Notes from New Sodom
... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!
Saturday, August 16, 2014
Thursday, August 07, 2014
What Tolkien REALLY Said
"I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
"Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it."[Escape in: On Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien.]
Is Tolkien saying here that the world being a prison, only a mean old meanie of a jailor would scorn escape, or is he saying rather that the metaphor is itself invalid, a piece of bad faith rhetoric designed to slander the fantastic by representing it as desertion, as craven cowardly abrogation of any and all responsibility to resist? I’m inclined to think that it’s the latter.
Stripped of context, Tolkien’s “prison” quote is all too often used in a defence of head-in-the-sand ostrichism, in an oblivious reiteration of the very conflation he challenges, by those for whom fantasy is and must remain their consolatory haven. Yes, it is a retreat from reality, a deserter’s flight, so the argument goes, but Tolkien says that’s OK, so there! My escapism is legitimate, and if you question it, you must be a wicked would-be jailor. The conflation is adopted precisely to erase any question of responsibility, validate all desertion as by definition escape, which is not Tolkien’s point at all.
Worse, where fantasy all too often fails as any sort of haven for the queers, PoCs, women, poor, etc. that it erases and abjects, replicating and propagating the very injustices they/we might actually quite like a respite from, the defence of fantasy as consolatory haven slides easily into an insistence that the sort of political challenges they/we might make in real life do not belong in such a space: such a haven is no place for these Social Justice Warriors to come belligerently in with their axes to grind, the defender of ostrichism says; their agendas are not just tangential to the true purpose of fantasy but outright opposed to it, ruining the harmless fun with their carping and whining. With their Disgust, Anger, Condemnation and Revolt, one might say.
The keyword in that quote, I would suggest, is resistance, and where Tolkien sets his notion of Escape as bedfellow to Disgust, Anger, Condemnation and Revolt, opposing these to a complacent acquiescence he paints as treachery, it can be of no small import that he applies the terms quisling and Reich to the latter. As censorious rhetoric goes, one can hardly imagine a more damning indictment from him, and it is levelled squarely at those who do not just excuse their self-interested acquiescence but glorify it.
Taken in context then, that quote is no glib justification of fantasy as some sacred space of Escape that the erased and abjected have no right to sully with their political agendas. Far from it. If we are to see fantasy as a domain in which chains are to be broken, prison-walls brought down, this is not to say it exists to pander to those who, in the face of cruel inequities, would sustain their own contentment with its panaceas. It is to say that the Escape going on here is a mode of hostile engagement with such inequities, no self-serving ostrichism but a direct application of one’s effort to those problems, an attempt to undo the imprisoning strictures, and one that goes hand-in-hand with the passions aroused in outraged recognition of them—Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt.
Do not think for a second then that Tolkien’s “prison” quote is a wall you can throw up to defend the genre as some haven from the upstart insurgents out to ruin your harmless fun with their petty grudges over a lifetime of perceived prejudices, as a refuge from their “agendas.” That wall only makes you the jailor, a quisling in the struggle who would not have the erased and abjected released from the strictures that keep them hidden away, out of sight and out of mind, or locked in the stocks of stereotyping, chained into servitude as symbols. When you cast their/our Disgust, Anger, Condemnation and Revolt as an assault on your consolatory haven, you are everything Tolkien dismisses, operating exactly as he describes, spurred to the basest excuses for and glorifications of inequity by the notion that “the land you loved is doomed.”
Tolkien is siding with the resistance here, baby, not defending some sanctum of oblivious contentment where that resistance is to be deemed intrusion, imposition, an imprisoning encumbrance of concern(s) that the upstarts have no right to lay on you. When he talks of Escape, he is not offering validation for your umbrage at those carping critics who find themselves, on entering your castle in the sky, as imprisoned there as in reality, if not more so.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Who Do You Write For?
One of the questions you get as a writer is "Who do you write for? Do you write for yourself, or do you have an ideal reader in mind, or whatever?" I always felt that was one of those questions that starts with a wrong premise, where you can't answer because its startpoint involves an assumption that just doesn't make sense for you. Like, do I write for myself? Not really. My noggin is just the noggin I debug and beta test the code on. I mean, I'll give any example of this program we call narrative a read-through when it's done, to see if it runs OK, but I'll also be doing that for passages throughout, while I'm writing, in this process of debugging we call "editing." So sure, I write stories I'd like to read, but when I've written a story myself, it's not like I can wipe my memory and experience that narrative as a reader who's just happened upon something to fit their tastes. Do I have an ideal reader? Not really. When someone hits me with that question, I'll sometimes talk about growing up a dorky queer kid in small town Scotland under Thatcher, about how I think of the analogues out there now, some kid stuck struggling with his sexuality in East Bumfuck, Iowa, the sort of kid I made my It Gets Better video for. How I do hope to give him the represenation I yearned for myself at that age--a queer hero sat firmly at the front seat of the bus called story, access to a water fountain of narrative that's not segregated off on the other side of the street, across from the one that all the straights get to go to, the one with the "No Gays" sign above it. But that's why I publish, really. If that kid is the type to throw VELLUM across the room at page 50, cause what the fuck is this crazy cubist crock of shit, this isn't Tolkien for homos?!... if what I'm writing is not for them, I'm not going to compromise. They're not the boss of me. I'm out to write the story that wants to be written; that's what shapes what I write--simply the sense that the story itself wants to take a certain shape. But then we start getting into all that following the muse wank. What does that even mean, the story that wants to be written? There is no magical inspiring goddess or daimon. A story is not some metaphysical sentient entity hijacking my mindthoughts as a portal into reality. Talking of inspiration like that is speshul snowflake cockfluffery. Fuck that shit. Yes, it sorta feels like the story "wants" to be a certain way, but muses, daimons, personfying the story... these are just figurative articulations we fall back on because, hello, writer. Figurative articulation is what we do. So it seems to me what's wrong with the question is it requires an answer of that sort. It assumes some sort of boss figure that I'm writing to satisfy. And that's bullshit for me. Writing is a craft, an art if it's done well enough. And that means there's shit that works and shit that doesn't. There's shit that works really fucking well. And there's shit that you think couldn't possibly work--could it? or maybe it could?--and suddenly you're realising it might be impossible--who the fuck could do that?--but if you can pull it off it would work fucking awesomely. And you give it a go without giving a fuck about some imaginary boss somewhere out there, or inside, who you're bound to serve as some pandering lickspittle. You just want to try out this idea, and if it works, it'll be for whoever the fuck wants to buy it. I mean, do people ask chefs, "Who do you cook for? Are you cooking for yourself, or do you have an ideal gourmet in mind?" Don't we just imagine that the chef, one day, realises that, hey, duck and orange would go really well together! So they try it, and if it works, they put it on the menu. For whoever. Sure, they're going to be taste-testing throughout their experiments in perfecting the dish. And at the end of it, they'll have a nice duck a l'orange to enjoy. But we don't assume that the chef who comes up with a dish like that is in thrall to their own peculiar tastes. We don't imagine there's a self they're cooking for that has duck as its #1 fave food and orange as #2. We don't imagine the chef is thinking, "If only I can find some way to combine those two things, I will be able to satisfy my boss me's duck fandom and orange fandom and it'll be everything boss me has ever dreamed of!" Nor do we imagine, surely, that the chef is thinking, "You know what Egon Ronay loves? Duck! You know what he also loves? Orange! And, like, Egon Ronay is my ideal gourmet! If I can just please him, well, that's everything I aspire to. So I must see if I can't figure out a way to just nail a duck/orange dish, cause that would make him cream his pants!" Maybe some chefs operate along those lines. But it sounds utterly wack to me. I imagine someone throwing a question rooted in those sort of presumptions at a chef, and I imagine the chef just looking at them like they're crazytown. Why would that be the default notion of how a chef operates, rather than the idea that, you know, duck has a certain flavour--rich, heavy, dark--that is really well balanced on the palate by something sweet and tangy like orange? Why would the default notion not be that these things just go together really fucking well? That the chef as a craftsman, as an artist, gets to know their toolkit of stuff and stuff-you-can-do-with-stuff well enough that they' start thinking of combos, and they realise, fuck, I have to try that because if it works the way I think it will, it'll be great. To me, that's the driving force in my writing too. There is no "who" that I'm writing for. I'm just savvy enough with my toolkit that when an idea comes along it captures me with the potential of how well it could work if I can pull it off. I talk about that figuratively, as having a sense of the story that wants to be written, but there's no great mystical force dispensing inspiration and demanding obeisant service to it. I'm not out to pander to my personal set of tastes; if anything, I'm looking to expand them, find some way to use... my literary equivalent of brussels sprouts, some twist by which, in context, in the dish, that's exactly what's needed. I don't give a shit about whether or not the ideal reader likes or dislikes second person. And I was, as a youngster, in the camp of those who didn't really care for it. At all. If I was writing for myself or for some ideal reader, I'd never have used it. But that's not how it works for me, not how it's ever worked. So at some point along the way, on the basis of craft/art savvy, (like how second person works in poetry, or in that one Ray Bradbury story, "The Ravine,") I hit on one way to use this rather unpopular flavour that just had to be tried. And it worked. And I put it on my menu of stories for anyone who cares to buy and try. Anyone. If they hate it, fuck it: so it goes; there'll always be someone who maybe hasn't acquired a specific taste--e.g. whisky--that's a linchpin of how the recipe works. If someone hates the taste of oranges, it doesn't change the fact that duck a l'orange works. No, I'm not going to try and second-guess some specious conceit of an Authoritative Arbiter, self or other, that I'm out to please. The only way I could do that anyway is by learning the subtleties of the stuff and the stuff you can do with stuff, figuring out how they work individually and how they do, would, should or could work together. If we're into the territory of "should and could," drawn by the potential of something that ought to be awesome if you can only pull it off, the uncertainty of succeeding in surprising the fuck out of people is part of the adventure. You're working against the utter obliviousness of an audience of every single person you're aware of, including yourself, who apparently never thought of trying this before, and if asked in principle would quite probably expect it to be a complete failure. But you know. You fucking know if you can nail it, it'll be awesome, and somewhere out there someone, anyone, should someday be able to stumble across it and be blown away. Who might that be? Who gives a fuck? Whoever.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
I fell in love with Hal Duncan's collection, Scruffians! as soon as I read the first story. How can that be? Well, as Gob would say, that one story is the hook. It got me to read the whole book in one sitting.
Hal Duncan's work can be dense, non-linear, and highly imaginative along with extraordinary writing skills that always impress. With the addition of his homoerotic fantasy-based Scruffian stories, mythology-based fairies and pirates, and other fun adventures found in this short story speculative fiction collection, readers get a well-defined sense of what makes Duncan such a fine story teller and weaver of dreams.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Monday, April 14, 2014
Scruffians! Deluxe Edition
Publishers Weekly, starred review
"... a wickedly entertaining collection of short fiction fantastical and queer in nature—full of “scruffians and scamps and sodomites,” with some pirates and fairies besides. These stories range from comedic romps to lyrical and meditative explorations on the nature of meaning-making, while Duncan’s engaging and clever voice resonates throughout as a strong thread connecting the various different sorts of pieces."
Brit Mandelo, Tor.com
Are you prepared to enter acclaimed author Hal Duncan's world of scruffians and scamps and sodomites? Beware, for it is filled with the gay pirate gods of Love and Death, immortal scoundrels, and young men who find themselves forced to become villains. But who amongst us does not adore a gamin antihero? These fantastical tales from the fringes of an imaginative realm of supernatural fairies and human fey will captivate the reader. Light a smoke, raise a cup of whisky, and seek a careful spot to cruise the Scruffians!
$16 USD / £12 GBP.
***THE DELUXE EDITION***
Two hundred and twenty five pages, full colour, with forty full colour photographs throughout to illustrate and complement the stories, one of which is an extra, not included in the trade edition. Cloth-bound hardback with a wraparound dustjacket. Signed in the spit and venom of yours truly. (Or, of course, other bodily fluids... no, let's not go there.)
US customers should order via Lethe Press where you can get a copy for $50, domestic shipping included. Autographed bookplates available on request.
For UK customers who want a signed copy of the deluxe edition in all its sordid sodomitic glory, we'll be able to cut down on the extortionate international shipping fees. At the conversion rates, it looks like a UK price of £40 is about right, postage and packing included.
If you're in the EU and keen for a copy, don't fear. Drop me an email, and I'll happily price out the extra postage for you.
To order, make a payment via Paypal using the button below or in the sidebar to the left. Be sure Paypal gets your shipping address, or drop me an email at hal AT halduncan DOT com with the details.
"Rhapsody, though it is Duncan’s first long-form critical work, is a strong and elegant—and sometimes wickedly crass—project, complexly argued and incisive while also managing to remain eminently readable and engaging."
Brit Mandelo, Tor.com
"Hal Duncan's Rhapsody is a quicksilver journey through the aesthetic consciousness of one of our most passionate and insightful masters of the form. This book will rightly take its place with Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of as a seminal critical text of speculative fiction."
Will Ludwigsen, author of In Search of and Others
Acclaimed author and critic Hal Duncan turns his analytic eye towards the development and current state of speculative fiction in American and English writing in the pages of Rhapsody. Duncan's trademark wry humor and suffer-no-fools approach to critiquing the genre will make this book more than a resource for students of the field--anyone who enjoys reading tales of the fantastical and strange can find Duncan's insight worthwhile to read again and again.
$25 USD / £15 GBP.
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Caledonia Dreamin' Review
Caledonia Dreamin' is a unique and well edited anthology of strange fiction of Scottish descent. It's a daring and original glimpse into Scotland, the Scots language and Scottish culture. Each story is based on or inspired by a Scots word.
It was truly a pleasure to read this anthology, because I don't remember reading anything similar ever before. There have been plenty of anthologies about different themes, but this is the first time that I remember reading an anthology that contains stories based on by Scots words.
Clearly it is the week of reviews here in New Sodom.
Also... Damn, if only I'd had a novel coming out right now, it would totally be like ONE OF ALL THE THINGS! IMMA MAKE ONE OF ALL THE THINGS! IMMA MAKE A SHORT STORY COLLECTION! IMMA MAKE A NON-FICTION BOOK! IMMA MAKE AN ANTHOLOGY! IMMA MAKE... and so on.