The OF Blog: A Tristram Shandy-like "introduction"

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Tristram Shandy-like "introduction"

It is with LOVE as with CUCKOLDOM -

- But now I am talking of beginning a book, and have long had a thing upon my mind to be imparted to the reader, which, if not imparted now, can never be imparted to him as long as I live (whereas the COMPARISON may be imparted to him any hour in the day) - I'll just mention it, and begin in good earnest.

The thing is this.

That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best - I'm sure it is the most religious - for I begin with writing the first sentence - and trusting to Almighty God for the second.

'Twould cure an author forever of the fuss and folly of opening his street door, and calling in his neighbors and friends, and kinsfolk, with the devil and all his imps, with their hammers and engines, &c., only to observe how one sentence of mine follows another, and how the plan follows the whole.

I wish you saw me half starting out of my chair, with what confidence, as I grasp the elbow of it, I look up - catching the idea, even sometimes before it halfway reaches me -

I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man.

Pope and his portrait* are fools to me - no martyr is ever so full of faith or fire - I wish I could say of good works too - but I have no

Zeal or Anger - or
Anger or Zeal -

And till gods and men agree together to call it by the same name - the errantest TARTUFFE, in science - in politics - or in religion, shall never kindle a spark within me, or have a worse word, or a more unkind greeting, than what he will read in the next chapter.

* Vid. Pope's Portrait

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, Vol. VIII, Ch. 2

It has been nearly four and a half years since I began this OF Blog of the Fallen, ostensibly to serve as an extension of wotmania's Other Fantasy section. But yet it occurred to me tonight that I never really had written a fully-defined bit about what I, the main commentator/reviewer here, am all about as a reader and as a commentator. When I realized this, it was only natural for me (perhaps not for you, but certainly for me as you shall see) to think of Sterne's outstanding comic novel from the mid-18th century.

Writing a blog has been called by many one of the more egoistical things one can do. One's words, on most any subject, presented to the nameless masses (or perhaps Stendhal's "fortunate few," as he said in relation to those who would read and "get" his novels in the decades and centuries to follow his death) as if there is something of "authority" there. There might be something to this, but I think it never hurts to be a bit more clear about my own background, since I've noticed that the average readership at this blog has gone up over 5x in the past year.

I am relatively old, I suppose, as I'll turn 34 in six months. My formative fiction reading experiences (outside of required school reads, of course) do not resemble the Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, Donaldson, (insert other 70s or 80s fantasy series/author) group that many other spec fic bloggers might cite as being their introduction to the genre. While I did read C.S. Lewis and Tolkien by the age of 13, my interests were drawn more to the English 18th century novel by the time I had begun college at the University of Tennessee in 1992. It was during my time there that I was introduced (or rather, often introduced myself in that, "Hey baby, what's your sign?" sort of stumbling, bumbling about) to Sterne, to Henry Fielding (I will praise Tom Jones as being one of the most perfect of novels to my deathbed, I tell ya!) to Daniel DeFoe's other novels to Samuel Richardson, Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer is Jane Austen before Jane Austen, for those Austen fanatics out there), and Anne Lennox. There is something about the combination of the bizarre and the erudite play off of then-current manners that attracted this student of cultural/religious history.

When I finally came around to reading more overt fantastical works, I believe in large part I was influenced by all the "classics" I had imbibed in the half-dozen years between 17 and 23. Even today, when I read a bit of a comic novel (only snatches of Pratchett, as I think I cannot help but feel that I had read much the same coming from his more illustrious predecessors like Sterne or Swift), I think back to the narrative and character quirks that were quite common in pre-Victorian (18th century through the early 19th century Regency period). There's just something about that period of literature that I think makes for a special thing.

So yeah, by now, dear intrepid reader, you probably have noticed that I am prone to digressions when talking about my preferred literary styles and that I might drop certain foreign expressions at the drop of the hat (sometimes in parenthetical asides, viz. elsewhere). But in all seriousness, when I'm reading a novel, I'm looking for the parts that depart from a formula or perhaps those that subvert the expected formulae. An adolescent departing from home (fantasy or "real" is irrelevant here) is a trite formula. An adolescent who departs home and appears to have slept with his long-lost mother, however, is a subversion of that "coming of age" story, although one might argue that Freud would have had wet dreams over stories such as the above-mentioned Tom Jones.

But yet formulae "work," in that the readers know what they want and when to expect the payoff. While I love works such as an Ulysses that break most of the rules, if you pay close enough attention, you'll see where often within the non-linear approach, you see a development of character and a thesis>antithesis=synthesis within the story (how proud Hegel would be of this application of his ideas!) that isn't as dependent on plotting as some might come to expect. So when I read a Hal Duncan, part of me recognizes some of his influences, as those are some of the same ones that have influenced my own approach.

All well and good, I suppose some might be thinking now, but "what is the fuckin' point?" There is one, or perhaps many would be more honest here. In writing in this fashion, I am being deliberate in my approach. I will quote from authors that I am reviewing as I see fit, as it is the necessity of showcasing their style that can make or break the reader's unwritten, unspoken "contract" with the review. If I show them that it's not A to B to C in a book and they want A to B to C, even though I'll probably love such works, chances are that the schmuck (sorry, if that offends you, "gentle reader" can apply, although readers and reviewers alike tend to be schmucks as well from time to time) isn't going to "get" it.

Which leads to an interesting point on "authority." The other day over at wotmania, there was a bit about an UK article on critics and SF. There was an interesting exchange within that thread about the issue of "authority." For some, bloggers such as myself who post a lot and who get hundreds or thousands of views might be viewed as being "critics" now. Others resolutely object to that title, as if the label of "critic" is a dirty one reserved for old farts who are "blind" to the possibilities of X that the reader/viewer believes to deserve more (electronic) ink. It is an interesting argument, I suppose. I must, I guess, believe that I have some "authority" if I am writing a longish missive about my influences here for others to consider. Perhaps there is some sort of implicit "trust" that is involved. Perhaps there are dozens reading this who were thinking "Right the fuck on, brother!" when I noted how much of value I see in reading 18th century English novels. Perhaps not (hopefully, there'll be a few who'll Sapere aude and go out and read some of the authors I mentioned above, even if their versions of farm boys don't go forth to slay the Wicked Dragon of the Midwest). What matters, I suppose, is that people seem to want a more "personal" reviewer, instead of the more antiquated image of the learned blind sage on the mountain who catches flies with chopsticks and says "grasshopper" quite a fit (OK, so Kung Fu is another seminal influence on me).

So here goes: I don't know if I like quiet walks along the beach, but I do like works of a great societal/spiritual violent scope. There's a reason why the post-WWI era was my favorite era for history and one of my two favorites (the other of course being the 18th century) for literature. I like to read of discontinuities between character/person and his/her society (real or fictious). I believe language as expressed in prose is paramount and that authors that have an inventive style often can take a standard plot arc and gussy it up and make the reader approach it from a different vantage point. I do not care much for sparse characterization and I think that Isaac Asimov is fated to become the SF version of Eugéne Sue. Although I prefer subversion and trangression of formulae whenever suitable, I do not mind a well-written (read: coherent and internally harmonic with the characterization, plot, theme triad) work that employs standard formulae. I will read quite a few works from the traditionally "disadvantaged", perhaps due to my exposure to neo-Marxist critiques of history and of gender/race relations. Most of my favorite works of spec fic do not involve any sort of peasant-to-king progression, as I find the feudal model as presented by most epic fantasists to be quite boring and untrue to the actual model, which has more inherent tensions than even a George R.R. Martin will present. I believe that fantasy and science fiction works can and perhaps to a degree ought to be much more about internal doubts and struggles than about the projecting of societal fears into a created "world."

But I don't believe in writing manifestos and I might just change my mind some more whenever I get around to truly writing an introduction about myself. But in the meantime, hopefully these words will give readers here more things to consider about this sometimes-humble writer and how capricious his reading choices can be (I'm finishing up José Saramago's La balsa de piedra tonight and will also try to finish a re-reading of Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull before moving on perhaps to my first full re-read of Tristram Shandy since my mid-20s). After all, if people want to argue that spec fic deserves a place with the literature of its time (or before), one needs to be aware of the literary traditions, no? Oh wait, that makes me out to be a damned "critic," doesn't it? Oh well. Read on, gentle shmuck...err, gentle reader, read on!*

*In a book, not necessarily this blog. I can be a schmuck at times as well.


Fish Monkey said...

Thank you for posting this! It is helpful to know where reviewers come from, and as someone who shares much of the same literary tastes and background I am quite thrilled.

Larry said...

You're welcome, Ekaterina! I guess it'll make my upcoming review of your book (I read it last week) all the more interesting to you, no? ;) I can say that I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I'll wait until I write the review to give all the specifics. Ought to be up by Friday.

Fish Monkey said...

Oh cool, a review! And of course I now wonder how your knowing something about my tastes will affect your review :)

In any case, I'm looking forward to it.

Larry said...

Well, it shouldn't affect it too much, other than I might speed up the planned time for writing it. If I have any energy today after my job interview this afternoon (interviewing for teaching middle school ESL, if you're curious), I might write the review tonight. But I've been suffering from a cold this week and I might be exhausted. Certainly by Friday mid-afternoon, though.

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