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secondhand reflections

Set me aflame and cast me free,
Away, you wretched worlds of tethers...


There are many words and phrases that should be forever kept out of the hands of book reviewers. It's sad, but true. And one of these is "self-indulgent." Whoever reviewed Neil's new novel, Anansi Boys, for Kirkus calls it "self-indulgent" (though the review is, generally, positive). And this is one of those things that strikes me very odd, like reviewers accusing an author of writing in a way that seems "artificial" or "self-conscious." It is, of course, a necessary prerequisite of fiction that one employ the artifice of language and that one exist in an intensely self-conscious state. Same with "self-indulgent." What could possibly be more self-indulgent than the act of writing fantastic fiction? The author is indulging her- or himself in the expression of the fantasy, and, likewise, the readers are indulging themselves in the luxury of someone else's fantasy. I've never written a story that wasn't self-indulgent. Neither has any other fantasy or sf author. We indulge our interests, our obsessions, and assume that someone out there will feel as passionately about X as we do.

I did manage to get Chapter Seven of Daughter of Hounds begun yesterday (indulging my own fascinations with old railroad tunnels, underground places in general, shadows, burnt-out automobiles, and mildew). It was a modest beginning, only 1,104 words, but that's decent. It's something to act as a foundation. But I am starting to fear this book. It's not unusual, that I find myself fearing a novel as I near it's completion. It happened with both Threshold and Murder of Angels. But here I am, past typescript-page 400 (as of yesterday), and I still have two seperate narrative threads. I thought that they would come together towards the middle of the book, but now we're past the middle of the book and, though they are bridged here and there, they remain divided. Partly, this is an artefact of the story's having been compacted by Roc's desires to keep it under 150,000 words. Partly, it's just some strange thing that seems beyond my control. I begin to wonder if there's actually some purpose in it. I don't want to force a confluence, as I hate the feeling that I'm forcing a story this way or that when it seems to have other things in mind. But I am near to forcing it, anyway. I can already imagine the comments from reviewers, the ones who will go on about how better the book would have been if only the two narrative threads had been united early on. But that's not what happened. That's not the way this story is happening. If I force it, I might break the whole thing apart.

Nothing much to say about yesterday. The mosquitoes are eating me alive. It happens every summer. They prefer my blood to Spooky's. I don't want to be delicious, anymore. What else? After Darkness, I wanted to see something else by director Jaume Balagueró. We chose The Nameless (Los Sin nombre; 1999), because it was based (to some degree) on Ramsey's novel of the same name. Sadly, it wasn't nearly as effective as Darkness, though it covered much of the same ground. But I'm open to the possibility that the film was so marred by the atrocious dubbing job (I just wasn't up to subtitles last night) that it would be unfair of me to judge it until after I've seen it in Spanish. Also, I started playing Pariah on XBox. So far, it's a particularly claustrophobic fps. The game's world is well-rendered, the voice acting's better than usual, and the music's quite good — but I can't help but feel I'm playing Halo 2 over again or that I've only unlocked some secret side-mission. And that's probably not a fair estimate, either. I hate it when reviewers dismiss something for not being "original." Originality is the most deadly mirage in all of art. You can chase it from now until doomsday, and you'll only find yourself lost and dying of thirst. Anyway, that was yesterday.

Comments

( 16 comments — Have your say! )
robyn_ma
Jul. 24th, 2005 03:44 pm (UTC)
'I've never written a story that wasn't self-indulgent. Neither has any other fantasy or sf author.'

Neither has any author of fiction, regardless of genre. In fact, neither has any writer, period. The very act of writing assumes that the reader is interested in what the writer is saying, whether the writer is writing about vampire clowns or the stock market. The only form of non-self-indulgent writing would probably be technical writing.

I suspect that what reviewers mean when they say 'self-indulgent' is that, either in parts or as a whole, the author's interests have disconnected from the reviewer's interests, and the author is going on about something or pursuing an interest that for some reason makes the reviewer say 'Okay, we get it, moving along now.' It's not a terribly precise term. The fault is neither in the author nor in the reader — it's simply a disconnect — but 'self-indulgent' is probably a column-inch-saving way of saying 'I think Ms. Authorpants goes on a bit here with the vampire clowns, but fans of vampire clowns may appreciate it more than I did.'
greygirlbeast
Jul. 24th, 2005 03:48 pm (UTC)
Neither has any author of fiction, regardless of genre. In fact, neither has any writer, period. The very act of writing assumes that the reader is interested in what the writer is saying,

Ahmet.
redsleeves
Jul. 24th, 2005 06:43 pm (UTC)
I never thought of it before, but it is totally strange to accuse an author of being self-indulgant, especially if they are writing in a "fantastical" genre.

I'm trying to think of all the times I've accused a work of being "self-indulgant" to determine if this was ever fair. The movie "Scarlet Diva" comes to mind, which Asia Argento wrote and directed. I thought this at the time because the story seemed very self-contained, and loaded with scenes that seemed gratuitous in that "look how cool and trendy and tragic my life has been" sort of way. But no one would ever accuse Kerouac of doing the exact same thing, or any of the other beat writers (well, actually folks have accused them of just that, but their opinions are not often taken seriously).
So maybe I accused this girl of being self-indlugent because this was her only film at the time (she's since directed an as-yet-unreleased adapation of "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things") Or, maybe I thought this becuase she was young and pretty and privileged, and I felt she was condescending to my boring, humdrum existance with her exiting plethora of life experiences.
Or maybe it was just because she was some dumb actress in a Vin Diesel movie and I am overanalyzing things.
mistressmousey
Jul. 24th, 2005 07:25 pm (UTC)
wrt: mosquitos
For years (when I lived in bug-happy environs), I used Avon's skin-so-soft body spray, which was never advertised as a mosquito repellent, but worked as well as OFF! spray and smelled a hundred times better. I remember Avon grudgingly admitting (years ago) that yes, they're spray worked against mosquitos, but that it wasn't the angle they were going for, so it was never marketed as such.

I just did an online check to see if it still existed and apparently they have changed their tune in the past few years. Might be worth a try.
greygirlbeast
Jul. 24th, 2005 07:40 pm (UTC)
Re: wrt: mosquitos
Might be worth a try.

Thanks. I use it, actually. Well, I use the Skin-So-Soft bath oil, and it works quite well, so long as I remember to dab a little on before I go outside. But I am forgetful, alas, and then there are the stray mosquitoes that slip in whenever a door is opened or if a screen is not quite flush with a windowframe and nail me in my sleep.
emrecom
Jul. 24th, 2005 10:04 pm (UTC)
"The Doll Who Ate his Mother" is the best title ever.

Whenever I write an emotionally dislocated scene, I'm probably using lessons learned from Cambell's novels.
greygirlbeast
Jul. 24th, 2005 10:49 pm (UTC)
"The Doll Who Ate his Mother" is the best title ever.

Agreed. I adore that novel.

Whenever I write an emotionally dislocated scene, I'm probably using lessons learned from Cambell's novels.

As well you should. That's something The Nameless got right, by the way — the film adaptation, I mean — that particular sense of emotional dislocation.
tagplazen
Jul. 24th, 2005 10:32 pm (UTC)
Have you ever read Nabokov's Pale Fire? It's impossible to take any critic seriously after reading that book, and if you haven't, I think you'd find a lot of his flourishes repeating throughout House Of Leaves.
greygirlbeast
Jul. 25th, 2005 02:16 pm (UTC)
Have you ever read Nabokov's Pale Fire?

I've not, but perhaps now I shall.
tagplazen
Jul. 27th, 2005 04:35 am (UTC)
It's sooo good. I love the man, there's a great interview with him form the Paris Review archives. (The fact they're putting those all on-line is one of the greatest things in my life recently, Nelson Algren's had me cheering).
emrecom
Jul. 24th, 2005 11:31 pm (UTC)
I didn't even know there was a film version! Ordering it right now--thanks!
greygirlbeast
Jul. 25th, 2005 02:48 am (UTC)
Ordering it right now--thanks!

Yer welcome!
setsuled
Jul. 24th, 2005 11:52 pm (UTC)
Whoever reviewed Neil's new novel, Anansi Boys, for Kirkus calls it "self-indulgent"

It's always kind of funny to hear that from a critic, as writing a review may be one of the most self-indulgent forms of writing as, while with most things we read we're naturally to conceive our own impressions, a critique asks us to form impressions of impressions. The opinion of a critic may be more informed than one's own by longer study of literature, but most critics seem to feel it's their spiritual duty to consider their own tastes. Which it may be.

So, the reviewer is basically saying, "It doesn't interest me, so it shouldn't interest anyone else," but taking a roundabout way of saying it so as, perhaps, to stave of consciousness of this indiscretion.

What could possibly be more self-indulgent than the act of writing fantastic fiction? The author is indulging her- or himself in the expression of the fantasy, and, likewise, the readers are indulging themselves in the luxury of someone else's fantasy.

It's nice to hear you say that. A while ago, someone who was briefly my friend, criticised a novel I wrote, a couple chapters in, as being too self-indulgent. Eventually, as if trying to soften the blow, she said that she ought to have been looking at my work with the lower standards one ought to employ when looking at genre fiction. That she could not, in that context, fault my language for not being as beautiful as that of James Joyce.

And, you know, on that subject, I can't think of a better example of "self-indulgent" writing than Finnegans Wake. But I have to say I think it's plain delightful for an artist to forge right ahead with their own cracked agenda, without worrying very much about whether or not we can follow. If a writer's passionate about what they're writing, only someone who dislikes passion would be unable to follow.
greygirlbeast
Jul. 25th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC)
a critique asks us to form impressions of impressions.

Exactly.

The opinion of a critic may be more informed than one's own by longer study of literature,

I think this may be the ideal of a critic, but, in reality, I think that it's the exceptional critic who's actually educated and/or well-read enough to take on the job.

It's nice to hear you say that. A while ago, someone who was briefly my friend, criticised a novel I wrote, a couple chapters in, as being too self-indulgent. Eventually, as if trying to soften the blow, she said that she ought to have been looking at my work with the lower standards one ought to employ when looking at genre fiction. That she could not, in that context, fault my language for not being as beautiful as that of James Joyce.

This is simply appalling. Really. Truly. Appalling. I know it's not an uncommon attitude, but still...I mean, that she said that to you. Wow.
mlle_rouge
Jul. 25th, 2005 05:53 am (UTC)
I think this may be the ideal of a critic, but, in reality, I think that it's the exceptional critic who's actually educated and/or well-read enough to take on the job.

I think that every critic is interesting, even if it isn't an exceptional one - just because it makes you think and eventually debate, not only about "impressions of impressions" on a book/movie/work of art, but more importantly about what is literature/cinema/art. Like we do.

Now, I agree about the "every writing is self-conscious"...
setsuled
Jul. 25th, 2005 08:35 am (UTC)
This is simply appalling. Really. Truly. Appalling. I know it's not an uncommon attitude, but still...I mean, that she said that to you. Wow.

She was someone I met at school and many of the students had a pretty hostile attitude towards any student fantasy writing. Meanwhile, their ability to enjoy what I consider to be extremely dull "slice of life" stories continually baffled me, but maybe I'm being catty. Anyway, I think the general inability to even temporarily subscribe to someone else's fantasy probably had something to do with their marriage to certain fantasies about the way things ought to be written.

The person in question, I think, put a little too much pressure on herself and took it out on others. It's telling that she was never able to complete any writing projects of her own. I, on the other hand, don't plan on giving up simply because I may never end up being James Joyce. Too many of the students I've met have been too worried about looking dumb.
( 16 comments — Have your say! )