Letters to the SF Site
Recently we received an email from Gwyneth Jones regarding David Soyka's review of her novel Bold as Love.
In it, she challenged us to post it. We said we'd be happy to do so but only with a response from David Soyka. An exchange ensued and here
they are unedited except that the formats have been tidied up.
Recently we received an email from Gwyneth Jones regarding David Soyka's review of her novel Bold as Love. In it, she challenged us to post it. We said we'd be happy to do so but only with a response from David Soyka. An exchange ensued and here they are unedited except that the formats have been tidied up.
From: Gwyneth Jones
I am outraged, not by anything that's said about my book, but by the idiocy of David Soyka's political overview. I just can't believe this, David. You, a citizen of the country which had George Bush Jr. for non-elected executive Head of State and Chief of Staff, are telling me that the idea of having rockstars involved in running a country is laughable? God give me strength. Where's Osama bin Laden, oh you military geniuses? Is it really possible you believe Madonna Ciccione lacks political savvy, or hard-headed acumen, and wouldn't make a better fist of running your great nation than the fellows all wound up, at present, in the Enron disaster? I can't believe it, I just can't believe it. How can anyone sustain such absurdly trusting faith in the morons? Politicians are stupid. Many, many competent people, including some rockstars (some rockstars are very smart), could do a better job, except that they prefer the opportunities in the private sector, and they are not deluded enough, or venal enough, to run for office.
But what is the accusation? The plot of Bold As Love is unlikely? Oh, right. Unlikely, as in the premise of a gold ring that has cataclysmic powers and requires to be thrown into a volcano by a little fellow with furry feet? The book is a fantasy. That's why it has "FANTASY" written on it, and NOT "SCIENCE FICTION". I was tired of reading fantasy blockbusters in which nation states were overrun, whole continents were laid waste by famine, rapine and massacre, horrendous responsibilities thrust onto the shoulders of totally unprepared 'princes and princesses', and everyone thinks this kind of reading is cosy escapism. Bold As Love isn't cosy escapism. It's what happens in fantasy, set in a recognisable world and given the same realist treatment as I've given to traditional sf themes such as "the aliens among us". I thought it was about time someone tried that.
It's tough to write sensational futuristic fiction these days, when anyone who checks the evening news will find themselves plunged into a bizarre 'near future thriller', with all the plot devices that the sf genre has invented since Neuromancer jumping off the screen. And this is supposed to be really happening? For the writers of those thrillers, it must be as if the aliens had landed. (Damn! What am I going to do for a living now? ). With the Bold As Love scenario I think I'm safe. But even then, I'm not absolutely sure.
I bet you don't publish this. You'd be too embarrassed, and so you should be. I'm posting it on the Bold As Love website anyway. Yours, truly in amazement.
From: David Soyka
It is beyond my comprehension that a noted author and perceptive critic such as Gwyneth Jones could so entirely misread my review. It makes me think that her publisher either sent her an incomplete transcript, or maybe sent her someone else's, or maybe she was just having a bad day, because her remarks are for the most part off-the-point, if not outright bizarre.
First off, my review has absolutely nothing to with:
What I did say was the premise of rock musicians who variously take part in a bloody coup, assume generalship of military operations, and become head of state, all the while penning songs, touring and taking heavy drugs, was a "hippie fantasy" that I couldn't completely buy into.
Or, to put it another way, whatever you may think of the U.S. military efforts and the failure so far to capture bin Laden, does anybody seriously think they would be more successful if we sent in, say, Belle and Sebastian?
Nor do I anywhere say that rock musicians are stupid. I did say that pop music is unfortunately littered with songs that attempt to address political issues with intellectually simplistic, lyrically vapid and basically uninteresting tunes (e.g., "We Are the World"). There are exceptions, of course (Bruce Cockburn immediately comes to mind), and I do cite in my review those musicians who were admirably active in the civil rights struggles and anti-Vietnam war movement. But that isn't quite the same thing as actually being an inspiring politician or a military leader, or even just a competent soldier, roles which Jones's characters assume with ease.
So when Jones states she feels safe in finding a premise that won't soon become outdated by actual events indicates to me that she recognizes this as well.
But this really isn't the point, as Jones points out when she finally stops playing her intellectual shell game and says something that actually addresses the issue. Of course, I fully recognize that this is a made-up story and that there's a difference between, as she puts it, SCIENCE FICTION and FANTASY. Here's what I wrote:
...the premise that such a group of rock stars would actually possess the political acumen coupled with military savvy and power base to pull off what Jones depicts here is laughable. Yet this is not a work of satire. It is a fantasy with particularly dark undercurrents -- so dark, in fact, that publication of the first chapter in the July Interzone resulted in a police obscenity investigation -- that Jones pulls off quite well largely because of the vivid characterization of the three protagonists. Though I found it hard to buy into the premise, I kept turning the pages.Note that I don't feel the need to put "fantasy" in capital letters -- as if doing that in and of itself necessarily explains anything -- as I assume that, in general, most SF Site readers are intelligent enough to understand what the term signifies.
As a critic herself, Jones knows full-well that just because a story is made-up, you just can't do whatever it is you want and expect the reader to go along. There has to be what is generally called "suspension of disbelief." No matter how "unreal" or fantastic the situation, a certain logic must be adhered to in terms of character motivation, narrative structure, and basic premises within the context of the imagined world as the author has defined it. In her own criticism, Jones has sometimes commented upon whether a situation or a character's actions are entirely believable.
Jones's "rock star as political leader" does not take place in some broad Tom Robbins-type farce, but in a near-future that, despite the hints of magic and a deteriorating infrastructure that do not exist in the "real world," touch upon some very realistic subjects, among them pedophilia. Consequently, because her fantasy world is not all that far-removed from our "real" world, I had a hard time buying into the somewhat vague underlying mechanics of exactly how rock stars come to such political prominence.
I also point out that it's difficult to fully appreciate what Jones is trying to accomplish here because Bold as Love is the initial volume in a series that isn't a self-contained "stand-alone" tale. Narrative strands are left hanging. Which is a great way to create interest in buying the next book, though it perhaps short-changes the reader. Jones's backhanded remark about the believability of Tolkien doesn't prevent her from adopting his marketing strategies. While I'm gratified to learn that excerpts are being published on her website, of course the whole thing by me was meant as tongue in cheek. Which is to say, just to be clearly understood, TONGUE IN CHEEK.
Finally, I have to express my distress that an author whose work I have tremendous respect for and of this particular book that I actually found much to like about, as I think an objective reading of the review would indicate (and, for what difference it makes, appears on my Best of 2001 list submitted for the reviewers annual poll here at SF Site), should get so bent out of shape. I think that the one thing in her complaint that we would both agree with is that someone should indeed be embarrassed about all this. However, I imagine we disagree which one of us that is.
From: Gwyneth Jones
I am sure that the task of reviewing Bold As Love could have been undertaken with absolutely no reference to George Bush; the reviewer's citizenship or its politic state (I'm not sure what that latter expression means, but never mind); the intelligence, or lack thereof, of politicians; the military conduct of the Afghanistan bombing and the Osama bin Laden manhunt. That's why I was, genuinely, startled to find that David had taken the approach he did, and to see the review prefaced by an essay on the reviewer's slightly limited (on this showing, please note) real world political opinions; and his equally limited personal appreciation of the historical links between rock music and various radical political issues in his own country's recent history. 'Recent' to me, that is. I appreciate that, to a later generation, these affairs are already matters of hazy legend. For anyone who would like to have that tangled and paradoxical coil unravelled for them a little, I really strongly recommend a book: Sweet Chaos, The Grateful Dead's American Adventure by Carol Brightman. It's an education on the intersection between folk-art and revolution: how independent and yet closely bound they are; how justifiably suspicious of each other's motives... For now, let me merely say I don't think being 'admirably active' can be taken at face value. Any pop-culture icon, including any vote-hungry politician, can be 'admirably active' for the cameras.
When discussing the connections between rock and roll and politics we should distinguish carefully between the inanities of corporate pop-songs, where the words which move the well-paid and docile artist with genuine emotion (I have no doubt) have no moral force behind them whatsoever -- and the strange, profound and arresting insights of a poet, whose art speaks to us of 'politics', as he might of 'love' or 'death' simply because he speaks of everything that is in his mind and ours. Note that Kurt Cobain or Bob Dylan's moral worth or personal opinions aren't the issue. That corporate slave might be much easier to live with, or a much nicer human being... Bizarrely, Bob Dylan didn't get a mention in David's historical overview, but to me the status of such artists, as artists, is the important point. I take rock music seriously. Much of it is rubbish, but so is much of what is bought and sold as high art at any time. Some of it is intellectual, profound, inspired as any other music in history; yet in its own distinctive, often rebarbative, and uncompromising forms. I believe this music will live. I respect it. (The other art form of ours that I believe will live is TV advertising: I think there'll come a time when young people will be taught to worship the use of colour and light and movement in those creations, long after the products celebrated have vanished; cf Phoenix Cafe.) That's why I chose to write about rock music, when I decided to write a full-length fairytale (a fated tale, a myth) about my own times.
David now explains that when he said the idea of rockstars in the role of politicians was laughable, what he meant was that he couldn't see Belle and Sebastian cluster-bombing Afghanistan... Well, maybe not. On the other hand, there are many political leaders who have contrived to run very major military operations while maintaining a demanding private lifestyle, obeying or struggling to avoid the puppeteer-orders of their Secret Ruler-management; and subsisting on a diet of sleep-deprivation, heavy touring and hard drugs. Winston Churchill immediately comes to mind.
It is not strange or rare for political leaders to live the rockstar life. It happens all the time. However, Bold As Love is not about rockstars making a career move into politics, however well-prepared they might be for the conditions. At a time when a fearsome folk-movement has emerged from economic freefall -- and from the vacuum left by vacuous, PR-led party politics -- certain radical artists whose work connects them, tangentially, with that folk-movement, get excited, get too close to the fire... and they get burned.
I took my inspiration for the events leading up to Pigsty's coup not so much from the Sixties as from other real historical events (some parallels should be obvious); but notably from the career of Victor Hugo, Lamartine, and others, in 19th century France. A best-selling popular artist on the barricades? In charge of a firing squad? Devising a scheme of government with serious intent? How unlikely is that?
After all these years, I really resent someone telling me that I didn't do my research. I did my research.
I also resent someone calling me on my 'cynical publishing strategy'. I don't have a publishing strategy. If I was making them rich, maybe my publishers would have one for me. As it is, I wrote Castles Made Of Sand after I had finished writing Bold As Love and that's why Castles is coming out a year later. But I didn't take that last section of the review very personally. It was clearly directed at some hobby horse that didn't have much to do with the book in question.
The rockstars in Bold As Love do not become politicians, nor do they take over the government. They become something else, and take over something else. They become important to the people, in a way that is both very much of our times and very old indeed. (Two of them also become competent army officers. I don't see what's implausible there. People do become soldiers, and find strange competencies, when they have to. I'm afraid I'd probably make a competent army officer myself, only happily we will never know because I'm too old to be drafted.)
Next comes the whole issue of writing genre fantasy plots in a dark, realist, science-fictional manner. Why do it, and why do it now? Why drop the fashion-statement violence of the futuristic noir, and turn to the rapine and massacre which is secretly the material of all that fat-book cosy escapism? But this post is already long enough. Another time.
David, I'd be very happy to continue this discussion. And nobody, truly nobody needs to be embarrassed. I only included that last line about 'SF site will be too embarrassed to publish this' because it's traditional in the circs -- as time-honoured, amusing and touching as 'yours affectionately' and 'dear editor'. It's the rules. You wouldn't want me to break the rules, would you?
From: David Soyka
Gwyneth Jones raises a number of interesting issues here, much of which is largely tangential to what I was half-facetiously saying in the original review. Since I agree this discussion could indeed "run and run," suffice it to say that I'd like to let those who are bothering to follow this read my original review of Bold as Love and let them decide what relevance her running commentary has.
That said, a couple of points cry out for response.
Peace and love,
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