This last slew of posts sparked some comments, some locally and some elsewhere. I wanted to touch on a few of these, and conclude my discussion of masscult in SF&F with some directional suggestions.
Steve Savage, my co-conspirator at Fan to Pro, had his take in the comments last time: might it be possible, he opined, that we live in a time when we are that much more aware of both the crap and the gold (and that is in turn deepening the sense of dichotomy between the two)?
It's a good theory, and it explains a great deal, but I still feel there is one major element missing from that — one I've been circling back to many times in not just this discussion but others before it. It's the creators who enter such an environment that are shortchanged even more so than the audiences. Not just the folks who have something original to say and cannot find a way to get it in front of a sizable audience because no one wants to take the risk; that one's obvious. It's the creators just getting into the game, who look around and see the masscult system as being the best possible, or at least only possible, way to do things, and so set about feeding that beast without ever thinking about how it might be changed. They may well be richly rewarded for their work, and a certain amount of that is not a bad thing if you want to make a living. (It makes no sense to complain about others selling out if you yourself have nothing to sell.) The mistake is in assuming that is, can be, and ought to be, the entirety of the enterprise.
Steve also mentioned "mindless fun in the proper proportions" being a good thing. I have no argument with the individual who seeks these things out; my beef is with, again, how the mindlessness systematically not only becomes more important than the fun, and allows too easy a default assumption for creators that mindlessness is a goal or a virtue, because it gives them fast access to a big audience. (There may well be an argument that products like South Park have done exactly that, but I would submit that the format of such work always limits what's possible.)
Another commenter elsewhere said that it seemed I believed that the impediments of the system on creativity could be removed, which he felt was impossible; that you could at best tweak the biases a bit. I actually agree with this. I don't think the impediments can be removed entirely, but I do feel their volume, so to speak, can be cranked down — especially as they pertain to creators. The main work of any culture, even popular culture, should not just be the compulsive filling of blank spaces.
I run the risk of putting my foot in my mouth by saying this. One of the ways I've described my own creative process is to look for what it is I want that doesn't exist yet, and then go fill that gap. But I'd like to also think there are good ways and bad ways to do that. The good ways are driven by something personal that aspires to be universal; the bad ways are informed more by the assumption that what worked before should simply be done again, and the hell with the alternatives.
There's been talk on and off of an "ecology of culture", of how we might compel ourselves to back off from the idea that absolutely every shelf must be full, that we can learn to live with a little less noise. It sounds enticing from the outside, but up close it disintegrates. There's no way to enforce such a thing, for precisely the reason I outlined above. Where there is a gap, it tends to be filled, by whatever mechanism is available. It also doesn't help my own case in the long run: if I were to come out and say, let us learn to live with a few less bookshelves, I would make no friends — except perhaps among those who wanted to ensure it was only their books that remained on shelves.
So, for now, I can't claim to have a solution, but I do have a few ideas. The system we have cannot be simply stricken like a stage set and replaced with another one, nor can another simply be willed into existence out of sheer spite. It has to be worked with, but not considered as ideal, and never accepted as an inevitability.
For one, creators need to do whatever they can to remember that their moment in time is not the only one, and that the approaches they know and are familiar with may not be the only valid ones — but that their moment in time is also the only one they can address directly, and that it helps to speak to the audience you have and not the audience you wish you had. Creators need to get out of their frame of reference whenever they can — but then they should do themselves a favor and get right back into it, bearing with them everything they've learned on the outside, and then bring all that to their prospective audience. (The compulsive outsider is not automatically any wiser by dint of his isolation; that isolation just provides an arena.) And they need to remember that commercial success is useful and powerful, but not the highest arbiter of value or justification of effort — which I guess is easy for me to say with a straight face when I'm not being offered a contract, but it's always worth keeping in mind, isn't it?