Monday, 31 August 2009

First Lines Quiz: And the Correct Answers Are...

1. Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children.

2. Stephen King, The Gunslinger.

3. Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart.

4. Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland's Daughter (Preface).

5. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

6. Ian Fleming, Casino Royale.

7. H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness.

8. Richard Matheson, I Am Legend.

9. William Gibson, Neuromancer.

10. G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday.

Honorary mentions go to...

Ed who (albeit without specifying which quote) wrote:
"The only one I recognized right off the bat is I am Legend."
Which I guess qualifies for a sort of point.

lazy who wrote:
"Number two is so obvious (and excellent) I don't really even want to answer. And of course it has that bonus feature that would be a spoiler to anyone who hasn't read... all of it.
Four should be Dunsany, is my guess, The King of Elfland's Daughter?
Five sounds familiar... looked it up and was right! Conrad, Heart of Darkness."
Which if taking the first "unnamed" named, together with the "looked it up" gives a total of at least two points any which way one looks at it.

And finally, Ikeaboy who wrote:
"1- midnight's children
6 - casino royale
8- i am legend (the name gave it away)
9- neuromancer
didn't include authors's names, because that's just too obvious. so there."
Which, even with subtraction for failure to cite author names, does give us a winner of the quiz with four correctly cited titles.

So I give you the Quiz Master: IKEABOY!

Hope you all enjoyed the guessing. May do another one at some point in the future.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

On Pseudonyms: The Author as a Name or as a Person

There has recently been a strong debate in Sweden about the concept of writing under pseudonym. The root of the debate has been a brand new crime novel, Hypnotisören (literal translation: The Hypnotist) by "debuting" writer Lars Kepler. Now, the book was very hyped before publication, being sold to various international publishers even before it saw print here in Sweden (which from my understanding is not the most common way of things, especially not with Swedish debuts). I'll grant that this hype possibly stems from someone (whether the publisher or someone who'd just had a chance to look at the script) at the London Bookfair apparently having said that this Kepler might be the new Stieg Larsson. Given Larsson's huge international success with Män som hatar kvinnor (English title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and the two following books, a comparison could easily enough cause a hype. Still, and quite importantly, this hype pre-dates the whole pseudonym debate.

You see, there is no Swedish writer named Lars Kepler. It is pseudonym and suddenly just about everyone in Swedish literary circles (journalists, reviewers, bloggers) were in some kind of mad feeding frenzy. There was an insatiable need to know... Who is Lars Kepler? (As I type this, it has already since a while back been established and confirmed that Lars Kepler is in fact writers Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, a couple who for one reason or another opted to write a crime novel together, under the pen name of Lars Kepler.)

Now, I'm not big on crime fiction, I'll admit that up front, nor am I that big on Swedish literature in general as I often tend to favour English language literature. So maybe that is partly why the source of the debate has interested me very little. The debate itself has, however, fascinated me, simply because it has seemed ever so flawed in its reasoning. One reviewer (I forget whom, but then again that too might be for the better) angrily spoke of frustration, saying that he couldn't focus on the book because of not knowing who Kepler was. As if that fact would affect the quality of the text... or the plot... or... well, you get my point.

Accusations regarding it being a commercial stunt have rained down with some frequency in the debate and some people (the latest being a rather silly band of young Swedish writers putting together an even sillier manifesto) have harshly criticised the use of pseudonyms altogether; as if the practice was newly invented and shown off here for the very first time. And this disturbs me. There is a lack of historical knowledge at work here, a failure to recognise that the tradition of pseudonyms is both old and international. Not to mention that reasons for resorting to use a pseudonym are both numerous and varying in their degree of complexity or... shall we say "need." The latter by no means being a way on my part to concede that any form of "need" would be required for any writer to justify using a pseudonym.

I have thought about the debate a lot lately, partly because of reading Stephen King's piece "Why I Was Bachman" (included as an introduction in The Bachman Books Omnibus). King clearly had no "need" in the sense which at least some Swedish critics, etc, have seen fit to deem fair enough to justify the use of a pseudonym. But that doesn't mean his reasons weren't valid. Nor that he didn't have a right to use that pseudonym. In fact, the whole notion that it's a commercial stunt is rather lame. Sure, the publishing house made use of the debate that swelled up like a wave (as any smart commercial business would upon finding that a product of theirs was the focus of general attention for a time), but the hype was already there, the book was already selling.

Not to mention the fact that the use of pseudonyms hardly is a sure way to sell books. That notion is, quite frankly, laughable.

So why does the debate fascinate me? Why do I bring it up here (and more or less in its wake as it were)?

The answer is simple. It's because the debate itself points to something somewhat disturbing, which I incidentally haven't seen anyone bring up in the debate itself. And what it points to is this: Why is the "identity" of the author so important? Don't get me wrong. I enjoy listening to authors, reading personal anecdotes and watching interviews as much as the next guy; enjoy meeting authors I like at signings. But I'm also painfully aware that a great author needs not be a good public speaker, a pleasant person or come off good in those settings. Writing text is a very specific medium which doesn't necessitate social interaction or public speaking. Also, while it clearly does require a good grasp of language (preferably), it does not require quick thinking or instant wit. Not in the least. The writer has time to contemplate and a ponder, because of the natural time delay between sender and recipient in most textual situations.

As such, the current market with almost mandatory book tours and interviews, seems to be missing an inherent point in literature (regardless of genre); that the proof, as in so many other cases, is in the pudding; in the text itself. The reviewer who felt that he could not focus on the book because of not knowing who Kepler was, makes me question what he's looking at or for. How well do we think we know writers generally, watching them in interviews or just knowing their real name for that matter? Does knowing that name give us any power? And, perhaps more importantly, does it somehow alter the text?

If anything, the authorial name on the book (from the point of view of us readers) is a brand name or a linguistic marker. It is not really relevant as a signifier pointing to a flesh and blood person (which is neither to say that the physical author is unnecessary nor that he or she is unimportant as a human being). What it is relevant as is rather as a signifier pointing to a body of text. In some way, an authorial name on a book is comparable to a form of genre (albeit more limited in scope than most genres in most cases). If we like part or parts of one particular body of text, maybe we'll appreciate more of it. Here the authorial name is helpful. It may guide our browsing through the massive fields of text out there and help us decide what we should pick up next.

The recent Swedish pseudonym debate shows an almost unhealthy focus on the flesh and blood person, not the body of text in the making, but the real live body as it were. And I can't help but wonder if this is a sign that our contemporary society has taken the author cult of personality too far. Should we care, really, who is writing? Or, put differently, even if we do, should that be a primary concern? Is it the author who is important? Or is it the text? The current debate suggests that the author and his or her identity overshadows everything else. And I, for my own part, respectfully disagrees.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

First Lines Quiz

My friend Lazy over at Lazy's library (in Swedish) recently re-arranged her bookshelf applying the somewhat maddening sorting system of placing the books in alphabetical order based on the first sentence of each book (and she does have quite a few books, I hasten to add). As a side effect of this project, Lazy made a number of quiz like blog posts, where the idea was to guess the authors responsible for a number of first lines and which books they were from.

Now, while the whole re-arranging bookshelf according to a somewhat maddening sorting system is not a thing I would ever get into my own head to try, I have to say that the first lines quiz does strike a certain chord with me. And therefore I have decided to hold a little first lines quiz on my own over here.

There are ten quoted first lines below. Answers require an author and a book title for each quote (and you do not have to provide answers to all ten quotes if you cannot). There are no prizes given except honour, and the correct answers will be posted separately in a week or so.

Anyway... here goes:

1. I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time.

2. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

3. So intent was Frank upon solving the puzzle of Lemarchand's box that he didn't hear the great bell begin to ring.

4. I hope that no suggestion of any strange land that may be conveyed by the title will scare readers away from this book; for though some chapters do indeed tell of Elfland, in the greater part of them there is no more to be shown than the face of the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley, a good twenty or twenty-five miles from the border of Elfland.

5. The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.

6. The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

7. I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.

8. On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

9. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

10. The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset.

Good luck!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Literary Crush: C. J. Cherryh and the Other

Okay, let me first off start by saying this; I have a literary crush on C. J. Cherryh. Well, actually, I honestly think it's moved beyond the stage of a crush and into some serious, long term loving. And a healthy case of it indeed.

Cherryh's books caught my eye ages ago, though it took me a while longer to reach the point where I bought myself one of them and then a little longer still until I took that book off the shelf and read it (at least I assume the latter, since there is normally a bit of shelf time between my getting a book and reading it). At any rate, the first book I read was Foreigner (the first in Cherryh's series of the same name), and it was in the spring of 2004. I remember this as the book travelled with me to the Netherlands, where I participated at a conference on Identities and Alterities (fittingly enough).

Now, I wouldn't say that I immediately fell in love with Foreigner. The book is divided into three "books," where the first two (which takes up less than the first 100 pages of the novel) merely provide an historical background to the rest of the novel (and in fact the whole series). Those first two, short story-esque "books," however, didn't really grab me. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't something that grabbed me that strongly. Then the third "book" opened and I was hooked. As soon as Cherryh focalised her story through paidhi Bren Cameron, lone human representative and simplistically put translator among the atevi (the indigenous species on a planet where lost space travelling humans have been stranded), she had me.

Everything after that point, the internal politics of the atevi world, the politics of the human colony and the paidhi's continual struggle to understand the situation he is in and mediate the cultural divide, is pure narrative gravy. But certainly not without some proper sustenance. Cherryh is absolutely amazing at depicting intercultural and interspecies meetings, or perhaps more theoretically put, the encounter with the Other.

In the Foreigner series (of which I just recently finished reading the seventh book, Destroyer (see review), and am currently halfway through the eighth, Pretender), one of the main points throughout is that humans and atevi are differently hard-wired, genetically speaking. Atevi do not have human emotions, nor can humans ever feel man'chi, which governs not only atevi (emotionally speaking) but more or less all species of the atevi world in some fashion. Despite this, however, humans are extremely good at being anthropocentric and, Cherryh argues through her fiction, tend to ascribe human emotional content to situations as they see them. Something which in the Foreigner universe has been the very cause for developing the paidhi's office in the first place and for the humans having an island community isolated from mainland atevi society.

Now, the Foreigner series (and I would like to stress that it is a series and not a serial) just had its tenth instalment, Conspirator, released earlier this year. This is the first book in the fourth trilogy of the series (though even these trilogies are more strictly series than serial in nature), the previous three sets being, first, Foreigner, Invader and Inheritor; secondly, Precursor, Defender and Explorer; thirdly, Destroyer, Pretender and Deliverer. Currently reading Pretender (as stated above), I can honestly say that Cherryh hasn't lost a beat in the development of this universe and the characters with which she's inhabited it.

Still, one obvious question would be, how is Cherryh's writing outside of this particular series? Is the style, good as it is, something which is repeated throughout? Well, looking at the back covers of her other books (many of which sits on my shelf waiting to be read, I'll admit), a certain focus upon intercultural meetings and encounters with the Other seems to be a running thread through her authorship to be sure. Now, this would be enough to at least give pause for caution, but having also read her novel The Pride of Chanur (the first novel of five in her Chanur series, and the first one in The Chanur Saga omnibus collecting the first three), I would like to take some edge out of that argument. The theme is clearly at the focus here as well, but it is treated in a very different manner. First of all, by focalising this novel through the catlike hani (specifically captain Pyanfar Chanur and her crew on the spaceship The Pride of Chanur), Cherryh to some degree (at the very least) bypasses certain amounts of anthropocentrism. When the ship picks up an unwanted stowaway (who turn out to be a human named Tully, hopelessly lost in this sector of space), this sets off enormous political conflicts on interspecies levels, as a previously unknown species hints at a new, unclaimed market for the various species of Compact Space. This set up radically differs from anything I've read so far in the Foreigner series, yet still allows Cherryh to play to her strengths, i.e. political intrigue and the question of otherness.

Perhaps needless to say, I cannot recommend Cherryh enough. And I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunity to revisit her authorship in future posts, what with the remaining Foreigner and Chanur books sitting on my shelves, not to mention The Faded Sun Trilogy or Hammerfall and Forge of Heaven (both in her Gene Wars series), Downbelow Station (which won the Hugo in 1982) or The Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh.

And that's just what's on my shelves as we speak. For a man in love that hardly constitutes an absolute limit, right?

Sunday, 9 August 2009

What Are You Trying to Say? And What Are You Actually Saying?

"Foul, rainy weather and brutal murder. Which world would you like to be in this summer?" (original slogan: "Regn, rusk och brutala mord. Vilken värld vill du vara i den här sommaren?")

I came across this slogan earlier this week (not for the first time, I hasten to add) as part of a big ad on the side of the tram. The ad was from the Swedish book store franchise chain Bokia and is an attempt to market the new crime novel Höstoffer (literally: Autumn Sacrifice/Victim) by Swedish author Mons Kallentoft. And making an absolute failure of it!

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against ad makers in general. In fact, while I think certain amounts of legitimate criticism can be made towards the oversaturation of attempts at commercial seduction in contemporary society, I equally believe that ad making is an art in its own right (certainly in the sense of techne) and that skilled ad makers are to be admired. Because a skilled ad maker knows his or her craft well, and that involves a good grasp of communication and language. Not so much so, I fear, with the dilettantes responsible for the Bokia ad.

The ad slogan clearly plays into a broader Bokia slogan, "Step into another world" (Sw. "Kliv in i en annan värld"). Now, I'll admit up front that I'm not a big fan of that slogan, but that at least has something going for it. The current ad, however, obviously wants to play on this first slogan, wants us to choose to step into the world of Kallentoft's novel, presumably. But the attempt at seduction is flawed, rotten at its very core. The question asked, in the middle of summer, sun beating down on the city, is whether the reader of the ad wants to exchange his or her enjoyable summer for "Foul, rainy weather and brutal murder." And the answer? Not, methinks, the one the ad makers had in mind.

The ad fails simply because the ad makers are clearly trying to say something specific (something presumably seductive, given the medium and genre), yet while the intended meaning can be deduced... that meaning is not that of the ad text. The seduction that should make us say yes to buying Kallentoft's book and entering that world is more likely to have us raise our eyebrows and ask why on earth we should ever want what they're suggesting. It is sort of the equivalent of going on a first date and starting off by telling the date you haven't showered in a few days, then follow that by asking if the date wishes to spend the night later.

In people who're supposedly professional seducers, this is naturally not really what one is looking for.

The ad also reminded me of a Swedish TV commercial from earlier this year (unless my memory fails me about the exact time). The commercial was for the electronics store Net On Net, who are trying to promote their warehouse stores, opened in several places throughout the country. Now, the ad slogan for their promotion is absolutely excellent and spot on, "A little bit less conveniently located, but much better prices" (Sw. "Lite sämre lägen, mycket bättre priser"). The focus clearly being, and quite correctly, that the off centre locations of these stores is merely a minor inconvenience while the prices more than makes up for this.

So, what's my beef with the commercial, you may ask? Well, the makers of the first TV commercial chose to depict a harsh trek through the woods, in the rain, people climbing nasty hills, some even dying en route... and then finally reaching the haven of the store, as the slogan hits the screen. The problem? Well, what is shown on screen is not "A little bit less conveniently located"... it is incredibly inconveniently located.

Presumably the makers of the commercial would want us to find it amusing (which I can agree that it is to some degree), but also hammer home that these stores aren't really inconveniently located in any proper sense. A more correct approach and more in line with what I've seen of their later commercials would rather be to have somebody (say a stereotypical family father) prepare for such a horrendous trek and then have someone else (why not his wife or possibly children, to follow fairly straight forward ad lingo) take him to the car and just swiftly drive there, without the fuss. This would of course hammer home the point that what might be considered an inconvenience really isn't.

And isn't that what the ad makers are paid to do? Isn't that the art or craft of their profession? To actually know what they are saying.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Things I Overheard at the Taxidermist's

Earlier this year I read Alan Alda's wonderful memoir Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned, which I truly enjoyed (see my review). As I just finished the sequel Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself (see my review), I figured I would give Alda a little bit of extra exposure vis-a-vis his writing (as if he needs my meagre assistance, right?).

I've been a fan of Alda's acting for a long time. First and foremost, I grew up with M*A*S*H available on Swedish television (two channels, remember, so you did watch what was there, you know). It's a show which I incidentally only rediscovered as a grown up as recently as a few years ago (thanks to reruns). The show really presents Alda's capacity, yet it is not his only tremendous acting achievement, far from it. One needs only consider his work on the last two season of The West Wing (one of my all time favourite TV shows) or his work with Woody Allen.

Still, despite his many, many achievements, Alda runs the "risk" of forever most of all being associated with his M*A*S*H character, Captain Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce. Not the worst of legacies, I agree, but there is still more to Alda than just that. As these books show. I won't delve into detailed reviewing (the links on the titles will take those of you interested in that to my Goodreads reviews of the books), but I will say this; I truly hope that we haven't seen the end of Alan Alda the writer. Because he is a fine writer and one I truly hope I'll be able to read more by.

(Oh, and incidentally, I will definitely be picking up his 1981 film, The Four Seasons. I've never seen it, but from what I've read in passing about it and from what I know of Alda's writing, a film with Alda on writing, directing and acting, I just don't want to miss. Do you?)