A couple of weeks ago, Strange Horizons published my review of Theodora Goss's debut collection, In the Forest of Forgetting. Niall Harrison, SH's reviews editor, is also the editor of the BSFA newsletter, Vector (as well as blogging on Vector's editorial blog, Torque Control, and at the group-blog Big Blog of Cheese, and, for all I know, fighting crime) and had written his own review of the collection. Niall's review won't be published until January, but he let me take a sneak peak and we ended up discussing the collection and our very different reactions to it. The following is an edited form of our discussion (you should probably read my review first or this won't make much sense).
Abigail Nussbaum: I am, as usual, tickled by our differing responses to the same work, but especially in this case because so many of my favorite stories in the collection have ended up on your least favorite list, and vice versa. For example, you found the collection's opening story, "The Rose in Twelve Petals," brilliant, and wrote that "time passes before our eyes--not just fairytale time, but real time." I, on the other hand, called the story "clever and well-written but by no means ground-breaking," and also found it a little predictable--it's a format and an approach that I've seen done before (Neil Gaiman comes most prominently to mind, but there have been others), and coming first as it does, it rather put me off the collection.
Niall Harrison: You're right, but I find Gaiman's short fiction very hit-and-miss--it often feels too in thrall to its references. Something like "A Study in Emerald", for instance, I just found achingly obvious, and I think the only story of his I could say I really love is Coraline. With Goss, something about the angles she uses keeps the material fresh for me. I do think a lot of it is to do with the way the passage of time is handled--the perspective of the story zooms out, and then zooms back in again--but also it just seems more, well, graceful.
AN: I think our different responses boil down to our different reading histories. I've read so many stories that juxtapose fairy tale elements with our coldly industrial present (just recently there's been Sheri S. Tepper's Beauty) that the ending of "The Rose in Twelve Petals" struck me as, in your words, achingly obvious. Which comes back to what I wrote in my review--you have to work hard, these days, to stand out with a retold fairy tale. But I do agree that Goss's writing is graceful. I actually enjoyed "The Rose in Twelve Petals" a great deal more than I'm making out here right up until the final segment--the little details like the king choosing the vitality of his wool industry over his daughter's safety or the stray dog living out his life in the enchanted castle were quite lovely. As you say, they kept the material fresh.
NH: So what was it about the final segment that tipped the story over the line?
AN: I think maybe just the obviousness of it--it's so clear that Goss wants to do something different and unexpected (she clearly can't resort to the standard happy ending) and, after all, what could be more antithetical to the fairy tale mode than a literal-minded, uncouth, socialist tractor-driver? The story's ending felt crass--the opposite of the gracefulness that had preceded it.
In your review, you describe Goss's writing as neat and mannered, sometimes too much so. I agree with your description--I was troubled by these aspects of Goss's prose as well--but somewhere around the midway point I found myself feeling genuinely troubled and affected by her stories. For all their neatness, they were leaving a residue--usually a discomforting one. For example, another story we disagree about is "Letters From Budapest." It's my favorite piece in the collection, but you found it "marked by an awkward shift in register, of the kind that snaps us out of the moment, and leaves us looking at some props, and the wires that sustain them." I think the sudden tone shift at the end of the story is intentional and meant to cause discomfort, although it's possible that I'm reading too much into the story when I suggest that Goss intends to examine the issue of decadent art.
NH: No, I don't think you are. Goss strikes me as quite a conscious writer, in that I think she's very aware of what she's doing in her stories and how she's putting them together -- which is perhaps one reason why, above and beyond the idioms and settings she chooses to work with, her stories have the mannered feel they do. But in a story like "Letters from Budapest" it seems to me that that awareness works against her; she doesn't give up that sense of control enough for me to be disturbed or horrified. The writer I was thinking of here was actually Maureen McHugh, whose stories are often incredibly precise when you look at them closely, but who can layer emotion so effectively you end up looking the other way. Or someone like Joe Hill, who can almost convince you that he's lost control of his story entirely, that things are happening that were never meant to happen ("The Cape", in particular, had this effect on me) when in fact the opposite is true.
AN: I see what you mean about Goss holding on too tightly to her story for us to be horrified. When I read the story, however, I reacted to the sudden shift in ideology. Obviously we expect the main character to run into trouble in the big city, but the discovery that the decadent art really is decadent--that it will literally corrupt promising young people and suck the life out of them--was disturbing to me on the level of trying to work out Goss's agenda and political affiliations. Horrific creatures--vampires and lamias in particular - are often used as metaphors for mundane dangers. It was Goss's choice of metaphor in this story that left me feeling both intrigued and rattled. So, in a way, we might say that it's precisely because she keeps such close control of the story that it becomes effectively horrifying.
Were you also made uncomfortable by the way that the collection's introduction delved so deeply into Goss's personal history? I couldn't help but feel that I was being asked to appreciate the stories as expressions of Goss's personal issues first and as works of fiction second. Obviously, all fiction is ultimately rooted in the author's history, but the facts of that history aren't usually laid out so nakedly before the reader (coming even before the fiction itself). I got a very definite impression that I was being asked to appreciate Goss's stories on a whole new, superior, level because they were the result of such a difficult, traumatic journey, which I rather resent.
NH: I actually held the introduction over until after I'd read the stories, because I'm like that, but I agree with you that, having read it, it's impossible not to see her biography as informing her fiction. I was very aware, writing my review, that my take on the collection was quite an 'obvious' one--very in line with the story of Goss as a writer that's laid out in that introduction, in terms of being concerned with boundaries and movement and development of self and so forth. Which doesn't mean all those things aren't in there, but it makes it harder to look for other ways in to the stories--and I think the stories are probably good enough that there are other ways in, so the introduction almost does the collection a disservice.
AN: I actually ended up making a deliberate choice not to delve too deeply into the issues raised in the introduction when I wrote my review, mostly because I resented the fact that I had been so carefully led to examine them. As you say, the issues of boundary and movement are clearly crucial to the collection (and my reading, which prioritizes escape, is in many ways merely a half-twist on the more 'conventional' reading), but it would have been nice if we had been trusted to arrive at that understanding ourselves. I suppose this brings us back to the issue of control--not only are the stories in the collection tightly controlled, but an effort has been made to control the way in which those stories are read.
NH: Very true--and quite ironic, really, when you think about what the Interstitial Arts Foundation stands for.