Eastercon: Geoff Ryman workshop on literary analysis

The text was “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” Leslie Nneka Arimah, which I did not have, but the talk was crystal clear anyway. Geoff took this as an example of African writing generally and ponted out the following aspects:

1. “Performing English,” ventriloquizing bits and pieces of English registers such as the language of English school stories of 40 years ago (actually now 60-70 years ago), or Arimah’s “Bad move, lady,” which “sounds like something Pat Cadigan would say.”

2. Africans aren’t invested in genre boundaries. No difference seen between sf and litfic until recently. Or even so much between writing and other arts. Someone who writes sf or other fiction may also be a visual artist, a musician, a psychologist, actively creating in many fields. (This sounds so refreshing, even utopian.) Similarly with science/religion: you have Adam and Eve, the Big Bang, the shrine in the corner and it’s all good. We see this in the story, math and magic mixed up.

3. Africans who write and publish are diasporic, with complex trajectories. Historically they get their validation in the West first. This is only just starting to change – example of Jennifer Nansubaga Makumbi.

4. Geoff repeated his critique of the typical New Yorker short story as being about small moments of insight and making the reader work to understand them. (This also means teachers have something to teach about them.) He manages to make this sound repellent and indeed, having lived through the Raymond Carver / Gordon Lish cult of the 1980s, I’m pretty sick of those stories and don’t think it would be much of a contribution to readers for me to add to them. Their main advantage, and it’s a big one, is that they are more easily writable than more original short stories.

5. What is radical about TNY printing this story by Arimah is almost not so much that it is SF but that it does what SF does in terms of telling rather than showing. There is not time to show everything in SF because you have so much worldbuilding to do, Geoff says. I don’t know if I subscribe to this entirely – Adam Roberts’ example of “the door dilated” seems like showing – but it does point to a difference between sf that seems “well written” in a traditional way, and klunky SF built up out of plodding explanations.

I suspect there is telling and telling, and showing and showing, and possibly showing as telling and telling as showing. Low battery prevents further speculation at present.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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