The Sayings of Chairman Wolfe

by Arthur B

Arthur gleefully tears through Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe On Writing/Writers On Wolfe.
Fans of writers aren't like fans of movie stars or musicians, and in turn writers aren't dragged out into the public eye to the same extent. I am not aware of anyone who has a poster of Stephen King adorning their bedroom wall. So far as I am aware, FHM have never asked JK Rowling to do a photoshoot for them. Teenage girls do not mob Garth Nix as he walks down the street, and nobody daydreams of patting Gene Wolfe on his egg-shaped head and gently sniffing his walrus-like moustache.

No, what really excites the fans of writers is the opportunity to get their hands on more words of wisdom from their favoured writer, whether this is in the form of an interview or a speech or a letter. For devotees of Gene Wolfe, Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe On Writing/Writers On Wolfe offer all three. The first segment compiles all the major interviews Wolfe gave between 1973 and 2003; the second, much smaller segment, is a small collection of short essays and transcription of speeches composed by Wolfe on the subject of writing, books, and the literary world in general. By far the biggest treat are the short pieces which seem to be by-products of various writing classes Wolfe has given over the years, which give us a chance to learn at the feet of "balding, avuncular Gene" and hear his thoughts on characterisation, good writing habits, and the special problems of writing science fiction and multi-volume novels.

All of Wolfe's novels (with the arguable exception of his debut novel, Operation Ares) are puzzle-boxes to an extent; it's therefore not surprising that the various interviewers have tended to ask Wolfe about the various mysteries his books present; at the same time, however, it doesn't feel like any of the details Wolfe discusses are spoilers, partly because none of the really big punchlines are given away and partly because Wolfe's books are always something else, aside from puzzle-boxes. Indeed, one particular interviewer, Nick Gevers, has this maddening tendency to only ask about the answers to riddles in Wolfe's fiction which he hasn't quite worked out, or for which he has a particular pet theory, and Wolfe seems irritated by this lack of depth: his answers start out being informative, becomes evasive, and eventually clams up.
Nick Gevers: Can your readers usefully view The Fifth Head of Cerberus as being set in the same science-fictional universe as New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun? Why does Fifth Head pattern of blue/green sister worlds recur so tantalisingly in Urth/Lune, Blue/Green?
Gene Wolfe: I don't know.
Wolfe seems especially keen to point out clues which he feels the reader really ought to have picked up on, and will struggle without - he seems tired, for example, of repeatedly explaining the special situation of the narrator in Peace, or of clarifying that Severian's sword, Terminus Est, in The Book of the New Sun is not actually magical. (It says a lot about many readers, actually, that they tend to assume that Terminus Est is magical, even though it is clearly a normal technological artifact, the way it is put together is very clearly explained in the novel, and it is one of the few products of advanced technology - the other being the Matachin tower which is his home - that Severian doesn't mistake for something magical or supernatural.)

To use the distinction Kyra made in The Death of the Reader, Wolfe is willing to answer the speculations of fans - such as whether the Neighbors from the Short Sun related to the Hierodules of the New Sun - while only occasionally treading on their interpretations. In fact, the only frequent interpretation of his books he seems especially keen to quash is the interpretation of Severian, from the New Sun series, as a Christ figure; he is always quick to point out that Severian is a deeply flawed man who is trying to get better, and is therefore a Christian figure rather than Christ himself, although he is asked in the course of the novels to take on a Christ-like role he struggles to live up to. This probably comes from Wolfe's heartfelt (although, it seems, somewhat idiosyncratic) Catholic faith as opposed to a desire to control what readers take away from his novels: acknowledging the possibility that Severian might be Christ, or equivalent to Christ, would be tantamount to suggesting that Wolfe might believe Christ could resemble Severian in some way, and Wolfe clearly doesn't want people to think that.

It's probably ironic that one of the more frequent questions asked of Wolfe is about the academic study of his work, and Wolfe typically responds with fear and trepidation: while Wolfe respects the purpose of academic literary criticism, he doesn't entirely trust most of the academics working in the field, and he certainly doesn't want his stories to be taught to students - because in the hands of poor teachers, that will utterly destroy any hope the students had of enjoying them. Wolfe works in science fiction and fantasy because he appreciates the freedoms those genres offer him, and one of those freedoms is flying under the radar coverage of academia. And yet, this is a Liverpool University Press book which could form the basis of in-depth study of Wolfe's life and work. It's probably fortunate that, rather than being a book of essays on Wolfe, deconstruction of Wolfe, and existential postmodern feminist queer theory critiques of Wolfe, this is simply a compilation of primary source material from the Wolfe's mouth; it's certainly the sort of academic product Wolfe could get behind.

Meanwhile, I need to get a giant poster of Gene Wolfe to go on my bedroom ceiling, perhaps something based off this picture:

He's so dreamy.
Themes: Books

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 15:33 on 2007-09-05
> about the academic study of his work, and Wolfe typically responds with fear and trepidation
I really respect that, I know far too many people who have been turned off reading entirely by bad teachers in high school!
Arthur B at 17:10 on 2007-09-05
I think the process of dissecting a novel - or, rather, the approach to dissecting a novel that teachers are obliged to present in English classes - can be as bad as having a bad teacher, to be fair. The best English teacher I ever had started taking us through A Wizard of Earthsea, which I had previously read and enjoyed, and even then by the end I wound up resenting it. Fortunately, after some years I was able to go back, enjoy it again, and read the sequels, but how many kids were put off LeGuin forever?

That teacher, by the way, was Conn Iggulden, who went on to write The Dangerous Book for Boys and a bunch of brick-sized historical epics.
Wardog at 20:00 on 2007-09-06
Hmmm...we could introduce a literary totty section. There's Mr October right there. I really really need to read some Wolfe, especially since it'd be a pleasure not to have to divorce the human being from their work. The killing books through studying them angle is a difficult one; generally studying ANYTHING at school makes it suck. But beyond that, perhaps, it's a matter of a personal taste? I mean, nothing on this earth and I mean it could force me to touch Milton with a ten foot pole. And I understand he's generally accounted quite good. On the other hand I read Austen obsessively and I never get bored and I always find something worthwhile on repeated readings.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in September 2007