Friday, December 24, 2004

Compromising Photos!

I was talking with my friend Judith (not her real name), who helped me put the cover proof of my next book up on this blog. We were chatting about the vicissitudes of the literary life, and I mentioned that posterity, should it ever think to take note of me, will find only one photograph extent: when I served as consultant for the Grolier Electronic Enecyclopedia of Science Fiction (an excellent resource, now sadly out of print), the producer told the staff photographer to get a picture of me. So if you get that CD and look up my entry, you will see a decent-looking photo of me, no worse for being almost ten years old.

Judith laughed bitterly. There are lots of pictures of her floating around, including a bunch of very unflattering ones that had appeared in Locus. Locus, a trade magazine for science fiction (once very influential, now rather eclipsed by the fact that people in the field can get their news online), is famous for running bad-looking photographs. The editor-publisher used to take the photos himself, but now uses professionals. Somehow the quality of the photos isn't really much better, even though the publisher is a terrible photographer and his professionals tend to be pretty good.

I was commiserating with Judith -- Locus will never run a photo of me, and we both know it -- when she suddenly said "No, that's not true -- I'm sure there are photos of you online." And I realized she was right. For the past several years, people who go to science fiction functions and take pictures of people have gone home and uploaded their photos. Anyone who has attended a Nebula banquet or a SFWA authors-editors party in the past half dozen years is probably featured in some group photo that somebody uploaded to a site, if perhaps only briefly.

Judith said we could go to Google and search on Images. I didn't know that Google had this feature (I am always one step behind the cutting edge), but while I was absorbing this, she executed the command herself and her quick DSL line brought up, yes, photos of Gregory Feeley. The nice one from the CD is available, to my surprise. Search on "Greg" rather than "Gregory" and you will indeed find me in a group shot.

So while we're talking, I search on Judith. And oh my gosh! There is a very nice image of her, from a recent just jacket, but there are also . . . awful Locus photos! (Which is why I won't use my friend's real name.) And not just Locus. A deeply unflattering photo put up by the university where she delivered a talk, writers' conference photos taken by supposed friends . . . this is awful. There is even a photo of a very overweight woman who isn't Judith; it was taken at some Women's Studies function described on a site where Judith's name is presumably mentioned.

Everybody knows that even nice-looking folks can be profoundly ill-served by an inept photograph, but this is really rubbing one's nose in the fact.

I have decided that Google Images is a tool of the devil. I will resolutely resist the temptation to look for embarrassing photos of people I don't like. (And I certainly won't look for photos of friends!)

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Blog Legal

A friend has told me how to do neat things like create italics on your blog. Had I known this kind of thing, my last post could have distinguished between "Neptune's Reach," my 1986 novelette, and Neptune's Reach, the novel in progress that it inspired. (Did that come out right?)

Soon I will be blog legal, and able to negotiate these mean streeets without having to consult my cooler friends on matters of punctilio and technique. (Yesterday my publisher sent me a PDF of the cover proof of my forthcoming novel, Arabian Wine. My moderately cool friend Maureen has a cover proof of her forthcoming book up on her blog, so I asked her how to upload one. Turns out I have to convert the PDF to a jpg, which requires more geeky expertise than I possess. (I lack in both coolness and geeky expertise, and perhaps should be taking supplements.)

Fortunately, I have lots of cool friends. Or rather, all my friends are cooler than me. How did that happen?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

My Own Congeries Under a Tarp

It will shock no one to hear that I have been working on a congeries novel for many years. “Neptune’s Reach,” a humble novelette, appeared in Asimov’s in 1986, and three years later (after writing _The Oxygen Barons_ and a few other things) I sat down and began constructing a novel from that initial seed.

Twelve parts of the large and ambitious _Neptune’s Reach_ were planned: five in Part I, four in II, three in III. (One must have a design, although tidily symmetrical ones are dull.) Over the next few years I wrote all of Part I, a piece of Part II, and took extensive notes for the rest. (The original story, thoroughly reworked, will make a modest appearance in the longest section of the book, “Six Records of a Floating Life.” That will constitute a mini-congeries of its own, six dense stories, like a whorl within a whorl.)

Two days before my daughter was born in November 1993 I did what would be my last day’s work on the novel for quite a while, coming within a few hundred words of the end of “On the Ice Islands.” I think it was three years later that I took it up again. It, and one final short section (“Ladies in their Letters”), appeared in Asimov’s around the end of the decade.

Since then I have written novellas -- a great way to condense a lot of time and effort into relatively few pages -- a short novel (“Arabian Wine,” coming out this winter), and commenced work on a very long fantasy novel. But I do want to return to _Neptune’s Reach_. On my hard drive sit about eight pages of “Cloud-Born,” which I like more than almost anything else in the series. With about 75,000 words already in print, I should certainly finish it someday.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Economics of the Congeries

I am not such a dialectical materialist as to declare that all cultural activities are economically determined, but it is interesting to observe that the congeries novel seems to appear at times when the market for short fiction pays well relatively to that for books.

This was certainly the case in 1934, when William Faulkner began writing a series of stories about Bayard Sartoris and his slave companion Ringo for the Saturday Evening Post. Faulkner was published by Random House but made little money from book publication of his work; a single magazine sale to a major slick could pay more than a novel advance. Faulkner liked to write short stories and later rework groups of them into novels, but you can see how writing a novel that would definitely yield magazine money (as, "Absalom, Absalom!" and "The Wild Palms," the novels he wrote immediately before and after "The Unvanquished," did not) would appeal to him.

Ditto, interestingly, for Ernest Hemingway, whose books were not quite as successful in the mid-thirties as they had been at the decade's beginning, but who was being paid a fortune by Esquire for anything he'd write for them. Soon enough he was writing the stories that went into "To Have and Have Not," which people (perhaps with the movie version lodged in their memories) do not recall as an example of this kind of novel.

Bernard Wolfe was another well-regarded novelist (he is best remembered for "Limbo") who made more money for his magazine fiction, and soon wrote a congeries novel. The novels he published in the fifties -- with Random House, Knopf, and Scribners -- made him little money, and the last of them ("The Great Prince Died," about the last days of Trotsky), failed to sell to paperback. But he had meanwhile become a regular contributor to Playboy, and he wrote his next novel, "Come On Out, Daddy," (1961) as a series of long stories for the magazine. I suspect that he made a lot more money with that project than any other, for in the mid-sixties he began two more such series. (They never appeared in book form; around that time Playboy got a new fiction editor who got rid of their regular writers -- of Wolfe's and Irwin Shaw's generation -- for a younger crowd, and Wolfe lost that market.)

And in the early seventies, when several of the finest SF congeries novels appeared, the same conditions obtained. The original anthology field paid four or five cents per word, which the best-paying magazines (Galaxy, mostly) would match for preferred contributors. Even established writers got novel advances of around $3,000 -- if there were paperback and book club sales, the author would eventually see a few times that, but you couldn't get a hardcover advance that would guarantee it. This began to change very rapidly around 1973, but for about half a dozen years before that, writing for Orbit or New Dimensions was financially a good deal.

I don't want to overstate this, but it is interesting. (The novel market was hugely more prestigious and renumerative relative to short fiction in the eighties and nineties, during which time, indeed, there were relatively few congeries novels in SF.)

Saturday, December 18, 2004

And the Term is . . . Congeries

I have decided to call the kind of novel I mean a “congeries.” The Random House Unabridged (2nd ed.) defines the term as “a collection of items or parts in one mass,” and derives it ultimately from the Latin congerere, to collect, heap up. Since the word connotes both a single unity and the distinct identity of dissimilar constituent parts, it’s in.

What distinguishes a congeries novel from a story collection that is set in a single imaginative universe (as John Varley and others have done) or from a sequence of stories that has continuing characters (like Spider Robinson’s Callahan series) is the combination of individual integrity of the parts -- they are not merely chapters -- and the unitary shape of the whole. The end result should be like a wall in the Barnes Museum, where each canvas is a discrete work of art, but their arrangement creates a unique and greater effect.

Hard and fast borders are impossible to draw. The sections of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” all deal not only with emerging robot technology but with a single individual, Susan Calvin. But the sections deal with Calvin at non-continuous periods of her life; we don’t get a full portrait. The stories are told from slightly different points of view, and the reader is definitely left with a sense of a series of glimpses that leave questions unanswered. That sense of lacunae, a deliberate artistic tactic, is a sign of the congeries. “I, Robot” may be a borderline case, but I would say that it qualifies.

That, I think, is the truly distinguishing trait of the congeries novel, a first-rate one, anyway: the sense that its crucial constituents include the gaps between the existing sections, the tension in the field of force these disparate elements exert. Gene Wolfe’s “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (a brilliant novel) does this, as does “Pavane” and “The Seedling Stars.” (“China Mountain Zhang” is a fine novel, but it does not greatly exploit these particular traits.)

So what characterizes the congeries novel is the disparate nature of its makeup, the tension between these levels of organization, and the sense that the intervals between sections possess a force and weight of their own. (Notice how all of these characterize, say, “The Waste Land.”) Which is to say, the congeries novel is a thoroughly Modernist phenomenon.

Friday, December 17, 2004

A Literary Form Without A Name

The other prose form I particularly like, besides the novella, does not seem to have a name. In the early seventies, when good examples (like Gene Wolfe's "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" and Thomas M. Disch's 334) were appearing in science fiction, it was sometimes called a "suite novel," a term that has so utterly disappeared that I cannot find a reference to it with Google. Writing about Alice Munro's new book in 1976, John Gardner said that "Whether 'The Beggar Maid' is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel I'm not quite sure, but whatever it is, it's wonderful!" Gardner was being, as always, generous and wrong -- this kind of novel may lack a name, but it had been around at least since Faulkner's "Go Down, Moses" in 1942 -- but he was at least gesturing towards a gap in taxonomy.

The novel that comprises a number of seemingly independent stories -- usually of novelette or novella length -- appeared only with the advent of literary Modernism (the earliest example I can think of is Hemingway's "In Our Time," and that only if you don't declare it a collection), and has never been terribly popular, in large part because it seems to confuse publishers. (Random House insisted in calling Faulkner's novel "God Down, Moses and Other Stories" in its first edition.) But it is a form that affords great pleasures.

It is also a form that is particularly common in science fiction. John Clute once coined the term "fix-up," which he has since decided causes more problems than it solves, to describe novels that first appeared in independent sections in magazines. Early examples include A.E. van Vogt's early work, as well as Asimov's "Foundation" novels. The problem with "fix-up" is that the term can be used to describe a straightforward story series eventually published in volume form and called, perhaps for obvious commercial reasons, a "novel" rather than a "collection." Van Vogt's "The Voyage of the Space Beagle" is a fix-up by this definition, but it isn't at all a single, unified work. So "fix-up" doesn't help us, either.

Perhaps the first really good example in SF is James Blish's "The Seedling Stars" in 1957. The novel's five sections share no characters or locale, and each is set in a widely differing era. The volume is a unified novel, however, held together by forces other than the usual narrative continuities. You don't find too many artistically fruitful examples over the next dozen or so years, although some prolific writers -- Robert Silverberg, for one -- would bat out stories set in a single milieu until he had about a volume's worth and then published them as a novel. The only one I can think of that really made use of the form's peculiar resources is Keith Roberts's "Pavane" (1968).

The early seventies, however, saw a bunch of them. The Wolfe and Disch novels I cited, plus Disch's unfinished "The Pressure of Time," Roberts's "The Chalk Giants," and, I suppose, Asimov's "The Gods Themselves." This minor trend continued through the decade -- I remember examples by Joe Haldeman, Kate Wilhelm, Richard Lupoff, Pamela Sargent, plus one that Harlan Ellison never finished -- then seemed to trail off.

More later.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Yo, Novella!

I take my title from the caption of a cartoon in the current (Dec 20-27) New Yorker. It depicts a small, slim volume, standing on the sidewalk with a nervous expression, being accosted by a bunch of big, hefty volumes that are plainly about to start shoving him around.

You don't have to tell me about novellas getting no respect! Lip service, yes: everybody remembers Henry James's line about the "blest nouvelle"; and if you say something at a party about the unique virtues of the novella, everyone will nod solemnly. It would be rude to add, "But of course, you never read them," because the person would be hurt, and retain a sense that you have been unjust to them that any sudden reflection that hey, he's right: I don't ever read novellas! would do nothing to allay. Novellas are like worthy foreign films: everyone is genuinely sincere in their approval of them, sincere in looking sad about what an endangered species they have become, and sincerely oblivious about how the fact that they haven't actually seen one in a theatre in three years may be part of the problem.

Early next year I am publishing "Arabian Wine," which is either a short novel or a novella, depending on where you draw the line. (Award rules in the science fiction world set the border at 40,000 words, about 120 pages in an ordinary book. "Arabian Wine" is something like 40,050 words long.) The works for which I am best known -- "Aweary of the Sun," "The Weighing of Ayre," "Spirit of the Place," "Giliad" -- are all novellas. Some of them have appeared in Best of the Year anthologies, although they are often too long. (Terri Windling wrote in the introduction of one of her volumes of her regret that she could not include "Spirit of the Place.") Novellas are hard to sell: they take up the space of four short stories, which means that the editor has to like one an awful lot.

And it's astonishing how little money you will make from one when you do sell it, or how many of the novellas that the field does make room for turn about to be sixty-page chunks of someone's enormous forthcoming novel. And when someone does speak about the splendors of the SF novella, they will usually cite as masters of the form somebody who isn't actually very good at it, such as Lucius Shepard, an amazingly sloppy writer. One could develop quite a litany of woe on the subject, if one was inclined.

But I'm not! I love novellas, in SF and elsewhere. The novella is my own Narrow Road to the Deep North, and I don't care if it has no cheering crowds lining the way and a big trophy at the end. There are some very nice views from up here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Raison d'Etre

This blog has been created for the most straightforward reason imaginable: I wanted to post a comment in my friend Maureen McHugh's blog -- it's at; go check it out -- and you have to go the full join-up route just to do that. So in for a penny, I guess.

Like Maureen, I write science fiction (and other stuff) for a living. I have a few other things in common with her, about which I may be more forthcoming at a future time. I will aspire to a becoming unpretentiousness in this blog -- it has much to be unpretentious about -- but I cannot promise to meet expectations, especially if someone expects, say, a proper deference to the current Commander in Chief. "Ballast for My Gorge" once occurred to me as a good title for a memoir, which I do not propose to write anytime soon. If it doesn't strike you as witty, perhaps I will do better tomorrow.

Let my first displayed virtue be that of brevity.