Sunday, June 29, 2003


Carolyn Bly has a great book on writing called The Passionate, Accurate Story. Bly may not be known to many people, but she's one of those writers in the literary mainstream, publishing mostly in literary magazines, who hasn't had a novel out, just a series of some of the most beautiful short stories you could have the pleasure of reading. Her advice in her writing book is timeless.

Part of the book deals with the imagination, and specifically a sense of play in the imagination. It is her observation as a creative writing instructor that students often come to her with stunted or crippled imaginations. It's difficult for her to draw such students out into the kind of "play" that results in good writing. You can learn all of the technique in the world, but without an advanced sense of play, it may go for naught.

She gives an example. A family is sitting around a dinner table the day that new neighbors have moved in next door. The father or mother asks their child, Have you met the new neighbors yet? The child says, Yes--it's a family of bears! The child's engaging in a real sense of play--a kind of enjoyment that is both intellectual and emotional. Something that's fun--in a sense, the child is telling a story. How the parents react, consistently, can affect whether the child grows up with a good or stunted imagination. If the parents respond with, That's nonsense, tell us the truth--and reinforce that lesson over and over again, then chances are the child will grow up thinking that such joyful make believe is wrong, or at best frivolous, as opposed to being central to the pursuit of a healthy imagination as adult. If, on the other hand, the parents say, That's great! How many cubs do the parent bears have? Or in some sense continue to support the imaginative impulse in the child, then they tell a story together, and the child learns the value of a good imagination. Which is its own reward, but also helps in the creative arts later on.

This sense of play is highly underrated--we are often expected to do things or say things for solely utilitarian reasons. To do so, however, undermines one of the things that makes us human. That same sense of play, that sense of transforming the world into a place that is not just the surface we see but something underlying that surface--which begins to get at the idea that the world truly is a strange, beautiful, and complex thing--is something that makes us fully adult, fully human, and, in a sense, fully humane.

Have you ever had the sense that even though you're in your twenties or thirties or forties that you haven't fully grown up? That you're not that far removed from the child or teenager you were? The reason for this is that we're not that different. We add a veneer of adulthood, we take on responsibilities that force us to seem more adult. But at heart, we're not that different than we were back then. In a way we should be grateful, especially if we want to be creative people, because children, for all their indifference to things we adults find important, are much more likely to see the world without the myopia of cliche or the shroud of received experience. That part of being a child--of experiencing things for the first time, of not putting so much of a filter between ourselves and world--is something we should strive to keep in our daily lives. And the imagination is a big part of that.



A couple of people have asked me how this blog fits in with my VanderWorld Report, which is a once-a-month e-newsletter I send out to people who like my fiction. The VanderWorld Report includes music, book, and music reviews, reports on trips to conventions and other places (New Journalism-style), and updates on my writing and editing activities.

This blog, on the other hand, is reserved exclusively for thoughts, mini-essays, and observations about writing--both fiction and nonfiction. Sometimes I will stray off into observations about an editing project or about art. But other than that, this blog will be about the art of writing, in some guise. I will try to avoid subjects like marketing, PR, etc. In a sense, I'll be using this blog as a way to think certain issues through, and to share my ideas about writing.

For those of you who are not VanderWorld subscribers, just send me an email at and I'll sign you up. You get only one email per month, so it's not going to clog your email address with "spam."

Jeff V.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003


When the idea for The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases first came up, I had no idea that it would eventually consume my life. And yet here it is, the end of June, and I conservatively estimate that I have spent over 1,000 hours editing the Guide, proofreading the Guide, reading submissions for the Guide, and much else.

The first thing you learn about editing a fake disease guide (rather, co-editing; Mark Roberts is my co-editor--he also created this wonderful site for the Guide: is that you might as well consider yourself the editor of a real medical guide. It's just as much work, you're just as concerned about the veracity of the entries (although in a different sense), and the minute details of cross-referencing and copy editing for consistency are the same as well.

And yet, at the end of it all, I'm still not qualified to edit a real medical guide. In looking back over the years spent working on the Guide--literally, years--I cannot help but wonder if it's become a form of madness. (Take for instance the frenzy involved in getting one disease translated into Spanish so we could provide an excerpt, in the original layout, of a supposed Spanish version of a related book edited by Borges. Is this sanity? Probably not.)

The tendency of many people may be to dismiss the Guide as a gimmick, and yet Mark and I have been careful to reject those submissions that seemed gimmicky. In a sense, some of those potential contributors who did not take the humorous aspect seriously found themselves left out in the cold. We don't have a series of "civilization is a disease" or "death is a disease" jokes in this book. We have some entries that make fun of medical jargon, or of doctors, or of hospitals. But we don't have entries that function as jokes first and disease entries second. The result has been a much richer blend of material than anyone expected at the beginning of the project. Of course, with this richness has come a complexity that demands attention to detail. Thus the apparatus of forewords, introductions, examples from prior editions of the guide, an obscure history of the 20th century from the viewpoint of the guide--all of this grows up around the entries, like some oddly beneficial application of barnacles to a ship's hull. Before you know it, it all looks very natural and organic indeed.

The interesting thing about the Guide—the idea of it and the sampler that we’ve already published in advance of the Guide itself—is how therapeutic it seems to be. People who are ill have found the humor in it to be very life-affirming for them. Doctors have found it to be stress-relieving—in fact, a couple of medical schools may add the book to their curriculum for stress-relief courses. (I think it was Angela Carter, the brilliant English novelist and short story writer, who said that one way to cheat death was to laugh at it, to belittle it. She said this while she was dying of lung cancer.) We’ve also been sensitive to the fact that, on one level, there’s nothing funny about disease. Several of the entries in the Guide are very serious.

I'm thinking about the Guide because I'm living it right now, but also because the preproduction phase will end soon. If not by July 1st, then shortly thereafter. My engagement with the Guide will become different than it has been. The words themselves have been forever ruined by the repeated reading, re-reading, and re-reading again--the sheer repetition of the reading has transformed the words in the entries into another language. Or made the combinations of words unintelligible to me. You could read one of the entries and it would sound like the numbers from the New York Stock Exchange read back in Arabic.

This is one of the most disappointing aspects of editing an anthology: you don't get to enjoy it. However, because the Guide is so visual--because the designer John Coulthart has incorporated an illustration for each disease, among other things--I get a second chance. I will be able to enjoy the book on a visual level even though I can never read it again.

When I hold it in my hands and open it, I will simultaneously think to myself, "You are mad" and "You have helped to create something totally unique."


Monday, June 23, 2003


This evening, Ann and I received a pleasant surprise. For a year, we'd been sending in installments to Scott Eagle to buy the artwork he did for my book City of Saints & Madmen. It's just a wonderful piece of work, which not many people have seen in its entirety. Only pieces of it have been used for both the trade paperback and hardcover editions. It's now hanging on our wall in the livingroom--it looks stunning. I remember Scott telling me about the use of collage in the painting. It's partly his original work and partly bits and pieces from Brueghel, Bosch, and photographs. It all fits together seamlessly. But, as Scott told me, the collage wasn't originally seamless. Because each borrowed section came from a different work of art, the light shone from different angles in different parts of the painting. Scott therefore had to match the brushstrokes of these old masters to paint over the collage parts to redirect the light. The amazing thing is, I can't tell where he painted over the pieces and where he didn't. You can see the painting on his web site:

Even more amazing is that the part where there's a halo around the woman's head forms an all-encompassing eye. If you look at the painting itself from a distance, you can see that all the lines of earth and river and cloudsin the background come together to form an eye, which mimics the little eyes that surround the woman in a halo.

It's rather overwhelming to finally have this artwork in the house. It transforms the room.



The July 2003 issue of NYR of SF has arrived in the VanderMeer household, presaged by a house-wide fleaspray and a rather dangerous look in the eye of Pretty Ugly, one of our cats. Plenty of interesting reviews this time around--in particular:

- Walter Minkel's intriguing review of Diana Wynne Jones' The Merlin Conspiracy. Minkel makes her work sound so enticing, I think I will have to sample it.

- Damien Broderick's fair/unfair review of Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Broderick's review is so influenced by the great publicity for the book that he damns it with faint praise. I don't think this book is as uneven as Broderick makes it out to be, but I do agree it's not as good as Jonathan Strahan and others have said. It's a small book, really an extended novella. It makes for decent entertainment, and as a first novel shows a lot of promise. Broderick should not use Doctorow's ability to publicize the book against him. Should he and his publishing house, TOR, have tried to be less successful in his PR efforts? "Please, NYT Book Review--I beg you: don't run that review of my book. I am not worthy." Of course not.

- Faren Miller's excellent analysis of K.J. Bishop's wonderful first novel, The Etched City. Yet more publicity for an author and book that really deserve it. I would not be surprised if Bishop found a major U.S. publisher soon.

- Eugene Reynolds' suspect review of Jeffrey Ford's The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories, in which he tries to make the claim for Ford being a Catholic writer. I suppose it makes no difference how Ford defines himself. I'm afraid we have a kind of New Weird scenario in this review, whereby Reynold's attempts to make Ford conform to a narrow definition make the entire discussion of the work much less interesting. I'm glad it's a good review, because the book deserves it, but Reynold's approach is at times laughable.

- David Griffin's response to an article by Darrell Schweitzer, "The Uses of Fantasy." I can't recall the Schweitzer article, but apparently it concerned the divide between fantastical and realistic literature, especially as expressed through reviews and reviewers. Griffin points out a phenomenon that I've commented on several times in the last few years: fantastical literature has entered the mainstream, and is being reviewed in the mainstream. Griffin points to a recent NYT Book Review issue in which Edward Carey's fantastical Alva & Irva and Paco Ignacio Taibo's magic realist Returning as Shadows both received positive reviews in the general fiction review section. It is true that books marketed as genre are not getting reviewed much in the general fiction section of major review outlets, but fantasy not marketed as such is getting reviewed there. If such reviews drive sales, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from that. More importantly, a lot of really good fantasy is being published through mainstream imprints. It pays to hunt around for it.

Jeff V


In recent message board posts, Locus reviews editor and anthologist Jonathan Strahan has expressed bewilderment (and surprise) at expressions of what he calls "embattlement" among those writers and critics who tend toward the more "literary fantasy" end of the spectrum. Why, he asks, should such writers expect to sell as many copies as Robert Jordan, for example? Why should they seem "embattled" because of those high-end sales by writers who are considered "commercial." (I'm putting so many terms in quotes because the truth is "literary" and "commercial" are artificial terms, useful to give a general idea of what we are talking about, but ever-shifting, subjective.)

I agree with Jonathan that it's a bad position to take--to feel embattled over something like that. However, it's one thing to feel embattled--it's another to not want to set limitations others try to set on you. For my part, I can only say that I do not feel "embattled" or bitter or any other word that indicates I think I am entitled to large sales. At times, I have spoken out against reviewers writing in their reviews "VanderMeer's book may not be for everyone" or "VanderMeer may not sell as well as Terry Brooks, but..." The reason has nothing to do with feeling embattled or entitled. Instead, I feel that such comments unduly prejudice the reader to expect something that's either not as good or more exclusive than other writing, precisely because we live in a culture impressed by the enormity of sales and by money in all of its many permutations. But more importantly, if a reviewer enjoys a book, it is dishonest to then put a limitation on the book, to in essence try to indicate that "it's good for its type." Generalizations of this nature tend to be only half-true anyway.

Also for my part, if I lobby for anything, I lobby for letting my work and the work of other writers subjected to such unfair comparisons find the maximum audience it is capable of having. I state this awkwardly, but here's my point: No one knows my maximum sales per book yet because I haven't yet had a book out from a major U.S. publisher. Having books coming out later this year from Pan MacMillan in the U.K. will certainly help me find my optimum audience. But the puzzle is only half complete until new work is bought by a large New York publisher and given proper distribution. My gut feeling, based on very stunning sales for the POD City of Saints & Madmen, is that I will compete very respectably. I'll be the first to admit I don't expect to reach Robert Jordan numbers. On the other hand, if you accept limitations others set on you, or that you set on yourself, you'll never reach even half of your more realistic goals.

Angela Carter always said she wanted her reach to exceed her grasp. I think such a philosophy can apply equally well to areas other than the creation of fiction.



One of the more audacious novels of the past few years, Light by M. John Harrison contains its own comment on labeling of fiction, I think. Whether Harrison intended it or not, the following passage speaks to the craft and art of creating fiction as well as anything in a book of writing advice:

"Every race [humankind] met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another's basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything. If your theory gave you a foamy space to work with--if you had to catch a wave--that didn't preclude some other engine, running on a perfectly smooth Einsteinian surface, from surfing from the same tranche of empty space. It was even possible to build drives on the basis of super-string-style theories, which, despite their promise four hundred years ago had never really worked at all...It was affronting to discover that..."

The same idea applies to fiction--you can use an almost infinite number of approaches to achieve the same or similar effects. It is true that I tend to espouse a single or single set of approaches to fiction (in part because I believe in this kind of fiction, but also because I find it underrepresented), but this doesn't mean I don't like other approaches.

The problem with labeling, or perhaps more specifically, "sublabeling," is that the proponents of the sublabel begin to think that their way is the only way, or that their way is superior. I think I'm guilty of this at times, too. But in fiction, this is simply not true. Thus the "affront" alluded to above--because, surely, one way must be better than another. And given that the political or social orientation of an individual usually has no bearing on whether or not that person can create great art, labels that arise due to political or social agendas in fiction often tend to flounder as well. The great thing the surrealists did is hardwire a true social/cultural (and therefore, I would argue, political) agenda to something that transcended social/cultural issues: the pursuit of liberty through beauty, through the imagination. If they had not done this, there would be no interest in surrealism today.

I also like this quote from Light because it illuminates the frightening thing about fiction--that you have so many choices, so many ways of getting from point A to point B (or in some cases, point C to point A, or point A to point 5). Of course, the more technique you pick up and the more flexible you allow your writing to be, so too the more choices; you might actually be quite limited in your choices otherwise, might be restricted to four or five or six possible ways to start a short story, for example.

The irony, of course, is that the more technique, the more mastery you gain, the more you find yourself starting from scratch with each new book or story. The more choices, the more chances you will get it wrong--choose wrong. So mastery actually equals uncertainty. The more mastery you achieve, the less confident you become, although I don't really mean "confidence" and "uncertainty" in the strict dictionary definitions of the words. This is a good kind of uncertainty, and a bad kind of confidence. Because you are uncertain, despite having mastery, you know that your writing is still alive, that you are not simply doomed to repeat the same path you chose so many times before. Because you feel once again as if you are writing your first book, you know that writing is still meaningful to you.


Sunday, June 22, 2003


Thanks to the remarkable Luis Rodrigues, of Fantastic Metropolis and blogger fame (see links to the right) for setting up this template and helping me with the technical aspects of getting this blog up and running.



Yes, I am going to mention Harry Potter. As someone who grew up on the Narnia books and on Roald Dahl, I enjoy the Potter books because they contain echoes of those books from childhood. They differ in that JK Rowling is not a prose stylist--you don't read her books for beautiful language. But for interesting characters, carefully differentiated, and for good use of specific detail when she needs to, Rowling does a very good job. She tends to suffer a bit lately from openings that could be condensed without hurting the structure of the book, but I don't mind that much, to be honest.

The really brilliant thing she has done is retrofitted the fantasy genre with the mystery genre and what I'm told is a kind of British boarding-school fiction tradition.

I can certainly see how a British person might be put off by the books--that perhaps they perpetuate cliches not as apparent to American readers, for example. But I remain mystified by the idea some people have that kids should not read these books, perhaps because they're too traditional. Ironically enough, you have people on the far left and the far right dissing these books. Then you also have the genre community, in part, looking up their collective nose at them. It's all rather funny, actually.

Personally, I think all of it becomes fodder for the imagination when you're that age. It really doesn't matter how the author intended the books to be received--kids will always have their own interpretations.

Do I think the Rowling books are timeless classics? Probably not. But they're much better than her critics give her credit for. And anytime a book, especially books like these that are far and away above your average Robert Jordan fantasy novel in quality, can excite readers to the point that they'll camp outside a bookstore at midnight to pick one up, I'd say that's a good thing.


Saturday, June 21, 2003


Final post for now--about Shelley Jackson. If you haven't encountered this amazing writer, you need to pick up her short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, read her story "Angel" in Trampoline, edited by Kelly Link, and also pick up The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, which has two contributions by her.

She reminds me of Angela Carter without being a pastiche of Carter. But she has the same steely nerve combined with the flourish for language and form. Really wonderful stuff.

By the way--if you can buy what I'm telling you about on Amazon, I'm not going to bother to include links.



With regard to my last post, this quote from Edward A. Gargan's nonfiction book THE RIVER's TALE: A Year on the Mekong, seems somehow appropriate:

"Yet the Mekong no more binds Asia together than does a wider notion of a shared Asianness, an idea bandied about by the proponents of authoritarianism...who claim to find some deeper meaning in a grab bag of aphorisms ladled out under the rubric "Asian values." A Tibetan monk would find little to say to a Thai insurance agent, even though at sunrise both wake next to the Mekong River, and both are Buddhist. Indeed, as the Mekong scythes its way through mountains and slithers past rice paddies, the river itself is called by many names on its three-thousand-mile journey to the sea: to the Vietnamese, it is the Cuu Long; Tonle Thom, Tonle Sap, or Tonle Thuc to the Khmer; Mae Nam Khong to the Thai and Laotians; Lancang Jiang to the Chinese; and to the Tibetans, Dzachu."

And yet it is, of course, the same river. I'm still working through my thoughts on how I think this quote relates to fiction and to fantastical fiction at this point in time, but there is a resonance that is making me think about it.

The book, by the way, is excellent, despite a rather bad first paragraph.



There are several issues regarding fantastical fiction that have been eating at me for the last couple of weeks. One concerns the "New Weird" label being bandied about by China Mieville and by several other British writers and critics. I had just gotten to the point where I was comfortable and satisfied with the literal Rennaissance of wonderful non-realist fiction being written today--a kind of simultaneous explosion/implosion that has incorporated possibly every relevant mainstream/genre influence into this amazing melange of surrealism, magic realism, decadent work, etc.--when along comes New Weird. (See: The Third Alternative Harrison message boards, also the Night Shade boards.)

While I think that the perpetrators of this term are sincere in not wanting to use it to describe a movement, I believe the effect will be to create a movement--and to create a movement that is both limiting and somewhat drab. New Weird, in rejecting postmodern approaches and in believing specifically in the "surrender" of the reader to the text--i.e., no sense of play in which the writer reveals to the reader that both reader and writer know this is only a story being read--is perfectly legitimate. But it's also reactionary. This approach simply ignores the cross-pollination going on across the world at this moment. As such, New Weird will, if it becomes a movement, wind up boxing itself off from the rest of the world. It will define itself only in relation to the New Weird protocols and it will attempt to reject that which exists outside of itself. This may not be the intent of its founders, but it will be the result. That's simply how these things work. Now, granted, there will be plenty of authors who are defined as having produced New Weird work but who are not themselves New Weird--i.e., they also produce work that is not New Weird. But the problem is--they'll be stuck with it by that point. There may even be a kind of stultifying effect on the imaginations of those who profess to be New Weird--in a sense, the label becomes a straitjacket.

So, one asks, why don't surrealism or decadent or magic realism labels become a straitjacket in a similar way? I think in the case of surrealism and decadence the terms described a way of life as well as a type of literature--and it described not only literature, but all of the arts. In the case of magic realism, I'm not sure why it doesn't seem like a straitjacket. It might be because magic realism has come to mean any story in which an element of the fantastic enters into an otherwise realistic setting. Further, because these are established terms, a writer can use them to describe him or herself without fear of becoming tagged by a present-day, as-yet-untested terminology that might in future limit that writer's work. The terms are benign enough, in other words, to allow a certain amount of flexibility--and they aren't what you might call "hot button" terms.

Can New Weird be thought of as a good way to describe a "moment" as some have suggested, as a way to get our minds around what is happening right now in fantastical fiction? I would argue that it has limitations there as well. For the very reasons stated above--it in no way defines the entirety of what is going on in the field.

A good example would be The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod. A wonderful novel in a kind of Dickensian tradition mixed with many other influences. It's an amazingly well-written work, and it has many virtues. That it may not fit a certain political mindset or a particular definition of New Weird would seem to me to be beside the point--and yet one of the first things that occurred on the New Weird message board was an attempt to define the novel as New Weird or not New Weird. In fact, the debate about this issue is irrelevant. It in no way addresses the strengths of the book, and it simplifies the discussion about the book to a kind of for/against New Weird discussion. I would argue that this is the kind of discussion that will occur in genre if New Weird becomes an accepted "movement".

In any event, here's to a happy lack of labeling. Here's to diversity without name or number. Here's to the truly amazing things happening in fantastical literature today.



Welcome to my new blog. Will it be fun? Will it be excruciating? Will it be everything it could have been? We shall see.

To introduce myself: I am a writer of surreal and magic realist fiction, in short story, novella, and novel forms. You can buy my books on and you can check out some of my short fiction at I write a lot of nonfiction as well, which has appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Locus Online, and many others.

Right now, I am in the middle of pre-production on The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. More on that here:, and on the message boards.

I've also just turned in the manuscript to a collection of poetry and flash fictions, The Day Dali Died, and am trying to finish up a new novel, Shriek: An Afterword.

Jeff VanderMeer