I’ve tried to start this letter several ways. And instead of beginning it with a general discussion on artistic self-cannibalism (as I originally intended), I think I’m just going to have to do it by talking about the reason that I’m writing this letter in the first place.
Caitlin R. Kiernan’s novel The Drowning Girl is a masterwork.
It is also made up of bits and pieces plundered from Kiernan’s earlier fiction.
And everything in the usual ways we talk about art – and about artistic self-cannibalism – would say that this is a problem.
Originally I had a notion of writing this letter as an appendix that acknowledges this self-cannibalism on Kiernan’s part, as if it was a dirty little secret – as if my praise of The Drowning Girl would not be “playing fair” if I didn’t acknowledge this fly in my ointment.
And yet… And yet.
There was a much more interesting potential discussion underneath that notion. And the more I began thinking about that potential discussion, the more I wanted to have it. Because when talking about artists who repeat themselves (artists who, as I put it, self-cannibalize), there is a familiar and predictable way to talk about it. And my goodness, is it ever unexamined and pompous and just so very boring.
If I’m going to talk about Kiernan’s self-cannibalism, I want to do it actively, not passively. So I’m going to try to do that here, in this letter about Kiernan in specific, but also about artistic self-cannibalism in general. And so may I present:
Exhibit A: in which there is Diana Wynne Jones, and also some billets of wood
I think that when we talk about writers who repeat themselves, we can usually think (unfavorably) of some writer we know who has been dragging out the same tired old plot or the same tired old quirks over and over and over.
What I mean is, there are certain things that authors repeat, and certain ways of repetition, that we love to hate – but also others that we almost never seem to vocally criticize.
So in relation to this, and to jump-start this conversation – I quote now from Some Truths About Writing, an essay taken from Reflections on the Magic of Writing, which is a posthumous collection of Diana Wynne Jones’ nonfiction:
“[She is forced] to acknowledge a second and much more private truth: that she uses the same five characters again and again under different guises. Now this does indeed happen, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single writer admit it. Sometimes the fact is obvious… but mostly it is a lot less so. I don’t know why it should be such a shameful thing to admit. Painters are allowed to portray the same haystack a hundred times… but a writer is not allowed to put the same person in more than one book unless it is a sequel and that character has the same name. Some of this prohibition comes from readers and reviewers (who consider it cheating and uninventive), but I suspect the true reason is that writers themselves don’t want to admit it. They squirm and wriggle and say anything, rather than that they use the same character more than once. Such repeated characters are always very near and dear to a writer’s heart… and it is a true invasion of privacy to have other people know that you have been carrying this person about, nestled in the soft spaces of your head. But the fact is, such characters have your emotions vested in them, and usually you have had them long enough that they have grown as many quirks and facets as a real live person. This actually makes them doubly valuable… They have lived with you so long and have developed so many sides to them that you can use a piece of them here and a piece of them there—split them down the middle like a billet of wood, as it were—and still present them as rounded personalities for that particular narrative. My hope is that nobody has hitherto noticed when I do this. Does anyone know that Mr. Lynn in Fire and Hemlock and the Goon from Archer’s Goon both derive from the same person, split like a billet of wood? …Or did anyone spot that Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle and the Keeper of the Silver Casket in A Tale of Time City are similarly made out of another single person? Or Torquil in Archer’s Goon and Tacroy from The Lives of Christopher Chant? The similarity of names might give that one away, I suppose.”
First off, to anyone who hasn’t read all of those books Diana Wynne Jones references: it is not obvious, at least not with those characters. DWJ has done her work very well. And with a few exceptions, her characters tend to be more on the side of extraordinarily memorable and distinct. What DWJ seems to consider “using the same character over and over” clearly does not always translate thus on her pages.
Equally clearly, her use of the same ur-characters doesn’t trigger warning signs in the ways that, say, Dan Brown blatantly and obviously using the same plot always does.
Second off, DWJ raises a pretty excellent point almost by omission – what she is talking about when she talks about repetition is clearly a different animal than what we usually talk about when we talk about repetition.
I think we go after writers with much more of a baying-for-blood enthusiasm when they’re reusing the same plot; or reusing assorted details; or reusing quirks and tics regarding the lives and habits of the characters.
So, for example, Patricia McKillip has a tendency to actually write very few characters, I think – in other words, she does precisely what DWJ describes in her essay and writes many variations on a small set of people – but I have never seen this aimed as a criticism at her books (I mean, I’m sure someone has said it, but it’s not part of the main conversation). And frankly, this aspect of her writing wasn’t something I even thought about, or vocalized, until right this moment.
As another example, Diane Duane has reused the same plot at least three times (the plot of Stealing the Elf-King’s Roses appears at least twice in the Young Wizards series, as far as I can remember from my teenage years of reading), and this bothered me much more than, say, some of the supporting characters in her Young Wizards series having nearly identical personalities and arcs. (In fact – again – I didn’t even really notice or vocalize the latter until just now, so that just goes to show…)
Haruki Murakami is a respected and beloved author who, nonetheless, has a fan-made bingo scoreboard for his books (put together by Grant Snider) which lists those quirks and tics and details and plot-points that you’re very likely to encounter in a Murakami fiction– despite all his imagination and variety in other things.
And when talking about David Lynch’s movies, there is a larger conversation to be had about Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, in that people don’t only talk about the films in isolation, but frequently argue and debate over which film they like better – because these two films by David Lynch (though very different in a lot of ways) have such a similar gimmick to their form that people feel compelled to choose sides. For some reason.
(That “for some reason” is not rhetorical, by the way. I think there is a coherent reason that’s maybe rarely put into words, but I also think it’s part of that calcified way we have of talking when we talk about artists who repeat themselves – but I’ll get to that in a moment.)
So, see, I can’t really say we hate artists who repeat themselves, can I? I think it’s pretty clear that we don’t seem to mind, or notice, when some things are repeated.
We mind it, I guess, when it’s the plundering of details and surfaces – not so much the plundering of hearts.
We seem to be more bothered when the execution is identical, not the conceit – which is perhaps why we are usually more bothered by a cookie-cutter plot than a cookie-cutter protagonist. And, as with Patricia McKillip and a massive number of other authors: if they do it well and do it right, the different circumstances and situations that surround their ur-characters (or ur-obsessions) make for diverse and engaging varieties of stories.
Even so, if we do manage to think of it always as just one character or one obsession that is going through the motions of different stories and plots, it can still be very interesting to watch, because we see such shades and variations on a theme – a multifaceted presentation.
(In musical form, when you have a “theme and variations”, it is not the theme that is the interesting part. We’re more fascinated by how it is transformed, over and over, through the ingenuity of the composer.)
So could we say that we don’t mind repetition nearly as much if it’s the repetition of a character – because, unless the plot is repeated too, we’ll get a different story each time regardless?
Well – I think so. Perhaps.
And could we try to derive a truth from that observation, that we only mind repetition if it’s a plundering of details, and not of hearts?
No. That logic only works in a very specific situation. It has too many holes in it to apply generally (I can think of like three immediately). And it doesn’t really unpick the stitching of anything – it doesn’t really get close to the heart of why we sometimes mind repetition, and why sometimes we do not. And I can think of an example that immediately contradicts it:
Exhibit B: in which Christopher Robin leads an Expotition to the Wolfe Archipelago.
Gene Wolfe has written four stories that are titled as follows:
- Death of the Island Doctor
- The Doctor of Death Island
- The Death of Dr. Island
- The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories
And for my own amusement, imagine the following scenario: let’s pretend Wolfe had written those stories and then decided to give them various and non-patterned names. Someone would right now be reading these stories and wrinkling their nose at them, “but why is he so obsessed with islands and doctors and all this metafictional nonsense, I don’t understand?”
Someone right now would hate those stories precisely for the sort of repetition we purportedly love to hate – the plundering of details and surfaces, of tics and quirks.
But Wolfe has heavily signaled his intentionality. So instead, this set of four stories tend to be talked about like this:
(After reading Kiernan’s The Red Tree, I remember coming across the short story One Tree Hill and thinking, my gosh, she even uses the same exact sentences at times – and then I had a thought, before even knowing about the existence of the Wolfe Archipelago, that actually if Kiernan had written four or eight or twelve stories all about haunted trees, all in a similar mood or tone, it would bother me so much less than it did at that point in time, knowing that there were only two such stories, and one was cannibalizing the other.)
And this gets to the real point of why readers fuss and shout when they notice moments of artistic self-cannibalism.
It is not, as some people, like to say, because it means that the artist is lazy and that’s bad, as if we are outraged by this moral lack on an ethical ground. People do say that but I think it’s because it’s easy to say it, and an easy to dismiss the issue and not have to think about it any further. It’s a lazy sentiment. So give me a break.
I think the more immediate reason – though not the fundamental one – that people hate artistic self-cannibalism so much is because it pops them out of the story.
It’s like bathos. It’s like narm. The spell is broken and we’re back in our seat, going “wait a minute – what?” It breaks the hold of the fiction (or the music or the art or whatever) because we find ourselves no longer giving the story our undivided attention. Instead we’re sorting through memories in our heads and squinting at this sudden unexpected deja vu, and frequently feeling a bit cheated, and finding ourselves with unpleasant and irritable emotions (which we’re usually not so good at ascribing to a cause – hence the whole “it’s lazy!” shtick).
And I could hover for a lot of paragraphs on this one point, I guess, and spin out the descriptions of how it happens and how we react, all phrased in a very pretty way, but again – striking for the fundamentals here – engaging with this actively, not passively, so:
The reason it breaks the spell and pops us out of the fiction is because we don’t have a context for it. We’re only bothered by it when don’t have a context.
That’s what’s so clever about Gene Wolfe and his titling strategy – it so blatantly provides us a context for how to engage with his repetition of plot and tics across these four stories, and it also sets the limits. It tells us “read these four stories for the complete effect, and you don’t have to read any other stories. All the context you need is in these four. I promise.”
That’s what threw me off when I began reading Kiernan’s other fiction. Suddenly I was encountering bits and pieces of The Drowning Girl all over the goddamn place – and since The Drowning Girl is an exceptionally complex and riddle-like piece of fiction, I was suddenly wondering: am I missing something? Would someone who has read _______ and _______ and _______ suddenly understand everything about The Drowning Girl that is puzzling me at the moment? Do these other stories that use similar elements contain the keys that, once assembled, take The Drowning Girl‘s knots and rearrange them into neat braids?
More importantly, was my reading and understanding of the book going to be completely invalidated by some other, random short story, buried in an anthology somewhere, which I would have no idea existed unless someone pointed me to it, or I came upon it by chance?
As it turns out: I think I can safely say no, no, and no. I have not read Kiernan very thoroughly. She is a prolific writer and I am not a fast reader, and while I’ve read two of her novels and maybe a couple dozen of her short stories (so far), that is not nearly enough to give me an accurate sense of her writing as a whole, considering how there is so much of it.
But what I have read has given me a good sense that, yes, The Drowning Girl poaches details and quirks by the handful, sure. In Kiernan’s other stories you can encounter Albert Perrault, and the Open Door of the Night, and Alice in Wonderland references, and eerie versions of lobster quadrilles, and unreliable narrators who are writing novel-length manuscripts while telling you how unreliable they are, and wolves, and fantastically Weird sex scenes, and Le Chaperon Rouge, and other things beside.
What you will encounter in Kiernan’s fiction (meaning, what I have encountered) is one or two of those details picked up, examined, and put to a use that is very specific to the story at hand.
What we get with The Drowning Girl is a startling synthesis of all those details and tics – they are all put to work for a different purpose than in their previous stories, and they all combine beautifully to create a sum incredibly larger than its parts. And, as I think I’ve said before, The Drowning Girl is unique in Kiernan’s oeuvre; it is a brilliant long-form structure, in a way that can only be done in a novel-length work, and contains so many layers that, like cutting into an onion, it’ll make you weep.
Based on the tiny portion of Kiernan’s writing that I have read, I would say that it is likely the most brilliant soaring thing she has done so far, and on a phenomenal technical level.
And you need to – honestly – ignore the other things she has written in order to appreciate that fact fully. By which I mean, just because the cult in the short story The Open Door of the Night turns out to have supernatural, cosmic-horror implications does not mean you should be reading the cult that way in The Drowning Girl. In the short story, the cult is used in a way that builds to a definite supernatural intrusion into the more ordinary dark underside of certain types of lives. In the novel, the cult is used to build the history of a single character.
Whether or not the cult, in The Drowning Girl, is supernatural or not is irrelevant. The point is that Eva watched her mother and adopted family of a cult walk into the ocean and drown themselves. She is haunted by their deaths and the death of her mother (not, in contrast to the short story, by whatever the cult worshiped and the cult’s leader). Eva is also probably crazy in a similar way to how Imp is crazy. (At least, many things in the text say this or otherwise imply this.) And in the book, her haunting is clearly paralleled with Imp’s haunting – a haunting by family, a haunting by history – that point is where a great deal of the book’s power rests.
So how the hell do we read all this? We have to make our own context, I guess.
One way to look at it, for example, is imagine a painter who, let’s say, makes an unnerving charcoal drawing of a particular figure. Then later that figure appears in a painting; and you could read the charcoal drawing as a preparatory working-out of an idea, a sort of “well, this is one way to examine the thing that I have come across in my head and am a little fascinated with”; but the existence of the painting doesn’t invalidate the charcoal drawing. Some might prefer the drawing, and some might prefer the painting – my experience with this sort of thing when dealing with real artists is that sometimes I prefer the sketch, for its particular personality or whatever – but just because both painting and sketch transparently contain the same subject does not make them copies of the same thing.
And that context can be quite forgiving, and it’s also just usually not the way we talk about repetition in writing (and in some other things too).
The traditional, crusty conversation about artistic self-cannibalism seems to always go something like this:
1. Artists who repeat themselves on purpose (aka, blatantly reference that repetition – like Gene Wolfe in his doctor/island quartet) are interesting artists. We don’t think of it as self-cannibalization then. It’s more like Creating Some Sort Of Grand Gestalt Statement, so instead we talk about how clever they are and so on.
2. Artists who don’t seem, to us, to do it “on purpose” (except of course they also do it on purpose, because who knowingly repeats themselves without being aware of the fact? What we mean is that they do it in a way that doesn’t seem as if it is “on purpose” to us) create those pesky artworks that self-cannibalize. And that’s bad. (I do specifically use the term self-cannibalism because it conveys that assumption I think we so often make, that at least one of the artworks is lesser for both of them existing – it is reduced and somehow “eaten” by the existence of the other work.)
3. The discovery of self-cannibalization in an artist’s oeuvre supposedly ruins the experience for us. Either all the works in the self-cannibalizing family are now obviously much worse across the board for that reason (that artist is lazy, and how everything is tainted as a result); or, those works will have to be sorted into a hierarchy before we can talk about them properly – we pick the version that we like the most. Previous versions, if we dislike them, can be dismissed as “less realized”. Later versions, if we dislike them, can be dismissed as “diluted” or “derivative”. The point is to preserve the notion of one work being an Original, so that we can say to our friends, “yes, this one is good, there’s nothing like it in the world – except for a few poor copies made of it by the artist himself, but ignore those, they’re not real.”
Choose one, and throw the rest under the bus! (I cannot help but think of Mrs. Wormwood chirping “You chose books, I chose looks!”) Don’t challenge the way we talk about artistic repetition; don’t think about it too much, since that is hard and you’ll probably lose the attention of your dinner guests if you try; just validate the things you like and discard the things you don’t, as efficiently as you can, because playing by the rules of the game gives you the consensus of cliché. And cliché can be one of the greatest and fakest authorities to have on your side.
I said earlier that unexpected repetition can pop us out of the story in an unpleasant way, and that it bothers us because we are missing the context. I think we can say that the reason it bothers us is because, to quote Sherry Kramer, human beings are busy little pattern-making creatures. When we see repetition, and we see that it does not easily cohere to a larger and clearly intentional pattern, it throws us for a loop.
And this, I think, is because there are three simultaneous modes of reading (or listening, or looking at) any piece of art, and they are as follows:
We read it in the context of its own terms: we read it as something self-contained, and we understand that the contextual clues we’ll need to get a satisfying experience will be seeded into it.
We will read it, also, in the context of everything else the writer has written – at least, that we have read so far. We look for patterns there too, or evolution, or larger contextual clues to how to understand the thing we are looking at. (For example, it’s much easier to read your tenth Kelly Link story than your first, because reading her fiction teaches you how to read her fiction.) (This is also famously a reason why so many reviewers are a little nervous of tackling Joyce Carol Oates; it’s hard to pompously frame her latest book in the context of her previous work when there is so much previous work and you haven’t read most of it.)
And thirdly, we read it of course in the context of everything else we have read. You can watch one superhero movie and find it stale and boring and repetitive because it is a repetition, in terms of the larger cultural oeuvre of everything that has been in theaters over the past few decades (or even just the past two years). And you can watch another superhero movie and find it the most thrilling theatrical experience in recent memory, because yes it is a good movie but also – in the context of the larger cultural oeuvre – it is doing things that are so interesting, and it is deliberately working within that context and shaping its place within it, and playing out such fascinating variations and shifts… and we appreciate and delight in it when this happens. (This is also, maybe, a less obnoxious and pretentious – and more useful – way to express at least one of the things Harold Bloom was trying to express in The Anxiety of Influence.)
Anyhow: I think that these three ways of reading are simultaneous. And some things that we read can play more heavily on one mode than the other. (Certain satires, for example, make no mark if their reader isn’t familiar with their larger context; aka, they rely very heavily on the third mode of reading…)
We are used to some authors very deliberately shaping how their work exists in the first way of reading and also the third; most capable authors do this, I think. And some are less concerned with the third mode, and some are less concerned with the first, but there’s almost always some acknowledgment of both.
But it is just as clear that many authors carefully shape the second mode too; they shape the experience of reading their canon. And some others do not shape it nearly as much.
Let me bring up, for maybe the hundredth time, Kelly Link – I remember listening to a podcast interview with her while working on the Kelly Link and Detail letter, where she talks about how one of her obsessions as a writer is twins. But, as she ruefully admits, she wrote a story very early on where the main character is one of a pair of ten-year-old twins. And since then, she has felt that she can’t really write about twins so overtly anymore – she would just be repeating herself in a pretty obvious way. So instead she writes about twins sideways and from odd angles and in all sorts of peculiar ways. And sure enough, if you look at enough stories by Kelly Link, you will come across a fair amount of doubles and doppelgangers and twins and things, except it’s never done in the same way; and the way in which she does it is always exciting to see – both on its own, but also in the larger framework of her larger context.
We love the variation even more, sometimes, than the original theme.
And it is an intentional shaping of her oeuvre – she is not just thinking of the reader who is reading one individual story, but also the reader who is reading all her stories (even if that reader is just herself – even if she just doesn’t want to repeat herself for her own pleasure). So asides from creating a single work, Kelly Link is also creating a massive, larger thing that is made up of every story she has ever written; and I think you could say she thinks of, and shapes, that larger work just as much as the smaller one.
This is why it can be frustrating to encounter the same tics and quirks in Murakami, over and over: because we say, is this part of a larger pattern? Is this something that, if we track it across all his novels, will reveal some larger, tapestry-like effect? Well, maybe. But probably not intentionally on Murakami’s part. I think he just really loves his cats, and he really loves his weird sex scenes, and by golly if he isn’t going to sprinkle them into a bunch of his novels for his own fun and games.
Variation shows us deliberation, and acknowledges our gaze. It gives us a context of comparison. We are busy little pattern-making creatures, and when the pattern actually leads somewhere, we are satisfied and intrigued.
Artistic self-cannibalism without any provided context is what creates snarls for us, in at least one of the modes in which we read, and it creates the incoherence and sudden doubts and accidental echoes in wrong places that cause some of us to shout “ugh, that’s lazy!” but really what we are reacting to is our stumbling over this sudden and deeply uncomfortable gap in context.
That all being said, I am now going to defend Kiernan and her artistic self-cannibalism because, even though I know so little of her work and (generally speaking) am much more fascinated with the Gene Wolfe/Kelly Link approach to repetition, the whole point of this letter was to think more carefully about this sort of stuff than I have previously done. And every author who self-cannibalizes – every artist, every composer – gives us the opportunity to create a context for how to read it when they, in particular, do it. Thus:
Exhibit C: in which I talk about how I read it when Kiernan does it.
Even though I do not like it when I read a story by Kiernan and suddenly realize I’ve read some version of it before, I am very fully aware that this is entirely to do with my own reading comfort. There is definitely a logical train-of-thought that would classify such an annoyance as similar to the people who take a glance at The Drowning Girl, sigh and groan and scream “ugh it’s just too hard!” and then fuck off to the ice-cream parlor for a banana split or whatever it might they eat for lunch and dinner. (And they are entitled to do this if they like! But so is Kiernan entitled to disdain them.)
And just as Kiernan casually flips a middle finger at the latter and resumes sipping her coffee while working on her latest story, I could readily imagine her doing the same at me for wishing “oh, my dear Caitlin, you darling person whom I have not met and who owes me nothing, won’t you write your stories in this way instead of that way, just to please little ol’ shameless me?”
Because, see, when Dan Brown recycles his goddamn tissue-paper conspiracy theory plots, you can just laugh in his face because he’s so predictable, and more to the point, he’s fucking loaded, thanks to at least one of those tissue-paper plots, so he has the time and money to do (and write) precisely what he wants. He acts with near-total autonomy. If he had any self-conception as a complex writer (instead of as a sort of magical hack machine) he’d probably see what would happen if a boring and bestselling author suddenly takes a swerve into, I don’t know, surrealism or stream-of-conscious or whatever it is that would bewilder his reading audience the most.
When Kiernan works out her obsessions over multiple stories and sometimes multiple novels, she is writing under harsh deadlines and struggling to make ends meet because, unlike very many writers, she has no other source of income asides from her writing, and she is not a best-selling author who can afford to rebuild a summer home based on the sales of one book; and she absolutely refuses to compromise herself for the sake of maybe making some bigger bucks.
This might seem like a bit of an oxymoron – “she won’t compromise herself by writing Dan Brown plots, so instead she compromises herself through repetition?” – but like I said, every writer who self-cannibalizes unintentionally creates their own context for how you may choose to read it; and an artistic compromise in this sense is when you shit on your integrity for the sake of, say, money. It is not really an artistic compromise when you shit on, instead, the convention of How These Things Are Done. Kiernan has been shitting on those since she has first put fingers to keyboard. Just to list a few examples of things she does that are otherwise considered Major Writer Gaffes: she replies to reviews (especially Amazon reviews!) if she feels like it; she has no qualms with responding to an analysis of her story with “well, actually…”; she complains online if her stories or books are not doing as well as they deserve; she revises her stories each time they’re collected into a new volume; and she does a number of other things that apparently Well-Behaved Authors Must Never Do If They Plan On Making A Good Impression Within Society And Snagging An Eligible Husband or whatever the hell.
So for Kiernan to shit on the usual ways of thinking about repetition and artistic self-cannibalism is, actually, 100% in line with her every other order of business.
Kiernan also runs a blog where she posts very frequently, and I have looked at it a little bit as part of the preparation for when I was working on the Drowning Girl letter. (I say I’ve only looked at it a little bit because, like her oeuvre, the blog is massive and I have not read nearly a fraction of it. Just scratched the surface, if anything.) But still, I have come across things like this:
“Yesterday I managed to get back to work of “Dead Letter Office,” but I only eked out a measly 759 words. I did not find THE END. I ought to have been done with the piece days ago. People who do not depend on their writing as the sole means of support for two people are fond of saying things like, “You can’t rush art. Take your time.” And here we have the vast gulf between the romance of the would-be working author and the harsh facts of the actual working author. It would be wonderful if I had a month to work on this piece. I don’t.”
And I have also, very accidentally, stumbled on the Onion entries – namely, Kiernan wrote a story some years ago called Onion, and it was picked up to be a potential movie, and Kiernan was very much on board and writing the script. And, as she puts it in one of her older entries:
“I’ve got to find the time and motivation to get back to the “Onion” screenplay, because not only do I have the very patient producer D waiting on it, I now also have a director of some considerable merit wanting a look at it, and here I am stuck in these endless hallways of proofing and editing. This could be the project that changes everything …”
This could have been the big break, seriously! This could have meant money. This could have meant a possibility of bursting out into the mainstream, of glorious massive sales; of no longer having to auction off random odds-and-ends on eBay every few months just to make ends meet.
It could have meant having freedom from the grind: that eternally-sought-after golden ticket that capitalism tantalizes us with in order to keep us working ever harder.
It could have meant time, and a sudden refreshing amazing absence of anxiety.
It could also have ended up as a total dead-end and gone nowhere, as so many scripts do – development hell and all that – but hey, it was a possibility. Most of us are never even in the running for this sort of golden ticket. Kiernan had just been handed her very own Wonka chocolate bar. The possibility was in her hands.
So what happened?
Well, this happened:
“I wrote “Onion” in 2001, ten years ago. …In 2007, A Big Hollywood Movie Producer spent months trying to get me to write a screenplay from it, and I tried. But he insisted the story was only the first half of a film, even though I explained to him that moving beyond the story’s last page, where Willa gets up and walks away from Frank, would entirely collapse the story’s fundamental mystery. I finally told him I just wasn’t up to writing the screenplay. So, “Onion” has had some history…”
And fuck all if I don’t have to take my hat off to the sort of integrity that will pass on the possibility of that golden ticket if it means you have to mangle your own work.
Kiernan, who does not have the luxury to quietly work things out over multiple endless drafts, thus continues to write iterations and variations and cannibalizations, and will continue working out her themes and obsessions and various “drafts” of certain ideas in public. And I will choose to read them, when I encounter them, in the way that you would read the various charcoal drawings and oil sketches that are then incorporated into a massive masterwork of a triptych – neither one cannibalizing the other, really – all just sprung from the same seed.
And since I am particularly fond of writers who do the opposite – who variate and invent and experiment endlessly, who boldly create enough work and archetypes for a dozen writers to plunder – and since it was particularly important to me, as a thinker, to experience those rare authors and artists and so on who are able to do this: I hope that I am not being a hypocrite by saying that, no, Kiernan is not Dan Brown, and neither is she, even, Murakami.
I fully expect that some people will say, “posh, of course she is,” and continue to turn up their noses because One Tree Hill and The Red Tree spring from the same premise and share certain sentences in common.
But I’ve scratched at the surface of Kiernan’s writing enough to create a context that – for now, at least, based on the few things I have read and encountered – pleases me enough, and allows me to engage with her work without too much popping-out; and frankly I am a little amused that someone who occasionally writes such intriguing and complex fiction would also have, at least for me, such an intriguing and demanding way to make context of her larger oeuvre.
And again, just to repeat it – based on what I’ve read so far: Kiernan has some fucking impressive integrity and damn it if I don’t respect that, okay. Maybe I’ll read some other things later and have to amend my thoughts/impressions of this author, but so far they seem to carry out. And on that note I will end this massive appendix of a letter.
Sincerely and a half,
# # #
 The only really blatant example that comes to my mind is the father in Black Maria as compared to the father in Fire and Hemlock. They have such very similar arcs and personalities, and a number of identical quirks to their function within the story. This is a real oddity for DWJ, who normally enjoys working by variations that are so simultaneously extreme and subtle that most people don’t realize they’re variations – in character as much as in plot (there will be a letter, some months down the lines, about how she uses variation for plot… but later, later). ONION, you mentioned Mrs. Smith in Dogsbody and Polly’s grandmother in Fire and Hemlock as an example of character duplication, and it is definitely true that they have some similarities (benevolent, strong-minded grandmother figures who essentially adopt the protagonist), though I personally feel it a little less than with the fathers. Similarly, DWJ has at least three novels with a young, passive male protagonist (who may or may not have a passion for reading) who, in the end, turns out to have far more power/talent than anyone suspected. But – again – this is also much more a variation on a theme. It tends to be fun and interesting (for me) to see the different ways in which it plays out. Cat from Charmed Life is an extreme version on the passive end, and of course that turns out to be a massive plot point as a result; Gair from Power of Three is well-reasoned and thoughtful, and his bookishness not only gives him a reputation for wisdom among his peers but also puts him into a position of leadership among his siblings; in contrast, Tonino’s bookishness from Magicians of Caprona becomes a weakness that, along with his passiveness, ends up trapping him in the clutches of the Duchess. All three novels would be very different stories if you swapped the protagonists with each other.
 So look. I do think that paucity of imagination can be a valid criticism. But I am growing leery of a mentality which I am realizing is equally likely to label all autobiographical fiction as “lazy” too. The more you go down the road of what fiction “can” and “cannot” be, the more tyrannical it gets… till you end up like Brenner in Kelly Link’s Lull, with his bizarrely specific poshlost demands for the sort of stories he wants to hear. Keep in mind that sloppy writing is something that makes me very uncomfortable and instinctively antagonistic – writing that can’t be bothered to pull off its own effects with even a half-assed effort, for example – since I really can’t stand it when the writer clearly thinks their reader is an idiot. And I think that is frequently indicative of a more fundamental paucity of imagination. But that is a different conversation.
 I think I need to mention that though I am not too certain on the publication dates of One Tree Hill versus The Red Tree, it is almost certainly a moot point, because the date when a writer composes something and the date when it goes to print have nothing to do with each other. (DWJ frequently mentioned how she wrote a number of her novels in a very different order than they were released, for example.) That being said, I would be surprised if it turned out that The Red Tree was composed before One Tree Hill. To me, it feels very much like Kiernan had a certain idea that got stuck in her head, and she worked it out in a short story; and then realized, as happens sometimes, that actually this idea wasn’t going away now that the story was done and, in addition, was demanding to be a novel. (This is exactly what happened with Karen Russell, by the way, and that resulting novel was in the running for a Pulitzer, during that year when they awarded it to no one.) So we have one version of a haunted tree story by Kiernan that plays out in a certain specific way, and has certain core sentences of description ascribed to the tree itself; and then we have another, much longer version of a haunted tree story that plays out in a very different way, but continues to have certain core sentences of description ascribed to the tree itself. (Except what’s interesting here is that the descriptions of the tree begin to contradict each other, and the narrator who is describing the tree notices this, and thus so do we – but that’s a whole other point. Especially because this “narrator noticing the fallibility of her own text” occurs also in The Drowning Girl, in one of the many instances of Kiernan’s self-cannibalism – but, again, in The Drowning Girl it is used in a different context too, because here it’s about the heart of the narrator’s efforts not to lie, and then later catching her own lies that slipped through. In The Red Tree it’s more about how increasingly unstable the tree and/or the narrator get the further we read.)
 Originally this was going to be a very long footnote that went off on a massive tangent discussing certain contemporary composers, and one or two contemporary artists, and how, even though I spend most of this letter critiquing the usual way of talking about repetition and self-cannibalism among artists, there may still a place where I just can’t help falling into that traditional way of talking, and I wanted to examine it and think about why. But I’m going to write that later, and it’ll be its own esoteric letter, instead of a massive and esoteric footnote. It’ll be an appendix to this appendix. Maybe that appendix will have its own appendix too. Whenever I write it, I will update this letter and put the link here: [link to come]