university coursework.  I'll definitely be blogging about Wolfe again at some point, but I'm not sure how soon.  (I'm nearing the end of Sorcerer's House, which I took down from the shelf on a whim in a need for some different reading.  Very entertaining.  Recalls Castleview a bit.  But I really want to re-read Cerberus and Peace and the Solar Cycle and finally nail down the Soldier series and finally finish all the short stories, etc.)  Anyway, here's hoping for some good Wolfean fishing in the not too distant future.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Delany & Wolfe - 1st skirmish

I read Samuel R. Delany's first novel The Jewels of Aptor (1962) recently and its pulpy creature-horror adventure vibe as well as its far-future lost-technology/magic premise were very fun.  But it reminded me forcefully of how truly amazing Gene Wolfe is at the same tropes.  In fact, he elevates said tropes straight into true artistry and 'literature'.  I mentioned this in my review of Delany's novel at my THPDDHOTH blog.  Let me elaborate just slightly here simply by saying that whereas Aptor exuberantly portrays winged and furred soldier-creatures, carnivorous beasts, and other monstrosities in quick succession almost for the fun of it, with vague justification and of little real help to the plot, Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is heavily populated with such monsters and marvels and each one is not only subtly rendered but also feels like another layer added to the entirety of the world-building and plot. The Alzabo feels philosophically deep as well as eminently creepy.  Notules are not only uniquely terrifying but also help enrich the premise of an Urth cryptically pervaded with alien fauna.  Man-apes in underground tunnels are as viscerally thrilling as any pulp heroic adventure story but also help develop a sense of the spiritual power of the Claw and Severian's messianic role.  No monster is thematically wasted it seems and each one is a poetic gem of evocation.  Masterful.

In the review of Aptor I also take a brief look at the theological view Delany was putting forth in the novel and contrast it with the theological vision of R. A. Lafferty.  It would be interesting to do this with Wolfe in relation to Delany as well.  It would probably be a slightly more complex conversation between the two worldviews whereas Delany and Lafferty are more forthrightly opposed (though digging deeper into their theological conversation would undoubtedly also elicit much nuance).  But I think a philosophical comparison between Delany and Wolfe will be much more fruitful when I've read more of Delany's mature work.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Lucian Yeardance and Patera Silk

I've started doing general science fiction reviews over at my blog They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven On Their Heads.  In the most recent on Michael Bishop's Stolen Faces (1977) I mention some connections to Wolfe, especially how the protagonist of Bishop's novel, Lucian Yeardance, serves as something of a dark mirror to Patera Silk in Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun, the former's 'ministry' to outcasts failing horrifically where the latter's leads to some degree of liberation (both spiritual and political) for his parishioners and his society in general.  It might be of interest to readers here.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Intergalactic Bestiary & Subversive Eucharist

I finally wrote something new about Wolfe!  It was part of a '30 Days of Halloween' series I did over at my Ride The Nightmare blog.  The theme of the series was theology of horror and theology of monsters.  I think Wolfe exhibits plenty of both.  I try to talk just a wee bit about how Wolfe engages with Lovecraftian 'cosmic horror'.  The article is at the link below:

Day 28: Intergalactic Bestiary and Subversive Eucharist (the opulent wonders of Gene Wolfe)

(Barlowe's interpretation of the the Alzabo. More like the Ghoul-Bear to me. I pictured Alzy a little more like this.)

I must say I do wish someone would make a quality illustrated Gene Wolfe Bestiary.  It could have, say, succinct Andre-Driussi-type entries on each creature accompanied by, say, Wayne Barlowe-type illustrations.   (Or maybe a host of illustrators, reaching back to Bruce Pennington and Don Maitz and forward to folks like Mike Mignola and Jude Palencar.)

Anyway, of related interest to some readers of this blog might be the following:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

This Warrior of a Dead World - Gene Wolfe's literary portrait of Neil Armstrong

As the world marks the passing of a great astronaut, it is highly interesting to note that Gene Wolfe actually wrote something of a literary portrait of none other than Neil Armstrong himself (or a character very like him, in echo of his famous historical pose).  The scene makes something very familiar suddenly very strange.  It gives us a Chestertonian surprise in which we glimpse our own world through the eyes of another world's inhabitant, when we least expected it.  It is one of Wolfe's most iconic moments in his masterwork, The Book of the New Sun, the epic tale of a far future 'Urth' that has advanced so far in technology that it has gone galaxy-hopping with intergalactic civilisations and left the remaining inhabitants of 'Urth' and its dying sun in a Dark Age backwater where the decayed remnants of technology look like magic to their benighted and barbaric communities.  The relevant scene appears early on in the first volume of this tetralogy, The Shadow of the Torturer. The protagonist, Severian, is walking one day through the great hallway of the Citadel's picture gallery, lined 'with innumerable pictures', and comes across a picture cleaner restoring a particular portrait that Severian says intrigued him:

'The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape.  It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner.  The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

'This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt.  In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it - not into our necropolis but into one of those mountain forests of which our necropolis was (as I understood even then) an idealized but vitiated image.  It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.'

-Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), ChapterV, 'The Picture-Cleaner and Others'

Armstrong Sounding Wolfean

This recollection from the Astronaut Who Has Gone On To His Reward somehow sounds rather Wolfean to me:‎

"It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small." 

-Neil Armstrong

9.3 Earth seen from the Moon

Torturer's Guild Microfiction

'No one from without the guild has dined with us at Holy Katharine's feast for more than three hundred years, when a lieutenant of the guard (so it is said) dared to come for a wager.  There are many idle tales of what befell him - as that we made him seat himself at our table upon a chair of glowing iron.  None of them is true.  By the lore of our guild, he was made welcome and well feasted; but because we did not, over our meat and Katharine cake, talk of the pain we had inflicted, or devise new modes of torment, or curse those whose flesh we had torn for dying too soon, he grew ever more anxious, imagining that we sought to lull his fears so we might entrap him subsequently.  Thus thinking, he ate little and drank much, and returning to his own quarters fell and struck his head in such a way that he evermore upon occasion lost his wits and suffered great pain.  In time he put the muzzle of his own weapon into his mouth, but it was none of our doing.'

-Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer, Chapter XI, 'The Feast'

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Face Too Large to Be Seen

'I saw nothing and heard nothing, yet it seemed to me that the face of the Outsider had appeared, filling the whole sky and indeed overflowing it, a face too large to be seen - that I was seeing him in the only way that a human being can see him, which is to say in the way that a flea sees a man.  Call it nonsense if you like; I have often called it nonsense myself.  But is it really so impossible that the god of lonely, outcast things should have favored those two, exiled as they were to their sea-girt, naked rock?  Who was, who could be, more broken, exiled and despairing than Maytera Marble?  Whether or not there was truth in the presence that I sensed then, I fell to my knees.'  (On Blue's Waters, p. 92)

(The photographer called this 'God in the Clouds' because of the discernible 'facial features'.)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beginning at the Beginning Again - Rediscovering The Shadow of the Torturer

I've started reading The Shadow of the Torturer again.  This begins only my third time through, the first time being a decade ago, the second about five years ago.  So it's fairly evenly spaced.  And not only is the work inherently textured enough for each reading to be a different experience, it also happens to be the case for me personally that I am at a significantly different stage of my own life on each of these reads.  Thus, as I take up this third reading, I can 'testify' that this series, The Book of the New Sun, travels very well with one's own unfolding autobiography.  (Can I get an Amen?)

A mere six chapters in, I wanted to record some ruminations.  The first being about this desire to discuss BotNS:  I find Wolfe's artistry presses on me with its richness, presses me to speak aloud of it, to say something publicly about it.  It is the kind of fiction one wants to talk about.  Indeed, it seems almost necessary to digesting the book that one start scatting out theories on its meaning - heck, it feels like there's a need for verbalising about just what on Urth is happening at all in the story, never mind the 'meaning'!  Wolfe, though he has many devoted fans from many backgrounds, is often considered a 'writer's writer'.  I can say, as a writer myself, that he is certainly one of the authors I read that makes me want to write - that is, not that he just inspires me by his own masterful craftsmanship (he does), but that whilst reading him the primal urge to write, write, write rises within me until I simply have to 'take up the pen' (keyboard) and resume plying the craft.  Only some authors create this urge in me.  Wolfe is one of the prime ones.

As to the book at hand:  I've done a lot of reading of other authors in between my last reading of Wolfe, 'English Literature canonical' works as well as 'genre' fiction and so on.  I admit I was a little worried that I'd built Wolfe's writing skill up in my mind to an exaggerated point.  I had a sneaking suspicion (and felt dirty and disloyal for the blasphemy) that I would be embarrassed and disappointed on this return to his masterwork because I would find it just didn't measure up to my own memory of it, never mind the work of other masters.

Turns out I stand condemned of unwarranted disloyalty and needless fear.  There are certainly many other specimens of writing that are this good.  There are not many that exceed it.  The prose, the language, the style, the sureness of voice and pace and wording and syntax are all exquisite - frankly, a literary feat (no, I didn't inadvertently miss out an 's' there, though it's that too).  Do you need an example of masterfully written fiction?  Look here.

One thing I'm experiencing in this reading so far is that each chapter is its own gem.  They thread together very effectively as one ongoing narrative unfolding the wider, longer story of this series.  But each chapter is also its own little episode with its own featured 'adventure' or encounter, with its own characters and qualities, wonders and enigmas and entities and spaces.  I hadn't consciously noticed this in my previous readings.  I'm relishing it this time.

The chapters flash into my mind in the following ways:

Chapter One, 'Resurrection and Death', centres on the mysterious nocturnal fight in the necropolis, in which young Severian momentously sides with the graverobbing nobility.  (Something about that whole scene felt so Chestertonian to me somehow - partly the way the big man suddenly disappears and then his head reappears at Vodalus's feet, and then Severian realises the man had jumped down into the interred grave - but other qualities as well.)  From this first chapter the 'science fantasy' quality of the series is established for me.  The whole setting, with its pikes and axes and lanterns and cloaks and foot-traffic and herb-gathering and so on, feels like a medieval heroic fantasy setting.  But this is very quietly offset by the barely hinted implication of a gigantic urban sprawl (in decay), a bright electric shot fired from what I assume is some sort of 'laser pistol', and the presence of a 'flier' screaming away over their heads, some supersonic aircraft I presume.  It also already reveals later plot developments as Severian 'remembers forward' to his later occupation as an executioner with the sword Terminus Est, and even mentions offhandedly that he eventually 'backed into the throne.'  And, of course, this opening chapter gives us what is probably one of Wolfe's most quoted philosophical musings in the mouth of Severian:

'We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.'

Chapter Two, 'Severian', backs up a little and gives us a more traditional opening to a long bildungsroman-type novel, with its background and setting of Severian's orphaned rearing.  Its main events strike me as being the description of Severian's boyhood haunt, his 'secret place' in the noble tomb, and his observations of nature from that invisible vantage.  That and the near-drowning scene in which he spectacularly sees a giant green woman's face deep under the river's water, whose giant coffin-sized (as he describes them) hands thrust him back to the surface, thus saving his life.  The lonely childhood scenes show something of Severian's naturally gentle and contemplative nature underneath the harshness of his profession (a nature that partly facilitates some of his calm cruelty, I suspect).  The half-visionary encounter with the underwater giantess introduces a certain 'magical' element to the epic that will reappear regularly, infusing this science fiction epic with a 'sword and sorcery' feel in my opinion.

Chapter Three, 'The Autarch's Face', gives us our first taste of the recurring horror elements in the series.  In this case, it is a repulsively matter-of-fact description of torture as a teacher instructs his pupils in their guild's 'art'.  It is not long or gratuitous, but it is unflinching.  It is perhaps the clinical succinctness that makes it so terrifying and stomach-churning.  Indeed, swift and effective description of extreme violence is, disturbingly, one of the things Gene Wolfe does best.  The rest of the chapter seems given over to more bildungsroman-building and it is perhaps the least gem-like of the episodes.  But the chapter does end with the self-professedly all-remembering narrator's important admission that he feels himself both partially insane and a sometimes liar.  This kind of tension between reality and unreality, and perhaps especially the human report of the two, is built in to all of Wolfe's works across the board.  I don't think he does it just to 'keep you guessing' or some such plotting ploy - I think he's very philosophically engaged with humanity's inherent epistemic brokenness.

Chapter Four, 'Triskele', centres, of course, on the massive maimed and cast-off canine that Severian names Triskele.  It looks to me like we're supposed to very strongly wonder whether it was Severian's touch on the dog's head that brought it back from, not an apparent, but real, death to life.  Mystery, miracle, magic - very slyly inserted.  Possibly.  The three-legged dog's huge and ferocious head now incapable of harm in its weakness is a pitiful sight and the whole chapter adds to the pitiful character of Severian's adolescence.  This is the sad and grotesque approximation of a Boy and his Dog phase in the life of our 'hero'.  Before this chapter we had heard brief and tantalising mention of the Bear Tower and here we learn more of the beast-trainer's guild and their repugnantly strange ways (eventually wedding a lioness or she-bear and thenceforward shunning human women).  Indeed, by this time in the story a deep sense of not only decay and deprivation pervades the setting, but also of depravity and dehumanisation.   It is a far, far future that is long, long forgotten by its architects and it only continues to cohere through perversions of pageantry and ritual that now appear unhinged from their origins and purposes.  It's a dark tale.  On that note, this chapter also introduces us to the vast labyrinthine network of underground tunnels that honeycomb the underside of the megapolis (this subterranean subtext materialising in many of Wolfe's works).  Severian barely escapes his blind run through them, chasing his lost dog.

Chapter Five, 'The Picture-Cleaner and Others', is one of my favourites and centres on the wonderful encounter Severian has with a picture-cleaner who is restoring a delightfully obfuscated portrait of a 20th century astronaut on the moon:  Severian perceives him as a golden-visored warrior planting his standard in a blighted wildnerness.  (This is possibly the most iconic moment in all of Wolfe's oeuvre.)  The description of the one-off minor character of this chapter shows Wolfe's skill in populating his tales with grippingly sketched eccentrics and earthy lower classes, physically and psychologically described with acute aplomb.  The old man is up on a ladder cleaning the aforementioned picture and speaks to Severian from there:

'Like one of those half-spiritual friends who in dreams address us from the clouds, the old man said, "So you're a torturer, are you?  Do you know, I've never been to your place."  He had a weak glance, reminding me of the turtles we sometimes frightened on the banks of Gyoll, and a nose and chin that nearly met... he scrambled down from the ladder like an aged monkey, seeming all arms and legs and wrinkled neck; his hands were as long as my feet, the crooked fingers laced with blue veins.'

These wonderful physical descriptions were prefaced by a metaphysical aside, totally unfamiliar to us but a fully accepted given to the narrator and his 'original' audience.  That little detail displays the way Wolfe puts you right into the head of an inhabitant of the world he has created, without further explanation or explication.  This is one of the key reasons why his very strange and unsettling style of world-building is so effective at the same time as being so elusive.  It has the technical quality of poetry - the immediate and concrete, a full imaginative immersion achieved by the massive assumption that you already share the poet's vision and she need merely remind you of it with fewer and more efficacious words than are called for in other discourse.  It literally feels like magic - in both senses:  sleight of hand trickery and  out and out sorcery.  The sustained impact of this kind of world-building can be very disorienting, but also highly seductive.

The background s.f. quality of the story is reinforced here not only with the astronaut picture but also by brief discussion of why the moon shines green:  the 'Forests of Lune' were engineered to grow on that barren world in ancient technological ages.

Finally, for now, Chapter Six, 'The Master of the Curators', is another powerful episode in its own right.  We are back underground, in darkness, surrounded by innumerable books in an inconceivably vast library, and in the presence of a very powerfully rendered character, Master Ultan, the august and elderly librarian.  Ultan's own story, and how it connects poignantly with Severian's, is truly 'touching'.  Ultan's resulting refusal to pass judgement on this sensitive and intelligent young messenger, who happens by no fault of his own to be of the guild of torturers, brings in Wolfe's recurring theme of our ability to show mercy and grace toward many outcasts and pariahs if only we could see who they really are and how they got to be where they are.

The s.f. setting is again remarked upon at a space-faring inter-galactic (and inter-multiverse) level when we hear of 'books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations'.  And it is possibly here first that this mega-cosmic vision is explicitly set within the recurring theological motif of the whole Solar Cycle.  Blind Master Ultan avers:  'He who had given all books into my keeping made me blind so that I should know in whose keeping the keepers stand.'

The impression we got of Severian as a contemplative boy is affirmed by Master Ultan's assessment of him as young man:  'It's a pity you are a torturer... You might have been a philosopher.'  Their ensuing philosophical dialogue on the theme 'How big is a man's life?', couched in Severian's inquiry about a ritual of necromantic cannibalism, is enthralling and oblique.

The wonder is that I have impressionistically notated here not one tenth of all that is contained and revealed in these opening chapters.  This work is truly that dense with rich texture and tincture.  There is so much more I would like to say about what I'm encountering so far.  Yet, in marvellous conjunction with this layered literary density, the book is eminently, quintessentially readable.  The pages always flick crisply by in quiet pleasure.  And, I am so very glad to report, it is better than ever on this third reading.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Paranormal Arthurian

'I'm chasing a phantom, he thought, an illusion.  I may need that four-wheel drive.'


I'm only three crisp chapters in to Gene Wolfe's 1990 standalone novel, Castleview, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly.  It very quickly and effortlessly builds up a pleasurably eerie ghost-story sort of feel with equally convincing and engaging contemporary 'family drama' realism.  Surely there haven't been too many novels in the 'paranormal Arthurian' category.  That alone is a treat.  But additionally the pacing and atmosphere are just totally engrossing for me so far.  And there are these delightful little moments of quietly odd humour like the line I quote above.  And really, it's already moving beyond the enjoyably spooky toward hints of the more truly numinous and otherworldly.

Considering all this, I have to admit I'm thinking there's no way this accessibility can keep up!  I'm guessing it's going to get complex and enigmatic in typically Wolfean fashion at some point soon here.  Otherwise this would surely be a better known novel.  Once it goes really lupine and I feel a bit lost, I'm sure I'll still find it rewarding, but in the usual you-have-to-work-for-it way Wolfe's fiction generally requires.  Regardless, I'm really delighted with this opening brush with this work.  Truly good fun.  I leave you with a sample from chapter 3:

'She drove past the motel without stopping, forcing herself, actually, to slow down to take the mileage at the sign.  Five miles, Emily had said, by road.  What was it called?  Meadow Gold?  That sounded like butter.

'An antlered buck stepped daintily onto the road and halted, spellbound by her headlights.  Icy-footed mice scampered up and down her spine as she stopped.  Not only because she might have hit the buck (though that would have been horrible) but because for a fleeting instant the graceful buck had seemed an object of supernatural dread.

'Like the horse and its rider.

'She blew the horn and the buck bounded away--no more than a common deer, a deer to be shot in all probability on the first or second day of hunting season.  Or had hunting season already begun?  Perhaps it was over already.  Who would want to hunt in this rain?

'She had started forward again when she saw a dark something in the rearview mirror.  It swelled and roared around her, tires screaming and throwing up combs of rainwater, a rusted-out sedan without lights.  Already it was gone, leaving Old Penton Road as dark and silent as before.'

Monday, February 20, 2012

New Year, More Wolfe

I didn't say 'New Year, New Wolfe' so as not mislead.  I didn't want anyone to be let down that this wasn't an announcement of a new Wolfe novel going to press.  On that note, however, I do so hope he'll finish the novel he is currently writing called The Land Across.  (He's apparently working on his third draft of it, so it sounds promising that it'll see the light of day!)  I also hope he'll write a follow-up to An Evil Guest that takes place on Woldercan. 

But my blog title was merely an exclamation of my intention to read more Wolfe this newly minted annum.  I'm very torn which direction to go.  I'd like to re-read Pirate Freedom and An Evil Guest to give each a decent review here.  (And so I can go on to newer novels, like The Sorcerer's House and Home Fires.)  Then again, I'd like to get busy reading older standalone novels as well, such as Free Live Free, There Are Doors, and Castleview.  (For that matter, a re-read and review of Peace is long overdue.)

But all this looks indulgently trivial next to my burning need and pressing responsibility to re-read the Solar Cycle!  Even if I decide to do that, I'm torn where to start!  I'd dearly love to start on Book of the Long Sun again.  Yet, Book of the New Sun is calling also.  I kind of want to start with the former to let it breathe in its own atmosphere without New Sun hanging over it as a broodier elder brother that always draws all pomp and pageantry to himself in preference to his obscure younger siblings.  But I'll probably only be able to do one of the tetralogies this year at best.

These are the oscillating cogitations that attend the Wolfean disciple's desire to read more of the master!  Well, one or the other(s) shall be done.  I resolve!

If there's anybody out there, what Wolfe are you reading or planning to read (or have just read)?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

silk for caldé: Another reason to play Skyrim

silk for caldé: Another reason to play Skyrim: I recently read an article on Paste Player, "Reading a Videogame: The Books of Skyrim" , about the many books in Skyrim and the other Elder ...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

'Well, oil up your whip and make sure you’ve got a good, stout chair...'

Dear Contestant,

I was one of the judges who read your story; the editor has asked me to write you and explain why it isn’t here… You had a good idea there, you have a way with words, and you worked very hard. You probably felt you deserved to win; and in a very real sense, you were right. But there were other writers—the new writers whose names and stories appear in this book—who deserved it more, including many who deserved it in a way you didn’t, writers who entered stories of professional quality, and not just good, solid, amateur fiction…

The fact is that it’s very easy to get a good idea for a story. The world is full of them; there’s an idea in every dust mote and every broomstick, and there are scores if not hundreds in every man, woman, and (especially) child you pass on the street…

When you write a story of your own, you start with a good idea. You try to get the style right for the particular story you’re writing (because no one style is right for every story). You work hard, because you notice that the harder you work the better the story gets. Then you discover that your story doesn’t have the effect on others that you know it should, and you don’t know why. I’m going to tell you—watch my lips.

You didn’t really do much with your idea. You unconsciously assumed that because it was such a fine, strong, sleek, and even potentially dangerous idea, it could run the story by itself.

Let’s change the metaphor. There are tigers in zoos and there are tigers in circuses. The tigers in zoos are strong and sleek and beautiful, and potentially quite dangerous; but they don’t do anything. The tigers in circuses are no stronger, no sleeker, no more beautiful, and no more dangerous; but they do things that surprise us and perhaps even frighten us a bit. We see them in action. People pay to get into circuses, but zoos are free. Now do you get the picture?

If I could give you just one piece of advice for the story you’re going to enter in the next contest, it would be this: Think of yourself as a wild-beast trainer, and your idea as a big cat in your show. Walking out onto the stage and saying, “Hey, look at my lion,” isn’t going to cut it. So what show—not what kind of show, that’s amateur talk—are you going to put on? Is your idea going to jump through a hoop of flame? Is it going to climb onto the shoulders of two other ideas and roar?

Well, oil up your whip and make sure you’ve got a good, stout chair, because somebody’s going to have to make it do that, and that somebody is you. You’ve got an idea in your head, and that’s good; now let’s see you put your head in the idea’s mouth.

-Gene Wolfe, 'An Idea That...' (1986; in Castle of Days, 1992)