photo: Darek Kula

Bedside table #64. Michał Cetnarowski: Readings of the pampered brain

Michał Cetnarowski, writer, editor, and columnist talks about, among other things, practising reading zen, gliding across the surface of cultural texts, the books that have recently impressed him most, the role of Tolkien and "Nowa Fantastyka" monthly in his life, as well as the condition of contemporary speculative fiction.

What are you reading now? Do you have any kind of a bedside table at all, or do you rather keep your books next to the bed?

I'm afraid to admit it, but I guess I keep books in every possible place... On the nightstand beside the bed, too, of course. I'd be more ashamed of this if it weren't for the fact that I suspect it's the normal state of all readers who can't afford an Umberto Eco-style library. Anyway, I suspect that Eco, too, surrounded himself with books on a daily basis, and he had those kept in a dedicated library for photoshoots during interviews.

Therefore, it's a little hard to say what I am specifically reading 'at the moment' - it's usually a lot of titles in parallel that I return to or put aside for longer periods of time, depending on my mood and needs. This is possible insofar as a large proportion of these books are now essays in the broad sense of the term, non-fiction, popularising books, etc. With fiction, similar breaks don't work so well - you either sink in and get carried away, or you don't start reading at all, otherwise there's no immersion whatsoever. In this habit of ‘parallel reading’, I also recognise the invigorating routine of the entire group of those readers who also like to keep their heads in different worlds at the same time.

But all right. Let's do an examination of conscience. The current list with titles could look like this:

Essay: Dominika Oramus’s Darwinowskie paradygmaty. Mit teorii rewolucji w kulturze współczesnej (”Charles Darwin's Looking Glass”) and Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Comic-wise: the second volume of Sfar/Trondheim's Donjon, ninth volume of Aaron/Dillon's Punisher MAX, and Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying (outstanding).

From fiction, Anatomia pęknięcia ("The Anatomy of a Fracture") by Michal Protasiuk and The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Flannery O'Connor, and in audiobook - Cham z kulą w głowie ("A Lout with a Bullet in His Head") by Ziemowit Szczerek and The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly.

Do you finish everything, or do you rather give up? I often give up, not necessarily because of the quality, I just get easily distracted by subsequent books, so I just skim or flick through a large part. Then, of course, I regret it.

This, again, is a dilemma; quite common, I’m afraid.... I will answer diplomatically: I try to finish. I used to read up everything as a compulsive obsession; then, in reaction to one extreme, I found myself jumping between titles with the grace of a chimpanzee on steroids. Now, at least, I have a firm resolution not to indulge too much in such debauchery. In fact, I treat it more as a form of practising reading zen than an organic "need to find out who the killer is". This is because contemporary culture (technology) encourages this kind of distraction. And this happens immediately on two levels. One is obvious: the overproduction of titles makes the selection of material the most important art; it is impossible to read everything that has appeared, is appearing, or is about to appear.

But the issue also has a hidden agenda, I would say, an ontological one. Look, we read the first pages of books, watch the pilots of TV series, skip through gameplays of games on Youtube - and after those few or several dozen minutes, we have the impression that we have already cognised the whole work; we don't have to finish it to see it through, this glide on the surface of the hologram is enough for us. This is a cul-de-sac; this is how modern technology “changes our brains”, to refer to the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. In the same way, we scroll through social media walls in an endless stream of headlines and links, almost never reading what lies beneath; our brains get intoxicated with micro-hits of dopamine, it becomes unimportant what you read-watch-live, all that matters is that there is plenty of it and always at hand. You don't need to be a neo-Luddite to see the analogy between this approach and, say, the mass rearing of chickens stuffed with grub straight from a tube stuck down their throats. The effort of reading books to the end - that would be the idealistic exercise in perseverance here, the fight against distraction, the iron flip training for the brain. Yes, I do realise how lofty that sounds. But it is. I am telling you about this situation from the point of view of perhaps somewhat outdated ethics, for which such valuations make sense at all; for many of today's cultural audiences, this is perhaps a challenge outside the scope of things that are important to them, a concept without a designator. This is not how voyeurism is cultivated by today's Vlogs, TikToks, TV series.

Going back to books, it depends, clearly, but at least that is the ideal, the limit to which the function should aspire. However, not to come across as a total robot, I admit that I am simply trying to choose my reading more carefully for this reason. If an already pampered brain needs to be more strongly stimulated, then at least let it be provided by the book of choice, rather than a constant juggling of titles or a rally through social media. And I found that this is where high-octane science fiction or truly epic fantasy works best alongside the classics. For it is this kind of fiction, which, when well written, gives you the most healthy calories for your imagination, stimulating you in the widest thematic bandwidth.

So, there you have it. What a nerd.

And what has impressed you most recently?

From what I listed above? Tomine. I was on the hunt for his Killing and Dying for a long time - only succeeded after a reprint of the sold-out first edition. I also acquired Shortcomings by the same author on the spur of the moment, and it quickly became clear that Tomine was a heavyweight author in general. I consider both items to be real dynamite. Tomine creates literary fiction stories, fantastically portraying the characters, their weaknesses, ambitions, flaws, and loves; virtues mix with ridicule, traumas and neuroses - with inexpressible longing. Well, just like in life, Funky. People say "flesh and blood heroes" about characters created in this way, and there's something to that; zero infantilisation, which casts a shadow over more and more areas of culture.

The author paints an everyday life that is ordinary but not at all banal, just as suffering or joy that you experience the hard way is not banal either. In top-level prose, something like this has been done by Carver, Franzen, Flannery O'Connor, or Barnes, and that already sounds like the best recommendation. By the way, Tomine is a keen comic book writer – such stories as Translated from Japanese (in which the protagonist does not appear once in a frame, but the thing grabs you by the throat anyway) or Killing and Dying (where the crucial jumps in the chronology of events take place ‘between scenes’, and we watch the characters already confronted with what happened there) - these are short forms absolutely aware of the possibilities of the medium and able to creatively transcend them. Great, intimate stuff.

Of the books I read some time ago, similar emotions accompanied me when I was catching up on the last two volumes of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea. I duly swallowed the first trilogy in my youthful years, on a wave of enchantment with Tolkien, and well, I didn't understand much of it. Where are all those battles, the heroes, the non-existent neverlands painted in such detail? But I've recently returned to that ambience, having read Tehanu and The Other Wind. What a fire cracker... Minimum of words, maximum of content; a protagonist who has lost everything, and now has to reinvent himself in this life after life, when all power has been taken from you; a relationship between two mature people, who have their weaknesses and scars rather than youthful carelessness and verve, old people who are already in their lives closer to, rather than further away from, the ultimate expeditions and frontiers. And these are, after all, just the first few layers of these books. Well, literature of true beauty; a clever culmination of a series that is both an end and a beginning.

And of the books that are currently in the publishing process, we have recently finished working on Miasto Wszystkich Zdrowych (“The City of All Sanity”) by Szymon Stoczek. A bravura, original debut that takes no prisoners; fantasy in the tradition of China Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer, and, from the Poles, a bit of Paweł Matuszek. A literary curiosity full of panache that lets you explore exotic worlds without restraint and marvel at the author's imagination.

Let's go back in time a bit: what attracted you to speculative fiction in the first place? Was it a particular book, an author, or did speculative fiction just accompany you from the beginning of your adventure with books?

The instinctive response and the author I invoke in such a situation is Tolkien. One would like to say, "We all descend from him" (the generation of today's 40-year-olds); but the truth is that while some of us started out in the colours of the Middle-earth, others underwent a fantastic initiation marked by Lem. If there were a third group here, it would be the sons and daughters of horror (patrons: King, Barker, Masterton, Guy N. Smith). Anyway, The Lord of the Rings was my first ‘big fantasy’ (literature), I read it when I was 13-14, and it calibrated my aesthetic for years to come. Which is not to say that I became an adamant fantasy hool - I experienced an equally strong fascination with Dick's work, although I reached for his books a few years later.

And it all adds up - just because the above answer is instinctive, doesn't mean it's also untrue. Were I to think longer, though, those beginnings were more nuanced. And since you're putting me up against the wall, let's take a trip on this embarrassing confession back into the ancient nylon prehistory of the early 1990s.

At first, my mother inoculated me with her youthful books - including Karolcia ('Caroline') by Maria Krüger, there was the Anne of Green Gables series, and I read them with great interest. Then, my father gave me Ogniem i mieczem ("With Fire and Sword"). I also read it with curiosity, although I think the most impressive thing was that I managed to get through this cannon at all. I only came to appreciate Sienkiewicz much later, on the wave of popularity of Sapkowski's Witcher saga, which in a straight line grows out of The Trilogy. My cousin Ewa, on the other hand, the same age as me, got me into stories from the far north - Curwood, Cooper, the excellent Złoto Gór Czarnych ("The Gold of the Black Hills") by the Szklarski couple, that sort of thing. And when, in the orthodontist's waiting room, I came across a neon-multicoloured copy of a magazine mysteriously named "New Fantastyka", that was it. Which clearly proves that something good can happen to you even at the dentist’s. Today, anyway, in the age of premium dentists, blessed anaesthetic for the price of the procedure, and a modern approach to kids, this anecdote does not have as much impact – one does not know life (of a boomer) who has not been called to the school dentist in the last century and had a ride on the slow-moving drill, also known as the Skull Crusher. Anyway: the free dose of a drug with the essence of alien worlds was called Working Stiffs, it was written by John Morressy, to which I paid no attention at the time, and it was published in the 1993 issue of NF (classic cover: some dinosaur, an androgynous femme fatale, and a tough blade runner with a big gun).

At that time, mum was already running the newspaper stand, bringing home the first TM-Semic comics (love) and other newspapers from the so-called "returns"; that's how I also found “Fenix” magazine, to which I was attracted by, well, a nude sorceress on the cover (issue 2/91, check it yourself). But the first story I read and remembered was from issue 5/91 (the cover with a strange freak-violinist with face contorted with passion-suffering who had a big octopus-like hand instead of legs). It was called A Boy and His Dog' written by Harlan Ellison, a big-time dealer, and to say that it made an electrifying impression on me is to say nothing. In fact, it could hardly be otherwise - I was still in primary school, and inside, I got a brutal Mad Max-like story for adults, full of violence, sex, weirdness, and elusive nostalgia. Yeah, it clobbered me fiercely. To this day, I regard the text as one of the best I have ever read, and Ellison has a permanent place in my private hall of fame.

Phew, these are all the sins of my past life.

And don't you ever get a bit overloaded? Or, for instance, the feeling that you already know it all, that you pick up another book that you've actually already read?

Well yes, a similar challenge is probably faced by every reader at times. Are you familiar with Linia oporu ("Line of Resistance") by Jacek Dukaj? Its main theme is precisely this ubiquitous excess, the incessant overstimulation, the excess of the 21st century child, which becomes its base state, the factory setting of the postmodern soul. How do you fuel passions, challenges, and desires when "everything has already been done"? In Summa technologiczna (“Summa Technologiae”), Lem writes about the same thing, only in the context of the challenges of science: in the 21st century, the most important skill will be selection, not production of data.

On the other hand, speculative fiction - or pop culture as a whole - has from the beginning been a kind of "club of insiders" who have been passionate about minor differences overwritten into old patterns. How will the author in question portray the familiar theme of contact with aliens? Will the author offer a new and intriguing kind of magic? What else can be squeezed out of the concept of time travel? And so on. This way, even in a very seemingly typical cultural text, you are basically always able to find something intriguing.

But if that's not enough for you, a good solution seems to be to look for books that are smarter than you. I'm not saying that every opening of the book cover has to be torture; but the testimony of people wiser than me shows that it is worth to intersperse lighter titles with something more challenging. Then, there is always the chance that you will try something new and unusual, which will lead you into unexpected literary regions and worlds. I'm thinking of titles like Saint-Exupery's The Wisdom of the Sands, Egan's Diaspora, Bostrom's Superintelligence, for example (though here, of course, everyone will set their own bar). Or about reaching for the classics.

In moments of crisis, I also try to listen to other writers' recommendations. Wit Szostak recalled Faulkner some time ago, Szczepan Twardoch evoked Limonov and the absolutely unique August Scholtis on social media, Kuba Małecki pointed out Atticus Lish and Gabe Habash, and Paweł Majka is a faithful advocate of the genius of McMurtry and his Lonesome Dove. There remains the question of how to find the time for all this, but I hope you will mercifully not ask me about this, because it is an even more difficult matter...

Others advise adding essays to your diet. Look, this is the story of many readers: when they enter the swathe of shadow and have passed those 35, 40 years, they say that they have then increasingly started to turn to monographs, nature books, history books, and so on. It's not that they have given up fiction altogether - but they have changed the proportion of what they read. From my perspective, I'd add that sometimes it can be a good idea simply to change medium: reach for a comic book, and you'll get a lot of good stuff, and not just when it comes to speculative fiction (how many great literary fiction stories have come out here in recent years!). I'm not even mentioning games, TV series, or cinema - of course, there's plenty of content and experiences there too, but they're the main competitors in the battle for the time you want/can spend reading.

Since you mentioned books by wiser people than you, can you think of any books that have shaped you? I ask a bit about taste, but also about worldview.

I'm looking at these titles above and trying to connect the dots somehow. What common shape emerges from Anne of Green Gables, Ellison, or the comic Spider-Men...? It seems that I just like eclecticism. Though, overall, there would probably be something else that binds it all together.

Well, it turns out that, for better or worse, I am a child of "Nowa Fantastyka", that is the community of readers who gathered around this monthly at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. It was there that I learned to think about popular culture, comics, sci-fi and fantasy, literature, cinema, it was there that I participated in the first discussions on its pages, as a spectator. Maciek Parowski, Marek Oramus, Jacek Dukaj, Jacek Sobota, Dominika Materska, Ewa Popiołek... And these are only some of the figures from those times. It was a powerful critical-literary line-up, later repeated with modifications in "Czas Fantastyki" quarterly; perhaps the only similar environment in journalistic Poland, with such broad horizons and polemical flair (supported by the crew of “Fenix"). I'm probably not alone in this statement - several generations of readers, and then often authors, have entered pop culture (and adulthood in general?) - through this very door.

I’m not sure if you're able to answer completely honestly, as it relates to your colleagues, as it were, but I'll end by asking: how do you assess the state of Polish speculative fiction?

Well, okay. But let's try, since I happen to review or discuss their texts anyway. I think the situation is quite well reflected in the following quote, "It’s good, but it’s not bad at all". The process should be viewed in two ways: see, speculative fiction has won the battle for pop culture (globally), but on bookshop shelves, with a few glorious exceptions, it is dragging its feet (locally). For the mainstream (TV series, cinema, games), sci-fi and fantasy have already become a natural aesthetic language, perhaps one of the most popular nowadays - it is hard to find a blockbuster that would not be at least slightly leaning towards sci-fi or fantasy. So, if it's so good, why doesn't sci-fi and fantasy - with a few exceptions - also win the battle for print runs on bookshop shelves? I am talking about Poland, where we can see a clear transfer of speculative fiction writers to the side of literary fiction, detective fiction, romance.

On the other hand, English-language authors can sell sizable print runs all the time, reaching bestseller status (especially if the title is hooked up to the locomotive of a screen adaptation). So, it would seem that it is simply a question of globalisation: we watch the same things as the whole (western) world, we also play the same games, so why should we read something different? Such an explanation seems logical, but that does not mean that it is encouraging at the same time. Because if the trend continues, there is a risk that the phenomenon called "Polish sci-fi/fantasy " will practically cease to exist or will become an extravagance for a group of stars - most often veterans on the market, selling the biggest numbers - and enthusiasts, i.e. mainly young writers, for whom writing will be above all a form of hobby that unites them.

And yet, Polish speculative fiction still has something to boast about. I have already mentioned The Anatomy of a Fracture or The City of All Sanity. As part of my recommendations from recent years, I would immediately add Robert M. Wegner's and Agnieszka Hałas's epic fantasy, Paweł Majka's series that escape easy classification (Mitoświat ["Mythoworld"], Jedyne), Łukasz Malinowski's historical fantasy, Aleksandra Zielińska’s psychological horror stories, military sci-fi by Michał Cholewa, and space opera by Marcin Podlewski, Marta Kisiel's series for younger readers... Or Amnezjak ("Amnesiac") by Jakub Nowak and Holocaust F by Cezary Zbierzchowski (both ace science fiction), completely separate and wacky offerings by Paweł Matuszek, or Woda na sicie ("Water through a Sieve") by Anna Brzezińska – a record of the testimony of a witch under inquisitorial investigation from an alternative universe, very similar to medieval Italy. And many others. This blitzkrieg through the titles shows that if you only look at literature, the reader with an open mind will still find plenty of good stuff. All one has to do is bend down.

Interviewer Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe