Dogged Persistence

by Kevin J. Anderson

Published by Golden Gryphon

303 pages, 2001


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Dogged Dichotomies

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

I hate dichotomies. I find the idea that the world should be perceived in a binary on/off mode ridiculous, sophistic and insulting. Dichotomic argumentation is a manipulative tool used by orators and essayists desperate to win over their audience. They mask the weaknesses of their positions by setting up binary oppositions, often in emotionally charged rhetoric, that seek to obscure options that lie beyond their discourse of opposites in conflict. Burning fossil fuels or economic collapse? Heterosexual marriage and reproduction or homosexuality and AIDS? Instinctual or cultural? Feminist or sexist? Free-market conservative or totalitarian communist? Unlike what many would like us all to believe, rejecting one of these extremes does not equate embracing its supposed opposite. The world is much more complex than that.

And what does all that have to do with Kevin J. Anderson's story collection, Dogged Persistence? This: in an effort to convince readers that they must like Kevin J. Anderson's writing, Anderson and his friend Kristine Kathryn Rusch (who supplied this volume's introduction) position Anderson within a dichotomic paired opposite. There are, according to Anderson and Rusch, two kinds of writers: whiny, artsy authors who, at most, publish one short story a year in obscure academic journals while complaining about the popularity of bestsellers, or prolific, hard-working professionals who publish in popular markets and make good money. Anderson and Rusch try to intimidate readers into liking Anderson's fiction by suggesting rather strongly that to dislike Anderson's work is tantamount to the sin of voicing support for pretentious writers who hold their commercially successful colleagues in contempt. The case is made most emphatically (and misleadingly) in Rusch's irritatingly condescending (to readers) and sycophantically fawning (to Anderson) introduction. "Who has a better chance of being read fifty years from now," she asks, "A Talented Author who writes (and publishes) one short story a year or Kevin J. Anderson?" Obviously, Rusch's argument leads to this emphatically indisputable answer (or so Rusch would like readers to believe): "Well, that's a no-brainer. Kevin J. Anderson, of course." Anderson's own story introductions fall in line with the ideas Rusch sledgehammers into readers, but they do so less rabidly and more subtly.

Rusch builds her argument with several questionable assertions. For example, "famous old classics ... were the bestsellers of their day." Such as H.P. Lovecraft, whose books first came out after his death? Or that "drive" is synonymous with "being prolific." Was Franz Kafka, whose small output was obscure during his lifetime but grew to have an indelible influence on art and culture, not a driven writer? Or that being efficient is a sign of a great writer. Sure, there are many examples that back up Rusch's claims (Dickens, Dumas, etc.), but prolific bestsellerdom is not a sure path to posterity (I'll push aside the question of quality), as scanning the bestseller lists of even a few years ago, let alone decades ago, will readily prove; and neither does lifetime obscurity and a small body of work necessarily mean that an author's work will be forever forgotten. Writers cannot be pigeonholed into convenient dichotomies to validate fallacious reasoning.

Rusch ends her didactic diatribe with these words:

So when you hear some Talented Author disparage bestselling writers, remember a few things. Bestsellers, like Kevin, get where they are because they write more than anyone else, because they are talented, and because they care so much they're willing to do anything for their art.

Where to start? Does Rusch's repetitive slamming of "Talented Authors" hide jealousy, insecurity, envy and/or blind arrogance? Or is it simply that her lack of any substantial arguments to "prove" that her friend is indeed talented (but not "Talented") pushes her to ceaselessly reiterate the same cliché argument over the course of five pages? Dare I speculate? Perhaps not. It is similarly perhaps unwise to extrapolate on her slavish worship of bestsellerdom as a sign of literary excellence.

I should point out that the 27 "Kevin J. Anderson" bestselling titles (so often alluded to throughout this book; excessive boasting, it seems, isn't problematic for Anderson and Rusch) were all franchise books, such as Star Wars, The X-Files and Dune novels. Bravo to him for landing such high-profile, high-paying gigs, but while other, non-Kevin J. Anderson Star Wars, The X-Files and Dune titles have charted, no non-franchise Kevin J. Anderson book can make that claim. It's rather spurious to emphasize his status as a bestselling author when, clearly, the brand that sold those books was never his name. This puts much of Rusch's exposition on Anderson's status and the nature of writers on shaky ground.

As for "they care so much they're willing to do anything for their art" -- I'm not sure what she means by that. It's a statement that begs to be shredded to pieces, but Rusch has left its meaning too vague to figure the best way to do so. From her text, I gather that when she says "willing to do anything for their art" she means "willing to do anything to get published." I'm sure censors all over the world will be glad to finally have "artists" see things their way. Beyond that, I'll leave it to others to marvel at the depths of Kevin J. Anderson's caring and at his determined willingness to do anything for his art.

Speaking of his art, the stories collected in Dogged Persistence are (with one exception) dull and bland -- utterly forgettable, save for the bitter aftertaste from having read an author who uses his fiction to "teach" his readers trite lessons. Invariably (again, with one exception), by story's end, the protagonist has learned a "valuable lesson," on the order of "hard work is good for you" or "hard work is good for you, but remember to be nice to your girlfriend." Even H.G. Wells and Charles Dickens -- fictionalized, respectively, in "Scientific Romance" and "The Ghost of Christmas Always" -- are shown to have been inspired to greatness by having learned from Anderson's pat little morals. Again, one is tempted to speculate on what drives this "driven" author to reduce renowned writers to such triteness.

As I mentioned above, one story does rise a bit above all this. The collection's title story is a fairly engaging hybrid of science fiction, horror and thriller. Anderson used it as the basis for Antibodies, a bestselling (naturally) novel of The X-Files.

The collection sports this epigraph, quoting Ursula K. LeGuin:

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.

Readers are led to understand that Anderson's stories are alive because they sell, because they are read (as opposed to those of Talented Authors unable to find a market). Certainly, there is some truth in that. However, to leave it at that betrays a very superficial reading of LeGuin's statement. Stories, to be alive (a more nuanced reading of the quip reveals), need to leave space for the reader's imagination, for the reader to create the story in the act of reading. Anderson's fiction is filled with his own ego, with his conviction that he has lessons to impart. As such, it cannot be read in a creative way, it does not invite the reader's imagination to roam its open spaces. These stories are shallow parodies of life. They are the living dead, nothing more than soulless zombies. | July 2001

 

Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.