Saintly Traces: A Word in Your Ear

You can now listen to a five-minute excerpt of the audiobook for The Saint of Bright Doors (you can also preorder the audiobook!)

This is Sid Sagar at the recording; he also recently did the audiobook for Rushdie’s Victory City.

I’ve been reading some early reviews and commentary on Saint, both positive and negative. Publishers’ Weekly found the book rather too slow and thinky-thinky for their taste, so I was ready to perform the traditional defensive manoeuvre where you excerpt a negative review to make it sound good. You know, if someone were to write “this book is abyssal, just overwhelmingly asinine and shitty,” you chip away at this rude block of stone to reveal the perfect statue within, i.e., “… by … J … ove [,] … a … hit,” and put that on the “Praise” page. In this case, though, I didn’t have to, because they did close the review with this fantastic line that I cannot in fact object to:

A meandering meditation on mind-body duality, fanaticism, and eschatology that will appeal only to fans of the most cerebral fantasies.

Publishers’ Weekly, in decidedly not a starred review

I mean … yes, that is exactly what I set out to do in life, and I’m glad it’s working. Calling all fans of the most cerebral fantasies: hey. I got you something.

Some other and much more upbeat recent comments: Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ was interviewed at The Republic about her award-winning debut novel Dazzling (now preorderable in the US for December, already out in the UK!) and had some very kind words about Saint:

I’ve recently finished a proof copy of The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera, a writer from Sri Lanka. I have never read anything like that before! It tells the story of Fetter, a shadowless, floating (literally!) young boy who has been raised by his mother to slay his father, the all-powerful, time-bending head of a religion. Except Fetter grows up and abandons his mother and destiny on the village in which he was raised and tries to hide out in a big city, where it turns out that people with destinies are a dime a dozen. It is beautiful, violent, intelligent and surreal! 

Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ

I also came across this very positive review from Paige Smith, which I found delightful:

If you read One Hundred Years of Solitude and found it easy to keep track of the timeline, you will have absolutely no trouble keeping track of the intricacies of The Saint of Bright Doors […] If you enjoy an epic, world building, myths, and strangeness, this is the book for you. If you can read critically and analyze what you’re consuming, dive the heck in! You don’t want to miss this one.

Paige Smith

Bookstores visited recently: The Strand, Codex Books, East Village Books, the Book Cellar (again). There was also a book-themed bar (presumably the books were decor, not for sale, but still) where I did not attempt to browse the shelves purely because this would have necessitated climbing over other punters’ heads, but there was a small HP Lovecraft mural (bust with tentacles) next to one, so one likes to imagine it was a genre fiction shelf.

Goodreads-watching: getting added to the Big Books of Summer list has definitely exposed the book to a lot more people. We are currently at over 10,500 people who’ve marked it as “want to read” on Goodreads—you can too! And of course, you can (and totally should) preorder the book. That page links to a bunch of different sellers for the hardcover, ebook, and audiobook, and in general at this point, you should be able to preorder it anywhere books are sold. Quite a few people have asked, so I’m trying to figure out exactly how distribution/preordering works with bookstores in Sri Lanka, and will update once I know.

Speaking of having new work out in July, it looks like I will also have a short story out that month, which will be my first original story of 2023: “Theses on the Scientific Management of Goetic Labour” in Uncanny. I just sent in my photo and bio the other day, and that officially marks the point where my bio shifts from talking about a book that is Forthcoming to a book that is, incredibly, Out Now.

Saintly Traces: Big Summer Vibes

Very pleased to have The Saint of Bright Doors be one of seven fantasy novels listed in the Goodreads Big Books of Summer roundup as a highly anticipated title, as well as one of a larger selection of genre novels in their companion list, The Big Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror Books of Summer. As I understand it, this is based on how many people have added books to their “Want to read” shelf on Goodreads, so it’s a measure of buzz. Did not really expect to have buzz, so this is a very pleasant surprise. You can add Saint to your shelf here, if that is a sort of thing you do on Goodreads and you wish to be part of the buzz. The hive is all; I have eaten of the tainted jelly and become monstrous. As of this evening, about 9,700 people have added Saint to their to-read lists, which I think is pretty good for a debut that’s still nearly two months from launch. I mean, it’s my first time at the rodeo, I don’t know if that’s good or more like typical for a book that gets the Tor upper-midlist promo package, but either way, it’s fantastic as far as I’m concerned because a decade of writing short fiction has made me hungry for readers.

A small robot urges you to read my book.
A small robot has an urgent message for you. You can preorder the book in hardcover, ebook, or audiobook!

Other books in the buzzy lists include many, many books that I am also anticipating with pleasure, including (but by no means comprehensively) Witch King by Martha Wells, Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig, Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs, The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson, The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw; The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang, The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao, and The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko Candon, along with new work by Colson Whitehead, Paul Tremblay, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Catriona Ward. And many more books new or new-ish to me, which is the whole point of these lists as far as I’m concerned, finding things people are excited about that you hadn’t already heard of. I’m very used to browsing these things to find new books to read, but it’s so strange to be wandering the aisles and meet yourself on the shelf. Perhaps at some point authors get used to that, but for me it’s still very much a delightful novelty, and I think I would like it to remain so.

Saintly Traces: Recs & Readings, with a pinch of Salt, and other Beastlings

I did a little list of book recommendations over at recently:

My favourite kind of book is bigger on the inside, the kind that drops you into a world too big and too weird to really get a handle on, a world that’s strange in ways you feel you recognize, like how sometimes you wake up from a dream and think, I’ve dreamed about that place and those people before, but you can’t tell if you have, or whether you dreamed the memory, too. You read the book and look at the world and you ask yourself: Did I dream those people, that place? Or is this the dream?

The best books that will make you feel lost and obsessed by a haunted world

The recommendations are probably not surprising if you’ve been reading me for a while, but I’ve tried to briefly explain why those books matter to me, so the above-linked post also works as a mini-review-roundup. In the list title, the “best books” part is obviously hyperbole; it’s just the format of all their list titles. But I like the back half of that title, which I came up with in trying to describe something important that all those books do, and which I feel is characteristic of my work as well, the short fiction and all the novels to come.

Speaking of novels—what a subtle segue—if you haven’t yet, you can preorder The Saint of Bright Doors in ebook, hardcover, or audiobook! It comes out July 11, and if you were intending to buy it anyhow, I highly recommend preordering it now, because I hear publishers rather like it when that happens lol. As I understand it, preorders have become a kind of early signal of Readerly Interest, as yet another set of dubious entrails in which the publishing industry attempts to foresee the famously unpredictable. But no worries if you’d rather wait and just buy it when it comes out. Or, you know, don’t read it at all. Become ungovernable! Let no one corral your heart. And so on. We roll the dice. A writing career does feel like a huge gamble, and I want to say that I am not, as it were, a gambling man. But I suppose that I am, if not at the level of the roulette wheel at least at the samsaric one. This isn’t even my first time throwing myself headfirst into a weird life/career choice of questionable predictability. (It’s my third, or possibly fourth.)

Update I may not have mentioned before on the blog: Saint will also come out in French translation from Éditions Bragelonne, I believe this very year if all goes well. I look forward to finding out how they say “saint of bright doors” in France.

Bookstores visited since last update: Unnameable Books, Greenlight Bookstore, Quimby’s Bookstore, Book Thug Nation, the Centre for Fiction, and Desert Island Comics, all in Brooklyn (this was the Brooklyn Bookstore Crawl for Independent Bookstore Day; here’s a partial book haul) and most recently, the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca.

That last one was to see Cass Khaw talking to Danny Lore for The Salt Grows Heavy release, and now I have a signed copy of Salt. You should buy a copy! I started reading mine in the signing queue and kept reading on the train back, and it is beautiful; I am savouring it. Cass very kindly gave me and Saint a shoutout from the stage, which was lovely and heartwarming, and also very strange because I realized in that very moment that this was the first time I’d heard anyone say the name of my book In Public, in front of an actual real-life audience, which scrambled my brain a little. Cass also recommended books by two other authors who were present: Dark Breakers, a 2022 collection of novellas and short stories by World Fantasy Award winner C.S.E. Cooney, and Nestlings, a horror novel by actor-playwright-writer-musician Nat Cassidy. Obviously Cass has excellent taste, so I’ve added both to my to-read list as well, and you should too. Also popped by the most recent Fantastic Fiction night at the KGB Bar to hear Paul Tremblay and John Langan read. Paul Tremblay read from what I believe is the title novella from his forthcoming collection The Beast You Are—which comes out the same day as my book!—and John Langan read a delightful excerpt from a typically metafictiony story that I could have sworn he said was from Wide Carnivorous Sky except I feel like I’ve read most of that and don’t remember it, so possibly it is from his more recent collection Corpsemouth? I expect I shall find it sooner or later in one of these. These were great, and I feel this event was a good choice for my first-ever English-language readings.

I’ve been (naturally) trying to imagine what it would be like to be doing events like this—readings, signings, in-conversation events—as I will in fact be doing from mid-July to mid-August. There will be a small book tour for Saint, details yet to come, of course: definitely something in NYC, and with any luck a few other cities, and I will be attending Readercon, which will be my first-ever convention (I nearly made it to a virtual FiyahCon once, but was foiled by technical difficulties at the last minute, so the record of absence remains unbroken) and probably a relatively rare convention appearance for me in general. I continue to find the thought of Book Events quite stressful (I am assured this is so normal as to be extremely normal) and envy all these writers their easy grace and good humour on a stage. So far I feel only that I will freeze up like an angry porcupine before all the staring eyes, quills quivering. This is all so much more difficult than mere writing, lol. To attempt to keep myself on an even keel, I have begun work on a new novel. It’s a tough one and very slow going, but I find the work calming, and returning to it every morning reassures me that I chose the right world to wake up in.

The Lone and Level Sands

St. Jerome Reading in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini, 1480
St. Jerome Reading in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini, 1480.

There have been two Brandon Sanderson profiles in mainstream media outlets in recent* weeks. Jason Kehe in Wired  and Adam Morgan in Esquire. The first begins by bemoaning the lack of mainstream literary attention paid to Sanderson and sets out to repair it; the second comments critically on the first, which was widely perceived as something of a hatchet job, though I didn’t think so. To me, both pieces read as positive overall, despite both containing criticisms. Kehe’s primary criticism is about Sanderson’s writing; Morgan’s is about Sanderson’s support, both moral and financial, for the homophobic Mormon Church. Both of these criticisms are undercut. Kehe comes around to the perspective that, while Sanderson writes bad sentences, this is fine because sentences don’t matter, only story does. What does it matter if someone is a bad writer, if writing itself is bad? Meanwhile, Morgan focuses on Sanderson’s commercial successes and how good he is as an entrepreneur and employer. What does it matter if someone materially supports homophobia, if they put queer representation in their books? 

Both profiles do make interesting points, as well, at least in the sense that it’s interesting to hear these claims made in this way, on these platforms. Kehe—who is obviously a fan, who else could read 17 to 20 novels by any given author and be familiar enough with the lore to claim bona fides—takes the criticism of Sanderson as a poor writer of prose to a very familiar place: story over sentences, worlds over writing. This is Asimov’s plateglassery combined with Tolkien’s celebration of worldbuilding; a conversation central to the genre for decades, in other words—this is what the New Wave was about. The disdain for ornate language, as I’ve written about before, has been a misguided literary commonplace for centuries, its roots in a combination of Christian denunciation of pagan excess and Orientalist denunciation of the florid East, now routinely presented as standard stylistic advice. Asimov’s essay on “plate glass” writing is only a minor variant of this tradition.

Tolkien, meanwhile, warrants special citation here because Kehe’s profile of Sanderson is quite reminiscent of the argument of Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” Both represent a Christian-framed mythology of consolation (perhaps inevitably,  the first hit for Tolkien’s essay as of this writing is a PDF of the essay hosted on the website of an explicitly homophobic Christian  sect, Calvary Georgetown Divide. I have here linked to a different copy) that presents the fantasist as (sub)creator, a maker of worlds, as Tolkien argues and Kehe reaffirms on Sanderson’s behalf. “On Fairy Stories” is, I believe, the essay in which Tolkien originally coined the phrase “secondary world,” now as commonplace as a dead darling. The religious framing is not necessary for the eucatastrophic ending that Tolkien describes, though he does frame it that way, but in his concept of worldbuilding it is inescapable. There is creation, the primary world, authored by a  primary creator, belief in whom and in which is fundamental to proper  living. And then there is the subcreation, the secondary world, authored  in homage, in which belief is required for proper reading. As above, so below: belief is paramount in both cases, i.e., the suspension of disbelief. Worlds must be made with care, consistency, and coherence. Such is the  responsibility of a (sub)creator. Kehe’s argument on Sanderson is this, rehashed: that Sanderson is not (much of) a writer but a (great) worldbuilder, both on and off the page. Morgan extends the latter part of that argument with his comparison of Sanderson’s 64-person enterprise to an indie game studio, with employees to help with every aspect of production from continuity to merchandise to event management.

This is all very well for the entrepreneurial, the would-be heads of  their own production studios, the subcreators-in-waiting, the wiki-ready and metatronic  among us. But I think it would be uncontroversial to say that—while I’m sure anyone would be pleased to make vast sums of money—many novelists, perhaps most, have no desire whatsoever to build or run the kind of enterprise-grade apparatus that  Sanderson has and does. Most novelists are not, in my experience, desirous of becoming startup founders. But this is also why I think the distinction between writers and worldbuilders is meaningful. This distinction, too, has its own long history in the genre. In a way, this, too, is what the New Wave was about. Michael Moorcock has long cogently argued that “worldbuilding is a failure of literary sophistication,” that the pseudo-realism that requires the suspension of disbelief is not something to aspire to. Or M. John Harrison in his instantly-legendary notes on worldbuilding in 2007:

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study.

In 2020, Helen Marshall published an excellent paper on this, called “A  flare of light or ‘the great clomping foot of nerdism?’: M John  Harrison’s radical poetics of worldbuilding” (full text available from here as a PDF), which contextualizes and comments on Harrison’s remarks in more detail and is well worth reading—among other things, it is a good counter to the contemporary ubiquity of the worldbuilding ideology among writers of fiction and critics alike, including the literary profile writers. 

Coming back to Christian symbolism of worldbuilding as a work of subcreation, Harrison had something to say about that, too

The whole idea of worldbuilding  is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It’s a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world’s a watch & God’s the watchmaker. It reveals the bad old underpinnings of the humanist stance. It centralises the author, who hands down her mechanical toy to a complaisant audience (which rarely thinks to ask itself if language can deliver on any of the representational promises it is assumed to make), as a little god. And it flatters everyone further into the illusions of anthropocentric demiurgy which have already brought the real world to the edge of ecological disaster.

This, I think, is the real danger of worldbuilding as a practice and a literary norm. This is the science-fictional root of longtermism, the clomping foot of the boy demiurges attempting to build a world of the world. As with the real homophobia behind representation on the page, this requires the suspension of disbelief. The world, to be built, must be made small. The technique requires the stripping away of complexities. It is not ambiguous that Eru Ilúvatar created the world. That is a simple fact, the kind of fact that is not only unavailable in what Tolkien called the primary world, not only ridiculous, dangerous and arrogant if treated as fact, not only contestable but with deep and consequential histories of contestation. It is common to describe worldbuilding projects as encyclopedic, but few worldbuilding projects have the space (or the interest) to investigate the depths of historical-psychological complexity, ambiguity, unknowability, and irreducibility that might be seen in the edit history of a single contested Wikipedia page—to say nothing of the epistemological failures of Wikipedia itself, its biases and overwhelmingly vast absences. Worldbuilding as a totalizing project cannot help but fail. My feeling is that “suspension of disbelief” and “secondary world” were not helpful ways to think about what is actually happening when we read a text, and yet they are tropes so influential and well-established that many of us take them as givens, as expectations of how we should read and what a fantastical text is supposedly doing.

Not everything that comes in the form of a  book is the same kind of object, even when they look vaguely similar. Some books are television—screenplays avant le deal memo. Some books are franchise tie-ins, in most cases anticipating the franchise. Some books are novels of one type or  another. It’s odd to see mainstream glossy magazine profiles unthinkingly—unknowingly?—reproduce arguments half a century old at minimum, but perhaps this is apposite. In my view, this is what Christopher Priest’s attempts to make slipstream a thing or Harrison’s own attempt to coin and claim New Weird was about: to carve out an acknowledged space for writing to be writing in all its slippery quiddity, the opposite of what Kehe claims for Sanderson—a place where the sentences matter, and are the whole of the matter. 

* This was written, and published on my Patreon, at the end of March. If you’d also like to see my essays and updates early, you can sign up at

Saintly Traces: Books In, Books Out

The Saint of Bright Doors comes out July 11, and if you haven’t pre-ordered it yet, today’s the last day of a 25% off Barnes and Noble pre-order sale (use the code PREORDER25).

Back cover of THE SAINT OF BRIGHT DOORS, with blurbs from Indra Das, Sam Miller, Max Gladstone, and Samit Basu

I’ve mentioned this already on Patreon and social media, but for those of you who mostly just follow the blog, I’m in New York City, and will be here for a few months to see my debut novel into the world. I’ve taken to documenting my modest NYC adventures on Instagram, so follow me there if you’d like more frequent updates.

Recent readings: I wrote briefly about books I read in Jan and Feb 2023. In March and April I’ve mostly been re/reading Moorcock’s Elric novels as light relief from travel stress (they are so good and also so bad lol) but I also read and greatly enjoyed Aimee Pokwatka’s Self-Portrait With Nothing; The Justice of Kings and The Tyranny of Faith by Richard Swan, nice solid epic fantasy, I’ve missed it; the magnificent Ice by Anna Kavan, my first time reading this absolute masterwork and I see what all the fuss was about; Steve Erickson’s The Sea Came In At Midnight, which was not only wonderful but also utterly baffling because I have no idea how I had not heard about Steve Erickson before, though it is entirely possible that I have been mentally filing all mentions of him under Steven Erikson; and The Chain of Chance by Stanislaw Lem, which is enjoyably, if a little eye-rollily, nerdy but I was distracted by the title, which I kept hearing in M.I.A.’s voice from “Bad Girls,” as the chain hits my chance when I’m banging on the dash—lyrics sites always have this as “dashboard,” which I suppose is more of a rhyme with “radio” in the next line, but I never hear the “-board” part—and most recently, I read Sometime, Never, a fascinating 1956 anthology with three novellas from William Golding, John Wyndham, and Mervyn Peake, and the last one is wonderful. I wrote briefly about this book here and here.

I have, of course, been exploring bookstores. One always finds bookstores and libraries soothing in a strange place: wherever you go in the world, a shelf of books is a sign of home. I’ve visited Westsider and the Book Cellar, plus the Barnes & Noble at 82nd & Broadway; later today, and hopefully tomorrow as well, I’m planning to visit some Brooklyn bookstores for this year’s #bkbookstorecrawl.

Make Your Bones

"Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones", Gustav Doré (1866), the biblical passage that also inspired the song "Dem Bones."

Fiction is a mutating rat king of genres writhing in an oversized trenchcoat, yet many of them have different readerships with little overlap for all that their tails are tied together. This thought originally came from seeing (yet another iteration upon the endless samsaric wheel of) commentary about “YA fantasy” vs. “adult fantasy.” I won’t rehash the arguments, they are familiar. But some thoughts on genre’s functioning in general. How “YA fantasy,” for example, is a genre, if a broad one, to the extent that there are specific expectations when you pick up a YA novel: protagonist age range, coming-of-age narrative, &c., and “adult fantasy” is not. If anything, “adult fantasy” is merely a negative marketing signal to clearly identify things that are not YA, so that nobody gets mad about buying the wrong thing. To set expectations more clearly in novels (for anyone) a broader vocabulary of genre is needed, and so the signals rapidly escalate into marking comedy and tragedy, into tropes and settings and devices and even entire recognizable plots.

A great many things tell us what to expect from a given book that we might have in our hands, and as readers and book-buyers, we are all quite adept at navigating these signals. Many of them are obvious—imprints, presses, and authors become known for the kind of work they produce. Cover design, marketing, and bookstore placement send many messages. And of course, genre. A common objection is that genre is “only” marketing, and yes, sure, do we not all live within the hellmarket? What is interesting about genre is that it is there, and visibly doing some kind of work, and it is one of the simplest ways that readers encounter intertextuality.

Genre is not neatly diagrammable or mappable precisely because maps make gaps, and that summons Things to arise in the gaps and change the territory. Genre is necessarily vague. A sort of thing, a kind of thing. To say that something is a genre is to say that it’s a particular kind of thing, that you can have specific expectations of it. You can read Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and move on to Clare’s City of Bones and then to Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and they all have more in common than bone-themed titles: they have the same broad plot about an alienated young person who discovers themselves to be not only empowered but central to intrigues. Which is not a criticism; the pleasure of a genre is precisely that it reproduces pleasure. City of Bones is also the title of one of Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, for instance, and that’s a different genre that’s equally repetitive, if not more so, and whose reproducible pleasures are even more tightly wound. (A mystery that is never (re)solved can be a novel, but it’s no longer in the genre of mystery novel.) Or consider Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, which employs this reproduction of pleasure, this setting and meeting/subverting of expectations, at multiple levels: in the classic ghost story it retells, in allusions to Rebecca, and most of all in a recognizable subgenre of King himself, stories about blocked middle-aged writers with fucked up family lives and supernatural midlife crises.

A work is within a genre to the extent (all sets are fuzzy; crispness is an illusion) that it sets expectations and meets/subverts them so that the reader’s experience of the pleasures of that text include the reproduction of the strange into the familiar. This provides a vast array of highly specific prefabricated options, some of them vast Kirbytech machines (“big rocks that do magic”—for example, the time travel in Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth) and some plot structures well-known enough to rate as tropes that readers can ask for (“enemies to lovers” &c.). This is also the logic of comps and loglines: to anchor the new in the known and predict the pleasures of the text in advance. You can see this as a buyer’s perspective—the reader deciding how to spend their money, the acquiring editor trying to predict those decisions, the agent trying to predict those decisions, very marketplace, so capitalism—and that’s true, but I think much the same dynamic would apply even when substituting time and attention for money. That is, this isn’t necessarily about hellmarket rules. In any world, the mortal reader must choose what to read next, and that decision is predicated on their prediction of the pleasure that text will produce.

Texts get called literary—as pejorative or plaudit, being either low culture or high culture snobbery depending on speaker; there is no non-snobbish way to refer to such texts, so I am employing it in both senses at once for maximum snobbery—to the extent that the text’s pleasures are not rooted in the setting and meeting/subverting of expectations, or rather, since expectations are inevitable in the florid multiplying of signals in all directions from all sources, to the extent that the text uproots itself from this concern and orients itself to a different plane. For example, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, an undeniably literary text says Messrs. Nobel and Booker, is indeed a crime novel, but its signal pleasures are not in the plot, where it sets and subverts expectations in a familiar way otherwise indistinguishable from a genre crime novel in the subgenre of unreliable quirky narrators, but in the prose, and in what, from the perspective of moving the plot forward, as in getting us from A to B as effectively as possible, is extraneous: the astrology, the William Blake, the character’s perspective. Either way it’s a good book, but what makes it literary is that reading it to find out whodunnit is not the greatest pleasure of the text.

Of course these things are not in fact extraneous. There is no necessity to get us from A to B as effectively as possible, merely the possibility. You can go from A to B via a detour through the rest of the alphabet, you can fake out B with C or Q for that matter; you can not go anywhere at all and simply explore the world of A itself: what a strange character this is, bipedal and arms crossed, a buffalo stance. All that matters is whether it works. (Itself the most complicated possible question that can be asked about a text, I know, but we shall gently contain its tremendous radioactive fallout to this aside. Run and save yourself—I’ll stay behind to close the parenthesis behind you.)

I am trying to avoid a hierarchy of snobbery in either direction by arguing that there is no flat plane upon which to build it. The reason that literary and genre are not mutually exclusive definitions is that they are concerned with different things, different planes set at odd angles to each other: they may intersect and overlap in various places, but as terms, they are not the same kind of thing. That is to say, literary and genre are not in the same genre, and to say so is a literary concern. The literary concern is whether words matter, whether the familiar instruments of language are made strange. It is quite normal to have texts where the words very much do not matter, as anyone who reads enough novels knows. Sometimes such texts translate easily to television because they were already television: the novel that is actually a screenplay in waiting. Those are simple examples of texts that are definitionally not-literary.

This is orthogonal to genre’s definitional playing with expectations because it is easy for a text to do both things. Consider Garner’s Boneland: a decades-later “adult” sequel to a pair of classic fantasy novels that would probably have been marketed as YA or children’s literature if they had been published somewhat later. It is a book that is burdened with formal expectations, and yet it is a book where the words matter so much that, as Le Guin wrote of it, you read it to figure it out gradually, “as with poetry, learning another language, learning to see and think differently.” Boneland is a book where the words matter from beginning to end, a book that absolutely delights in what is extraneous to structured plot in prefabricated units, while still visibly working within structures derived from a well-worn magical children’s adventure fantasy tradition worked before by many writers, from Susan Cooper to Dianne Duane to Garner himself. That is to say, it addresses both literary and genre concerns. Many books achieve this quality only in fragments, or perhaps not at all; even more books never intended to achieve any such thing, and so meet their own expectations.

A book—as a commercial product ensconced in the paratextual full three-piece suit of cover and blurbs and marketing—sets expectations relentlessly, but it is not a given that the text it contains will always meet them in a predictable way. Outside of the most neutral-tasting extruded product made from recycled mush, many texts are still at least a little wild, suffering themselves to be dressed up in order to be permitted onto a shelf in a store. To find that wildness in a text, even if brief and fragmentary, to find the places where it plays with the expectations in unexpected ways, to find those moments where the words matter, to me this is the pleasure of reading.

This essay brought to you by my patrons and was posted early access over on Patreon a month ago. (See also my most recent Readings post, which went on my Patreon as a patrons-only post and I forgot to post about it here.)

The Unsigned Cross

Last year when Nandini and I visited the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures in Meghalaya, I remember pointing at this mural and being like oh hey they did a homage to— but at that moment, my mind was quite blank; I could remember only that I knew the original painting being referenced, but not what it was, and promptly forgot all about it before my phone got any signal again, so I didn’t look it up. But just now I happened upon the picture in my photo album and remembered this time: Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

The Don Bosco Museum is run by the Salesians, who have been active in the region for a century, and has several exhibits focusing on the history of Christian missionaries &c. in the region. Hence the mural, which is the least of these. The museum itself was constructed in the 90s, so the mural presumably must date from no earlier. Salvador Dalí made his painting in 1951, so in his Catholic fascist era—well, he had been a fascist for far longer, but in keeping with his move to Francoist Spain, the Catholicism was relatively new.

Dalí lived to cause offence and the most offensive thing a member of the Spanish avant garde could do, by 1951, was to endorse the church and praise the religious traditions that Franco claimed were the true Spanish heritage. This painting glories in sleek archaism. Its style may look cornily photographic or cinematic but actually it is closely modelled on visionary 17th century Spanish paintings by Zurbaran and Velazquez.

(from this 2009 article by Jonathan Jones)

That citation of Zurbarán is interesting, because perhaps even more than the novelty of the point of view, what I always found striking about the Dalí is that piece of paper resting on the cross at its top, folded into quarters and with a corner lifted, in place of a titulus crucis. It is faithfully recreated in the form of what looks like an equally blank scroll, in the Don Bosco mural. Neither says INRI, as one might expect, and they do not have an artist’s signature, as would be traditional with a cartellino (in Italian; in Spanish a cartela), a once-popular trompe l’oeil device to include a note (looking more or less exactly like that) about the painting or its painter in the painting itself. Francisco de Zurbarán used cartelas as signatures frequently, as did many other Spanish painters of the period, such as El Greco, in paintings such as these: El Greco’s Saint Andrew and Saint Francis (1595-1598) on the right, with the cartela on the ground beside them, or Zurbarán’s The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion (1628) on the left, where the cartela is pinned to the tree or post or which the saint is bound.

In both of the above paintings, the cartela exists within the world of the painting, much as the unsigned note does in the Dalí. That is interesting because there are cartelas that exists on a different diegetic plane (and of course I am fascinated with travel between diegetic planes, this being a major concern of my own writing) such as, for instance, Zurbarán’s own Adoration of the Shepherds (1638) below, which places the trompe l’oeil cartela figuratively on the surface of the painting, as if it were literally a tag attached to the canvas.

Last year, there was some Dalí news. In the 70s, a good twenty years after the painting above, Dalí revisited it to create a sculpture of the same name: Christ of Saint John of the Cross. Or rather, he made a wax model that could be used to cast multiple bas-relief sculptures using a process that is known as lost wax casting.

This is how lost wax casting works, in brief, as I understand it. An artist makes an original model in clay or wax or anything they want to work in. A mould is made from this model, and the desired number of wax copies can be made using the mould. A given wax copy like this is coated with a kind of sandy slurry to create a heat-resistant final mould around it. This is then put in a kiln under extreme heat to melt the wax out (hence “lost wax” as a name for the method), leaving a hollow, heat-resistant mould into which molten bronze or another suitable metal can be poured for the final casting. While multiple such bas-relief casts of the Christ of Saint John of the Cross have been circulating, the original wax model that Dalí made in the 70s had been lost until last year, when it was found and appropriately overpriced. Presumably due to it having been lost, this wax model is also apparently called The Lost Wax, which is either somebody’s very clever pun on a lost wax model used for lost wax casting, or just everybody being very confused about what’s going on. The model, and a typical bas-relief, look like this.

To me, it looks like absolute ass, just a total piece of shit, though of course I am not a doctor. It seems odd that Dalí would tie this garbage to his (controversial, probably fascist somehow, but iconic) painting by using the same title. Much casual commentary seems to claim that the bas-relief is replicating the painting in three dimensions somehow, which is nonsensical to me since the angles are completely different, this one being much more conventional—frankly, I don’t know if the doubled angles of the painting can even be represented in sculpture at all, it seems to me that this is impossible by design? But perhaps this is, to borrow a phrase kept alive to this day by Sri Lankan newspaper editors, only Dalí belatedly snook-cocking at the paragone. Anyway, the interesting thing about this sculpture is that it lacks the cartela, and the INRI has reasserted itself. Whatever he was doing in the 50s, here he is doing something else.

How can we read an unsigned cartela in place of the titulus on a cross? Is that absence about the authorship of the painting, or the authorship of the crucifixion? The diegetic plane—the surface of the cross, not the surface of the canvas—suggests the latter, and perhaps that is why this crucifixion is bloodless. Perhaps, too, the absence of the titulus mirrors the absence of the nails and the thorns: every instrument of pain has been removed from this crucifixion, including the cruel words. Or perhaps it is that signature itself is superfluous in the age of celebrity, so there is only the gesture, only the sign of a signature. All this you see in fiction, too. Everyone from Stephen King on down has written themselves in as a character, and that’s not even counting more or less thinly disguised author inserts or autofiction. But there is also a broader question in the unsigned signature, which it seems to me lies in what we sometimes call style, which is a poor word for this thing, this suchness, this idea of a particular articulation of the world expressed in the work produced by a singular human embodied consciousness, which is to say, it is the articulation of the world by the world—its complexity, its violences, its graces—as refracted through a tiny lens, this eye of a needle, that we call a person.

Both Dalí’s painting and sculpture refer repeatedly to the Christ of St. John of the Cross, which is an actual drawing drawn by St. John of the Cross, a crucifixion “from above,” made in the 1570s. This is what John drew.

It is remarkably strange, most especially in the angles. Different from what Dalí chose to go with, but equally unusual, and now post-Dalí, certainly more so. Not only the angle of viewing, but in the off-kilterness of the cross itself. It leans backwards, lit from behind; Christ hangs forward, shadowed. Unlike Dalí, John of the Cross did not omit the nails. This drawing is small. Four inches high, three inches wide. It would stand, a cross-section, comfortably inside the human brain. Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, who had been John of the Cross for less than a decade by then, saw this in a vision and drew what he saw. Or at least, that is how we say it, when we speak of this sort of thing, how we contain the thought of someone’s mould overflowing with something raw and glowing and overheated, on the verge of shattering. There is no indication that John of the Cross intended this drawing to become public, to whatever extent that meant anything four and a half centuries ago. Dalí, too, claimed that he saw his painting in a vision, in a cosmic dream, but he would say that, wouldn’t he.

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There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen—Lenin did not say that, though several others, including Marx, have said similar things. The decade just completed, from 2012 to 2022, neatly contains my entire career as a writer, from my very first publication—a poem in the long-defunct magazine Ideomancer—to my debut novel, a milestone that I’d had in mind those whole ten years, though until the 20s the possibility seemed immeasurably distant and more than a little fictional. It’s a decade that feels like it took exactly the correct amount of time to pass, no more, no less. I wanted to mark its passing, I suppose, because for most of its length I wasn’t sure if I could have a career as a writer at all, and now I am, cautiously, with fingers crossed, learning to think of it as the first decade of my career. I hope there will be a second, and more to come.

Some highlights of the decade: I have over a hundred publications now, of some fifty-five original stories plus reprints, essays, poems, and so on. Well over a hundred thousand words of published short fiction—at some point I should consider a collection. One story (“The Translator, At Low Tide”) was a finalist for the Sturgeon Award and included in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. (This and a few other favourites are linked on the homepage of this site.) During this period, I spent six years as a fiction editor at Strange Horizons, where I was part of the team that won the inaugural Ignyte Community Award for Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre. I’m proud of that, though I often feel diffident about mentioning it (it took me some years to get comfortable even putting it on my website.)

This year I’m juggling four novel projects. Saint, of course, which comes out in July and for which I will be doing various promo activities. Books two and three are manuscripts that exist at various stages of editing, and should be coming out in ’24 and ’25. Book four is at the concept stage and I’m filling up notebooks with thoughts, some wilder than others, and I hope to start actually putting words on a page sometime this year.

I had stopped writing short stories altogether since 2019 to focus on novels, but as of last December, I’ve finally returned to the short story as a form, and have several coming out in anthologies and potentially magazines. Nothing to announce yet, but I’m very pleased to be writing them, and I feel like my after-several-novels short stories are … rather different from the previous era in many ways. Richer, more complex, much weirder. This is also true of the novels themselves, I suppose, in that they get significantly weirder after the relative straightforwardness of Saint. I have no idea how people are going to respond to that, because I’ve already seen some complaints that even Saint is too weird, but oh well, fingers crossed that these things find their readers.

I mentioned somewhere on social media (instagram, I think—currently, and experimentally, on so many internets that I have lost track of where I say things) a while back that it’s very strange to hold the ARC of my first book in my hand. It’s emotionally intense and more than a little jarring, to have this object of your imagination made real, which is probably true for any writer or artist upon the completion of a work. For me, it’s also that Saint is dedicated to my brother, Ruchira, who died in 2011. This was, unsurprisingly, an event which permanently changed the trajectory of my life in several ways, not least of which my decision to commit to a long-deferred writing career, which is how this past decade of work came about in the first place. In 2012, even as I wrote what would soon become my first published short stories, I promised myself this utterly irrational thing: that I would somehow write and publish my first novel no later than August 2023, when I turn forty-four, which was how old my brother was when he died. I gave myself that span of time because I was an unpublished writer and I figured I needed the time to teach myself how to write, and to figure out how publishing works and how to navigate it. But that self-imposed deadline was also a convoluted expression of grief, a kind of dedication in itself. It’s not a deadline that ever made any sense; these things take as long as they take, is all. But somehow, through a great many chaotic circumstances, it turned out that the book comes out in July, a month before my deadline. I am pleased by this, and I feel rung, like a cracked bell. What a strange life it is.

Paths of Approach

A delightful sign on the walk to Arwah Cave, Sohra.
A delightful sign on the walk to Arwah Cave, Sohra, 2022.

In conversation a few weeks ago, Tarun Bhartiya asked me for a specific kind of reading recommendation: a list of ten books of speculative fiction—from any period and any genre except horror—that would be a good introduction to the form for a reader of fiction who hasn’t had much exposure to it so far. This is what I’ve come up with, after thinking about it some.

First, it turns out that many of my favourite books are, in fact, horror; a lot of others are kind of inside baseball, in that they are more enjoyable if you’re familiar with other books of their genre, or the texts they may be referencing. Ruling all these out as much as possible, I tried to find points of exit, rather than points of entry, into what Delany likes to call our paraliterature.

To me, speculative fiction is not a subset of fiction “in general,” or even a parallel to literary fiction where they exist side by side as equivalent genres on a shelf. Strict naturalism in literature is the exception, not the rule, an insistence on navigating capitalist realism strictly on its own terms, which can be a fruitful asceticism but is best understood, to my mind, as a special case. Fiction is by its nature speculative: all literature is about making shit up, events if not worlds. And much of what is considered mainstream or general or classic or literary or otherwise non-genre fiction does not in fact respect a strict constraint of naturalism. Pale Fire has psychokinesis, poltergeists, and a made-up country. Beloved revolves entirely around a haunting. Peter Wimsey solves his mysteries in a world where ghosts are real. And so on. There is an ocean of story in which strict naturalism is merely a jetstream—powerful and of tremendous consequence, to be sure, but not the whole of the thing. And the name of that ocean is the fantastical, which is to say, the realm of the unconstrained imaginary: into this ocean feeds the epics, the tales, the utopias, the experiments, the poetry, the rayguns and the rakshasas, all our gods and ghosts and demons, all that can be made from wild and molten language. We may choose constraints as we will—the corset and bustle of whatever passes for hard science in a given decade, the full metal diving suit of strict long 20th century naturalism—but we wear them by choice, and many great writers not commonly identified as fantasists will divest themselves of those constraints at will, for effect or for joy.

That said, an introduction to speculative fiction should consist of writers whose work is recognized as belonging to the form, because that recognition is an important social reality. And within that, I particularly wanted to showcase speculative fiction’s capacity for politics, and a range of very different styles and stylists over a fairly wide span of decades. And so this list begins to take upon itself its own set of constraints. Nothing on it is at all likely to be surprising to the aficionado: they are all popular books, some extremely acclaimed. And yet I think as a selection it’s still a little idiosyncratic: I came up with several such lists and picked this set over others, after all, because I wanted its global and historical spread, and because it suggests a particular genealogy of the fantastic, one from which a great many well-known names are missing. This is intentional, because my assumption is that if a reader of fiction has not yet found their own way into speculative fiction, that many of its more popular manifestations have failed to appeal so far. Far more than two roads diverge in the wood, that is to say, and I don’t know whether to call this trail pleasant or rugged, because after all the paraliterature and everything it contains is not a forest with defined paths but an ocean, trackless but mappable. These are some of the islands I love best.

Reiterated in the form of a list, the books are:

  • The Invention of Morel (1940), Adolfo Bioy Casares
  • Titus Groan (1946), Mervyn Peake
  • Solaris (1961), Stanislaw Lem
  • The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), Gene Wolfe
  • The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), Amitav Ghosh
  • Amatka (2012), Karin Tidbeck
  • A Stranger in Olondria (2013), Sofia Samatar
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013), Ahmed Saadawi
  • The Queue (2013), Basma Abdel Aziz

This list (as distinct from the gallery of book covers above, which is in no order whatsoever) is in chronological order of publication. This is not a recommended reading order, of which I have nothing specific in mind. Perhaps if in need of a starting point among these ten books, I’d suggest starting with Saadawi or Ghosh. And arguably, in some cases there are meaningful connections suggested by the books themselves—for example, you could say the Tidbeck is speaking to, or through, the Le Guin in some ways—but that doesn’t necessarily require anything in response. Each exit point is its own creature, its own path of approach, suiting different readerly moods. I don’t know if any given reader would love all ten of these as much as I do, and it’s certainly possible, even likely, that there are enthusiastic readers in entirely different terrains of speculative fiction to whom none of these are of particular interest, but you’d need a different guide to go where they go.