Speculative Fiction in Conversation Part 5

This is part 5 of an email conversation I had with Matt Cheney about the state of Speculative Fiction. Read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. Some things discussed: the dark heart of aesthetics, zombie movies, literary greatness and William Shakespeare.

Seriously, stop apologizing. Your emails are as long as they need to be. (Also, your story was one of the best in the Logorrhea collection, so shut up.)

i suppose it was inevitable that this conversation would venture into the dark heart of aesthetics, which is where we are now. What is good? What is fun? What is crap? Well, let me start by saying that just because Diary of the Dead isn't as good of a movie as Rules of the Game doesn't mean it isn't a good movie. But more importantly, I don't think the "goodness" of a movie needs to be quantified in the sense that one can say that Diary is evaluated as this much lesser than Rules or something like that. Things need to be taken on their own terms, I just don't think those terms need to be sweeping broad strokes of a whole "genre". Which is to say that I think someone who had never seen a zombie movie before in their life who sat down to watch Diary of the Dead could still enjoy it without having to know anything about the protocols or precedents of zombie movies.

Grant you that quality is generally a subjective notion and that postmodernism has thrown into question all notions of inherent quality, transcendent genius and timelessness. But notions of the "goodness" of something can still have a general cultural basis, in that something can be agreed upon as good for such and such reasons by those living in a given culture at a given time. The problem, of course, is that our culture (and any sufficiently large culture) is actually a mass of smaller cultures that overlap and interact and merge and divide in all manner of organic ways. The SF world is one such culture. The Literary Fiction world is another. Each may have its own standards as to what makes something aesthetically valuable, standards which are further variable down to the granularity of the individual. What I think is happening in terms of this conversation and in Delany's ideas is that the standards of the SF community are being portrayed as a set of protocols to appreciate a work that are just as valuable and meaningful as any other set of protocols and standards. Which in a postmodern sense is well and good. However, in my mind, such a set of standards gets utterly shattered when one exposes them to anything outside of that community, say Borges or Kafka (or Bolaño, for that matter, who we share an appreciation for). That is, someone who thinks that Tolkein is the height of greatness is going to be utterly baffled and frustrated by Borges or Bolaño, and that frustration is going to translate into a verdict of "this sucks"--that is, that those writers are not in fact good (which by the standards in question, I suppose they aren't).

I'm writing as I'm thinking, and I realize now I may have just written myself into agreeing with you. I think what I'm trying to say is that some sets of standards are narrower than others. The reader who dismisses Bolaño because he's not as immediately accessible as Tolkein, or who dismisses Philip K. Dick because he's a poor stylist, is just, in my mind, being narrow-minded. But I don't think this narrow-mindedness is necessarily a question of having to learn how to read a particular work.

Let me put this another way. Take, for example, The Odyssey. In ancient Greece it was considered a great work. In the modern world, it is considered a great work. Granted that we don't have the same perspective on The Odyssey that the ancient Greeks had, but someone who is willing to take the book on its own terms, to enjoy the wonder and adventure and the beauty of the language and metaphores and resonance, can enjoy The Odyssey. The adult scholar is going to appreciate it on a different level than the 12-year-old; indeed, it could almost be said that the two are reading different books.

Christ, now I'm veering towards agreeing with you again. This email is a mess, huh?

Listen, here's the bottom line: The Lord of the Rings has a lot of very visceral stuff going on that's a lot of fun; the landscape, the creatures, the adventure. But there isn't very much to appreciate beyond that; the plot is simplistic, the characters two-dimensional and the prose is pedestrian. These elements are simply things that one appreciates in a novel, whatever the genre. Granted, a writer like Bolaño tries to undermine your expectations of character, plot and POV etc., the elements that make up the novel, but there's enough there to replace it. I don't think you need a different set of reading protocols for Bolano any more than you need a different set of watching protocols for Night of the Living Dead (which, we'll recall, was something no one had seen anything like before), you just need the ability to take the work on its own terms.

All I'm really trying to avoid is standards of judging a book that value the shallow over the deep. Whatever that shallowness might be. And that's what bothers me about the Tolkeinite crowd. What they want, and what they get is shallowness. And I don't think it's right to say that this shallowness is a valid judging criteria. At the same time, people who can only appreciate heavily stylized prose, who think anyone that can't write like Italo Calvino or Cormac McCarthy is a bad writer, well, they're being shallow too. There's just more going on in literature.

And this is the thing: I have this very visceral, shallow appreciation of things like, say, robots and space aliens. And if you can mix robots and space aliens in with deeper elements that I can appreciate on another level, you make me very happy. And that's what I want as a reader and as a writer. And those deeper elements I appreciate so much aren't limited to one genre; they're elements that are valuable in any work of prose fiction.

That's what I'm trying to say.


Hi Eric,

Well, I suppose my one moment of disagreeing with you was too good to last -- I don't see anything in your new note that I have any big issue with, and some of what I previously thought I was disagreeing with you about, I see now was just a matter of emphasis or a different vantage point on basically the same idea.

I was just reading My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (a book that ties 2666 as my nominee for most exciting publication of the year), and these sentences, from the first of the letters in Spicer's book After Lorca (a collection of fake translations, near-translations, new poems, and manifesto-like letters -- along with an intro by Lorca from beyond the grave) wanted to be included here: "We will use up our rhetoric here so it will not appear in our poems.  Let it be consumed paragraph by paragraph, day by day, until nothing of it is left in our poetry and nothing of our poetry is left in it.  It is precisely because these letters are unnecessary that they must be written."

The whole process of thinking that we've been working through has been an interesting one -- I feel like I've been throwing a bunch of ideas across the room as they occurred to me and watching to see if any stick to the wall or break the window or stain the carpet.  The process of thinking here has been at least as important as whatever conclusions we may reach.

It does seem, though, that we are reaching some conclusions.

I had an "ah ha!" moment when you wrote, "...I think someone who had never seen a zombie movie before in their life who sat down to watch Diary of the Dead could still enjoy it without having to know anything about the protocols or precedents of zombie movies" -- because I entirely agree with you about that, though if I were to try to apply the idea of protocols to such a thing as one of Romero's movies, I wouldn't use "zombie movies" as the category.  I'm not sure which category I would use, but something tells me there is a way of watching Dawn of the Dead, for instance, that is different from the way of watching a variety of other types of movies, and sometimes it's the inability to switch ways of watching that interferes with someone's ability to enjoy what they see.  Not always, certainly -- part of one's ability to respond to a Romero movie goes back to something he himself said in an old documentary about Tom Savini that I remember watching over and over as a kid: (I'm paraphrasing the following) "Why do people enjoy horror movies?  Well, why do people enjoy roller coasters?  Some don't.  Some people throw up.  But for the people who do enjoy it, it's a great rush."

Diary of the Dead is an interesting film to plug in here, because it's a kind of deconstruction of a horror movie, and I've read online responses where viewers didn't much like the movie because, they said, "it isn't a zombie movie."  To some extent, they're right.  Despite the presence of lots of gore and zombies, the film requires viewers to use some other ways of finding meaning in the narrative pattern if those viewers are going to enjoy and, I dare say, understand it.

The idea of "protocols" or "science fiction as a way of reading" is somewhat different, partly because it's a theory of text, but to some extent it's pointing in the same direction.  What the idea proposes is, as I've said, not evaluative, but rather is looking at what readers need to do to make sense of a text and what those different ways of finding meaning themselves mean -- it identifies genres not by the presence of particular story elements (a spaceship, a horse, a zombie, a disaffected academic) but by the "lens" readers wear to best make sense of what the text is doing.  It ain't rocket science, though, because the vast majority of the types of writing that we have different internalized lenses for are types of popular writing, and people who are 8, 10, 12 years old build these lenses for themselves pretty quickly.  If SF really required difficult, abstruse ways of reading, it would not be one of the most popular forms of fiction.

Which may, in fact, be another way of saying "taking something on its own terms" -- because how do we identify something's own terms?  How do we know when we're taking them?  How do we know that, to use your example, appreciating Philip K. Dick means discounting his prose style while other writers (Tolkien, for instance) shouldn't be given the same benefit?  We aren't born knowing what something's own terms are -- indeed, as I said before, something that completely needed its own terms would be utter gibberish to us, incomprehensible.  "Protocols" are simply a tool for pointing toward some of the possible terms before evaluating anything.

Thus, to say "the standards of the SF community are being portrayed as a set of protocols to appreciate a work that are just as valuable and meaningful as any other set of protocols and standards" is not entirely accurate.  Standards are different from ways of reading.  Remember that the ways of reading a bad SF story are the same ways of reading a good SF story -- if the idea of protocols has some truth to it, the truth comes in the different ways of reading X set of texts (good, bad, ugly) and Y set of texts (good, bad, ugly).  We can point to words doing different things based on the way of reading (one of Delany's most common examples is "Her world exploded.")  That's descriptive, not evaluative.  Standards come next.  You're not denying standards, you're just trying to come up with one set of standards for all fiction, which is a fine quixotic quest, but one I have increasingly come to think is likely doomed by its inner contradictions.

And yet my heart disagrees with what I just wrote, because I still think there are specific reasons Kafka, Borges, Beckett, Woolf, etc. have created greater works of art than any science fiction writer.  (Actually, that statement in and of itself is an interesting one -- I am certain that Kafka, Borges, and Beckett are not science fiction writers.  Yet Bryan Appleyard, in an essay in the Times of London seems to identify Borges's Labyrinths as a book of science fiction.  I would never do this, regardless of what I thought of Borges, because I just don't think calling it "science fiction" does anything to help us understand the words, sentences, and paragraphs in that book.  Maybe this is what bothers us both so much about people trying to claim one text or another for SF -- the label adds nothing to the book, only to the idea of "SF".  But we don't need the idea of "SF" if it doesn't add anything to a book; its a parasitic absurdity on its own.  The books for which the "SF" label are useful are ones for which it helps us identify what I'm tempted to call a community of ways of reading -- books written and marketed toward an audience that reads in a certain way.  The uselessness of the "SF" label for things that are not to some extent or another part of this way of reading, this community, is obvious from the discussions of whether Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a "good SF novel" -- you might as well evaluate whether it's a good cookbook.)

Because I'm a teacher, I have a fairly high tolerance for the folks who say "this sucks" about [insert name of great writer here] -- I hear it just about every class from students.  Adolescents are, of course, among the most narcissistic of us, and so many of them are still in the phase where they want to proclaim Shakespeare a great fraud because they don't yet have the skills to be able to understand and appreciate him.  My approach with them is the same as what I said a couple emails ago about distinguishing between personal response, aesthetic evaluation, and statements that are basically factual -- "I don't like reading Shakespeare's plays" and "Shakespeare has been among the most influential and important writers in the history of humanity" can both be true.  (Tolstoy's dislike of Shakespeare's plays tells us interesting things about Tolstoy and just about nothing of interest about Shakespeare.)

Aesthetic evaluation is more difficult, and is the site of much argument because it attempts to move beyond personal response to create a system of evaluation, a hierarchy of accomplishment.  I am both skeptical of its usefulness and intensely drawn to it.

For the last few notes, I've been trying to figure out for myself why I think it's vital to distinguish between the greatest of art and all the rest of it.  I can argue against my impulse to do so from all sorts of different perspectives, and yet I still feel (feel being the key word) such a distinction is essential -- that you are correct to say that trying to rank Tolkien among the greatest of 20th century writers is ridiculous.  But I would say that Tolkien is among the most important of 20th century writers, simply because of his effect on readers and writers.  He was hugely influential (even for writers trying to write against him, such as Michael Moorcock) and his reach extends far beyond the realm of books into film, television, roleplaying games, video games, etc.  That, to me, is a really interesting cultural phenomenon, entirely divorced from my own aesthetics, but even interesting on an aesthetic level because I like to speculate about what it is within a work that makes it appeal to particular groups of people.  I never appreciated Tolkien's real accomplishments until I could look beyond my own conception of what "good writing" is -- I still rarely read him for pleasure, but I  don't feel as dismissive toward what he did -- indeed, I'm impressed by it.  I certainly wouldn't call it "shallow" -- the Tolkien imitators, sure, but not the original books.  (But why!?  I suppose because I think Tolkien did something original, despite having significant predecessors, while many of his imitators are not adding much new, just reiterating.)  I have similar feelings toward Lovecraft.

How do we distinguish our ability to discern "deeper elements" from our desire for "stuff we like"?  When does it stop being about us, personally, as readers?  This is the problem any reviewer faces, a problem I always have to wrestle with when I write about my evaluations of books -- am I saying anything other than, "I liked/didn't like it"?  Is it even possible to say more than that, or is it just a mirage -- we cherry-pick various cultural signposts and stick them up in a pattern and call it the universe, but really it's just a town, and there are lots of towns not just around our town, but in the whole universe.  I like my town because it's mine, but how do I now convince you that my town is not only good for me, but for you, too -- in fact, it's better than your town!  Your town is shallow!  You may have a pond there, but I've got me a whole entire ocean!

Then one day you come over to my town to see what's so special about it, and you stick your foot in the ocean, and you are not impressed.  To you, it's cold, formless, and full of the garbage people in all the towns along the coast have dumped in it.  You go back to your town and your pond and you tell your fellow townspeople, "Yeah, the ocean's bigger than our pond, but the fish here are easier to catch, and the water's actually drinkable.  Also, they don't have a big rocket in their town square.  They've got a bunch of flowers in their town square, and they're pretty and everything, but they made me sneeze.  I almost died I sneezed so much.  Our rocket never made me sneeze."

Sometimes I get a bit carried away with the metaphors......

What was the point?  I hardly remember.

Sometimes I think I'm a bit like my students who get angry that Shakespeare is so famous and venerated.  People cite Bradbury as one of their favorite writers, one of the great writers, one of the greatest of all time, and my annoyance comes from my own inability to have a rich and meaningful reading experience when I encounter his work.  It just seems like a fraud to me, the way Shakespeare seems like a fraud to so many of my students.  I'm an experienced enough reader to be able to create complex schema of explanation for my evaluation of Bradbury, but I'm still stuck in my own subjectivity, as we all are, and so my experience of Bradbury as tinklingly sentimental may be something I can express, but it's not going to make someone who loves Bradbury see him as tinklingly sentimental -- they're just going to think, "Wow, that Cheney sure doesn't know how to loosen up and just enjoy stuff, does he?"  Or perhaps a better example -- some of my best-read and most thoughtful friends cite The Great Gatsby as their favorite American novel, and I suspect they would say that even beyond their personal response they think it is, aesthetically, one of the great American novels, if not the greatest.  I don't even know how to discuss it with them, because the book to me is only barely better than something by Bradbury.  Actually, no, I'd rather read Bradbury.  The story is idiotic, the writing is strained, the symbols are obvious, the -- I'll stop before I start ranting.  What is there to do with such an opinion, though?  What distinguishes my opinion of Gatsby -- informed (I've read the book many times, been taught it, taught it) and passionate (verging on the irrational in its passion) -- from any other such judgment?  Why do I feel more defensive about that, a negative judgment, than my equally (or perhaps even less) informed and passionate positive judgments of writer such as Kafka, Borges, Woolf, and Beckett, except that plenty of people think KBWB are great writers and only a minority of people dare denigrate Gatsby.  Perhaps positive and negative opinions play different roles in the general discourse of literary criticism.  I chuckle at Nabokov's dismissal of Dostoyevsky, even though I can appreciate the reasons he has for dismissing him, but perhaps my chuckling is inspired because the criteria Nabokov use, and, more importantly, the ways he employs those criteria against Dostoyevsky, don't seem valuable to me, because my experience of reading Dostoyevsky is utterly different from his.  Perhaps that is the case with my reading of Gatsby -- or Bradbury or Sturgeon or Tolkien -- mine are not, for other people, useful ways of reading these writers; nor are their ways, which bring them pleasure, of much use to me.

But I've strayed far from our original endeavor, which was simply to look at ideas of genre.  Inevitably, I end up distrusting my own statements.  And yet I continue to make them.  Compulsion?  Insanity?  I'm not sure.

Now, then, I'm going to go back to reading Jack Spicer, who read all sorts of different things (he lived for a little while with Philip K. Dick), and mixed and matched as the impulse moved him -- and Bolaño, who also read all sorts of different things (including Philip K. Dick), and mixed and matched as the impulse moved him ........ which is, for tonight at least, the only aesthetic statement I would wish to stick to: read all sorts of different things (including PKD), and mix and match as the impulse moves you..........................