? ?
wood cat


incidents and accidents, hints and allegations

wood cat
Kate kate_nepveu
Previous Entry Share Flag Next Entry
Readercon: Bookclub on Little, Big

Previously-scheduled doctor's appointment this afternoon, after which I just came home because I feel lousy. So have a panel report, and an updated roundup.


The Readercon Book Club.
Judith Berman, Ron Drummond (L), Elizabeth Hand, Graham Sleight, Konrad Walewski.
In celebration of its 25th anniversary edition, an in-depth discussion of John Crowley's Little, Big.

I hadn't planned to take notes on this, but I was very sleepy and thought it would be a good way to keep myself awake. Disclaimer: I haven't read Little, Big for a long time, so my notes may be misguided in places.

Of the panelists, Berman and Hand are novelists; Sleight is a critic; Drummond is the publisher of the forthcoming 25th anniversary edition; and Walewski is Crowley's Polish translator (though he hasn't translated LB yet).

Crowley was sitting in the back row.

Walewski: when he teaches LB in a course on American Literature, students react in one of two ways: either they love it, or they ask, "what *is* this?" This reflects what he thinks is the status of LB & Crowley in the English-speaking world.

He thinks LB is composed of the whole experience of reading, a very personal translation (? looking at this now, I'm not sure this is what he said) of a lifetime's experience of reading, starting from childhood fascinations.

Proposition: LB is the Northern European answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Sleight: if there's a single thing he organizes his understanding of LB around, it's the tension between representations of things and things themselves (the art of memory; the house itself; the book Architecture of Country Houses; the tale the family thinks it's in). The section "Little, Big" in "Brother North-Wind's Secret" unpicks this for him, as the character watches the stars and wonders whether her (?) mind is so big that it contains all the sky, or if the sky is so small that it fits in her head.

Berman: the form recapitulates the actual story, roughly: the story is about moving into larger and larger realms. There's much back & forth in book, but it begins with the everyday and gets more & more mythologized by end. She's always been convinced that Crowley had Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism in the back of his mind, with its range of terms for representation. I think she called LB "anagonic." Some people like the first section best, but it's so cool to have these sudden mythological uprisings!

A whole other topic: the way the pastoral is treated is so interesting, such Oberon talking about how the city replaced the country as the center of strangeness.

Sleight: damn you, I have a completely different theory about why Anatomy of Criticism underlies Ægypt!

Drummond: cites the "suppose one were a fish" scene as demonstrating the ambiguity of time, which becomes overwhelming in the final pages. Smokey comes to understand that the tale is the book we-the-readers are holding in our hands; and at the banquet table, (they? we? both?) are setting sail into the past, into the company of great characters. (This is one of the places where I'd be a lot surer of my transcription if I remembered the book.)

Sleight: there's a line in the last paragraph about stories lasting longer by being stories.

Drummond: storytelling is the central theme.

Berman: other stuff to talk about: the use of dreams, in which some people's dreams do more. Oberon and Sylvie sex scene: only a writer would turn that into a dream where they end up at an empty banquet table, which very ambiguously ends on the word "empty." "Is that a sex scene? Is that how writers have sex?"

Sleight: books 1 & 3 both end with dreams.

[There followed much discussion about characters and different ways of relating to dreams which I spaced out on.]

audience: LB is a family story, what is the Barbarossa sequence doing there?

Berman: everyone's done King Arthur!

Drummond: it's utterly outlandish! the reader assumes it has to be really important, and ends up not being, like a trick.

Berman: which is totally foreshadowed, with clouds and a sunset that don't look real

Drummond: and Russell (somebody), who goes to Faerie, is magicked off the train, and becomes Brother North-wind.

Sleight: it's so unusual where the political thread is the least central thing. Power is kind of a joke: the person (having it, I think) is actually subservient to the tale. But this isn't totally hopeful, because when the rest retreat into Edgewood, the people left are going to have a pretty hard time.

Drummond: or is something moving into "our" realm? There's some suggestion, but probably we'll never know. Many stories are suggested by the book.

Sleight: but the suggested stories have a resistance to being literalized: no-one thinks there will be sequels!

Audience: what do the non-Americans think about it as an American novel, and its descriptions of American life?

Walewski: it is American but also very anti-American, in its approach to the traditional. It's an anti-20th century novel, in that it doesn't concentrate on the horrors & terrors of life.

Sleight: disagrees slightly about avoiding horrors, there are plenty of those (ex: sexual jealousy of Oberon in NY sections). Portentous pause: John Clute has a theory (laughter from the audience) that the book gets its energy from the tension between British & American patterns of fantasy (someone, didn't see who, immediately said "absolutely")

Walewski: doesn't think it's fantasy, great literature is hard to categorize, and it avoids the classical tropes of fantasy—except for the fairies! (which I think is a very big except)—such as very simplified versions of good & evil

Sleight: strawman

Berman: book is consumed by fantasy

Hand: but it doesn't remind her of other fantasy; knows it is when reading, but when she thinks about the reading experience, she's reminded of Middlemarch and Eudora Welty

Berman: like Edgewood itself, moves from a family pastoral to a mythological tale; the beauty is in how it's put together

Sleight: this is personified in Smokey

Audience: Crowley was interviewed for a Readercon souvenir book shortly after LB's publication, and named Auden (I think) as what the book reminds him of

Drummond: on one hand, LB is timeless; on the other, it's not dated but a product of the 1970s, when NYC had famously gone to shit, and extrapolates that

Crowley was asked for his concluding thoughts.

  • He was far less conscious in the construction of the book than it may seem; he didn't know about Anatomy of Criticism until he was almost done, but it did seem like he'd tapped into a well of story.
  • The effect of the real versus the fantasic was kind of intended, but doing it page-to-page was hard to balance (very roughly paraphrased: "Oberon's drunk in the city—oh wait, it needs more Fairie!")
  • The Barbarossa plot began life as another story. He was planning to write a whole series of tales about a magic detective using the art of memory to figure out weird historical occurences, and just imported that in.
  • The moving between worlds had been discussed in terms of Alice in Wonderland. Like there, it's important to remember that there's a clean cup for the fairies, but everyone else gets a dirty one.

I'm sorry a trip to the doc resulted in feeling gross. Get better soon!

I wrote that misleadingly--I was already gross before the appt. But thanks.

Oh, thank you for this. It's the panel I would most like to have attended had I gone to Readercon.

No problem.

Thanks for that! I really resonated with this comment: the book gets its energy from the tension between British & American patterns of fantasy

You're welcome. (I'm not sure I understand it, myself, but probably I'm not well-read enough. => )

I would not say I understand it...I just recognize it's true for me in a way that's hard for me to put into words. I read, and was read by adults, a lot of British-English fantasy literature when I was young, and I think I might have internalized something at a non-verbal level.

That makes sense to me. Thanks.

it's important to remember that there's a clean cup for the fairies, but everyone else gets a dirty one.

Can you expand on this?

Thanks for the report. This is one of my favorite books-- I still treasure my battered paperback I bought in college. I also love Aegypt & am so excited that the final book in that series is coming out. Crowley has a way of making you feel there's a deeper world below the actual world we're in-- mythological resonance, or something, I'm babbling here and don't know how to say it. Anyway, I get these shivers reading his work, like I'm brushing up against that other world.

Minor nitpick: Auberon instead of Oberon, though of course it really is Oberon, in the end.

re: Auberon: see, this is what happens when I don't re-read.

As for the clean cups: someone likened the moving-of-worlds to the tea party in _Alice in Wonderland_, where everyone has to switch seats to get a clean cup. Except that actually it happens like this:
'I want a clean cup,' interrupted the Hatter: 'let's all move one place on.'

He moved on as he spoke, and the Dormouse followed him: the March Hare moved into the Dormouse's place, and Alice rather unwillingly took the place of the March Hare. The Hatter was the only one who got any advantage from the change: and Alice was a good deal worse off than before, as the March Hare had just upset the milk-jug into his plate.

Hence fairies with clean cups.

Interesting that somebody mentioned On Hundred Years Of Solitude because the book I think LB resembles in many respects is Nabokov's masterpiece Ada.

I'm a cretin who's not read either, but if you feel moved to expound, please feel free.

I'm not sure how coherent i can be on this but I'll try. (Aside: If all you know Nabokov for is Lolita then you are missing one of the funniest serious writers of the 20th century.)

OK, basic similarities are on the surface, Ada and LB are family sagas of complex patterns, covering what may be generations. Where LB interacts with Faerie, to the extent that Faerie-world and LB-World are contiguous, then similarly Ada seems to occupy a parallel earth contiguous with our own, and the family in the novel pass between the two as they move from family into world-at-large and back again.

Thanks. Looked coherent to me. =>

Thanks for the detailed notes -- actually, you remembered things quite accurately most of the time. Well done!

We're in the final production phase on the 25th anniversary Little, Big -- it's intense! Shaping up beautifully, I think. John's happy with it, which makes us happy. Website:



You're welcome. And I hope they are accurate, as I was taking notes on a portable keyboard during the panel.