Guest post at Bookworm Blues, etc.

I have a guest post at Bookworm Blues today that’s on three fantasy novels from 2014 that reward patient readers. I’m delighted that Sarah was willing to give me a slot on her blog and hope you all enjoy it .

This blog has been quiet of late. That’s because:

  1. I’ve been writing fiction more steadily.
  2. The day job got really crazy during the month of September.
  3. I keep reading interesting novels but then don’t get around to writing about them before I have to return them to the library.
  4. I’ve been feeling the need to write longer pieces (similar to the post at Bookworm Blues) that either engage with several works at once or go in-depth with a particular work, series or author.

I’m not ready to commit to longer (even more infrequent) blog posts, but it is an option I want to explore. So I may still pop up with a quick thought or quote every so often, but I’m going to give long-form a go and see if I can make that happen while continuing the momentum of my fiction writing.

Alan Jacobs on the emergence of the fantasy genre

The essay needs to be read in full for this quote to be clear, but I feel the need to document it:

But again, the desire for a world resonant with spiritual meaning, of one kind or another, does not easily die — perhaps cannot die until humanity itself does. Technology is power, but disenchanted power. And so the more dominant mechanical and then electronic technologies become as shapers of the social order, the more ingenious grow the strategies of resistance to their disenchanting force — the strategies by which we deny the necessary materiality of power. In the literary realm, the chief such strategy is the emergence of fantasy genre.

– Alan Jacobs, “Fantasy and the Buffered Self” at The New Atlantis

Time and POV in Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Hateship Friendship Munro collectionThere is nothing genre about Alice Munro. The author and her work are one of the key nodes of modern literary fiction. The perfect detail. The minor epiphany. The mundane realism. Even if you’ve never read any of her stories, you know that these things are why Munro is a master of the short story form. I must admit that I had never read her work until recently when the gushing praise after she received the Nobel Prize for Literature finally upped my curiosity enough to give Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories a go (with a seventh month lag, of course: my curiosity is often a slow burn).

So why didn’t anyone tell me about the way she uses narrative structure? I would have read her stories much earlier if I had known. Because as it turns out (and I can only speak to this collection), for all that Munro’s stories are about funerals and family dinners and strained familial or spousal relationships, they also do very interesting things with time and POV. The stories switch among POVs, but not in a regular manner. Most have one primary character that is focused on, but at the beginning or ending (and sometimes in the middle), the POV may be on a different character or characters. And these other POVs may or may not take place in the same time period as the bulk of the story. And they function not as narrative frames because a) they’re usually asymmetrical [not actually frames] and b) it’s not always easy to tell how they relate to the main story.

The effect on the reader, or at least the effect on me (and it simply may be because I’ve been mainly reading SF&F lately), is one that is not foreign to genre, especially science fiction. It’s that pleasant but puzzling confusion. A wondering how all the pieces fit together and the inability to make everything fit. Without that effect, I wouldn’t have liked the stories as much. I mean, there’s nothing new about the story of an academic who commit adultery. But the way Munro messes with the narrative structure of each story adds strangeness to the reading experience.

Which isn’t to say that they are fully weird. Most of the stories in Hateship, Friendship etc. are more or less resolvable, although “Post and Beam” remains a mystery to me. Why does it start there? I still don’t know. But I like it much more than I thought I would, and I hear that other of Munro’s work plays even more with time and memory. Munro intersects with the fantastic much more than I had thought. It’s a welcome surprise.

Reading for Writers: The Tigress of Forli

the cover of The Tigress of Forli While reading Elizabeth Lev’s biography of Caterina Sforza The Tigress of Forli, I realized that I was just as interested in the quieter aspects of Sforza’s life as the big dramatic events and aspects of her personality that she is (in)famous for. As a result, I suddenly felt like both female and male characters in many fantasy novels were one-dimensional in comparison. Clearly, a biography does things that a novel can’t — it’s a more comprehensive narrative that doesn’t require a tight plot. And yet, Lev does provide some fascinating through lines.

The key narrative of Caterina Sforza’s life was her struggle to keep possession of lands in Romagna (that came to her via marriage to her first husband Girolam Riario and after his death, to her son) when the Pope, the large neighboring Italian city states, and the lesser nobility of Romagna all wanted pieces (or all) of the Riario domain. The stories about this are fascinating. The Caterina Sforza wikipedia page does a decent job of covering the basics. Sforza’s wit and guile and bravery (and, yes, beauty) are legendary. Just one example: after the death of Pope Sixtus, as Rome fell into chaos, a pregnant Caterina left her ransacked residence to occupy the Castel Sant’Angelo on behalf of her husband with the hopes of influencing the conclave that would select the next pope. But politics wasn’t her only obsession. She was an avid hunter and knew how to fight with a sword. She was a religious women, who later in life would spend periods of time in a convent. She was also keenly interested in growing herbs and making medicinal preparations with them as well as combining them with other substances to create cosmetics. And, of course, art (including interior decoration) and reading and correspondence via letter were all things she regularly engaged in.

In fiction, characters are often one or two things. And oftentimes the second thing is not all that unique or interesting. Caterina Sforza was a politician, hunter, rider, herbalist, alchemist, mother, wife, widow, lover, correspondent, interior decorator, fashion plate, warrior, religious zealot and philanthropist. She was hated by many, admired by many and loved by a few. There are obviously differences between real lives lived and fictional characters on the page, but after reading about Caterina Sforza, your standard fantasy character, especially your standard female character in epic fantasy, seems slight in comparison. The solution isn’t to write a Caterina Sforza (although I’m sure that’s already been done), but rather to think about the characters we write as more than just plot functions or character types.

Lev’s book isn’t perfect, although I can’t judge as a biography because it’s a period of history that I am not well-acquainted with. For all I know, it may be a little too on the side of the subject, but Caterina Riario Sforza deserves the sympathetic treatment, especially considering her accomplishments and how she was depicted by some of her contemporaries (particularly Machiavelli) and those who followed their lead. Even so, there were moments where you felt Lev stretching to get inside Sforza’s head or to include a piece of research. And even though it’s a popular history, it also would have been nice to have more of Sforza’s actual words (from letters) included in the text. We get very little of that. And yet what we do get is more than enough for me to declare The Tigress of Forli as essential reading for writers.