I am ashamed to admit that it really does matter to me whether or not a book is true

coverWhenever there’s a scandal in which it is revealed that a popular memoir is largely fabricated, I like to sneer and say, “Well, what does it matter, so long as it’s a good story?”

It feels good to affirm the essential fictiveness of the world. It’s all just stories, man. Some stories can be pinned down a bit more than others, but when we attach narrative to something, we falsify it, dude. All memoirs are fiction and all fictions are memoirs.

Except that’s completely not true. It does matter whether a story is true or not. If a story is true, it’s allowed to be odd, inchoate, and irresolute. Whereas if it’s fiction, it’s got to be something more. I give the truth much more slack than I do to fiction. Because whereas fiction has to constantly assert its truthiness, nonfiction is allowed to be a little more sly–it’s allowed to revel in the parts of itself that are not storylike at all. There’s no better example of this than the book I’m currently reading: Novels in Three Lines, by the French anarchist Félix Fénéon. This is a book that’s composed entirely of little squibs like the following:

Again and again Mme Couderc, of Saint-Ouen, was prevented from hanging herself from her window bolt. Exasperated, she fled across the fields.

When I first picked up the book, I thought all of these stories were fictions. And I was profoundly uninterested. I mean, I could do better than this stuff. I mean, these were barely even vignettes.

But then I read the cover more closely and realized that these were all true. They were unsigned news items that originally ran in a Paris newspaper in 1906 (exactly the same as the filler items that are in the margins of today’s magazines, except these ones were written by a semi-famous man of letters [and revolutionary]). Immediately, I was gripped by them. You’d think that reading a thousand of these would get old, but, so far, it has not. There’s so much life and so much reality spilling out from these pages.

Strange Horizons has just published my first book review

Ever since I started reading Delany’s works of criticism (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw; Shorter Views; Longer Views; etc), I’ve had a dream of becoming a man of letters. You know, someone who’s just sort of generally qualified to opine on everything and everything. Of course, this is not an uncommon dream. As my friend David once put it, “I think every little boy, at some point, dreams of growing up and becoming a public intellectual.”

One of my long-standing goals for this year was to somehow dip my toe into the nonfiction racket. And I’ve long had my eye on Strange Horizons‘ review page, which is one of the most expansive and diverse reviewing spaces in the SF world. Sometimes they review a book and I’m actually a bit surprised that it even exists. My main stumbling block, though, was kind of a silly one: I’m not very familiar with contemporary SF releases–the way that I found out about books is by reading about them on blogs or review pages…by which time Strange Horizons has probably already reviewed them. Every time I thought of a book that I could review, they had already reviewed it.

However, with my slush-reading gig coming to a close, I felt like any cachet that I had as a member of the current SH staff would be lost and that I should really send out an email to the reviews editor before the end of the year. And that’s when I remembered that Locus–the SF/F publishing industry’s trade journal–has listings of just-released books. So I browsed the listings and selected three likely contenders: the latest book in a pretty popular series (Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance), a niche literary collection that’s getting tons of buzz (Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath), and the latest short story collection by a frequent Strange Horizon’s contributor (Elizabeth Bear’s Shoggoths In Bloom). Then I sent out an email asking if the editor would be interested in any of these three books. She responded that the Tidbeck was already assigned, but she’d be down to see a review of the Bear collection.

So I got ahold of the later and read it over a weekend. It’s been years since I’ve been so nervous about writing something. My feeling was that a reviews don’t get rejected very often, just because it’s hard to sell them elsewhere and I doubt that there are toooo many people writing them. But still, it was very first book review (I think of the writing on this blog as being more in the nature of a reaction or a response–it’s not meant to describe a book and it’s definitely not meant to inform consumer purchases), and I definitely didn’t want to suck at it.

Anyway, after many hours of exhausting labor (and one revision), the review was accepted for publication and went live today! I am happy. The first step in getting a license to bloviate!