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.Read more
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.Read more
In the first part of this article I talked about how SF&F is peculiarly vulnerable to the problems of masscult, in big part because the publishing industries that are built around those genres champion masscult values often even without realizing it. I've talked about this sort of thing before — how publishers discovered it was better to sell people five books instead of one (better revenue stream!) and so a generation of both readers and writers (and for all I know, editors too) grew up assuming you had to pump a story full of air to make it marketable. Among other things, this means the few books that really did work as trilogies (e.g., Gormenghast) got pushed to the bottom of the pile.
Strictly speaking, none of this is a new development. The "sword-and-planet" book cycles were doing that long before Lester del Rey brought out Terry Brooks's Shannara series, which for me is when the fossil record indicates things really began to slide. Not because of the books themselves, but because of the machinery surrounding their production.Read more
The New York Review of Books remains one of my favorite publishers along with Melville House, and for many of the same reasons: their editorial staff picks and reissues material that deserves to be brought back into the light of day, the reputation of which is if anything deeply underappreciated. NYRB gave us back many of the ridiculously prolific Georges Simenon's better work; they re-printed Yasushi Inoue's excellent Tun-huang; and they've reissued many SF authors who straddled the literary and the fantastic with ease (Christopher Priest, Jan Morris, Robert Sheckley).
Among their recent reissues is Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, by critic Dwight Macdonald. I have been reading this book non-stop in between bouts of work, and for something whose most recent material was written while Kennedy was still President, it is amazing how relevant it remains. The main essay, "Masscult and Midcult", put Macdonald on the map for many people who had not yet noticed him, and for good reason. It's a sustained blast of vinegar at the way American culture (and, by extension, Western culture) has become a commodity engine — an easy-sounding target, but the way Macdonald attacks it is worthy of detailed discussion. It has more relevance than I thought to what I've been writing about here. It deserves some detail, so here we go.Read more
You have to remember that [Star Trek: The Next Generation] was 20th century men, for the most part, writing a show about 24th century people.
That summation could apply to the vast majority of SF that peers into the future (instead of looking at a slightly-altered present).
I've written before — typically while invoking Barrows Dunham's Man Against Myth — about how the man of the past could not have begun to conceive of the man of the present, and how that leaves the man of the present fighting similarly losing odds when trying to conceive of the man of the future.
Serious SF (as opposed to mere pulp) tries to be as untrammeled as it can about such things. Pace, Heinlein imagining a future far less molded by the moralizing forces that shaped his own life. But a lot of the future he imagined was, likewise, shaped by his own counter-moralization — sexual freedom and polyamory, etc. His idea of a "better" future was just that: his idea of a better future, one conditioned a lot more than it might seem by his moment in time and space.
Gene Roddenberry's ideas about the future were similarly conditioned, and while he too had optimism about mankind's ability to make a future for itself, the ways he saw man doing that were quite particular to his vision. We tend to think of Star Trek as being a little too optimistic for its own good these days; our ideas of the future now run to scruffier things like Firefly rather than the clean-scrubbed Utopianism of Trek. (I suspect many people also grew annoyed with the way Trek fell back on time travel as a plot device, or used technological gimcrackery as a Solomonic solution to an intractable social problem.)
None of this is meant to be considered problematic or objectionable. It's just one of the products of being a particular person in a particular place at a particular time. You can only see so far forward, and you're only going to be able to use your existing frame of reference as a starting point. Samuel R. Delaney's Triton drew heavily on his time and experiences in Greenwich Village, and while some of that has given the book a dated veneer, many ideas explored in it are still prescient. It's just clear that if anyone — Delaney included! — sat down to write a book like this today, it wouldn't come out anything like this.
I get varying impressions about what people think is the real value of SF, depending on who I talk to. Some place most of the value on the work as a predictive thing, which I've groused about before as being way too limiting. Others have seen SF as being a way to speak obliquely or allegorically about the here and now, with the longevity of a given work often being a function of its more general literary merit. The Stars My Destination may have some individually dated details, but the timelessness of the underlying story only deepens with each passing decade — and the things Bester was zinging that were present in his own society (e.g., the rise of the corporation as a political entity) have only become that much more relevant.
It's not a question of which of these is more important — the predictive value or the commentative value — but rather how you make the best of each to serve the story. A story can have virtually no predictive value (does anyone really believe Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a remotely accurate look at life a few years hence?) but can still be insightful. The trick is to make sure the insight becomes more important than the future vision — which, if you ask me, requires some understanding of human nature to show up on the page generally. That's hard to do no matter what section of the bookstore you're getting shelved in, and the number of books that pull it off in any genre — even literature with a cap L — continue to be remarkably few.
MOST PEOPLE’S INTEREST in contemporary “literary” fiction, if they have any interest at all, is a matter of wanting to read the latest Big Novel while it’s still being talked about. If they like it, so much the better, but a sense of connection to their peers is what they’re really after. It would be wrong to think them gullible. They succumb to the loudest promotional campaign every year only because they recognize the recurring need for an “it” novel, something everyone can agree to read at about the same time. ... People used to expect literary novels to deepen the experience of living; now they are happy with any sustained display of writerly cleverness.
The implication I glean from the above is simple: most people no longer expect to get much of anything out of literature, because they've told themselves they know better. It's only a book, after all.
I'm reminded of Jacques Barzun talking about how "educated" people in the late 19th century told themselves they should not admire sunsets since they were witnessing nothing more extraordinary than the diffraction of light through the atmosphere.Read more
Escapism isn't a very good word, actually, for the positive psychological qualities its defenders want to defend; it's less a question of breaking one's bars and running away (running whither, we might ask?); it's more about keeping alive the facility for imaginative play, that faculty that only a fool would deny is core to any healthy psychological makeup. Kids are good at play, and have an unexamined wisdom about it; adults, sometimes, forget how vital it is. What's wrong with Art that insists too severely on pressing people's faces against the miseries of actual existence is not that we shouldn't have to confront Darfur or Iraq, poverty or oppression; it's that such art rarely gives us the imaginative wiggle room to think of how things might be improved, or challenged, or even accepted. Imaginative wiggle room, on the other hand, is something SF/Fantasy is very good at.
It's a shame Richard Dawson's gone, because I can now imagine his voice barking out: "Top five epithets used to denigrate SF&F ... number one? 'ESCAPISM'!"Read more