Sometimes when people talk about an author’s work being ‘raw’, it’s as if they think words just appear on the page and there’s no mediation whatsoever. That these words, ideas, thoughts had been flying across the savannah just minutes before the author brought them down with a flying leap to serve them up still warm for the reader. I’m not silly enough to think that – and even if I were, Catherynne Valente’s excoriating essay against people who think authors are just the conduit for some muse (“she wrote it but…”) would have made me rethink my position.
When I say that much of Valente’s work, as presented in Indistinguishable from Magic (provided to Galactic Suburbia for review by Mad Norwegian Press) is raw I mean that she has not hidden her emotions, she has not hidden herself, from the world while writing these essays.
(One presumes. It could all be a very elaborate persona, with a very detailed background and crafted voice. Y’know, I wouldn’t put that past her – she certainly has the mad writerly skillz to accomplish such a feat. And if that’s the case, well, more power to her.)
The essays collected here are variously from Valente’s blog, speeches, and a few other sources. They’re arranged into categories: pop culture and genre; writing and publishing; gender, race, and storytelling; fairy tales, myth and the future; and “Life on Earth: An Amateur’s Guide.” And they showcase the brilliant variety of Valente’s
interests passions: Persephone and Doctor Who (… possibly not so much of an antithesis there…), fairy tales, equality in all manner of things, Jane Eyre (see, Tansy? she’s on MY side), poetry, and Single Male Programmer Types managing to have sex (trust me, it’s very a very funny essay).
The pop culture musings range between 2003 and 2011. Valente’s writing is beguiling enough I actually read the entirety of the first essay, which is about Buffy and Angel, despite having watched maybe three episodes of the two shows combined. Her comments on what the show meant to 20-somethings nonetheless resonated – and that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the collection. I’m also not a big Trek fan, and have watched very little DS9, but her musings on what the station would have been like with social media? Priceless.
More seriously – no, it’s all serious; more academically, her essay on why World War 2 and the Nazis keeps on popping up in comics and other fantastic culture is deeply insightful.
I read about half of the essays on writing and publishing; not being in the game myself means that I don’t really have the emotional attachment to the issues necessary to connect with much of what she writes here. That said, the first essay – the one about writing actually being hard work – is a glorious piece of writing; her explanation of her love of the term metal makes me itch to use the word more; and her utter dismantling of the argument that ‘traditional publishing is dead = a good thing’ is brilliant.
Valente is wonderfully, evocatively, angry and sincere and honest and passionate and conciliatory and clinical in her essays about gender and race and why those things matter in storytelling. “The Story of Us” skewers very neatly the whole ‘but why does it matter?’ complaint – and matches nicely with Pam Noles’ “Shame,” which I read in a Tiptree Anthology. She gets dangerously personal in “Confessions of a Fat Girl” – dangerous to herself, I would guess, because of potential backlash (I really, really hope she didn’t get any); dangerous to some readers because of how it might make some squirm at their reaction; dangerous to other readers because it might just call out their own troubles, and make them confront them.
All the essays up to this point have been easy to read – delightful to read. Some have shown Valente’s academic training. With the essays on fairy tales and folklore, though, she gets her academia on. Katabasis in Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and The Nutcracker? Why fantasy keeps going back to the medieval (“Dragon Bad, Sword Pretty”)? The purpose of Persephone, and her multiple faces? Oh yes.
Finally, the last set are more whimsical as a group – they don’t really have a collective theme, aside from ‘some thoughts on living in the world’. Her reflections on why people love apocalyptic literature are fascinating; her frustration at being of a generation told to live as well as their parents without the means to it revealing; and her reflections on Cleveland surprisingly moving. Her essay on her love of the anchorite idea just sings, as does her discussion of “Two Kinds of Love.”
I read this not quite in a sitting, but with nothing else around it. It certainly works like that. It would also work beautifully as a collection to dip in and out of – none of the pieces are very long, after all. There is so much going for Valente’s writing – for those who are writers, for those interested in fantasy and folklore, for those interested in the world in general. And even if you’ve been a faithful reader of Valente’s blog, Rules for Anchorites, I would suggest this is still a great collection because reading these essays in this order, with essays from elsewhere to add depth and piquancy – it just works.