In my previous posts about Dwight Macdonald's concept of "masscult" and how it affects SF&F (part one; part two), I wrote about how the creation and marketing systems in place for SF&F have been affected deeply by the assumptions masscult brings to the field. Many of these assumptions are normative, not cosmetic: another key problem with masscult, as Macdonald points out, is how it lets us confuse what we're given for what we want. It allows real creative work to fall off the map.
In reviewing David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Dale Peck pointed out that the book's attempt to critique American consumer culture (yes, that whipping boy again) fell down because the author couldn't seem to tell the difference between people who are compelled to consume junk food culture and those who freely choose to do so.
The real problem — something neither Peck nor Wallace seemed to pick up on — is that we as a whole seem only too happy to conflate the two issues. People that just want to turn their brain off after a hard day of work by sitting in front of the raybox (or with a copy of the latest Wheel of Time doorstopper) have two problems: one, they never question what it is about their work that is so fundamentally unfulfilling that they need a psychic anesthetic just to face it (a problem which merits a whole field of study on its own); two, and more relevant here, they never worry about the fact that there are plenty of people lining up to sell them just such anesthetics, over and over again.
It isn't simply that something is popular. It's that its popularity is not a natural product of a connection between a creator and an audience. It's a product mostly of its sheer availability, of there being little incentive on the part of your average harried consumer to seek out something else. It's fifty-seven channels and you know the rest of that line by now, don't you?
The whole system has not been erected out of some deliberate malice towards real creativity, either. Destruction of real creativity is just one of its unpleasant side effects. Most publishers pay nonstop lip service to wanting real creative work, but once they actually have a real example of it in their laps, they balk, because they know full well the marketing machine they've created doesn't work that way, and so another genuinely interesting book goes unpublished (or at the very least, unpromoted). Warner Brothers learned no lessons from Inception despite its billion-dollar worldwide success; they wrote it off as a fluke, instead of studying how to cultivate an environment in which such work could thrive.
A common counter-argument to the accusations above goes something like this: There's a reason why quirky, left-field, anti-masscult works don't often find a publisher, and it's because most of them are not very good. They ignore time-tested storytelling traditions; they champion obscurantism or negativity, which aren't things most people want to pay money to experience; they're more interesting in theory than practice. My own criticisms of bizarro fiction in the previous post may well be part of this.
Fine, except that every single one of these criticisms also applies to many works which have been created, in theory, to meet masscult standards. There are far many more people out there trying to create "breakthrough" or "crossover" works (which means nothing more than work which will sell to as many people as possible), and who are only too happy to follow those rules but still fall short. I am no automatic champion of works which defy convention for the sake of doing so, but I'm that much less enamored of work that never seems to realize all those rules about narrative are starting points and not destinations.
Another common counter-argument I hear is that we have better mass culture than ever before — that the mass culture of movies like The Avengers or The Dark Knight (Rises) is a sight better than the cheapies of the past. More expensive, certainly; technically more sophisticated, yes; and even better as storytelling. None of those things are by themselves the problem. It's the fact that they come into existence in such a way that they crowd out everything else. Everyone, from audiences to producers to directors themselves, come to believe that the only thing that can be done in a theater worth bothering with is a blockbuster, for entirely circular reasons. (This is the only thing worth doing, because that's the only kind of movie people turn out for, because that's the only kind of movie anyone seems to want to make anymore, because that's the only thing worth doing ... )
A sure sign of how this mentality has affected indie and fledgling filmmakers is how their productions come to resemble more and more scaled-down Hollywood productions, and less like genuinely unique or maverick visions. What they want is not to say something, but to get noticed, and the fastest way to get noticed is to create something that can compete with the big boys on their own turf. When Gareth Edwards took a few thousand dollars and a copy of Adobe AfterEffects to create Monsters, he was rewarded with a contract to produce a new Godzilla installment. This seems less like a jackpot than an inevitability.