Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Kelly Link: Stranger Things Happen

Kelly Link is a fantasy writer. Or -- some say -- she writes slipstream: which is allegedly a combination of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and realism. Anyway, whatever the style/medium is called, Link mostly writes short stories and novellas, and in her field she has won just about every prize going: Nebula, Hugo, and so forth.

Link has, naturally, her own web site, with lots of free stuff on it, interviews, a biography, and more.

Stranger Things Happen is Link's first collection of short stories, and it comes labelled with praise from Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Lethem (on the front cover), and from a whole posse of critics in the preliminary pages. The book is now in its fifth printing; it was published by Small Beer Press, which is a company run by Link and her husband.

The blurb for the book offers the following: 'The girl detective goes to the underworld to solve the case of the tap-dancing bank robbers. A honeymooning couple become participants in an apocalyptic beauty pageant. Sexy blond aliens invade New York City. A young girl learns how to make herself disappear.'

So far so good. This looks right up my street. On the face of it, this collection offers just the sort of stories that I might have written myself. And did, actually: see King Albert's Words of Advice.

But oh dear. What a disappointment. Couldn't get on with this book at all.

I began at the beginning, and, as is my wont, made notes as I went along. Notes read: A poor choice for the first story in a collection; not too impressed. Second story: Not for me.

Then I began to dip into later stories, still without any luck. V. weird story; not v. satisfactory. And of the last one I tried (I never finished the book): Ambiguous; not clear what happens. Mysterious and atmospheric but doesn't work very well.

And then I found the answer to the question of what was wrong. In the acknowledgements section, at the back of the book, we find the following:
I was a member of various workshops while writing these stories: I owe a lot to the instructors and members of the MFA workshop at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Which explains a great deal.

Well, everybody to their own thing. But there is just something about these MFA-trained people (Trained? Ha!) which gets right up my nose. You might enjoy Kelly Link. I didn't.

Yesterday I made the point that you cannot guarantee that winning a prize means anything much, even in a genre which you normally enjoy. At best a prize list offers just a pious hope that a book might, perhaps, entertain. And as far as science fiction is concerned (a genre known to some of its less pompous adherents as skiffy) I am definitely beginning to suspect that something untoward has happened.

It has been pointed out here more than once that skiffy is held in the deepest contempt by members of the orthodox literary establishment. Almost every month, Dave Langford's Ansible newsletter has a section entitled 'As Others See Us', in which he quotes the latest snobbish and ignorant statement which proves my point. Usually such sneers make reference to the alleged skiffy fascination with 'bug-eyed monsters'.

Understandably, many of those who write, publish, and read skiffy have become just a mite sensitive about this. They have grown weary of their friends and relations sniggering at them, and they yearn for respectability. So what they have begun to do, consciously or unconsciously, is award prizes to work which could, on a dark night, be mistaken for literary stuff. They are doing this in the hope that, if they do it often enough, and shout loudly about it, they might one day be admitted to the Groucho club and get to meet Marty and Salman and all those other guys. Then they will be able to hold their heads up high in decent company.

Well, blow that for a game of soldiers. I'm not going to sign up for that. If I have to choose between skiffy with literary pretensions and skiffy with bug-eyed monsters, I will gladly choose the latter, any day of the week.

Alien was, after all, a pretty good movie. And I have no problem whatever with the latest series of Dr Who: outstandingly good Saturday night entertainment by any standards. Though I am, like all right-thinking persons, heartbroken that Billie Piper is leaving the cast. Rumour has it that in next Saturday's episode she gets (sniff) killed off.

I am not sure that I shall be able to watch it. But if I don't, I won't be reading Kelly Link instead.


ivan said...

"Well, everybody does their own thing."
I am no grammarian and you have discussed singulars and plurals all over your blogs, yet it somehow rankles.
An MFA flying up your nose?
Tap you with a pencil.

Fiction is a rare gift. I haven't quite "gotten" it yet; maybe never, as I approach threescore and ten.
But it's a gift a lot of people would kill for.
You got a killer instinct for MFA's Grumpy?
Some of them can actually DO it.

Anonymous said...

I think this trend has been going on with sf for 40 years now. I started in with Tom Swift Jr, then moved on to Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein...well...all the writers from the forties and fifties. Right up through college I gorged on the stuff. But then it seemed like too many sf folks wanted to be taken seriously and I was more interested in wild ideas than literary techniques. I soon learned that any story that won a Nebula was almost certainly something I wouldn't enjoy (and would probably be barely recognizable as sf) The genre lost its interest to me and I ended up reading, and writing (among other things) mysteries. As it happens I kind of liked a few things I read by Kelly Link. However, I guess there's still a lot of sf writers aspiring to be the Raymond Carver of Bug Eyed Monsters or somesuch.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes indeed, Tom Swift Jr. Got me through many nights under the blanket with a flashlight.

I've never understood how grades for "creativity" can be doled out, but I enjoy the picture of tap dancing bank robbers meeting up with the sexy aliens (blond, of course).

I guess the bottom line is that, in the intensity of competition today, people will throw anything and everything at you to convince you they are, um, legitimate. Back to your recent post on "Blurbs."

Anonymous said...

Try Link's second collection, Magic For Beginners. It would probably be more to your liking, considering what you criticized.

Armand said...

totally off topic but I love the music over the Dr. Who credits. I get the same feeling that I used to get when I was a kid standing in line for a roller coaster,


ivan said...

Ah, Armand.
Right outside le boit.
You write fiction?

Armand said...

Yes, fiction

- Armand

ivan said...

Interesting way of thinking, Armand.
I tried to pick up your blog,but Blogger himself got in the way. I drew a blank.
My favourite non-sequitur is
"I like corn flakes.
Can you swim?"

I put this up on my own blog and immediately got an answer from a genius who said she not only liked corn flakes, but was an excellent swimmer.

Anonymous said...

About Kelly Link's rubbish book Stranger Things... I couldn't agree more with you, Michael. I wrote a long review of this book on warning people how bad this book really is, because I just couldn't fathom how it won awards. The whole thing must be a joke ... or, and this worries me a bit, there is a whole lot of ass-licking going on in the SF publishing industry. This is probably the truth behind how this collection of complete and utter rubbish came to be so praised. Awards mean nothing. This book of junk proves it. The sad thing is, when they slap awards on rubbish like this, it tars all those genuine award winners. Well, they probably had to give the book away because I doubt it would have sold. The general public (those few who still actually buy books) buy fictional stories not pompous self-indulgent crap like this.