Monday, June 7, 2010

Know Your Contemporary Authors- Caitlin R. Kiernan

 Caitlin R. Kiernan

I thought it might be good for me to write about this author early so I'm not thinking about it as we talk about other authors.  Long time readers and people who know me are most likely aware that my only hesitation in answering "Caitlin Kiernan" to the question "Who is your favorite living author?" is on account of Ray Bradbury being alive.  There is not a living author whose work I enjoy as much as Caitlin Kiernan's and let me tell you why.

In a recent interview with Clarkesworld Magazine, here was some of her response when asked what she writes about:
"The weight the past exerts on the present, that's a big one. Encounters with the Other, and the almost inevitably transformative nature of those encounters, that's another theme that's present in almost everything I've ever written. Also, the insignificance of humanity when faced with deep time and the vastness of the universe. No, never mind the vast universe. Humanity's insignificance when faced with the depth of the ocean, or the distance to the edge of our own solar system, or, inversely, the space between an electron and an atom's nucleus. Anyway, on a more personal level, I'm often writing about insanity, or at least the unreliability of perception and cognition. I write quite a bit about gender.
"So, what does this all add up to, ultimately? Sometimes I think of it as existential shock. I'm writing about existential shock, and by this I mean, simply, the shock that arises from the realization that the world is not only not what we think it is, but the realization that we can probably never arrive at conclusive answers about reality. Nothing is as it seems, and even if is it, there's probably no way to know."
It probably shouldn't surprise anyone to know that these are themes which fascinate me; I would even go so far as to say are some of my "life themes."  Kiernan not only consistently explores them in various ways, she does it very very well.

I should probably take a moment to discuss genre.  Ray Bradbury and Caitlin Kiernan, as well as being my two favorite living authors, share the uphill battle of what I would call unfair genre distinctions.  Genre distinctions are a sort of insult we hoist upon authors who have the bad fortune to be alive (and still trying to make a buck at writing.)  For example, most people would not place A Midsummer Night's Dream in a bookstore in the same section as the Twilight novels.  Although following the logic of genre fiction placement in corporate bookstore models, one imagines a room full of marketers saying "Well, why not?  They're both paranormal romance involving teenagers!"  I think about these things every time I see Dandelion Wine in the Science-Fiction section.  You may find Kiernan's work in the Science-Fiction, Fantasy, or possibly even Horror section of most bookstores, but the themes of her writing, the point of it all, is what she expressed in that quote above.  I would stress the point that they are themes valuable for everyone.  In a nutshell, I would hate to think of someone who is serious about contemporary literature avoiding Kiernan because of the genre placement.  I think she is doing some very important work and it would be unfortunate indeed if genre placement deterred anyone (as an aside, Kiernan, on her website, offers alternate covers for at least one of her books which you can print out and cover your copy of her book should you feel uncomfortable with the cover art provided by the publisher.  Very thoughtful of her.  The cover art on the more recent printings of her books strike me as extremely misguided in their target audience.)

Mainly I think genres also give false expectation as to what's within.  Also when I'm in the Science-Fiction section of a bookstore, I often wonder if somewhere a befuddled father with an eight year old who is wild about Asimov's Robot series picks a gift at random from the SF section and comes home with The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch for his child.  And I chuckle quietly to myself. 

Ultimately, I think we ought to read to grow, learn, branch out, see the world through different eyes, and feel a little less alone.  I think everything we read should be challenging in one way or another.  Which is why I would recommend Kiernan's work to anyone.  Something else I appreciate about her writing is that she does not let her readers off the hook easily.  Neither, in my experience, does The Universe.

Also, sometimes it is important to tackle the difficult aspects of the human experience and that fevered lifelong commentary that's always going on in our brains.  Last week our Contemporary Author in this series was the Eagle Scout of Contemporary American Humorists.  This week, we have someone who explores questions like "What if someone who we all agree is having a psychotic episode is correct?"  I am of the opinion that it is beneficial to explore all sorts of great literature with diverse tones.  I think you'll find that sometimes in the darkest corners are some of the most startling beauties.

Which brings me to specifics.  One of the amazing things about Caitlin Kiernan is the colossal volume of her output.  She has a strong internet presence.  She is on Twitter, Facebook, Livejournal, as well as her own website which, if memory serves, has a subscription based writing and original material program called Sirenia Digest (for hypothetical wealthy readers of this blog looking for an outlet to bestow their largess, I assure you I think it terribly ill-mannered to refuse gift subscriptions.)  If you walk down to your local bookstore, you're likely to find around six of her novels in stock.  There is a lot more out there which you can find by digging around a few websites.

I highly recommend Murder of Angels, The Red Tree and Low Red Moon as starting points (I also appreciate her sensibility in choosing titles.  They tend to have a sort of guttural, primal feel to them.)  All three are excellent.  I do not think it an overstatement to say that she is one of our best contemporary authors.

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