When the biggest obstacle to a cultural phenomenon is the fans.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/23 15:23
Genre fiction doesn’t get an undeserved bad rap because genre fiction is itself is bad; rather, genre fiction has gotten an undeserved bad rap because genre fiction fans are so often undiscerning readers.
I think there's a lot of truth to this, for the same reason that any pop-culture phenomenon gets a bad rap: the audience.
I'm not just talking about people who throw cold-eyed sidelong glances at the kids in costumes queuing up in front of the convention center on the other side of the street. I'm talking about when fans are reaching for their smelling salts over ... other fans.
I had my most recent exposure to this after I finished watching and reviewing Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood for About.com. I loved the series, but two of my close friends (who are both anime fans) could not touch it. Why? The fans for the show had made it impossible for them to do so. They couldn't set aside the rabid behavior of the fans long enough to enjoy the show just for what it was. I had my own bad experiences with Firefly and Serenity in the same vein: the fans of it within my reach refused to stop trying to sell me on the merits of the show, and by the time I got caught up with it I didn't see one-tenth of what they were gushing about.
That's my example. I imagine you have any number of your own to fill in: Hetalia, Harry Potter, My Little Pony, the list goes on. I'm not implying that I find the fandoms for any of these to be insufferable, only that I've heard the same from others, whether justified or not.
By and large, many of these shows and books are not bad. Some of them are quite good, and merit the time involved to investigate them -- if you are inclined to do so in the first place. I find more and more often the "if" revolves not around the work itself but around the audience for the work, and that the assumptions about same by outsiders go unquestioned.
Some of this is the I Wouldn't Be Caught Dead With That phenomenon, where people shy away from something simply because of the possible social consequences of owning up to having been exposed to it. They loathe the idea of having to defend not even just liking it, but merely saying they read/watched it. In short, it's the intra-fandom peer pressure that makes enjoying such things on their own terms difficult.
There's a complicated problem here. So much of what goes on in fandom is fun because of the sharing that goes on with other fans. But if you find yourself at odds with the fandom for a given thing, sharing becomes exponentially harder because you don't want to associate with Those People -- which means, you guessed it, you have one less reason for ever bothering with it in the first place. It's only fun up to a point to savor something all by yourself. Which would you rather do: see The Avengers in a theater surrounded by fellow fans, or see it all on your lonesome on your laptop with your headphones on? (Assume for the sake of argument the theater experience does not include someone kicking the back of your seat or throwing up into your hair.)
There are some things I'm a fan of that I feel more than a little self-conscious about trying to connect to other people through. My appreciation for someone like Yasushi Inoue is tough to communicate to people who haven't actually read his work -- and the few that have mostly seem to be doing so in a wholly academic context, which is a damn shame. Nothing against people in academia, mind you -- I just always feel like such a weirdo babbling about someone that esoteric, trying to explain what it is about his work that electrified me so much. So I confine most such blabber to this blog and leave it at that, instead of accosting people at random in Asian Studies departments. That's not so much a solution as a stopgap measure, though.
SF has its Jack Londons and Joseph Conrads, but where are its Virginia Woolfs or Thomas Manns, among others?By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/22 11:00
I hope I won't be accused of creating a false parallel here, but after my previous post re: SF&F characters of stature, I wondered about the way SF&F authors have rather narrow parallels as well with their non-genre (or at least out-of-genre) counterparts.
In other words, while we have plenty of SF&F authors who are in the mold of, say, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, or even Ernest Hemingway (and more because of his lesser attributes than his greater ones, I'd say), we don't have as many who parallel a greater diversity of authors and their outlooks.
Where is SF&F's Virginia Woolf, for instance? Not in the sense of someone consciously mimicking her style, but in the sense of someone who brought the same variety of insight to SF&F that Woolf did to literature generally. We have a Dumas and a Balzac or two, but only in the most superficial senses of what those writers brought to the table. We might even have a Graham Greene or a John le Carré. But we have no Woolf -- the closest thing we had was James Tiptree, Jr., now passed on. (Or perhaps Joanna Russ.) No Borges, not since Phil Dick left us, although we have plenty of folks who again mimic the surfaces without really having access to the depths.
A manual typewriter from my younger days poses no threat to my copy of Word. Sadly.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/20 10:00
My parents weren't the only ones surprised to discover that my old manual Remington typewriter still worked. Actually, it was my father's -- it passed into my hands after years after he had stopped using it. He'd bought it to write a paper, sometime in the early Sixties, and then I'd picked up on it and used it to write I don't know how much material for school. And then our computers came along, and the Remington was retired to a corner of the attic, where it stayed until this past weekend when I was seized with the overwhelming urge to pull it back out and rehabilitate it.
The good news: the typewriter still worked. The keys were all functional, the machinery all still in good working order. The bad news: it had been sitting in storage for so long, the rollers that helped advance the paper through the machine had been crushed flat on one end, and so it couldn't feed paper properly. This led to some other amusing realizations:
1) The text that comes out of a rundown typewriter, no matter how literate or carefully composed, always ends up looking like either a) the sleep-deprived ditherings of some tin-foil-hatted maniac who never leaves the house or b) a ransom note. Capital letters are either too high or too low. Lines run together. The paper skews as it reaches the end of the page. The "o" key must be a lamprey's mouth, so fiercely does it bite into the page. (The middle of each such character was embossed hard enough to fall out if I so much as curled the paper the wrong way.) You could write a love letter to your wife of a dozen years and it would still come off as the product of the sort of mind that prowled shady neighborhoods luring kids with candy.
2) You never completely get used to how much force is required to operate a manual typewriter. By the time I'd filled a single-spaced page, the tips of my fingers all felt like they'd been pressed against an industrial sander. Switching back to my regular keyboard felt like picking up a feather pillow after toting around anvils.
3) I'm sensitive, deliberately so, to how much paper I use. Rather than print something out these days, I just send a copy of it to my phone if I can help it. Typing directly on the paper now feels like the literary version of driving a car that gets single-digit gas mileage. Of course, I leave to the reader the irony of saying that when I've gone from a typewriter which uses zero energy (save for whatever Kcals I expend banging on it) to a PC setup which burns 300+ watt-hours.
And yet -- there's something about the enforced discipline of a typewriter which is refreshing. You have to say things right the first time, and that forces you to think about every word and every sentence all the way through to the end, and beyond as well. A manual typewriter doesn't need to be rebooted or even powered up; all it needs is machine oil, fresh ribbon, and plenty of paper.
If I had the money to blow, I'd pick up a Royal (the last remaining manual typewriter still being made today) and use that for writing exercises in much the same way people write drafts longhand. But that $100 might well be better spent on the new kitchen floor, the new yard fence, the next doctor's visit ... or the replacement for this PC, which really is getting a little bewhiskered, and which I do use for more than just pounding out manuscripts.
I wrote all of the above in the time it took me to produce one double-spaced page on the Remington. The amount of work required to finish a single sentence was humbling ... and I work to get work done, not to humble myself. And while typewriters don't need rebooting or logging on, they find any number of their own ways to be just as obstructive, ways we have chosen to live without.
So maybe there really is such a thing as progress, and maybe you really can't go home again.
(Yes, Patrick Farley, this one's for you. Kudos.)
"If you don't like it, make one yourself" is not a valid argument.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/19 10:30
Jean-Luc Godard once said that criticizing one film entails making another film (as my good friend Steven Savage discussed earlier).
It's all too true in my case. I wrote my books (see the sidebar at right) because I was reading what passed for fantasy and found it uninteresting, and so I decided to critique it by writing my own response. What constitutes "success" in such an endeavor can be misleading, though: I didn't write them to displace other works so much as to show that there is more than one way to skin the cats of fantasy. The work is ongoing: Flight of the Vajra is meant to be my own response to what I see as a great deal of deeply unsatisfying SF, but I make no promises there.
What I would never do, though -- and what I hope other people have the good sense not to do, either -- is use that as a way of defraying criticism about my own work.
The classics aren't things to put on pillars. But neither is popular culture.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/18 11:00
I'll start with a truism, because that's often a fun place to start as long as you go past it. Any writer, no matter what her professed field of interest, needs to steep herself in the best that literature (and drama, and cinema, and poetry) has to offer.
This is not so she can fall down on her knees in reverence before it all, because that is just as philistine as never reading the work in the first place. It's so she can grapple with it, come away from the experience with something she didn't have before -- good, bad, and ugly -- and apply that to her work.
Why SF&F make things up as they go along, for better or worse.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/14 10:00
One of the problems with -- or maybe better to say attributes of -- SF&F is the fact that the world of the story is entirely your construction. The upside to this is you can construct the world that best suits the story you want to tell; the downside is that you can also cheat like crazy and get away with it.
But, hey. You're the author, and you have final say over what goes, so everyone else's grousing about what you've pulled out of your hip pocket is just that, grousing. Right?
I'm likely to be mum for the rest of the month due to a big workload and my attention span getting yanked in too many directions for my own good. You might see the occasional vault post from me, but...By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/08 15:05
I'm likely to be mum for the rest of the month due to a big workload and my attention span getting yanked in too many directions for my own good. You might see the occasional vault post from me, but until stated otherwise, talk amongst yourselves.
SF's big weakness: worlds without much in the way of people.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/08 10:00
Harlan Ellison once said, in an interview with Frederik Pohl, "Flowers for Algernon strikes directly to the core of what is wrong with most science fiction. There are no people in the stories. We are very strong on gadget, we are very strong on theory and concept, but we have yet to create our Gatsby, our Ahab, Emma Bovary, Huckleberry Finn."
Is it an overgeneralization to say that many SF&F authors give human behavior short shrift? No, not simply behavior, but human character -- a sense of how people are, what they do and do not do, and why. I lay no claim to being a master of this art, only to sensing just how tough it can be to write a sentence that will make someone else nod with recognition.
Snobbism: the great defense against brain-rotting popular culture. Except that it isn't.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/07 11:00
One of my friends recently picked up Brave New World, and while we were talking about it she switched tracks midstream and noted that a big part of why so many classics went under her radar is because they got spoiled for her by all the "snobs" in college. Some of them were people with degrees and teaching positions.
What does it mean to be a snob? Most of it as I see it has to do with a kind of cultivated elitism of self-denial. To wit: I don't watch TV; I don't read comic books; I don't do this and I don't do that, because that stuff rots your brain and I'm better than all that anyway.
Let us take a moment to pull the struts out from under the arguments against TV, because they do us no favors. It's always been fashionable to hate TV, so much so that it becomes too easy to throw around wholly spurious arguments against it.
The myth of perfection, as misleading as ever.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/04 10:00
I have a new pop-culture drinking game. Do a shot whenever you hear the words "Well, it's not perfect, but ..."
I am going to ask -- nay, demand -- that we end, here, now, and forwith, all this meaningless talk of "perfection" in art.
I have hinted at such a notion before (most recently in my look at Miles Davis's Kind of Blue), but I suspect it's high time I came out and made a separate discussion out of it.
Perfection, especially in the arts, does not exist. It is a hopeless misconception. It is no more a reality than is the possibility of putting handcuffs on the number "8".
At the very least, perfection does not exist in the sense of some embodied attribute that in theory is plainly accessible to all of us. The only place it exists at all, if it exists, is in the mind of the creator, in the sense that his intentions have come as close as possible to being satisfied in an earthly fashion. "Perfect" for him means his job is done, not only because the work has attained a quality he strove for but because his own limits prevent him from refining the work any further.
The skin of a story, and what lies under it, in SF and elsewhere.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/06/01 10:00
It's been said, not wholly incorrectly, that a story is not what it is about but how it is about it. This was once about how a given approach to a piece of material -- a family drama, a comedy of errors, etc. -- allowed new insights into what was happening within the material. But as of late this has become interpreted as an excuse to elevate style and form above all other considerations -- above theme, above content, above a story about interesting people, above whether or not the work in question will be worth giving a damn about once all the noise about the mere fact of its existence has died down.
No question that at first it was exhilarating to explore style and form at the expense of almost everything else. The mistake was in not taking the lessons learned there and then applying them selectively back to the stories that are most worth telling and hearing.
Science fiction, rebooted.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind