I left academia this year, probably for good, but I look back fondly on all the mysteries. Cognitive science has unearthed a constellation of enigmas – systems in the mind that alter or completely defy our ideas about how we think. Introspection, it turns out, is a bit shit; self-awareness deeply myopic. There’s a lot more going inside our skulls than we realize.
One central idea that’s turned up again and again is the power of exposure. It turns out that much of our cognition is associative. When it comes to thinking, we are, to a surprising extent, what we see, what we hear, and what we read. Everything that comes into the brain adds to a semantic network that influences our thoughts and actions. People do act on what they consume, and, if I may overstep the bounds of firm science for a moment – writers do write what they read.
Everyone, not-writer or, in particular, writer, should read Catherynne Valente, just in order to have her inside their skulls.
Forget the biographical details – Valente’s widely known, and you can track down the specifics of her career anywhere from Wikipedia to her own website. She writes at an improbable rate, and yet she gives no sign, reading her work, that she would improve by slowing down. Writers working too fast for their own talents produce slack, cliched prose, unlikely to surprise, unable to hold meaning beyond the literal. But the most immediately striking trait of Valente’s work has to be her prose style, and it’s consummately un-lazy, so rich it almost feels caloric, each word considered and set in its place with the kind of care we usually attribute to poetry. (I’ll caveat, here, that as she’s written more and more she’s widened her style, and that by the time I post this she may well have delivered a laconic Kmart-realist novel about heroin-chic naiads.) The speed and dream-logic density of Valente’s prose are the first clues to what she does, and why it’s important.
Valente writes about sex, stories, death and change, often speaking through mythologies – either real myths (as in Deathless, which invokes Russian folklore), modern myths like detective noir, or invented worlds that play by mythic rules and make the logic of stories real. Read her for her sophisticated and illuminating gender politics, her allergy to prose-level cliche, and the pure beauty of her craft. Many people love Deathless as a place to start; I’m quite fond of Palimpsest or The Orphan’s Tales, though they’re more challenging entries.
I’m going to assume a hostile audience going forward, because I don’t need to sell Valente’s work to those already looking for poetic, subversive, socially aware literature. So, you, let’s talk about your objections. Why, you groan, do I need a writer obsessed with subverting and rearranging the formal elements of folklore, engaged in closed-cycle literary cannibalism, a Worm Oroboros eating its own (harrr) tales? Why should I, a Sophisticated Aesthetic Reader, be struck by such superficial prose, loaded with imagery that says exactly what it means, its claim to beauty spoken in a vocabulary of word and mythological allusion that dazzles but cannot conceal repetitive structures and an absence of restraint or ‘sophistication’? Why should I be interested in an author whose beautiful otherworlds lack the grim and grit I demand from my genre fiction?
I conjured that paragraph out of my own imagination rather than any particular review, but I hope it captures a high-brow critic’s attack on Valente’s work. (The low-brow critic’s attack is easier to imagine – Valente’s open sexuality, firm political opinions, and willingness to call SF/F on its gender bullshit make her a constant target for both the openly bigoted and, worse, self-avowed egalitarians who don’t understand why they’re doing harm, only that she’s somehow angered them.) I want to counterattack two of three claims here: that Valente’s prose is overripe or purple, that her interest in examining mythology and folklore is a sterile game, and that Valente’s fiction is somehow escapist, wish-fulfillment fantasy unwilling to reckon with cruelty or exigency.
I’ll leave the claim that examining folklore is aimless to others. Let’s deal with this purple prose talking point – and it is a talking point, a frustrating, reflexive touchstone, one of those phrases people like to run out without thought, kind of like strong female characters.
Here are my two counterpoints, right up front. First: purple prose is bad because it obfuscates meaning and sounds silly. It’s hard to read. Valente’s prose, like a lot of purple prose, is elaborate, dense, packed with simile and metaphor and plain raw imagery (an advantage to working in the fantastic is that you can invent and describe some very striking things, walking eyeball kicks and reified subtext.) But it’s always lucid, always immediately and intuitively obvious in what it means. It obeys dream logic, a sort of linguistic sympathetic magic – of course it’s that way, how could it be otherwise? And purple prose is often lazy, a snarl of language regurgitated without thought for scansion or meter. Valente, a poet before she became a prose writer, seems incapable of writing cliche, and she clearly puts thought into meter and sound. Purple? I refute thee.
Second, Valente’s approach to prose works in harmony with her project as a writer. Yes, it’s unabashedly sensory, full of senses, weirdly effective tactile or even gustatory cues. (I had to set down Palimpsest every few scenes because its language caused a peculiar sense of physical satiety.) No, this isn’t how ‘literary’ prose often operates – a mainstream literary touchstone like Jeffrey Eugenides (read Middlesex!) would never be mistaken for Valente’s Boschean imagery.
But Valente cares about specific things in her writing: the sensory, the immediate, the carnal, the whole corporeal, embodied experience of existence. In one of her fantastic worlds, the otherwhere of A Dirge for Prester John, she takes the para-human constructs of medieval speculation, panotii and blemmye and more, each a distortion of the human form, and renders them autonomous, defiant, a distortion of nothing, entities unto themselves, defined not by relation to the human norm but by their own experiences and desires. She renders these bodies, intended as grotesqueries, subjective and sympathetic. Why, they ask the reader, are we revolting? Can’t you feel how we live?
Another example: Palimpsest, full of dense, sensual prose, often painful, often exhausting. What other prose style would be a better fit for a book about a city literally written on skin? How can her prose be accused of superficial sensuality when the entire work is an exploration of human sexuality, how it can degrade and exalt? Palimpsest could not be written in ‘restrained’ prose; it would betray itself.
To call Valente’s writing overly ornate and superficial implicitly denies that surfaces can encode enormous amounts of information. I love subtle prose, but it often becomes mannered or remote. Valente’s textured beauties and savageries do exactly what she needs: force the reader into raw, unmediated confrontation with corporeal experience.
The second counterattack that awaits us is briefer. Valente’s work often travels through colorful otherwheres, fairytale spaces where young girls have adventures alongside lamias and the arcs of mythic narratives. As a culture, we don’t take many of these things seriously: not fairytales, not the creatures that occupy them, not young girls, not stories about stories. Much of the modern fantasy genre concerns itself with grayscale worlds of rape and politics, ‘gritty’ because they depict oppression, ‘realistic’ because they purchase credibility through brutal subversion of expectation – everything, they promise, will turn out worse than you want.
Can Valente’s work be taken seriously alongside such maturity? I’m baiting, obviously: I don’t think these greyscale worlds are realistic or gritty, any more than Saving Private Ryan‘s desaturated cinematography offered a real depiction of war. It felt real, felt true, but it did so by compressing the range available to it.
Valente can be enormously cruel – crueler, I’d argue, than the fantasy monoliths I’ve set across from her. Unending violence and failure becomes monotonous. We learn to engage from a distance, queasy spectators, narrative masochists assuring ourselves that we’re reading Real Important Literature because a lot of awful things happen and it’s juvenile to get what you want (never considering that perhaps we are getting what we want). Valente, by comparison, offers genuine beauty and happiness – here, again, her gift for the immediate and sensory allows us to feel these things unmediated – but also incredible horror and loss. Deathless‘ middle act and finale are a brutal journey through and out of the siege of Leningrad, an extinction of hope far more profound than any Normandy beach or faux-European court of betrayal.
I’ve implicitly defined cruelty as a central value of literary merit, here. I won’t apologize for that: I think good writing has to hurt. Valente can deliver hurt and consequence even in the stereotypically fluffy spaces of folktale, partly because folktales have never actually been safe and fluffy – the originals are often illogically horrific, psychotic artifacts – but also because she’s interested in painful territory: who gets hurt, and why, and how they try to survive. If you can write happiness, you can write deeper hurt, and if you can invoke pleasure, you can invoke more awful pain. I finished the first volume of A Dirge for Prester John uncomfortable with its mockery of the Christian monk John, not because of any particular love for Christianity on my part but because it felt easy, almost smug – John stumbles into an world calculated to destroy his every belief, to demonstrate how his attitudes towards God and sex have held him back from happiness. Valente deeply impressed me by spending the second volume bringing that better-than-ours world into confrontation with the real, using an agonizing series of catastrophes to elevate her critique from polemic into real conviction. Pain helped me grip that unreality in a way I hadn’t before.
It’s my hypothesis – based purely on her writing, plus a little gleaned knowledge about her process – that Valente’s an automatic writer. She loves structure, but doesn’t, as far as I know, outline much, and she can produce with incredible speed. I think she’s internalized what many writers have to do deliberately, the instincts of poetry and the aversion to cliche. She can write enormous, complex narratives without the prosthesis of outline because her own internal narrative compass steers true.
Returning, here at the end, to the behavioral sciences I left, I’m reminded of a line of research championed by Sian Beilock at Chicago, who studies human performance. The difference between a novice and an expert, she contends, is that a novice has to think about what they’re doing – whether a golf putt, or in this analogy, structuring a novel – and an expert has to avoid thinking about, because her instincts work best without interference. Maybe this is part of why Valente’s so successful at building an immediate sensorium – her thoughts travel to the page by a more direct path than most.
I want people to read Valente because I want her to be part of everyone’s associative network – not just her politics or her thoughts on gender, but her mythic and sensory preoccupations, preoccupations I don’t think could be pursued as ably in any field except the genre literature she writes. She’s still a very young writer (older, I feel obliged to say, than I – I don’t mean to be patronizing), hopefully early in her career, and I’ll be interested to see whether she sets aside her raw, tattooed-on-the-page style and experiments, or develops it further. Whatever her course, I hope you’ll pick up a book or two.