The errors of popular criticism, part 3: Genre literature

We’ve talked about the aesthetics underlying popular criticism of popular culture and the shadowy adversaries on whose existence this aesthetics hinges. Now the question is: what does an effective piece of genre fiction look like? What is a way to evaluate genre literature that does justice to its status both as popular fiction and as literature?

I should say, first of all, that I’m using the term “genre” loosely. This follows the ordinary usage in these debates: writers like Doyle and Poe are genre when it’s convenient and mainstream when it’s not. Sometimes mysteries and thrillers are genre, sometimes not. Sometimes the term specifically refers to SFF and perhaps horror, and sometimes it refers to anything outside the academy that’s not marketed as mainstream highbrow fiction. That’s part of the reason why these debates are futile: what actually is genre depends on what kind of mood you’re in. Continue reading

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The errors of popular criticism, part 2: The nature of the pretentious

Movements work better if they have enemies, and these enemies are often esoteric inventions designed to suit the movements’ needs. Tropish criticism is an aesthetic movement, and I’ve already mentioned that its enemy is a shadowy confabulation that resists being tied down to specific examples. Specific examples often belie the stereotypes of tropish criticism. This means that, in the interest of self-preservation, tropish criticism must isolate itself from the intellectual world, appropriating only useful bits of it without fully understanding them.

Here is a table:

Literary fiction:

  • Boring and academic
  • Overly concerned with symbolism
  • Only succeeds due to government and academic welfare
  • Exists to show off how intelligent the author is
  • Associated with hard-left politics
Genre fiction:

  • Fun and commercial
  • Means nothing but itself
  • Commercially viable because people actually enjoy it
  • Exists solely to entertain
  • Apolitical

(I apologize for the fact that the table is hard to read; unfortunately my WordPress theme removes borders from tables and it’s too much trouble to put them back with inline CSS.)

This table is a brain-dump of my eighteen-year-old self. I was bookish but stupid, interested in the arts but almost completely ignorant of theory and criticism. I had only just started seriously engaging with music older than my parents. Aside from high school Shakespeare, the most literary thing I had read was Ordinary People by Judith Guest, which shocked me with its present tense and italicized inner monologues.

I had read about (but not read) Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author,” and like all good tropers I thought it was both ridiculous and central to all literary criticism. In fact, I had read about but not read rather a lot, including canonical philosophy, science textbooks, religious texts, and classical literature. This made me feel like an expert despite knowing practically nothing.

When I arrived at the University of Manitoba, I had a chip on my shoulder about the “pretentious.” This was a catch-all term for literary fiction, avant garde art, criticism that was more concerned with finding obscure symbolism in novels to prove the critic’s intelligence than with its proper business: rating things as better or worse.

Because of my inexperience, if you asked me to name specific examples of pretentious things or people I couldn’t have. I would probably mention Roland Barthes (who I had not read), the Social Text hoax (which concerned people I had not read and would not have understood), and perhaps John Cage and 4’33”. My beliefs lasted as long as they did because no one asked; people who are mainly interested in debunking postmodernists in a belligerent and ill-informed manner seldom get the opportunity to talk about their interests with friends.

I drew too many conclusions from second-hand information, and I was not experienced enough to know that my beliefs did not stand up to scrutiny. Of course I know now, which is why I’m making an example of myself in this quasi-confessional series. So to ease my own embarrassment, let’s pick apart these beliefs about the nature of the “pretentious” in detail.

Much of the belief structure contained in the term “pretentious” depends on the character of the pretentious academic or pretentious artist. This character does not exist. Yet I can easily picture an example: clad in black and perhaps a beret, sitting in a cafe, smoking a cigarette and expounding on Nietzsche, Foucault, and other foreigners. I believed in this stereotype because I read about it almost daily, but that was at sites like Less Wrong where pretentious academics and artists are bugaboos meant to scare you away from traditional centres of knowledge, where you might be led to question the Singularity or the bizarro brand of utilitarianism.

When I came to the U of M, I expected to see pretentious academics everywhere. I didn’t, because they don’t exist, but my expectations led to some encounters I now regret. My professors were never pretentious so much as single-minded. To the extent that they were ignorant of or indifferent to popular culture or genre fiction, it was because they had dedicated their lives to the study of eighteenth century opera or enharmonicism and had no time to think about anything else, not because they thought they were better than me.

I registered a few pretentious false-positives among students: one guy wore a different beret to school every day. He now plays bass in a space-rock band. Another wore black, smoked, and occasionally made reference to Nietzsche. He ended up being one of the few people I could talk to about anything serious without tearing my hair out. But my fellow university students were much like my fellow high school students in that the vast majority of them weren’t interested in anything at all. The few who did register as actual human beings were such a welcome relief from the monotony of bovine ignorance that any number of foibles could be forgiven. For the most part university students are not burdened by an excessive interest in intellectual matters.

If the word “pretentious” in its special sense has any real content, the pretentious academic or artist cannot be part of that content as he does not exist. Perhaps the pretentious could refer to the academy’s attitude of superiority toward popular culture?

A lot of people seem to have experienced a formative moment in school where they were forbidden from reading the genre fiction they liked or derided for doing so. I never had any experience like this, and yet I was convinced that the English literature establishment was strongly opposed to science fiction and fantasy. In my first year at university I was required to take a course to fill my written English requirement. The default course for direct entry students (music, engineering, nursing, agriculture) was Topics in English Literature, Topic TBA. The section I signed up for turned out to be “Horror in Literature.” We read Dracula, Frankenstein, several short stories, and a book by the thrice-accursed Kelley Armstrong.

But I was more interested in sticking it to the pretentious literary critics than I was in answering the questions on the essay tests, so after doing poorly on the first one I dropped the course (getting less than an A in anything would have jeopardized my scholarships). The course did everything I wanted university courses to do, but my beliefs were so entrenched that I couldn’t accept what was happening before my eyes.

The fact is that the canon is now thoroughly busted. The trendy academic position is that genre fiction and pop culture are unfairly marginalized and need to be studied in the name of equality. On my bookshelf I have decades-old critical works on Clarke, Tiptree, Tolkien, Asimov, Silverberg, and several others. You can take a creative writing MFA that focuses on genre fiction. In reading critical works of recent (or even not-so-recent) provenance, it’s striking how often they take a cosmopolitan view of literature. The author will usually concede that science fiction (for example) is of critical interest, even if not to him.

There are quarters of the academy where genre fiction and popular culture are still not accepted, but there are quarters of the academy where people believe just about every ridiculous thing. And anyway, the hard truth is that if you consider yourself primarily a reader of science fiction or fantasy or some other genre, exposure to the classics or anything outside your normal reading habits can only be good for you.

So much for pretentiousness being about the exclusion of genre fiction. What is usually seen as an effort to prevent students from reading vulgar crap is better described as an effort to get them to read something outside their ordinary frame of reference. Could pretentiousness then reside in the area of literary criticism, where bearded chain-smokers with comedy accents read subtext where it just doesn’t belong?

I hope it’s obvious that it’s silly to expect academic literary scholars to spend most of their time deciding which books are better than which other ones. What distressed my teenaged self was the frequent suggestion that nothing is better than anything else, a suggestion that seemed to me to come equally from pretentious academics and know-nothings on message boards.

Luckily, you’ll find that most people who can be taken seriously admit that some works are superior to others—they just regard it as a trivial truth not worth belabouring. And they are able to discuss and examine something they dislike without mentioning their dislike of it, which I now regard as one of the most important skills a writer—or anyone—can have. Even many of the people who say things like “it’s all subjective” don’t really mean it—what they actually mean is that even shit has redeeming features, you may find that you were wrong about something you used to hate, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all a little kinder to each other.

As for obscure symbolism, one of the things I was surprised to learn upon actually reading some literary criticism is that most of it is not concerned with straightforwardly assigning an allegorical role to each character in the story and arguing that this secret allegory is what the novel is really about. The idea now seems bizarre, though it didn’t at the time; I blame the fact that high school English is usually taught by cretins who have never read a book uncoerced.

Another mental block I used to have vis a vis literary criticism was religion: as a die-hard atheist, the mere suggestion of religious overtones was enough to turn me off something, and it upset me when someone had the temerity to suggest that religious imagery was relevant to some book I liked. I suspect that many are in the opposite situation: any reading that involves elements contrary to or incompatible with their religious beliefs is unacceptable.

Those who reject literary criticism, whether for failing to rank works of literature in a pseudoscientific way or for inserting symbolism into works of literature that won’t accept it, are all too often simply ignorant of the field. Like my eighteen-year-old self, they discount it for the way it makes them feel, not as a result of any serious evaluation of the facts. So the complaint of pretension will not stick to literary criticism either.

There is still a widespread belief that goes something like this: genre fiction is popular and entertaining, while literary fiction is deliberately obscure so that pseudointellectuals can pretend to understand it in order to seem smart. This issue could probably be a whole essay in itself, so I will content myself with stating that (1) people do actually enjoy literary fiction, (2) there is a bigger audience for certain kinds of lit fic than you’d think, (3) certain segments of genre are more boring and marginal than their proponents would have you believe, and (4) fiction can still be valuable without being entertaining.

I hope that relating some of my personal experiences helps to dissolve the notion of the “pretentious.” When used in the nonstandard but common way I’ve been using it, it’s quite simply a contentless word. Since the new meaning has almost supplanted the original meaning, it’s probably best that we all stop using the word entirely. We’ve already established that many key tenets of tropish aesthetics evaporate when the “pretentious” enemy is taken away. Now that the enemy has indeed been taken away, we’re left with a void. What can we fill it with?

In part three I will give an example of a story I believe to be an effective, if not great, short story, and contrast it with a series of novels by a popular author widely considered to be unpretentious and on the side of tropishness.

The errors of popular criticism, part 1: Tropish Aesthetics

Despite my highbrow pretensions and classical music degree, I’m actually quite steeped in science fiction. This means that I’ve paid close attention to the uproar surrounding the Hugo awards and the Sad/Rabid Puppies campaign. I have little to say about the Rabid Puppies, who are clearly nothing more than shit disturbers. But the Sad Puppies campaign is an instance of an annoyingly prevalent conceptual error that stands in dire need of correction.

My intention here is to focus on the misguided aesthetic concepts in general rather than the specific situation because I don’t give a damn about the Hugos as an award: this story’s status as a Hugo-nominated novelette is sufficient to kill the award’s credibility for a decade, I think.

In many ways I have a background similar to the Sad Puppies campaigners: I’ve never been involved with SFF fandom proper. I started with an interest in video games, which brought me onto the Internet with greater enthusiasm than any of my friends at the time (I remember explaining the concept of a blog to an uncomprehending grade 7 classmate about ten years ago). About the same time I discovered TV Tropes, John Scalzi’s blog and novels, and the work of Richard Dawkins.

This last was particularly influential: I became an atheist and a huge fan of his, which meant I had to pretend to care about science and distrust “intellectuals.” I read Dawkins’s elaborate handjob to Alan Sokal (of the Social Text hoax) and from then on harboured an unhealthy skepticism of anything in the humanities, especially the study of literature. I also discovered the fascinating Singularity and transhumanist website Less Wrong, and while I never drank the Singularity Kool-Aid, I was heavily influenced by their attitude toward academia and traditional knowledge.

The three interests led me inexorably to science fiction: TV Tropes had an SFF-ish bent, Scalzi’s novels were easy to read, and liking science fiction was easier and more fun than learning about science. But like the puppies, science fiction for me was centred on movies and the books that aped them. Fantasy was a little more bookish, since there were never any good fantasy movies: I read the Harry Potter series as it came out, The Golden Compass at age 10, The Lord of the Rings at 13, and went from there into Terry Pratchett and Jim Butcher (I know, I know). But it was only much later that I discovered Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, China Mieville, Nick Mamatas, Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin, and all the other SFF-ish writers I know and love today.

Aside from Tolkien, Pullman, and Pratchett, SFF for me was not literary, defined as writing in which the story is created through the use of words which reward study for their own sake. I had gleaned what I now know to be a bizarre aesthetic and literary philosophy from TV Tropes, my atheistic reading, and my overexposure to Hollywood movies. This philosophy precluded any serious analysis of language in novels and militated against taking language seriously as a medium of storytelling.

Atheism and Hollywood movies served to protect the aesthetics by limiting my reading. But TV Tropes was the source of the philosophy’s substance. The TV Tropes model takes atomized bits of story-stuff known as “tropes” and endlessly categorizes them, listing examples and subtropes and variations and inversions. This elaborate taxonomy suggests an aesthetics in which stories are created through a sort of plot and character calculus, and the good stories are all and only the ones that make an interesting and novel pattern with the preexisting plots and characters. A key TV Tropes tenet is a suspicion of originality, construing storytelling as endless variations on a theme. This is what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer popular, along with its lesser imitators (Butcher, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelley Armstrong, Mike Carey, and God knows how many others): you can always tell what the prime form of the trope is and how it’s been transformed.

Tropish criticism places a story in story space at the intersection of all its tropes and looks at what falls nearby. The unspoken principle, then, is that stories that can be easily placed into story space are the best ones. This spatial concept can be extended to incorporate more unusual works, but it’s never really a good fit. A troper will always see Neil Gaiman as superior to James Joyce.

Certain regions of story space are more interesting than others. This means, if you follow the spatial metaphor, that the aesthetic quality of a work can be evaluated objectively in terms of which areas it explores. If you subscribe to certain key tenets, it’s not hard to prove that Guards! Guards! is better than Jingo but not as good as Men at Arms, and all without quoting a single line. The system probably also explains the Internet’s fascination with extravagantly negative reviews—Doug Walker, Yahtzee Croshaw, Linkara, and the rest are all entertaining performers, but the main reason they caught on is that they flatter the aesthetic beliefs of a large number of people.

This system is extremely comfortable, and many people never do leave it. But needless to say, it is also extremely limiting. It can’t handle any genre fiction that is even slightly unusual—for example, Mamatas’s fiction, which is self-evidently weird and wonderful does pretty badly by any tropish metric (I remember being perplexed by Bullettime, and part of me was strongly inclined to dislike it).

The popular fiction of past centuries—Shakespeare, Austen, Doyle, Wilkie Collins—does all right, but mainstream writers of the twentieth century, Faulkner, Hemingway, Updike, Irving, Pynchon, DeLillo, etc., are absolutely reviled. And the system is not really interested in anything beyond assigning a ranking and pointing out the ways in which the plot-character calculus of a work resembles and differs from that of other works. It is medium-agnostic. Most importantly: it almost entirely ignores language.

When people say that they are looking for good stories without anything “pretentious,” this is what they mean: stories with recognizable tropes put through a given set of transformations to yield a pattern that is new but not in any way challenging or surprising (challenge and surprise would be pretentious). The words are secondary, to the extent that they count at all: Jim Butcher is not a shitty writer, he’s an able practitioner of trope calculus. That excruciating kaiju story is not the literary equivalent of my balls, it’s a variation on the kaiju trope in the form of a short story (something that apparently hasn’t been tried before, perhaps because a giant monster destroying a city is such a visual thing).

Again, I know this from the personal experience of having held similar beliefs not too long ago. These errors of popular criticism depend on a dichotomy between the popular and the “pretentious” to such an extent that the beliefs evaporate once their adversary is taken away. This means the adversary must be a shadowy one that can never quite be pinned down to a specific person or work, aside from the occasional scattered reference here and there.

More on this shadowy adversary in part 2. Part 3 will actually look at some genre fiction in detail.

New acquisitions from the library sale

Every so often I go to the Millennium Library sale, fill up a bag with as many books as I can possibly carry, and ride home awkwardly on the bus to fill up my bookshelf. This is not a very intelligent thing to do, given the amount of reading time and shelf space I have, but I like it and it’s cheaper than most vices.

Here’s today’s haul:

Bram Stoker, Dracula

I already have a copy of this, but it’s a shitty paperback that’s not in very good condition. Not, actually, a work I’m particularly fond of, but given the amount of SFF writing I do I should have it for reference.

Max Kenyon, ed., A Mozart Letter Book

I have a modest collection of composer biographies (the crown jewel of which is Hans Gál’s book on Brahms). This is pretty useful stuff for a musician to have. The Mozart letters are always a pleasure, not just because they shed light on the eighteenth century attitude toward music, but because sandwiched between accounts of concerts and reports to his father you get the raunchy stuff, the letters about boners and faeces.

Dennis Carroll, Modern Dramatists: David Mamet

I skipped over a lot of collections of critical essays, but this one I had to pick up. David Mamet is one of my favourite playwrights, but his works can be problematic. Oleanna, for example, is one of the best plays ever written and feels like a punch in the stomach even when you’re reading it, but it pisses off just about everybody. I think I could benefit from reading some detailed scholarly thought about his works to inform my own opinions.

Doris Lessing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell; Lillian Hellman, Six Plays by Lillian Hellman; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

I’ve tried to make an effort to diversify my reading, but in practice this means that I own one novel by Jane Austen and I’ve read Things Fall Apart. There are so many great women authors out there that I am a little ashamed not to be more familiar with their work.

C. N. Manlove, Science Fiction: Ten Explorations; Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds., Arthur C. Clarke (Writers of the 21st Century Series); Mark Siegel, James Tiptree Jr. (Starmont Reader’s Guide #22); William Ready, The Tolkien Relation: A Personal Inquiry

I’m currently working on two science fiction criticism pieces that I hope to get published, so reading within the field is a good idea. James Tiptree Jr. is the only author here I’m not very familiar with; the one story of hers I read I found vaguely disturbing, so I want to learn more about her writing.

Boris Pasternak, Safe Conduct: An Autobiography (and other writings)

I have admired Boris Pasternak from a distance for some years. Dr. Zhivago is a monumental undertaking I’m not quite ready for yet, and I once made an attempt to read some of his poetry in translation (it went about as well as you can imagine). This autobiography plus three short stories is going to be my introduction.

William Shakespeare, King John, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Titus Andronicus

I already have a complete Shakespeare (found at a library sale, of course), but it’s helpful to have these individual editions, which present the text in a more spacious, readable format and include critical notes.

Henry F. Salerno, ed., English Drama in Transition, 1880-1920; Tom Stoppard, Dirty Linen & New-Found-Land; Eugene O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness! and two other plays; Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus (trans. Gilbert Murray)

Every time I read a play I enjoy the experience immensely, but I still haven’t done it very much. I hope to change that with these books, which present a nice variety.

Don DeLillo, The Body Artist; Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon

I enjoyed DeLillo’s White Noise (though it’s incredibly bleak), so anything he’s written is welcome on my shelf. I have never read Pynchon, but he’s been cited as an influence on many authors I do enjoy, like DeLillo and David Foster Wallace.

Walter Sutton, American Free Verse

I actually thought this was an anthology, but on closer examination it appears to be a critical work with extensive quotations. This is all to the good; my plan to become more familiar with poetry has resulted in my having a bookshelf full of poems I’ve never read. A book that holds my hand a little is very much welcome.

Review: New Worlds Quarterly #2

Time for a little history lesson. In the early days of science fiction, from its murky pre-1900 past to around 1960, most of what was written in the genre was pulpy in nature. This is not always a bad thing, but it has its limitations. It tends toward formulaic action plots with ideas given the short end of the stick. The prose is at best competent, never experimental, and at worst unreadable. Two-fisted manly men dominate the genre along with swooning damsels, moustache-twirling villains, and wacky ethnic sidekicks. This is the era of Asimov—there was a lot of good work being done, but its value is tightly circumscribed.

For a variety of reasons, this began to change in the 1960s. This era is sometimes called the “New Wave” of science fiction. We began to see a more diverse array of writers with more interesting things to say: people like Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Avram Davidson, and numerous others. The term is often applied more narrowly to a group of authors associated with the British magazine New Worlds, which at that time was under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. These authors include Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, and Thomas M. Disch.

This more narrow “New Wave” had a very distinct style. The plots became stranger and harder to figure out. Prose grew almost defiantly complex. The stories were politically conscious and tended toward the radical left (where 50s SF was rather overtly right-wing and to this day has an obscenely powerful influence on right-wing thought). The influence of drugs was never far away. It was an angry refutation of SF’s past, and like all angry refutations it had a real point that was sometimes obscured by all the bile. At its best the New Wave breathed new life into a genre that was growing stale. At its worst it was miserable and nihilistic.

After the New Worlds magazine ended due to financial difficulties, Moorcock revived it in several different forms. The first one was as a series of quarterly paperback anthologies. The present review considers the second of these anthologies, published in 1971. Continue reading

Apostasy squared: “New Atheism” considered harmful

Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience posts this list of recommended reading for atheists. The list, which prominently features Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, with a little Russell thrown in and Dennett conspicuously absent, is supposed to give readers “a basic handle on the intellectual foundations of atheism”. This is the New Atheism, the strange mixture of half-understood science, naive philosophy, and adolescent rage beloved of fourteen-year-old boys and others who might as well be. It evolved gradually over the last forty to fifty years and has recently been taking the world by storm. I date the New Atheism’s ascendancy from 2006, when Dawkins’s The God Delusion was published and became an instant bestseller. The rise of the Internet (particularly blogs and social media) is also crucial because it allowed fans of the New Atheism to organize—which was difficult in the past due to geographic spreading and the fact that many of these people are not very well-adjusted socially.

The central figures of this movement are Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, the Tufts philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, and the late political writer Christopher Hitchens. Each one brings his own distinctive style to the table. Dawkins began as a pretty good popular science writer with a chip on his shoulder about religion. It wasn’t until The God Delusion that he went full-blown cultural critic. God only knows (excuse the expression) if he’s done anything scientific in recent years. As far as I know he’s currently a full-time atheist.

Harris combines a mild-mannered demeanour with moments of bugfuck insanity, particularly when the subject turns to Islam and conflicts in the Middle East. This is a topic to which we’ll return. Hitchens was a drunken cryptofascist asshole who appears to have been roped into the movement largely by accident; most of his writing is about politics and touches religion only obliquely.

By far the most tolerable of the four is Daniel Dennett. This is probably because he’s the only one who has an agenda more sophisticated than the grown-up equivalent of telling the younger kids there ain’t no Santa Claus (Dennett has confessed to playing along on one occasion when he was mistaken for the jolly old elf). His book Consciousness Explained is an enlightening read about consciousness and the self. He is probably the least-read of the four; his books require a little more heavy lifting and he is less prone to sloganeering.

I’ve been a bit glib in the above summary. Partly this is my own frustration coming out, partly it’s a transparent attempt to bate the New Atheist fans into responding, but mostly it’s affectionate prodding. Although I would not consider myself a New Atheist (and I’m skeptical of the term “atheist” in general), I did at one time and I understand the thought process that leads people into this movement. I get why people pick up Richard Dawkins and fall in love with him, and I feel a certain amount of kinship with them. This is tempered by a desire to kick them in the ass until they read a goddamn book1, which would solve a lot of their problems. Continue reading

Building a library

Sometime in the last year I realized that there was something fundamentally wrong with my reading habits. I am an enthusiastic user of both my public library and my university library, and whenever I needed something serious, weighty, and old these sources never failed me. I never really had a lot of money to spend on buying books, so I generally bought them at Christmas time when people gave me gift cards—this was my light reading for the year, consisting of the recent SFF bestsellers that always had long wait lists at the library. In other words, I was buying ephemera and borrowing classics. Not a strategy that makes a whole lot of sense, in general.

Recently I’ve been trying to turn this around. Rather than buying every new Jim Butcher book when it comes out in paperback and reading it once, I’m looking for hardcovers that I will get some mileage out of. Now my light reading, when I have time for it, is stuff I’ve picked out from used bookstores, and it’s generally a lot higher quality than the recent commercial SFF I had been reading. I’m beginning to actually assemble my own library, and thinking about it this way changes my priorities slightly. Continue reading