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Bloggasm Interview: Benjamin Rosenbaum

December 16, 2005 at 9:34 am | | Interviews | | --Simon

You can find Ben’s blog over here

Simon Owens: As someone who has published both genre and non-genre work, is there one you prefer over the other?

Ben Rosenbaum: In a strict sense, there isn’t any such thing as “non-genre work”. All art this side of schizophrenic scrawls and secret twin languages weaves itself in part out of ongoing conversations and conventions (just as much of it also rebels against those conversations). Art most often starts with a “yes, but…”

Genres are collections of those threads, vaguely organized according to historical conventions, as a navigational aid — whether for readers in a bookstore (genre as marketing category) or for creators trying to figure out how to tackle a problem of craft (genre as artistic tradition). Not only aren’t they boxes with hard borders, I’m actually not sure it actually means anything to talk about “mixing genres” or being “cross-genre” — the mixture is the primary artifact, after all; the genres are attempts to organize it usefully as a secondary process. It’s something of a fluke if any lump of art ever manages to be entirely composed out of the materials of one genre.

And of course there are genres at different levels of granularity: so “prose” is a genre, but so is “the novel”, and so is “the science fiction novel” and so is “the picaresque post-apocalyptic/nanotech skatepunk utopian science fiction novel”. (Or if it’s not yet a genre, it should be.)

So — the two main genre traditions I’m in are:

1) SF — that is, intellectually alive science fiction and fantasy and weird fiction from, I don’t know, Stanley G. Weinbaum and H. P. Lovecraft up through Sturgeon and Bester, thence Delany and Le Guin and Moorcock, and up to the cyberpunks, the singularitans, and the slipstream style monkeys; and

2) irrealist literary fiction, from Kafka and Ionesco through Calvino, Borges, Barthelme, Abe, Pirandello, and up to Aimee Bender, George Saunders, and so on.

These two traditions are in some sense twins separated at birth — they run from the same roots in the 19th century, and were sundered in the 1920s by cultural forces that split fiction into “high” and “pulp” literatures — a boundary I think is now loosening again.

Do I prefer one over the other?

As spaces to work in, no, I don’t. I like them each, and I like where they collide. Depends on my mood, and what the story’s for.

As a reader, I think the answer is pretty much the same, with mysteries and Anne Tyler and nineteenth century realists and nonfiction and mythic texts thrown into the mix; I’m an eclectic gourmand as a reader. The genre space I read in is a lot broader than the genre space I find I can effectively write in.

SO: Have you found that any of your non-genre readers have made the attempt to cross over and read some of your genre work?

BR: I don’t know if you can sort readers that way either. But I’ve definitely gotten letters from people who read “The Orange” in Harper’s and went and read all my other stuff on the net.

If I was writing novels, and having to deal with readers through the clunky marketing abstractions of the publishing industry, it might be harder. Short stories are ephemera — they get reprinted across genre lines, and once they’re Googleable (because I want my stories to end up in HTML sooner or later where everyone can see them) they’re pretty accessible to all readers, regardless of tribal affiliations.

SO: You’re someone who has engaged in meta-fiction on several occaisions. Do you think that meta-fiction makes it easier for you to converse with the reader?

BR: Sure.

…I guess you probably want more than that. :-)

I guess I feel like metafiction is one of those expensive, shiny tools that you keep in the bottom fold-out drawer of your Black&Decker tool caddy and look at admiringly and mournfully now and then, until *just the right* problem comes along, and then you’re soooo happy that you can finally pull that overpriced, glorious sucker out and use it for the job it was intended for.

It can be brittle; it can be precious; and when disconnected from the meat of the story, it can be dead boring. Even the slightest sly-nod-to-the-reader has a tendency to deflate, distance, and defuse, so you save it for those moments when the story’s motor is otherwise likely to overheat.

So there’s something very exciting about finding a story in which a direct dialogue with the reader, or an extended reflection about story-in-story, or any of those extravagances of literature commenting on itself, actually makes sense, matters, and can bear any emotional weight.

SO: What are the five blogs everyone should be reading (besides your own)?

BR: Well, in the first place, they shouldn’t be reading mine unless they’re very patient, since I am a poor blogger, frequency-wise.

And in the second place, I don’t think I even *read* five blogs regularly, and those I read irregularly are probably a pretty idiosyncratic set.

Like everyone, I am somewhat addicted to http://www.boingboing.net. All the good fights and roll-up-your-sleeves, let’s hash-this out dialogues in my corner of speculative fiction tend to happen at Dave Moles’ http://www.chrononaut.org/log/ . Chris Barzak’s blog http://zakbar.blospot.com has been fascinating since he’s been teaching in Japan and relating the many layers of his culture shock. I intermittently find http://www.corante.com/many/ — a blog on social software — intriguing, though I mostly prefer the longer essays of one of its contributors, Clay Shirky ( http://www.shirky.com).

I honestly don’t think I can pick a fifth. Jed Hartman’s sober assessments of and thoughtful inquiries into issues moral, political, scientifictional, cultural, and orthographic? Gwenda Bond’s electic, sparkling, elan-filled, witty, sly reportage on books, politics, books, alcohol, books, bicycling, and books? Nick Mamatas’s caustic can’t-look-away cocktail of political radicalism, vitriol, Lovecraftiana, and pro wrestling? Hal Duncan’s glorious swathes of word-drunk, swaggering, intellectually toothsome rant-as-artform? Susan Groppi’s late lamented blog, with its clarity of voice and its passionate engagment tempered with irony?

I dunno.

(Actually, the web quasi-literary form I’m really addicted to is not the blog, nor the webzine, nor even the faux-news-site (long live the Onion!) but webcomix — they seem, and I know it’s sort of sacrilege for me to say this, to make best use of the medium. Currently addicted to http://www.megatokyo.com and http://www.sinfest.net, and in recovery from http://www.somethingpositive.net …)

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