Explaining Nancy Kress

by Gene Wolfe

"Explanations, Inc.," which you will find in this book, concerns a research shop whose operators will explain anything for a price. The price is not your soul or even the life of your firstborn, just plain old money; and that is one of the reasons you should read Nancy Kress.

There are really only three schools of writing. In the Pooh Bear school you make up a world that is different from the actual world, and in certain respects better. A. A. Milne obviously belongs to this school, and it would be nice, and fun, and interesting if little Christopher Robin’s stuffed toys could walk and talk, and if they lived in hollow trees in the woods instead of in his toy chest. Less obviously, so do Shakespeare and Dickens; real madmen do not rave so well as Lear, real princes do not possess Hamlet’s nobility, real scapegraces are never really so graceful as Mrs. Gamp, Mr. Micawber, and Sir John Falstaff, though we may wish to God they were. As I hope my examples have shown, most of the writers worth reading are Pooh Bears; and Nancy Kress has demonstrated that she can lift the Banner of the Bear as high as any living writer, though you will not find her doing much of that here.

In the Bare Poop school, you make up a world that is different from this one and in certain respects worse. Most creative writing teachers and most of the writers appearing in “little” magazines belong to this school; and it would be nasty, foul, and intolerable if the bear cage at the zoo really stank as much as they say it does, and if the bear were half so flyblown and disgusting. We may thank God it isn’t so. The actual cages in actual zoos may stink, but they never stink quite so vilely as in those stories; and what is perhaps more important, there is a sense in which the caged bears are no actual bears at all, are less real even than Winnie the Pooh. For Winnie is an ideal toy bear—a toy bear as a toy bear would wish to be if a toy bear could wish. While the caged bear is an exhibit, a bear unbearably parted from the ursine ideal, just as the writers of the Bare Poop school are writers unbearably parted from the writerly ideals of Homer and Hemingway, pseudo-writers who could be made worse only by appearing in their own vignettes. Nancy Kress does not write like that; if she did, I would not be introducing you to TRINITY AND OTHER STORIES, because she would be incapable of writing it.

In the Kress school you make up a single event that is different (and in some respects better) from the things we usually see in our actual world; then you put it there. Suppose, for example, that reincarnation could be shown to be fact— and an actress is to play Joan of Arc. That is “With the Original Cast,” and you will not find a single flaw in the casting; these are real, contemporary New York theatrical people, thinking and acting as such people do.

Or suppose that a woman could recall all her past lives—and that woman was the only parent and the only adult that an adolescent had ever known. That is “Talp Hunt,” and “Talp Hunt” is one of the few castaway stories worth reading since “A Martian Odyssey.”

I could go on like this for story after story. But if I did, you would get the idea that Nancy Kress is fundamentally an idea writer, a gimmick writer and perhaps even a gadget writer. Nothing could be further from the truth. She has idea after idea, true. And it is also true that they are ideas most writers would give their firstborn for—were it not that most of us writers are too invincibly smug to see how badly we need new ones. But Nancy would not give her firstborn for them, or so much as her oldest cat; she knows ideas are nothing without people. In “Night Win” you will meet an ugly couple fighting on the side of life in a hospital and in the only fantasy land that really exists; and you will see in both—because Nancy will make you see—that heroism has no more to do with good looks and steel thews than happiness does.

I could go on about the characters too: about Laura, who is Brorovsky’s hollow woman, and about the central figure of “Trinity,” who is not Seena the entomologist (though Seena is beautifully drawn) but that ineffable thing Francis Thompson called the Hound of Heaven, the being whom all of us hunt and flee.

Thus far I, who work or at least try to work for Explanations, Inc., have not yet explained Nancy Kress to the satisfaction of you, my client; and you’re beginning to think I can’t do it and you’re going to get your money back. Well, you’re wrong.

I said a moment ago that there were three schools of writing. There are also two kinds of writers, both kinds being found in all three schools. The first type of writer (usually male) possesses no deep insight into the human soul, and thus writes largely about those things that are outside it: robots and ray guns, murders and wars. Lewis Carroll and Robert E. Howard are writers of this type; so is Agatha Christie. And of course there is nothing wrong with this kind of writer or this kind of writing, which has given us GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, TITUS GROAN, and a thousand other treasures.

The second type (usually female) makes the soul her chief concern. Unfortunately quite often there is something wrong with this kind of writer and the writing she does. It has been called natural modesty, womanly humility, a decent reticence and a dozen other names, all of them complimentary and some of them noble; but it is not a good thing for writing. Stripped of its lovely names, it amounts to an unwillingness to show too much, because the writer knows that in showing the souls of her characters she reveals her own. And she wouldn't, she really wouldn’t, want us to see that.

But occasionally we may find a writer—as occasionally we may find a diamond—who does not care. Or rather, who cares so much for her creation that her creation is all that matters to her, not because she counts herself as nothing but because she does not count herself at all. Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust are writers of this kind. So is Nancy Kress. They don’t care what we think of them, which is why we think the world of them.

—Gene Wolfe