SONYA TAAFFE WALKS THE PLANK (AND A SEMI-RANT)
Sonya Taaffe comes to us from the worlds of poetry, academia, and the independent press. Not One of Us, edited by John Benson, should be given a lot of credit for encouraging Taaffe early on.
And yet, we are still early on. Taaffe is only 24. In the olden days that I can in my aged cranium remember as if it were the 1990s, it would take a writer a lot longer to publish a first story collection. Now, however, due to the wonders of modern technology, we are both blessed and cursed with an ability to put out books cheaply, and therefore take bigger risks.
What are the risks? Well, there's the obvious one concerning book sales. But there is also the risk of a writer being plucked too early. And the risk of a writer plucked too early not encountering enough resistance, if that makes sense. Of beginning to believe his or her own press releases. Of course, this is mainly an issue that's a personal one between the writer and him/her self, although it does affect readers. (All of this also ties into reviewers' continuing propensity for wanting to tag and identify the "next big thing". We are giving reviewers a lot more possible "next big things" to latch on to. And one reason I'm making these comments is that I'm re-evaluating my own procedure in promoting books on this blog--which is to say, you're going to see a lot fewer salivating raves and a lot more thoughtful analyses of strengths and weaknesses of books. For one thing, I'm conscious of the fact that this blog reaches a ton more people than it did in the past, or than I ever thought it would. There's something like a nagging responsibility implicit in that connection.)
Prime right now is churning out the short story collections left and right--and in the process giving us some really wonderful work, even if some of it is also uneven. So it's hard to complain, although I have these niggling doubts about the wisdom of such a flood. (This being not so much rant as an observation.)
Which brings us to Sonya Taaffe's first collection, Singing Innocence & Experience, published by Prime. It overcomes the inclusion of good but irrelevant poetry and story notes that are, frankly, boring. (Except in a retrospective covering a writer's whole career, story notes are usually boring--and self-indulgent.) Tim Pratt's introduction is functional and generally strikes the right tone.
At their best, the actual stories are infused with a lyricism that seems unforced and fresh. At their worst, the stories suffer from the kind of angst more typical of tortured teenagers. What saves Taaffe and what excites me about her future is the amazing level of detail in even the lesser stories in Singing Innocence & Experience. The passion accompanying this ability is remarkable. Taaffe basically lays it all on the line in the amount of emotion infusing each paragraph. Sometimes control suffers as a result, and sometimes the result is too over-the-top; if everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic. But I much prefer to see this than the kind of careful crawling you often see new writers engage in. Even a description of tarot cards has visceral impact:
One after another, the cards showed her a sheaf of fortunes: all changed, all terrible. On The Star, a falling fire-drake plunged, trailing sulfurous light and smoke, onto the sketched suggestion of a crowd beneath. For Temperance, dull, lumpen fluid sludged from the veiled figure's pitcher. The Hanged Man creaked in the wind, flies swarming his gibbet, gore-crows at his eyes. The Sun in eclipse, stained and smudged, bruised the sky like a sore. Justice's scales tilted, the feather broken in half, the heart cracked black as coal or clinker. The Lovers no longer held hands face-to-face but grew into one another, lip and foot and finger, like something softening into mold.
I think this quote exemplifies both what I like about Taaffe--her energy, her ability to write in charged images, her intrinsic lyricism--and the cliches that sometimes inhabit her work--the "bruised" sky (with the anti-climax of "sore" following it), the "heart cracked black as coal." I suppose you could argue that in the second example Taaffe is trying to subvert the cliche or uses it intentionally, but I'm not sure it works.
And yet, there are pages and pages of superlative descriptions as well. "Her hair had become a froth of stars and glowing tides..." "...she did not look as though she would cast any more shadow than a floating handful of straw..." Generally, it is impossible to resist the power of Taaffe's prose and I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the stronger stories on year's best lists. (The "unicorn" story is delightful, too--I didn't expect to like it at all and was drawn in.)
Taaffe's collection promises a long, exciting career. I am energized by the thought of her next collection, her first novel, her poetry. It reminds me of being young. In the meantime, Singing Innocence and Experience is, in its exuberance, its lyricism, and its sincerity, still better than ninety percent of the short story collections being published in genre this year.
The Walking of the Plank
Publishers Weekly had this to say about Songs of Innocence and Experience:
At times the richness and sheer density of the author's wordcraft goes slightly over the top, as in the sensual "Nights with Belilah" and the tragic "Retrospective." Despite the presence of a few too many earnest young student-artists and musicians obsessed with love or knowledge, Taaffe's gift for evoking mood and revealing hard truths beautifully is nothing short of marvelous.
Sonya very kindly agreed to take time out of her busy study schedule to answer my silly five questions...
Why should readers pick up your book(s) as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book(s)?
Oh, they should not, if they value their daily lives. Brief exposure may cause déjà vu, lucid dreams, and the common cold. Continued contemplation of this book, however, will cause one to become progressively isolated from the normal human world. Faces will appear masks, as fragile as the silvered backs of mirrors; there will be other languages in the spaces between speech. Lovers, family, tides and leaf-fall, the setting and the climbing of the moon, all will turn strange until you cannot see where one world rises and the other falls away. Even the slant of sunlight on the pavement may prove a threshold that, once crossed, bars itself against any turning back. And in the years to come, as you look back across the long and haunted measure of your life, the rips and creases of weirdness that scar your hands and sight, you’ll know——this book, you should have judged by its cover.
Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
Well, assuming you survive the above-described experience with your sanity intact, you will be very polite to strangers.
Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
The schadenfreude value is incalculable. Pages in the fourth, fifth, and fifteenth stories may also be taken in resin as a cure for insomnia.
Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?
Let’s put it this way: they should live so long.
If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?
WILL COMPOSE HOMERIC EPIC FOR FOOD.