Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

When We Were Heroes

January 16th, 2013

New Wild Cards fiction out today from Daniel Abraham on Tor.com — After many many volumes of print stories, this is the first web fiction since the American Hero website and the first traditional stand-alone story. More are in the works so check it out as well as the next print volume, Lowball.

Art by John Picacio

When We Were Heroes

*Apocalypse to Go* by Katherine Kerr

February 1st, 2012

 

The Science Fiction and Fantasy publisher DAW has been publishing quite a few  of the best writers with which the field currently is blessed, including, but  not limited to, this year’s World Fantasy Award winner, Nnedi Okorafor, Tanya  Huff and Patrick Rothfuss. Katharine Kerr, creator of the great Deverry Fantasy series, is another DAW writer giving us  consistently highly entertaining, smart and very well written books.

Katharine Kerr’s latest series, the Nola O’Grady Novels, are, in order of  publication — License to Enscorcell, Water to Burn, and the  most recent, published 02/17/12, Apocalypse to Go. The series is  urban fantasy, located in an alternate San Francisco. Among these novels’  strengths is the strong sense of real place, despite it being an alternate San  Francisco, situated in a universe different from ours in many respects. This  palpable sense of reality helps the reader to effortlessly suspend disbelief and  submerge in the story.

One of the urban fantasy conventions is the protagonist generally is paired  with an equal but different companion. This would be Israeli Interpol agent  Ari Nathan, Irish Nola’s partner in the super-secret supernatural government  agency that is secret even from the (many) other government secret agencies. The  conflict of potential divided loyalties is equal to the conflict at times as to  who is giving orders, who is in charge and who makes the decisions. This makes  for an interesting relationship, which becomes even more interesting as Nola’s  close-knit, if difficult, Irish family becomes a part of the mix of diverse  worlds, supernatural creatures, murders, kidnappings and missions to save the  world.

While Kerr’s Nola O’Grady novels do conform to the conventions of urban
fantasy, she puts a stamp of originality on each of them. The originality partly rises out of her fine grasp of how novels are plotted and structured, and partly through Kerr’s splendid command of language. You hear it in the way the characters talk to us the readers, talk to and about each other. The interchanges and observations are conventionally genre ‘smart,’ yet on Kerr’s pages they come through as naturally hip, not self-consciously wise-cracking attempts to talk the supernatural noir talk. But then the author lives in the state where noir and its language on the page and on the screen were invented to large degree.

Because of the unexpected actions of Nola’s family, and also because the language in this world of Kerr’s balances tension and lightness, this reader has often been put in mind of the first and best novels of Roger Zelazny’s wonderful Amber series. I vividly recall reading non-stop Nine Princes in Amber the first time, hardly able to stop and take a breath.  This is high praise. Go Kerr! Go Nola!

X-posted Fox Home and Fox Valley

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

December 22nd, 2011

Harkness, Deborah. (2011) A Discovery of Witches. Vol. 1, All Souls Trilogy. Penguin, USA, NY.

Trade publication December 27th. The All Souls Trilogy’s second volume, Shadow of Night, comes out this summer of 2012. A Discovery has been optioned by Warner Bros. for a film treatment.

A copy of A Discovery of Witches paperback is available from Penguin.  Just comment below, I’ll organize a drawing of the commentators’ names, announce the winner here, and forward your contact info to the Penguin publicity department.

There are no spoilers in the following thoughts about A Discovery of Witches, or at least no more than what a reader finds in cover and jacket copy.

Cross-posted to Fox Home and Fox Hall.

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A Discovery of Witches is an engrossing science fiction & fantasy novel, as opposed to an engrossing science fiction or fantasy novel, because it is both science fiction and fantasy. Its only contemporary rival for excellence in this small science fiction and fantasy crossbreed is this year’s World Fantasy Award winner, Who Fears Death (2010, DAW) by Nnedi Okorafor.

Within A Discovery’s pages the reader will engage with the history of science, philosophical and alchemical treatises, Darwin and DNA, political and material history, medieval Romances and their nexis with fantastic literature, and the great Elizabethan playwrights.  The author’s day job is as professor of history at the University of Southern California. Her scholarly work includes The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007, Yale University Press), which was the winner of the Pfizer Prize for Best Book in the History of Science from 2005-2007, presented by the History of Science Society. The reader doesn’t have to know this about the author, however, for A Discovery to emit all the allure of old jewels and the enticement of bright chemicals in combination with precious metals.

Diana Bishop is our protagonist, a young woman with whom an ancient vampire falls in love, in one of the reading rooms of Oxford’s Bodelian Library. So, it’s hard then, not to have Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight come to mind.

Sarah Seltzer at Alternet recently tried to get at aspects of Twilight that some adult readers find troubling:

“Violent Vampire Sex, Demon-Babies and Overwhelming Female Desire. Twilight is saturated with sexist tropes–to the point of being disturbing. But that disturbing element is compelling, too . . . . “

 . . . . But as for the substance of her wants, therein lies the perversely haunting twist. I’d argue that Bella’s desires are direct responses to the patriarchy we actually live in. In fact, Meyer has created for her heroine an inverted version of our unjust society. In this invented, inverted world, Bella is allowed to want sex, and vocalize it, and initiate it, while her partner is the gatekeeper who makes sure she is safe and married before she gets “hurt.” In her world, the men around her urge her to abort her fetus for her own safety, but she gets to “choose” to deliver it even though it kills her. In her world, her boyfriend can urge her to attend college and better herself while she can push for an early marriage–and be right! In her world, she can reject her body and trade it in for a new one that is agile, strong, lithe. Her choices are consistently to fall into the arms of the patriarchy and trust that it will catch her, and her faith is validated: she gets a perfect husband, angelic child, new body.

What if we could do this, the fantasy suggests? What if we could just will ourselves to accept the prescribed roles society gives us (damsel in distress, object of protection, vessel for childbearing) and make it okay through the power of our wills? And what if the men in our society were horrified by their power: physical, social, sexual, and curbed it themselves and we didn’t constantly have to be on our guard?

Some critics dismissed A Discovery of Witches when the ARCs and other promotion for the novel appeared, as more of the paranormal / urban fantasy / romance generic tropes: the special cipher a la Bella, helpless as can be but firming her feisty chin as her gorgeous vampire boyfriend indulges and protects her. Most of all the romantic male primary loves Bella because he can’t help himself — the smell of her special blood is just so enticing! His love object lacks any other qualities that tend to attract love, such as character and personality, curiosity, intelligence, education, knowledge of the world, interests or achievements, even a sense of humor. Bella is special because — other exceptional figures such as vampires and werewolves love her, and they love her because of how she smells. A Discovery’s romantic male lead is Matthew, a 1500 year old vampire of vast wealth, intellectual brilliance and military prowess. He adores how Diana smells, he protects her. All his family loves Diana. Not the least of his attractions, Matthew owns his own jet and helicopters — yes helicopters, plural. So, in the initial pages Ms. Harkness seems to have broken out the parts of the Twilightiad that are compelling wish fulfillment for the female adolescent reader.  Diana’s a witch who is special even among other witches, though in childhood, Diana chose to secede from her witch heritage, refusing even the minimum training in spells that all witches, however powerful or weak, are obligated to receive.

However, A Discovery of Witches isn’t what that description leads one to expect. Diana narrates in first person, providing only as much information about herself as we need, when we need it. Mostly she’s asking herself questions of history, of science, of families – all things outside herself, things that are bigger than she is, even though the author does make sure we know those around Diana regard her as special. Still, Diana’s specialness doesn’t overwhelm the narration since the author’s good judgment breaks up Diana’s voice with third person point of view of various other protagonists. There’s sly humor — every time Matthew picks up Diana, or thinks about how she smells, I swear Harkness is winking at Bella and Edward, and at us too. Whereas Bella wants to never grow up, Diana is living an adult’s life, though so far she’s been denying herself much of what she’s earned by her own efforts. Diana’s family and Matthew’s family bond through their mutual love of the two lovers. Merging families of creatures who are unlike and traditionally at odds is purposeful in terms the Great Mysteries we’re delving into. Diana’s specialness is because she’s a hardworking, disciplined scholar who delights in things scientific and historic, things beautiful, who is loyal, courageous, possesses integrity and her own sense of honor. That her smell happens to so appeal to Matthew is langniappe — he smells just as good to her. If you wish to get subtextual, you can say the way they smell to each other signifies that together they possesses the qualities they need for the great quest of the trilogy. They are equally matched lovers, who don’t waste their precious energies engaging in the contrivances of – “I hate you but I love you, O what will I /we do, separations and mis-communications.” That Diana and Matthew are matched agencies who are true lovers is essential to the plot of this novel, and will play an even greater role as the trilogy progresses. They are the Lovers of the Tarot and alchemy, whose conjucio could have a conceptio that might redeem the world. A Disovery of Witches is, among other things, a quest to discover the beginnings of all things in order to continue all things. One of the essential questions is, “Is immortality the same as never dying?” There are many ghosts in A Discovery, most of them Diana’s relatives. They speak to her, and she to them.  Are they persons then?

The four sentient species of A Discovery are called “creatures.” The creatures are divided among vampires, witches, daemons and humans. There is council called the Congregation that governs their dealings with each other, with places for three members each representing vampires, witches and daemons. As there are no human representatives seated with the Congregation there are no humans in A Discovery of Witches (at least in this first volume of the trilogy, other than spear carriers who, generally, are besottted with the individuals of the other creatures who are our protagonists and antagonists. This is the hierarchy of A Discovery’s world, a hierarchy like that of the world view that preceeded and remained in most places contemporaneous with alchemy’s groping toward the scientific method: God, angels, humans, animals. Or in terms of worldly power, the Pope and his Church, King and his warrior nobles, the merchants, finally serfs and peasants. In A Discovery, vampires are the aristocratic military rank of the creatures, witches the material intelligence, daemons the creative intelligence, and humans are the serfs. Humans are relegated to useful servants – or food — though the other three creature species conceal themselves from humans since humans have long outbred the other three divisions of creatures.

Eceptionalism is the potent point of much science fiction and fantasy. Whether YA or adult, the protagonist is part of that imaginary world’s 1%, or if not starting there, will end up in that bracket. Thus, if the science fiction field really is an American conceptio, i.e. U.S. invention, as is often claimed, this exceptionalism reflects our ingrained national self-regard. This can be troublesome when looked at closely. What else that can be disturbing within the context of novels like A Discovery, is that the exceptional achievements in history, the arts and sciences, all, or most, are the production of these supernatural creatures. Within A Discovery humans have nothing to do with even the ending WWII. Entertainments like A Discovery of Witches, or Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, in which significant events of good or evil of our own recorded history are attributed to supernatual agency seem increasingly a given. Humans are not responsible for what, in fact, we know we are responsible, whether the plays of Shakespeare or slavery.

Food for thought indeed, and A Discovery of Witches provides us a banquet of ideas to consider. For instance, there are the questions of time. What is the past? Where is it? Perhaps fairyland is the past, the dimension that we can enter, if we know the right things? Diana – and we — have a guide into these unknown historic eras, Matthew, who assures Diana, that in the past she will yearn with a passion she cannot now in present time even imagine — hot water. This has me impatient for the next volume, Shadow of Night, to see where these questions lead Harkness and her characters.

 

Comicon 2010 round-up and wrap-up, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

July 26th, 2010

I’m just back from the San Diego Comicon 2010.

I had considered doing a daily blog post and update, but that way lay madness or at least sleep deprivation and less con, so I’ll just do it now.

First off, a broad generalization: This appears to be a banner year for zombies and a notable year for family togetherness, and yes, we’re talking at the same time too.

Now on to specifics, in order of occurrence, not importance. I flew down Wednesday and was picked up by my friend Albert who was my guest for the con and in turn whose house guest I was. He’d already picked up our badges and since the airport was so close to the convention center, we hopped back and I got to see the last hour of preview night, whereupon I saw simultaneously the most impressive thing I saw at the con and the least impressive thing which were one and the same. The most impressive thing was the throne of Odin from the upcoming Thor movie. It’s this grand extravaganza that looks somewhat like a giant gold sword hilt (riffing, I think, on Odin supposedly having a sword suspended over his throne a la Damocles) with amazing Norse knotwork and steps and the impression that there were supposed to be valkyries perched all over portions of it like the Rockettes. However, on the throne itself was this cheap gold lame cushion that looked like it came from a ’70s porno. My guess is that Odin is going to wear some amazing fur cape and the set designer said not to bother because no one would ever see it, but it’s also going to be seen in thousands of photos as people lined up to take their pictures in it.

Regardless, I stopped by a few booths, notably Kingdom of Loathing and Girl Genius, picking up a few item cards at the first for my in-game clanmates and saying “hi” to the Foglios at the other.  The hall then closed and Albert and I went over to the bar at the Sheraton Suites to meet up with my friend Allison Lonsdale as well as her friends J. and Mel who do the Two Lumps webcomic.  Allison gave me the CD of “Live at Lestat’s” which I’d pre-ordered many years ago–and which she was glad to finally have out–and we had a good time (apart from my garlic intolerance and the unadvertised surprise garlic in the risotto, but they brought me mammoth coconut shrimp instead, so it all worked out).

Thursday we went to the con and I went off to The Power of Myth panel, which was an author track panel moderated by Maryelizabeth Hart of Mysterious Galaxy.  The room was packed to the point of them turning people away and there were a number of interesting panelists, including my friend Seanan McGuire, and my friend and editor Esther Friesner who had been flown out for the con.  It was a very fun panel and moreover informative, with Seanan mentioning the Romany legend that a certain type of fey creature was known to steal your baking stone if you displeased it which had been modernized in her grandmother’s retelling to stealing your microwave.  Michael Scott also made mention of the fascinating and tragic detail that there were entire villages in Ireland that had lost their native folklore due to the inhabitants dying during the Potato Famine or emigrating to America.  However, when they emigrated, they brought the folklore with them.

After the panel I caught up with Esther and set up to meet with her for dinner.  I then looked at the program guide and decided that there was nothing else in particular I wanted to see that day so I decided to pace the floor of the dealers room to see everything, something I hadn’t done in years since it’s the size of two and a half football fields.  But I did it.

Walking the floor made me conclude that this is the year of the zombie.  There were enormous displays for The Walking Dead, both the original comic series and the new AMC adaptation.  I was able to gather that it follows some small-time sheriff’s officer who’s injured in a shoot-out then wakes up in a hospital after the zombie plague is already in full swing, a la 28 Days, but it also has the heartwarming family angle where he’s out to track down his wife and son and rescue them from the zombies.  There were also zombies visible in the large booth for a video game called Dead Speed which appears to involve some bad-ass in motorcycle leathers, zombie card and dice games for sale from Steve Jackson Games, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies stuff at dozens of booths.

There was also more heartwarming family stuff in the form of No Ordinary Family which postulates that somewhat dumpy looking bald guy, played by Michael Chiklis, is married to super-hot MILF Julie Benz, and they have a boy and a girl, and then they’re in a plane which is caught in some super-uber-phlebotinum storm while they’re flying, which is pretty much the same origin story as The Fantastic Four.  Michael Chiklis even played The Thing in The Fantastic Four, so it’s really not a surprise that he gets the super-strength power.  Julie Benz’s Milf gets the Flash’s superspeed power, which is also reminiscent of The Incredibles.  To be different (for certain values of different) the daughter gets telepathy and the slacker son gets super-genius calculator powers.  I’m certain it’s hearwarming but it sure looks derivative.

I then got together with Esther for dinner and we went to the Gaslamp Strip Club which is so named because you grill your own steaks, which was good and fun.  After that I linked up with Albert and we hit Extraordinary Desserts, which were beautiful but too sweet for my taste, and went to the “From Dusk Till Shaun” party being hosted at El Camino on India Street.  It was the place that had previously been The Airport Lounge and it was kind of sad to see the 60-70s “golden age of air travel” be replaced by an admittedly cool Mexican bar.  I saw my friend Storm who I hadn’t seen in a year and it was then time to call it a night.

Friday The day began with the panel I was on, again hosted by Maryelizabeth, With Great Power Come Great Stories.  I was there representing for Wild Cards, as were Carolyn Spector and surprise extra guest Paul Cornell.  The room was about two-thirds full, but would have had more people if the interminable line for ballroom 20 weren’t routinely barring access to the rest of the hall.  One of the panelists was even late because of it.  Regardless, the panel went well, and I got the closing remark, “But sometimes you need to use the insanity widget,” which Maryelizabeth then echoed as a good final line and adjourned us to the signing area.

After the signing, Carolyn and I went to The Field and had lunch, talked Wild Cards and writing in general, and had a good time, then went back to the convention center and went around the dealer’s room until my feet got too sore and I went off to see a panel and sit down.

While I would have liked to see the True Blood panel, the line for it was insane and the main point was to get off my feet.  They’d also cross-programmed it with another vampires-and-werewolves show I also like called Being Human, but as that’s from Britain and didn’t have banners over half the convention center advertising it, I assumed it would be less impacted and I could sit down immediately.  I was right.

I got in for the tail end of Teen Wolf. No, not the Teen Wolf with Back to the Future made them release it anyway, and not the cartoon version either.  Well, yeah, sort of, but it looked like with this remake, they planned to play it straight and it looked reasonably cool.

This was then followed by the panel for Falling Skies, or as I called it afterward “In Which Stephen Spielberg Phones It In.”  How do I explain it?  Let’s see….  Take War of the Worlds and file the serial numbers off (it’s in public domain, but the last version bombed, so you don’t want to be associated with that) and cross-pollinate it with some patriotism lifted from Independence Day by making your protagonist an American history professor who specializes in the Revolutionary War and is thus is filled with idealistic hope that a small band of insurgents can continually frustrate and annoy an invading army until their intergalactic homeworld eventually suffers an economic collapse and the funding for the invasion of earth is yanked.  Or something like that.  This role is being played by Noah Wylie, an actor I usually enjoy and who was very earnestly trying to sell his new series, but the story about his character’s wife being dead, two of his sons being around, and the third son being kidnapped by the aliens for “mysterious purposes”?  (Hint: These “mysterious purposes” are invariably hybridizing humans with aliens, which he would know if he were a professor of pop culture and were thus genre savvy.)

Like The Walking Dead, the story picks up several months after the invasion, but instead of having the collapse of society glossed over by means of a convenient coma, we have this grave-voiced little girl telling us that the aliens “did not want to be friends” as a voice-over to crayon drawings of bug-eyed green men with gnashing razor-sharp teeth.  I’m about to wonder if the sheriff and the history professor shouldn’t team up and go deal with the zombies and the aliens together when the Q&A begins and this breathless woman asks the producer where they came up with the brilliant idea of explaining the invasion via the little girl’s drawings, and I’m thinking, um, it’s on tv tropes.org and it’s called a “nightmare fuel coloring book.” I could almost forgive the woman for the ditzy question when the producer opened his mouth and started blowing colored smoke about it being something Stephen Spielberg invented from his amazing creative genius, as opposed to it being a standard film convention of the genre, and you always give the dire exposition to little girls instead of little boys if you can help it because little girls are perceived as inherently more innocent and the contrast is automatically viewed as creepier.  Duh.

Then the panel was over and there was a short wait for Being Human to start.  Unlike most there, I had not yet illegally downloaded the whole second season to watch it, but I still enjoyed the panel and the actors.  There was also an interesting mention that while the BBC show is continuing, there will be an American version started up on the SyFy channel and the producer hoped we’d watch both so he’d get more residuals.

I then went and caught dinner with Albert and his friend Andrew, who’s also a housemate.  We hit the Dublin Square and had dinner and drinks with a blogger who was covering the con, after which we called it an early night in preparation for Saturday.

Contest #2 – 15 Days of Deverry

November 7th, 2009

Open November 6 to 10.  Winner and runner-up will  be announced on November 11.

Anyone, anywhere in the world, can enter.  Note the dates!  Entries that are submitted outside these dates will not be reviewed.

Short essay (50 words or less)
Winner gets an autographed hardback DAW edition of a Deverry novel
Runner-up gets an autographed mass market paperback of a Deverry novel

1) Email your submission to deverry@deepgenre.com with the subject header Contest.   Only one entry per person – duplicate entries will be disqualified.

2) In the body of the email, put your full mailing address (snail mail).  Without that, we can’t consider your entry.

3) Write a short essay (50 words or less) in which you talk about your favorite Deverry timeline.  The essay should also be in the body of your email, not an attachment.

Your essay can be funny, serious, satirical, angry, or entirely straightforward. It’s all good. There is no hidden agenda.

4) The Deverry Contest Committee will review entries and select winners.  The winner  and runner-up will be notified by email, and can select the title they would like to have autographed.

Halloween!

October 30th, 2009

 

The Ghost of Fiction Past

May 21st, 2009

I have been keyboarding old stories of mine to put up on bookviewcafe.com (you all remember bookviewcafe.com, right? fiction, free or for a nominal charge, from some of the best writers around. And me, too). I have to keyboard the stories, all of them published elsewhere, because 1) some of them were published before I had a computer, and no electronic file ever existed, or 2) I lost the electronic file when my hard disk was unexpectedly replaced last year*.

It’s been interesting.  After I get a work in print form I generally read it once, then don’t read it again unless I have to do so for some reason.  And re-typing is not just re-reading: the act triggers all the editorial impulses that are generally in play when I’m working on a final edit of a story.  Do I change stuff?  Leave it alone because it’s now an Historical Document?  Six of one and eight of the other? Generally I don’t change what I’ve already written, except when I do.  But retyping has been necessary, and I’ve learned a number of useful things during that process.   Continue Reading »

Girls and Reading

January 9th, 2009


Some savvy writers were discussing the New Yorker article about teen reading.

The usual denigrating points were made about young adult literature not being literature to those who don’t actually read it, but that’s SOP.

More of interest to me was this quote:

MISHAN: Teen-age boys don’t read, apparently. As Caitlin Flanagan writes in [Atlantic Monthly], an adolescent girl “is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.”

Not long ago I was reading some seventeenth century letters and essays that dealt with this very subject. Alarm! Girls of that tender age, just before marriage, are devouring novels! Oh noes, it’s the end of the world! Girls are also writing reams of letters to their friends about same novels. Charlotte Lennox wrote her Female Quixote to make a statement about this very danger, but it ends up too preachy for most modern readers to enjoy. Jane Austen did a far better job in the first half of Northanger Abbey when she depicts two young women talking passionately about reading–and then comes that brilliant discussion of novels, why they are unjustly (and hypocritically) condemned, whereas fictional but pompous speeches put in the mouths of historical figures are considered respectable and worthy.

My exploration into the history of female writers has led me to two conclusions: that with the rise of literacy young women especially were reading, dreaming, scribbling long letters as they found like-minded companions, writing their own poetry and novels (and fan fiction), in an effort not just to satisfy those emotional and spiritual cravings, but to better their lives. Everyone wanted a better life, for whatever definition of better fit. The reading and writing of letters et al was a way of trying out the ideas, inventing scenarios, in a pleasurable way. Certainly more pleasurable than sitting with one’s hands folded and back straight, listening to long hectoring sermons about Female Duty.

It seems to me that despite all predictions of the death of literacy that young women now, with perhaps more liberties than ever before, are still reading. Are they reading for the same reasons their foremothers did?

The article goes on about teen boys’ reading. Some maintain they don’t read, with few exceptions–with one person saying, …Those men end up joining the bourgeoisie in two ways: law school and untouched home libraries full of leather-bound Shakespeare. which I think says more about the speaker than about teen boys who read angsty and angry poetry, or listen to same in musical form.

I think the article is dead wrong to assume that boys don’t read. Speaking as a junior high and high school teacher for 20 years, I found that, as in my youth, when my male peers devoured comics (which were dismissed as trash) a lot of boys’ reading passes under authoritarian radar. Many boys read non-fiction, complicated game manuals, all kinds of material lying outside the purview of those Summer Reading Lists chockfull of earnest books deemed Good For You.

There’s another possibility, and that’s that many boys aren’t seen reading—they don’t make it a social act as do so many girls. Do boys read for different reasons than girls?

I read the Atlantic Monthly article quoted above, but except for a couple of points, found it disappointing. The writer gave a vivid example of reading to learn the “how tos” of life, but I really think that point is a given for all young folk. Her “I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me” was certainly daunting.

My feeling is that, just as tastes vary not only from person to person but in a single person over time, so does the experience of reading. Is it possible that girls are more likely to make reading a social act rather than a solitary one? A social and creative act? Because what first drew me to reading about the history of the novel, specifically the early novels of the 1600s and the rise of the salons, was how women swiftly organized themselves as soon as they found one another and a shared venue for expression.

Here are some quick impressions from my own non-academic and entirely sporadic reading.

The Renaissance brought about a revival in learning, with an especial focus on classical literature. The Renaissance contributed not just new ideas, but a new paradigm–the idea that the world could be different. From monarch to middle class, the use of classical vocabulary gave you style points–meanwhile, the content of the classics led to extrapolations in various forms of writing about what the ideal world could be . . . which in turn led to ideas about what the ideal man could be. Of course this “man” was assumed to be literate, and Castiglione exhorted in his book of social climbing, The Courtier, “He must be of noble birth.”

But though the language of classical literature was male, guess who else was reading? With the spread of wealth came leisure time, and as women had been denied much involvement in seignorial concerns, they turned to books. Women read, talked, penned reams of letters.

In the 1600s Madame Scud?ry’s novels were not just romances, but long conversations and careful details about courtly behavior. A lot of those conversations were published separately in the latter part of the century as manners manuals. They were meant to depict an ideal of civilized life–but eager young women read them in hopes of emulating those up the ranks, to better their lives.

Meanwhile, Louis XIII’s court was so uncouth that a remarkable woman named Madame Rambouillet opened her house in 1618, and for three decades the haut French courtiers and literati came to her place, instead of the king’s court, to speak about refined love, and other polite subjects. She designed the ruelles, or alcoves, which were to become a standard of most salons; at first made so that the temperature of the room could be controlled, these intimate little partial rooms appealed so strongly that other hostesses raced to make their own.

The definition of public and private was changing. To be private, and intimate, among chosen people, was also to be exclusive. Madame du Deffand, a famous salonniere of the mid-18th Century, took eighteen months to design and furnish her place, to a very specific design. No detail was deemed too trivial; the buttercup yellow silk wallpaper in her entertainment rooms was copied by most wannabe salonnieres throughout Europe.

What did all this mean? The romance is tied up in the betterment of life–the happy ending if all live up to a standard. Unfortunately, the focus here was the betterment of an exclusive society, rather than the betterment of all. Or rather, the two things conflicted, which caused rifts among women publishing in the years before the Revolution. Not surprisingly aristos wanted to hold onto power and privilege, and women born lower down on the totem pole felt that civilization ought to benefit all.

During the patriarchal nineteenth century, there was one calling where women could hold their own with men: reading—and writing.

It’s interesting to me, watching the remarkable organization of fanzine fandom (specifically fan fiction) over the past thirty years, done mostly by women. What’s going on underneath fanfic? A whole lot of stuff. Women writers exploring sexual questions is usually the first thing brought up (or mudball slung); but there is so much more going on—including the notion of transformative story. Are our attitudes toward story, ownership, creativity, and the meaning of ‘author’ changing?