I have a friend who hates all the theorising going on in academia around black metal. She sees it as something like appropriation or colonisation and it “almost makes me puke” their “speak[ing] about us, not with us”. In reply to my friend, I said many of the writers are coming from within themselves, and think they have something useful to say, and is probably not so horrible.
The first in this collection edited by Scott Wilson is by Drew Daniel. I loved The Soft Pink Truth and the album, Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want … has been a long-time favourite. I hated the cover of Venom’s Black Metal on Why Do the Heathen Rage? It seemed to me to embody everything vacuous, appropriating, bullshit ‘ironic’ that has sprung up around black metal in the past couple of years. Even in ImPulsTanz there was a performance with ‘corpsepaint’. It’s like the safe blackface, which you can’t really even get away with in Germany anymore, but taking the piss out of too-serious metalheads by the cool kids is completely open season.
Seeing my own work has been soaking in metal of one kind or another since the beginning—almost a chronological progression: Yardbirds, Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Slayer, Sunn O))), Agoraphobic Nosebleed, then going off the temporal tracks: Throbbing Gristle, Mayhem, Gorgoroth … reading theory on the subject is probably one of the closest reading relationships I have with thinking on my work. It’s not quite an obligation to read it, but there is something like professional interest.
There’s also scepticism. I do like the idea of black metal theory, yet as a philosophical discipline or however you want to define it, I find it somewhat out of touch with where much of the rest of comparable fields are at. Metal is sadly far too full of white, hetero dudes, and the recent years of theorising on it has been likewise dominated by this one particular viewpoint. If I were to apply my normal criteria to buying an anthology, at least 30% and preferably 50% female authors, this book wouldn’t even get a look in, with only two of the fourteen essays, a bit over 14%. I’m aware I’m not even addressing the content of the book and essays, yet this imbalance directly shapes the thinking behind the content.
As my blogging about reading is more about why I decided to read a book rather than a review, it’s unlikely I’ll write anything on this book unless it turns out to be so good it makes it to my Best of list next year. Even then it would be with reservations: imbalance in representation in published works is part of pervasive structural imbalance across academia and culture generally, and I find it much easier to give my euros to people who recognise this and do something about it.
I’ve been reading Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond for the past few weeks. It’s slow, heavy going, an absolute joy. I often think the subject matter—medieval Christian blood cults—is incredibly metal, and the writing, thinking, debates at the time and after on theology are highly applicable to a black metal theory, more so than more recent, post-enlightenment european religion. I doubt Bynum is a headbanger, so soliciting an essay for the next collection is probably unlikely. Maybe that’s just to say there is a far broader world already existing than I currently find in black metal theory.
It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
I went a bit crazy with ordering books a few weeks ago, overly enthusiastic and all from some slightly flawed thinking that because skiffy/fantasy books are ‘cheap’, I could order several in addition to a couple of non-fiction books. I’ll just leave that logic wherever it sunk to. As for the fiction stuff, the upcoming binge is probably my last for a while as there are too many things (like a history of black metal) due to be published that I desperately covet and want to stack on my shelves.
As with the other couple of just-blogged books, I finished this one a couple of weeks ago, though they’ve remained on my ‘currently reading’ pile as a glowering reminded of their unblogged state. It’s a Saturday and a grey, damp, warmth-leeching 4º so with feet propped on heater I’m fulfilling my obligations to the printed word.
Serano and bell hooks would both be well-served being read together. What hooks elucidates in her ’70s and ’80s works on the structural racism and discrimination in Euro-American feminism, so does Serano on discrimination against trans women both in feminism, and queer and lesbian communities. As with hooks she is accused of being angry and divisive, or that her issues aren’t important to the central arguments of the groups. Perhaps this is why when hooks and Janet Mock met and talked recently it was obvious to both of them they were talking about the same thing.
Serano is angry. The first half of the book are essays written previously where she does not restrain her choice of words while describing systematic discrimination, bigotry, hatred as a bisexual trans women in supposedly progressive women’s communities. It’s definitely necessary, given that some of the most best-known names in feminism, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Grosz, Sheila Jeffries, Julie Bindel are all actively and extremely transphobic and transmisogynist, and Jeffries is soon to publish a ‘scholarly’ work equivalent to Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male.
Serano also describes and analyses the situation in the nominally queer lesbian feminist scene where acceptance and celebration of trans men is used to deflect from the animosity towards trans women, in a way reestablishing the separatism of radical feminists in the ’70s and ’80s, except this time it’s a deeply conflicted, essentialist and conservative “cocks are allowed provided you weren’t born with one”.
Against this, Serano who is also a biologist deals squarely to both the second-wave biological essentialism feminism and third-wave social constructionist feminism, which she defines in models of gender determinism and gender artifacturalism respectively, and proposes a feminism that would be self-regulating in regard to exclusionary or discriminatory tendencies as well as positioning itself within other socio-political struggles. What is tragic here is that thirty years ago bell hooks was writing much the same on ethnicity and feminism and instead of listening and acting, feminism went off on a crypto-nationalist bender for twenty years.
To reiterate, Julia Serano’s writing is some of the most important on feminism, trans issues, queer, bisexuality, intersectionality, generally an all-encompassing human rights thesis. As with bell hooks and Judith Butler (well aware of how ‘contentious’ she is thought of, go read Undoing Gender) (also well aware all three come from United States), without reading Serano any discussion of feminism and identity is fundamentally lacking and in all probability worthless.
My reading the last year has not been of either the volume, nor the breadth of the previous, in no small part due to months of poverty, wherein I was reduced to reading the labels of bottles for intellectual nourishment.
Later lack of time intruded from what should be my life’s purpose, to read read read. If I manage a book or so a week, then I can expect a paltry two to three thousand remaining. Which shall they be? And then the ones I read more than once. Iain Banks’ The Crow Road is up to its fourth reading, I think. Empire of the Sun is one I should have read long ago, but was leery because of the film.
Some books here I don’t regard so highly from a literary perspective, perhaps not so well written, or other reasons to normally dismiss them. The arrive here – notably Three Cups of Tea because of the affect they have on my life, perhaps in conjunction with conversations with others. Of course, no book is alone.
I do not feel though, that I have read a truly remarkable book in the last year. Hannah and Theodor aside, even Iain for that matter. I am attempting amends for the coming year.