TP: Jim wrote: "I also think of Isaac Asimov, avatar of scientific rationalism, and his unhappy relationship with airplanes."
And Raymond Chandler, who in real life was a fastidious recluse, and Lovecraft, who wrote great supernatural stories but was a hardcore atheist/rationalist!
I outline very thoroughly before I start writing a book, and revise everything, but still if I try to explain why I did something in some book, it's like trying to explain why I did something while drunk. (Jerry Pournelle says, "It's bad enough when you have to say 'It seemed like a good idea at the time,' but the worst is when you have to say, 'I guess it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.'")
JM: You got that exactly right, John. Except my home chapel is undergoing renovations at the moment, so I have to use the Anglican church down the street.
I keep thinking of the piecemeal conversation we had at Readercon, in which I found myself playing the part of--as you wittily put it- the village atheist. The next day I attended a panel whose topic was "The Fiction of James Morrow"and listened to the participants all agree that my oeuvre is "reverent" at base, a judgment to which I also happily assent.
Indeed, there are passages in "Towing Jehovah" and "Blameless in Abaddon" so goddamn reverent they might have been written by C. S. Lewis. (There are also passages so consciously blasphemous they might have been written by Ivan Karamazov.) So I think Gopnik is on to something.
While I always enjoy getting dispatches from other village atheists around the globe, the e-mails that most move me are the ones that come from believers who say that fiction like mine helped them get to a place where they no longer regard paradox, ambiguity, and doubt as instruments of the Devil.
Of course, it's entirely possible that JC is right when he suggests to me--I hope I'm paraphrasing you accurately, John--that the axis of belief-unbelief (or revelation-reason) is not necessarily the best continuum along which to fight the good fight (or write the good book). But that's another day's discussion.
I really like the spin Jeff has put on all this: "For me it is not that what I write I am not, but I most certainly do feel that the person who writes the books is a wholly other consciousness than my own. There are places where they intersect, but the one who writes, in his manipulation and extension of metaphor is doing something I don't think I could do if I intellectually considered it."
JC: In this respect all authors are like dreamers, or better put, all dreamers are like authors. Liz Hand sent me a wonderful and hilarious article in the Guardian by Michael Frayn, the novelist and playwright, about dreaming; he's actually subtle about the links between the two, but he makes it clear it's a process of the greatest mystery and very suggestive--or instance those wonderful moments in dreams where somebody tells you something you don't know, or hadn't thought of -- Frayn instances a dream where somebody told him an idea, and Frayn (in the dream) walked away abashed, thinking "I wish I'd thought of that"--but of course he had! If not he, who? How is it we hide the origins of these ideas from ourselves? It IS like working on a book and having some character (or the narrator!) say or be or do something we hadn't thought of and didn't know we could do. I often find myself marveling at my own (best) work and thinking "I wish I could write like that."
JF: I've been reading The White Hotel again recently, really for the first time because I barely remember it from the first time. It's put me back in touch with Freud. For whatever anyone and everyone thinks of Freud, his promotion of the concept that there was more going on than meets the eye was a wonderful reminder to contemporary humanity. In many ancient cultures the Shaman's job is to interpret dreams. You dream a dream you don't understand and so you go to the Shaman and he or she will tell you what significance it has for you. In some of these cultures, if you did not understand your dreams, it was said that they would destroy you. The dreamer is the writer, the Shaman is the reader or I suppose that part of the writer also that is conscious of what he or she is writing. I studied with John Gardner and one of his bits of fiction writing whim-wham was that when writing you wanted to hook into "the vivid and continuous dream." To him, that's what fiction was. And this gets back to Tim's point from way before--as in a dream or nightmare we are completely convinced of the reality of the world and the happenstances in it, and as fiction writers some of us wish we could build as convincing a world as our own nightly dream worlds.
So like in a dream, with all its convincing characters and drama and scenery, etc (sometimes so convincing that you wake with your heart pounding and gasping for breath). you as the dreamer can live it and not know what it "means." It's just like writing a novel that is ultimately effective and convincing and engaging and not, as the author, know what it "means". So I guess I'm corroborating Tim again.
JM: You studied with John Gardner, Jeff? I envy that. I think he was the real thing: a wonderful stylist, a dedicated teacher, an accomplished alcoholic. I remember his brief for "the vivid and continuous dream" from "The Art of Fiction," and I certainly agree that many fine novels work at that level, The White Hotel being a particularly intense example.
But permit me to be a bit of a contrarian here. As I was saying earlier, the novel form can do so many things so well, I would hate to pin it down to a single aesthetic. I don't think Moby Dick is a vivid and continuous dream. It's too boisterous and disjointed for that, too full or its own unending possibilities. I don't think "Lolita" is a vivid and continuous dream. It's too wickedly cerebral for that, too alarming in ways that strike me as quintessentially wakeful. (Gardnerwas not keen on Nabokov.)
Then there's this whole business of "meaning." I wonder if we aren't perhaps conflating the idea of conveying a didactic "message" (which nobody is defending) with the deeper, thornier problem of meaning. Surely Gardner did not teach that one should eschew all conscious or calculated effort to suffuse one's fiction with meaning--did he? Surely Melville intended Moby Dick to mean something, many things--why else bother to write a novel like that?--even as the central conceit allows him to be deliciously sly on this point. (As Walker Percy puts it, Melville hit "the mother load" with that one.)
In "On Writers and Writing" we find Gardner's "General Plan for The Sunlight Dialogues," which I read as a blueprint for the complex overlapping meanings he hoped to get into the novel. And I'd be surprised to hear that D. M. Thomas didn't want the "The White Hotel" to subliminally convey a meaning--something about the seeming impotence of the subjective and the personal in the brute face of the political--to his readers.
I suppose that's the glory of the novel. It's at once the most cognitive and the most intuitive of pursuits. And I imagine that writers of speculative fiction, with their grand game of swapping one set of rules (the laws of physics) for another (the ontology of the impossible), wrestle with this dualism more that most.
JF: I totally agree with you on all this. I was just following a line of thought until it curled around to where it had started. Moby Dick is a great example. I think what this points out is that the term "the novel" covers a lot of territory. Does it cover enough so that the term can mean something different to each author of one? In my laziness, I'd say, "Sure." And we haven't even discussed "parlor tricks"--structural gamesmanship and all the other hoops one can jump a story through for either authorial self-aggrandizement through pointless complexity or as a path toward a new vision for the reader. Moby Dick might be a good example of the latter here as well.
JC: Now I get to be contrarian. John Gardner was, in fact, a fake. He was a terrible immoralist who dared to write a book called "On Moral Fiction", and despite my general agreement with JM about writers sometimes writing against the person they are, that wasn't a novel, it was a screed. It's actually my belief that John Gardner sold his soul to the Devil (this would, actually make a fine story, which I don't care to write). My first intimations of something wrong came when I saw that The Sunlight Dialogues first appeared in a gorgeous edition with illustrations. Who gets illustrations in common literary fiction? Then in a bus station in Indianapolis I found on the paperback rack a copy of his multi-thousand-line epic poem "Jason and Medea." A mass market paperback? In a bus station? Who made that deal, I'd like to know? Then there was his successful descent into sloth, alcoholism, and self indulgence, a repellent figure who nonetheless got any woman he looked at, apparently, sometimes more than one at once--well it was the times, I guess, but then those huge unreadable books kept piling up, hypnotized editors continuing to publish them; he plagiarizes half his book about Chaucer and gets away with what's ruined many a rep; continues admired, honored, even revered, and then came that dark night on the lonely road in the woods when his contract was up. … How's that for a Secret History?
JF: John: I don't think that was the half of it. “Jason and Medea” in a bus station--those were the days. I also remember, when I was about maybe 17, buying a cool looking paperback, Beasts, in the local grocery store.
JC: I am appropriately abashed. Though that book was the kind that belongs (or did then) in grocery-store racks--it was SF. (And still in print, from HarperCollins.)
JF: I loved the book. Read it many times and it showed me quite a lot about what else SF could be beyond a lot of what I was reading in the magazines.
JC: But if I may turn the topic back to history, I told my Friends at my own site that I would try to get questions they had for you guys answered if they were well-phrased and perspicuous, and here (with your permission) is one for Tim:
We have a category of things that, when we find them out, we ask "Does Tim Powers know that?" They are the odd facts, you know, the ones that seem as if they would make sense if only they fit together. The most recent one was that Lord Halifax was born without a left hand. It's no use to me, but, does Tim Powers know that?
So does he?
TP: No, I didn't know that about Lord Halifax! I'm afraid I don't even immediately know who he was. Or is. (If you tell me, I'll say, "Oh yes of course!") You do immediately start wondering what that might mean, in a fictional--fantasy fictional--story! I bet in some situations he does have a left hand.
Whenever I run into several of these odd facts in some non-fiction book, I think, "Gee, maybe this isn't recreational reading, maybe this is research!"
JM: If anybody's interested, Lord Halifax appears as a minor character in The Last Witchfinder--pages 122-127, to be precise. I assume we're talking about George Savile, Marquess of Halifax, also known as the Trimmer, an epithet he earned in consequence of his talent for equivocation.
I didn't know about the missing left hand.
JC: The cool thing would have been for you to give him a missing left (no, right!) hand in your book and then insist later that you hadn't known he was missing a hand. That's the magic our vast public expects of us. I once told an audience at a convention that my Aegypt books were entirely organized according to astrological principles designed to draw through the text certain planetary influences that would cause readers to experience the text in a certain way. I quickly recanted, after seeing their many upturned faces filled with awe and acceptance.
JF: And had you not denied it, these things have a way of starting to take on a life of their own. Eventually it might have come to you that that is exactly what you had done. I read this novel not too long ago, Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, in which these two guys go on vacation and for a goof, in their down time, create an imaginary individual named Miss Hargreaves. Whenever they get a chance they imagine more of her personality and life. When they return home, one of the friends, taking the joke a little further, writes a letter out one day to the Miss Hargreaves and drops it in the post box. The joke continues between the friends and then one day they get a message in return from Mrs. Hargreaves, carrying word that she is going to visit. And then she does. Although it is played somewhat as a 30's comedy, her arrival takes a really dark turn. Weird. One's creative imaginings take on lives of their own.
DG: And we're back to authors as con artists, or at least magicians, and the power of imagination... Nicely done! Thank you, gentlemen all, for a fascinating discussion.
(Look for another roundtable in the near future. And if you have any burning historical questions, you now know whom to ask...)