Friday, March 11, 2016

March Reads Part One

Iron Council by China Miéville
The Knight of Swords by Michael Moorcock
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts
The Queen of Swords by Michael Moorcock
Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod
Writing about Literature: an Introductory Guide by Peter Melville

Full disclosure: Professor Melville is an acquaintance and was my instructor for one of my graduate classes. I read this because my partner uses the textbook in their high school English and Film courses. I also read this because I am an unabashed fan of Melville's writing.

Melville has a seemingly innate ability to convey complex concepts through clear concise sentences—an ability practically unmatched during my studies. He pares down such complicated theories such as structuralism and poststructuralism into digestible and apprehendable paragraphs.

For example, here is Melville writing on Stanley Fish and Reader-Response Criticism:
Reader-response critic Stanley Fish goes even further than Iser in his validation of the reading practices of actual readers and is therefore at the other end of the spectrum from Booth. He does not dispense with the idea of an implied reader so much as he dislodges it, almost entirely, from its position of privilege. For Fish, the implied reader, as a composite of the text's desired responses, is not intrinsic to the text itself but is projected onto the text by the interpretive community to which the reader belongs, whether it is a group of friends in a book club, students in a classroom, or members of a specific school of literary criticism. (43)
While, yes, a long extract, we can see that Melville carefully concatenates the "bits" of facts into a string of meaningful phrase of information, culminating in a sentence that is not only beautiful and accessible, but also respectful of his "implied reader's" intelligence.

We can also see that Melville's prose is gorgeous. Here is Melville writing about the poem "Leaving the Motel" by W.D. Snodgrass: "Like the checklist, the vase of lilacs can be read literally insofar as it is an object into which the speaker intends to place some aspirin for the purpose of prolonging the life of the flowers inside" (15). This lovely specimen is a perfect example of his clear crisp style. With that sentence, one could arrange it like a poem, using line breaks to denote the rhythm with which he has structured the series of phrases.

I read sections of the book that don't interest me terribly (eg. the differences between thesis statements) if only to enjoy the prose! However, his final section on how to write, edit, revise, and think about literature is indispensable for the undergraduate student and possibly even for the graduate student. Melville, in his advice on how to close read, explicitly advises the student to read "slowly," ideally with pen in hand. I submit that some writers and thinkers would do well to do the same to Melville's own textbook, to understand how and why his prose works so well and how his ideas are conveyed so clearly.

Earlier this year, I read Linda Nagata's The Bohr Maker, and I was left with the desire to know more, to read the critics' thoughts and arguments on this singular novel. All I could find were two papers, one an article in a peer-reviewed journal, the other a chapter in an anthology on science fiction. Both were, to put it harshly, boring—both in terms of prose and in methodology. Both writers, who are gainfully employed by a university no doubt, could have benefited from Prof. Melville's excellent introduction to writing about literature.

The Knight of Swords and The Queen of Swords are the first two books of Moorcock's Corum series. My friend Andy, a huge Moorcock fan, swears by Corum over Elric and I can definitely see why. While I've really enjoyed the two Elric books I've read, these two Corum books were astonishing: fun, complex, gripping, and exceedingly clever. Even when the structure of the narrative mirrors epic heroic fantasy, Moorcock's prose and worldbuilding elevate the material. I've not much more to say about them, especially as I still have a final book to read that finishes the story. 

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