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In Other Words
John Crowley
Subterranean Press, 206 pages

In Other Words
John Crowley
John Crowley was born December 1, 1942 in Presque Isle, Maine. This American author of science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream fiction, studied at Indiana University. He is best known as the author of the fantasy book Little, Big (1981), which won the World Fantasy Award. His shorter Great Work of Time, which was originally included in the story collection Novelty, was later reprinted as a separate paperback after it won the 1990 World Fantasy Award. He has had a second career as a documentary film writer. In 1993, Crowley took up a post at Yale University where he began teaching courses in Utopian fiction, fiction writing, and screenplay writing.

John Crowley Tribute Site
SF Site Review: The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines
Bio/Bibliography: ISFDB, 1, 2, 3, 4
Filmography: 1
Commentary/reviews of Crowley's works: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Interviews: 1, 2
E-TEXTS: "The Happy Place"
Subterranean Press
Excerpt from The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

If John Crowley wrote the text on the label of a soup can, it would be worth reading. In Other Words is much more than a label on a can: it is a collection of essays and reviews, a glimpse of a master's workshop, a box of wonders and a museum of joys.

This is not to say that Crowley's non-fiction will displace his fiction in readers' affections. His fiction is singular; his non-fiction is thoughtful, erudite, and skilled, and it does what most other things of its type do -- it conveys information, ideas, and opinions -- but it lacks the hard-to-pin-down unique qualities brought to it by a genius of the form such as Guy Davenport. No matter. Being a genius of one sort of writing should be enough for anybody, and Crowley's genius with fiction is as close to incontrovertible as any such thing can be. When it comes to essays, I'm more than grateful for the thoughtful, erudite, and skillful.

There is much to discover with In Other Words, for though it is a relatively short book, it is a rich one. Anybody who has read his fiction knows that Crowley is interested in magic and history, so the essays about such topics here will not be surprising (though they are so full of ideas and information that they are never less than enlightening), but the book gives us the opportunity to learn about some of Crowley's other interests, too. For instance, the last section of the book is titled "Comix" and discusses the comic strips and graphic novels and not-easily-categorized work of such people as Walt Kelley, Edward Gorey, Ben Katchor, and George Herriman. His writing here is passionate and insightful, lively and unpretentious -- it is the writing of an intelligent connoisseur, a particularly aware fan.

Some of Crowley's most provocative ideas are about the nature of fandom. He is an eclectic writer who has been pidgeonholed as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and this relationship has been both edifying and unsettling for him. (More than once he compares SF conventions to AA meetings or revivals.) The first essay in the book ("Reading and Writing in the Former End of the World") is mostly about his novel The Translator, but it is also about growing up during the Cold War, ideas of armageddon, and his first books. Becoming a science fiction writer, he says,

seemed like a good career move at the time. Very many strange and wonderful books were being published as science fiction just then, and it was a great way to get a first novel published and read, if your mind or talent ran at all to the odd or offbeat. Metafiction, magic realism, philosophical romance, dream stories -- they were all being published then as SF. It's far less the case now.
In a fine series of pieces about Robert Louis Stevenson, Crowley considers the writer of popular fiction's relationship with his audience, quoting a letter from Stevenson:
What the public likes is a work (of any kind) a little loosely executed; so long as it is a little wordy, a little slack, a little dim and knotless, the dear reading public likes it; it should (if possible) be a little dull into the bargain. I know that good work sometimes hits; but, with my hand upon my heart, I think it is by accident...
Yet Stevenson, Crowley shows, was not so different in his desires from his audience, and Crowley uses the discussion not to create a simple condemnation of popularity or philistinism, but to wrestle with the contradictions and problems encountered by any writer who tries both to write well and to reach a large readership:
Stevenson was perceiving that if his works were popular with the consumers of adventure and romance novels, then perhaps his conception of the sort of book he thought he was writing was mistaken. There is no way for Stevenson to know for sure, but the enthusiasm of large numbers suggested that his work might in fact be -- might necessarily be -- more like the slack and knotless work he despised than he had hoped.
And yet the attraction of the form was not different for Stevenson than for his audience -- both sought a form of entertainment, but what that form offered, and how it entertained, may have been fundamentally different for the writer and his readership. "I believe," Crowley says, "that the kinds of stories Stevenson genuinely and wholeheartedly wanted to write were the kinds of stories that many readers were eager to read, but that he wanted to write them for reasons different from the reasons the public -- his fans -- wanted to have them."

Crowley brings this idea to his own readership in an essay about some of Thomas M. Disch's most recent novels (which attempt to use and subvert the conventions of particular genres):

Ambition in genre writing is often a perilous thing. The undiscriminating taste of genre readers -- actually a highly discriminating taste, but a taste which discriminates only its kind of book from all others, aesthetic quality aside -- and the invisibility of genre writing to all other readers, are only aspects of the problem. There is centrally the question of whether the forms and constraints of any of the modern genres -- horror, say, or sf, or "romance," or sword-and-sorcery, or the Western -- are worth struggling with, worth the effort of transforming. What readership will witness your labors, or be able to understand what you have done?
It is for the creation of such a readership that we need essays by ambitious writers about what they think they are up to, just as we need ambitious critics to say what they think the writer has done. Particularly within a genre community, where discrimination is so often of the sort that discourages the forms of ambition Crowley values, we need writers to talk about their writing and the writing of other people, to serve as critics and challengers and psychopomps through the spirit-world of artistic possibility.

Two of the most fascinating essays in the book give us a glimpse into some of the concerns that fuel Crowley's art. "A Modern Instance: Magic, Imagination, and Power" discusses the idea of magic throughout the ages, particularly in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the world of Giordano Bruno as seen by Crowley's friend Ioan Culianu. The essay is many things at once: a learned tour through some elements of occultism, a meditation on art and propaganda, a story of an intellectual friendship. It brings to light some of the inspirations and inclinations of Crowley's fiction, but more than that, and more importantly, it shows us how process of thinking, the books and philosophies that capture his attention, the stuff of dreams and history that his ambitions reconfigure in stories.

Similarly, "The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart" is not just a look at some old utopias -- though it is that -- but is a consideration of the entire idea of utopia and dystopia, an analysis not just of the writings of utopians, but of their desires, intentions, and inspirations, and from that it becomes even more: a study of fiction and the need to tell stories of certain types:

More than social criticism, more than proposals for change or philosophies of human happiness, the great utopian projects are enormous and highly original fictions, usually unconstrained by plots or "character development" or the twists and turns of the standard fiction of the age in which they are written. The great utopian projectors of the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries are engaged in something which writers of literary fiction have only dared to do in the modernist twentieth century: refashioning the world into fiction, replacing it with imagined worlds of their own, and peopling them with adams and eves who could exist nowhere else. I think the impulse to create utopias is not different from the impulse to create new worlds within fiction; both are aspects of a human need that is not often recognized, but which in my opinion is basic to our natures, like the need for order and for love: I mean the need for possibility. In the labyrinth of the world there is constant change -- meaningless flux, one damned thing after another; it's in the paradise of the heart that possibilities are realized.
It is this search for possibilities that inspires the ambitious writer, and it is the unquenchable thirst for possibilities that brings readers back again and again to just such writers.

Much of the rest of In Other Words is filled by short reviews written for newspapers, the sort of 800-word (or shorter) review that is little more than a consumer guide, with a lot of plot summary and a bit of summary judgment. Crowley makes the form work for him as well as he can, and it is fun to watch an accomplished writer reading around through various books, both fiction and non-fiction, most of which he appreciates to some extent or another (having noted that he seldom reads very far in books that don't interest him). Few of the short reviews fail to offer some insight even to a reader who is unlikely to seek out the book under discussion, and many of the reviews do, indeed, incite curiosity about their subject.

The ultimate effect, for me at least, of In Other Words was to make me yearn to send books to John Crowley so that I could find out what he thought of them -- I wanted to know his thoughts on so much more. This greed is the sign of a great book of criticism, a book that provokes the reader to wonder just how the critic would perceive this, that, or another thing; a book by a critic who is intelligent enough to be both insightful and unpredictable.

Copyright © 2007 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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