Sunday, October 30, 2005

SONYA TAAFFE WALKS THE PLANK (AND A SEMI-RANT)

The 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.)

The Review



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.

12 Comments:

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Sean Wallace said...

Is it really a flood, though? The field isn't particularly blessed with a lot of publishers doing short story collections.

 
At 9:50 AM, Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

So, Jeff, at what point would you consider the right time in a writer's career to produce a first collection? Sonya's gotten a lot of work published, though at the same time, I think it has all been in the small press. Does it depend on the number of publications or the "professional" status of the publishers or maybe something else? I'm not trying to be snarky at all here, since these are issues I'm dealing with myself. I'm seriously interested in the answers to these questions.

 
At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer is: there's no right answer. I'm just making the point that it is in some ways easier to get a collection published these days. Sean's right that the large publishers aren't doing short story collections, but tons of indie presses are.

I'm not saying new writers shouldn't try to get a collection published. But I do think they should focus more on their craft and worry less about publication so early, is all. There's a pressure a lot of writers feel that makes them think they need to "keep up" with everybody else. And a lot of beginning writers also don't get enough good, honest criticism. The results are usually that it takes them longer to improve. It's tough to swallow your pride and admit you're not as good as you think you are and just focus on the writing. I've had to do that several times.

I debated separating out my semi-rant from the Taaffe post so that it wouldn't resonate so much with regard to her work. I think she's really talented and I'm glad the collection is out. And perhaps the inconsistencies in the collection have as much to do with hasty editing on Prime's part.

But I also need to start taking my reviewing seriously on this blog and be more analytical.

I self-published my first collection--I didn't feel I deserved real publication at that point. My second came out after I'd had work in Asimov's and others. That's just my path.

JeffV

 
At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Sean Wallace said...

I think the material is what really matters, really, not so much as the venue or buzz. Some things just cry out for publication, and the dilemma for most publishers, or at least from my perspective, is, is it time for this or that?

 
At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Sovay said...

I debated separating out my semi-rant from the Taaffe post so that it wouldn't resonate so much with regard to her work

I really appreciate both the criticism and the praise: honesty matters to me. I don't ever want people not to tell me when my work sucks! Or when it's good, but could be better. I need to know that distinction.

 
At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

Actually, technology and the lack of expense doesn't enable a publisher to take bigger risks, but reduces the risk. When a publisher breaks even on 25 sales, virtually anything can be published. The question remains whether collections should be published.

But once you ask that question, the answer is apparent: collections were treated as different in the marketplace because their sales were so low -- only a veteran author with many readers thanks to novels could publish a collection*. It's not that short stories are necessarily less worthy than a novel, it's simply that it is easier to sell the public a bad novel.

Once the question of risk is eliminated, the only question that remains is quality: are the themes and tasks of the stories sufficiently interesting and varied that someone would sit down and read them all?

The answer remains "No" too often for beginning authors because they're still finding their voice, and that leads to a lot of unsuccessful experimentation. I'm sure Sean gets a lot of submissions from people with half-a-dozen or so publications, and while those stories may have worked in a magazine, they don't work together. Likely a lot of the collections are little more than and a candy dish of "My attempt at a vampire story" and "My version of a space opera" and "This is me trying to be like Borges, except for third-generation Polish-Americans" etc etc.

So they don't get published, and they shouldn't. As far as the collections Prime et al are publishing, they don't read to me as any worse than the paperbacks I have from the 50s and 60s, or even some of today's stuff (e.g., William Nolan's collections of forgettable stories being published by Leisure). They don't sell as well, but what does? They sell well enough for the publisher's sake, and if an author makes another $300 on stories he or she's already earned $3000 on, who cares?




*Exceptions exist to every social rule: Ellison, Waldrop, etc.

 
At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Sean Wallace said...

Wah—where's the love in this room?

 
At 4:15 PM, Anonymous Sean Wallace said...

Nick is generally right—collections have always sold much less than their novel counterparts, even for Prime, but with the risk being lower it is always too easy to go top-heavy with collections. But that's what I usually see, here.

 
At 9:00 PM, Blogger Eliani said...

And then there's always, "Any time is the right time if I win X award, personal favor, in-the-bag contract, approbation of a mentor or role model."

For example, a short story collection award and publication the likes of this.

But in general, and excepting prize competitions, I think if one's at wits' end deciding whether the matter a collection comprises is in shape to submit, the easiest (and, frankly, compulsory) answer is to make one's prospective publishers that arbiter—or instruct one's agent to shop a collection around the moment she's persuaded by the quality of the gathered stories to do so.

 
At 10:56 AM, Blogger Alan said...

I think the POD collections are better than many alternatives, and that in general it's better that it's erring on the side of excess. As an example, take a look at the broken contest system of publishing first poetry books (except, again, with the likes of good POD presses making more of a level playing field). In the latest Poets and Writers they had actually an interesting if somewhat glib breakdown of 18 poets who have recently had first books published.

The average number of contests entered by these poets? FORTY-NINE. That's literally thousands of dollars in entry fees. Woo-hoo! Talk about broken.

Bottom line, this is a pretty exciting time to be a fiction reader. POD and small presses have done such a good job lately with collections in large part because larger presses haven't done any sort of job (with a few exceptions). It's a reaction to in large part a need going unfulfilled.

 
At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Lawrence Schimel said...

To answer Lundberg from a different perspective: a good time to publish is when one has a collection that a publisher can effectively sell to the public. This applies to a first collection or to a fifteenth collection. Very often, this means finding a thematic link or reason to "justify" the existence of this selection of stories as opposed to any other. It also makes it easier to sell the collection based on that particular content, as opposed to say the name (especially with a newer author) or the voice (again, a harder sell, and of more interest to writers than other, more-casual readers).

I've published three collections of stories, which were each thematically arranged:

THE DRAG QUEEN OF ELFLAND (gay and lesbian fantasy, more or less)

HIS TONGUE (gay erotica)

and

TWO BOYS IN LOVE (gay romance)

There are plenty of uncollected stories that didn't fit one of the above collections (especially my non-queer SF/fantasy).

I think it is also possible to publish a collection with the wrong publisher. For instance, the publisher for HIS TONGUE had never before done a gay book, and didn't have the right contacts to promote it well. (The distributor pitched the book to the literary buyer at the chain stores, instead of to the gay and lesbian section buyer where the book belonged, because it was generally known as a more literary publisher; as a result, the book didn't get bought by the major chains.)

 
At 9:13 AM, Anonymous Tim Pratt said...

I sometimes think I published my first story collection too soon. I was high on the Nebula nomination for the title story, Little Gods, and wanted to pursue publication while that was fresh. About half the book is work I'm very proud of, but the other half, in retrospect, seems uneven, much of it the equivalent of 'prentice work. (even though I left out all the published stories that felt especially amateurish to me!) It also has some of that kitchen-sink quality, without a lot of thematic resonance. It's more of a hodgepodge. On the other hand, it got me some reviews, and helped raise my profile in the field, and might have helped me sell other stories/books/etc. But as an aesthetic object I recognize that it's only partly successful.

My second collection, coming from Night Shade next year, is much stronger, much more selective, and does have a thematic through-line. I'm very pleased with it. (Though it's possible that, in a few years, I'll look back and find it lacking, too. I'm always very critical of my past work.)

As for story notes -- yeah, they're self-indulgent, but I love 'em. I like reading them, and I love writing them. I'm going to have some in the Night Shade collection, and you're gonna hate them, Jeff. :)

 

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