The Wheel Turns

So we’re losing Emerald City (and, sadly, the blog), but we have gained a new ‘zine this week: Heliotrope, from the people behind Fantasy Book Spot. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, you can download a pdf of the whole first issue, or smaller pdfs of each individual article and story, but there’s no easy way to actually view the content online (i.e., no HTML version).

As you might expect for a first issue, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Heidi Kneale’s essay “Where’s the Sci-Fi: the relationship between trends in science fiction and modern history,” for instance, seems perfunctory, to put it kindly; Edward Morris’s story “On The Air” is an intermittently entertaining but clunky alternate history, largely cast in the form of an radio broadcast by Hugo Gernsback. (Others may like it more. It’s in a similar vein to “Imagine“, from Interzone last year, which I also wasn’t bowled over by, but which made the most recent BSFA Short Fiction Award shortlist.) But there are some good reviews by Victoria Hoyle, and an interesting poem by Catherynne M. Valente. (Which may sound like faint praise, but I’m a tough sell when it comes to poetry.)

There’s also “The Skeptical Fantasist: in defense of an oxymoron,” an essay by R. Scott Bakker which, from the title, I was hoping was going to be an antidote to Charles Stross’ odd assertion that “fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn’t really tell us anything about the world we live in”. (Further discussion, although mostly of the other bits of Stross’ post. And while we’re in the neighbourhood of the subject, see this discussion of what’s ‘cutting edge’ in sf.) And it is, in a way, once you get past the equally odd assertion that “Where science fiction, one might say, constructs pseudo-knowledge of the future, fantasy fiction reconstructs the pseudo-knowledge of the past” by realising that Bakker is talking almost exclusively about genre fantasy.

His argument, I think, is that (1) to go along with the general fall in scientific literacy, there has been an equally damaging but less recognised fall in “interpretive literacy”, the ability to recognise the fluidity of texts; and that (2) genre fantasies, typically based on anthropomorphic (“familial”) worldviews, look familiar and comforting to those who lack facility of interpretation, but can be used to “speak out, to use the frequency of shared interests to communicate different values, different perspectives, to people engaged in their own ingrown conversation.” Fair enough. But along the way, this argument almost gets lost in the noise of an entirely separate argument about the stagnation of the literary establishment. I’m also not entirely convinced that he understands molecular genetics enough to be drawing on it for similes:

Within the literary establishment itself, the consensus seems to be that the culture industry is largely to blame, that in the interests of reaping the efficiencies that follow from standardization, the media corporations have literally trained the capacity for critical interpretation out of consumers. […] No one, they might say, laments interpretive illiteracy more than they do, but so long as the system continues unchecked, there is precious little they can do.

Of course this story is an oversimplification. Nor is it the case that all the literati buy into even its most sophisticated versions. But nonetheless reproductions of this tale float around university literature departments like bits of messenger RNA, ready to undo any damage to the master code that not only determines the form and content of all things literary, but also secures the authority of those with the proper institutional credentials.

A shame. But the ‘zine is worth a look anyway, and it pays good rates, so long may it survive.

On an entirely different note: John Clute’s new website has a page of notes and things, including a collection of “aphorisms and thoughts, mostly swollen, out of which is it sometimes possible to say something”, of which my favourite is probably this:

Genres: Stud farms for McGuffins that lasted the course.

12 thoughts on “The Wheel Turns

  1. Being only viewable in pdf form was annoying, especially since the layout is rather uneven. Some of it one column, some of it two column (which makes it annoying to read if you aren’t viewing in full page mode) – and why for switch to two column for two pages in the middle of one story? The ragged right justification was distracting, as were the formatting errors like the missing paragraph indents. (And then there was page 33. An entire page devoted to a pull quote?)

    I wonder if they are thinking of going to a subscription model at some point and that’s why they are going with the pdfs.

    Contentwise, I agree that it was a bit of a mixed bag.

  2. Many thanks for the mention ;-) I wrote one of them in flurry last weekend – none of my careful and interminable drafting ala Tiptree!

    I don’t know why only pdf is available – perhaps to make it more akin to reading a printed page?

  3. Honey Mouth by Samantha Henderson was EXCELLENT. Yes, the rest was mixed. The PDF format didn’t bother me, although I did notice the one column/two column. I preferred the one column because I don’t like having to scroll down and then back up.

    The artwork was good and they kept the theme through.

    Just my thoughts.

  4. I’m keen to gather critiques in the hopes of drafting a shorter, more accessible version of the article, but I’m afraid I don’t understand this one at all. Are you actually dismissing the article on the basis of a single metaphor?

  5. Hi —

    No, while it undermined my faith in your authority on matters scientific somewhat, I mostly just thought the wonky analogy was entertaining.

    My main problem with the article itself was that what I felt were the interesting parts in the first half (rise of literalist religion, fall in interpretive literacy) got lost in the second half, in favour of criticism of the literary establishment (which, to be honest, I’ve heard before). The link between the two didn’t seem particularly compelling. But I suspect that fixing this would involve writing an essay other than the one you wanted to write …

  6. I’m blaming the lapse in interpretative literacy on the literary establishment, so I’m not clear on how the two can be separated. What was it about the ‘link’ you found unconvincing?

    But more importantly (!!), I’m very keen to know where you’ve heard my literary establishment critique before. I’ve been searching for alternate versions for some time.

  7. OK, since you insist. You’ll note that all my problems are, as I said, with the second half of the essay. To be honest, from my point of view you could skip from identifying the problem of interpretative literacy to your argument for genre fantasy as a vehicle for negotiation between different worldviews. Those are the parts I find interesting and basically convincing; the question of who’s to blame is separate. In the context of your essay, it comes across as a long digression–since there’s no suggestion (for instance) in your introduction that you’ll be covering that sort of ground, the reader isn’t expecting it. And I suspect it’s a much more complex issue than you have space to do justice at this length.

    That said, if you’re going to keep it, these are the main points I would look at:

    1. “The problem of scientific literacy, in effect, is preceded by a problem with interpretative literacy. And this is not the purview [of] science education.” It’s not the sole purview, certainly, but as far as I’m concerned knowing how to evaluate different interpretations of a story that is presented to you is very much the purview of science education. Arguably it’s the central task of all education, to equip people to ask questions about the world as it is presented to them. If you want to argue that it is primarily the responsibility of English teachers, you’re going to have to do a bit more work to convince me.

    2. “Within the literary establishment itself, the consensus seems to be that the culture industry is largely to blame, that in the interests of reaping the efficiencies that follow from standardization, the media corporations have literally trained the capacity for critical interpretation out of consumers.” You go on to ask what other explanations there could be, and suggest one, but you never (to my mind) present a convincing argument for why this explanation, which you suggest is prevalent, is wrong. The closest you come is when you say that “Their argument against the corporations is belief by the fact that those selfsame corporations have no problem publishing ‘difficult works’ in the literary mainstream” but I’m not sure I see the contradiction. Corporations, so far as I can tell, are generally quite happy to cater for as many audiences as possible. If that means publishing both lowest-common-denominator pap and the works of, say, David Mitchell, I’m sure it’s not beyond them to find a way to do it.

    3. “I was asked about this year’s disconnect between the movies that won the Oscars and the movies that pulled down the biggest box office receipts.” My immediate thought (which is not original to me, but I can’t remember the source) is that most people tend to like the same dumb things but have highly individual tastes when it comes to smart things. You don’t need to posit an inward-looking community to explain the results of the Oscars, just a community that has a disporportionate amount of influence. Certainly communities can become inward-looking, and inward-looking communities can produce limited works, but I don’t think it’s axiomatic that they will do either.

    4. “Though literalist Christians are more than willing to share the ‘Good News’, few in the literary establishment seem willing to take the ‘bad news’–that outside of science, few if any interpretations warrant more than the most conditional commitment–in the opposite direction. Why? Because no self-respecting literary professor or writer would be caught dead knocking on doors in those narrative neighbourhoods.” This is the sort of thing I had in mind when I said your criticisms of the “literary establishment” seem overly familiar. The specific thing you’re blaming the establishment for is perhaps new, but the portrait you paint of the academy, ivory towers and willful ignorance about everything outside, is built on common generalisations and stereotypes. It’s well-trod ground. And while I’m sure there is some truth to it, I’m far from convinced that it’s a widespread reality. In fact, as far as I can tell as an outside observer, the establishment is increasingly knocking on doors in ‘those narrative neighbourhoods’. To be convinced otherwise, I need a much more detailed argument, with specific examples.

    5. “the literary establishment robs mass culture of those with the yen to challenge, and redirects them inward, so bringing about the very ornamental, commercial culture it so often criticizes.” This, I’m afraid, is where you lose me completely. Even if the literary establishment is everything you say it is in terms of being snobbish and inward-looking, how on earth are they robbing anyone of anything? The books that they laud are on the shelves, along with the ones they don’t. Anyone can buy them. Almost everyone should be able to read them. They may not be in the mass-market racks at Wal-Mart, but I can’t see how that has anything to do with the literary establishment. The idea that the esablishment is somehow seducing writers into producing work for a narrow audience seems equally bizarre; it seems to do rather a disservice to the intelligence and integrity of those writers, who I suspect are quite capable of deciding who they want to write for.

  8. Very cool beans, Niall. Thank you. Though I think you’re misreading me on the first four points, the way you do so points to definite shortcomings on the article’s part, not your own. I want the rewrite to be much clearer, and this will help.

    1) Insofar as everything is interpretative, sure, I guess so. But I don’t do anything more than suggest that the literary establishment needs to acknowledge it has a role to play in the problem of interpretative illiteracy. Given that the types of texts we read conditions HOW we read, I’m not sure what you would have me arguing here.

    Who said anything about English classes?

    2) I’m not sure what the criticism is here, since you seem to agree with me entirely. Arguing or recapitulating various views on the culture industry actually strikes me as a real digression.

    3) I’m not sure about this one either. I certainly never suggested turning inward was ‘axiomatic,’ only the tendency to do so. In fact, I’m very careful to qualify. I’m saying that literary writers tend to write for interpretatively literate readers, when their talents would be better spent writing genre (which they can’t, since it’s not a ‘serious’ artistic vehicle), so that everyone is regularly exposed to the type of ambiguities characteristic of literature.

    4) Most people in the humanities themselves readily admit that academia is insular. Again, I never suggested this was wholly the case, only that it’s a definite tendency. Given this, I’m not sure how I’m stereotyping. As for the contrary tendency, I agree that it seems to be rising: I’m just trying to do my bit to hurry it along!

    5) “The idea that the esablishment is somehow seducing writers into producing work for a narrow audience seems equally bizarre; it seems to do rather a disservice to the intelligence and integrity of those writers, who I suspect are quite capable of deciding who they want to write for.”

    Imbuing values would be a better word than ‘seducing.’ In this case, the values involve genre. I’m not sure what to say here, except that’s what social institutions do, and that the ability of individuals to transcend them is almost nil when they are unconscious of the ways they’re being steered. It has very little to do with intelligence. As a rule, we make far fewer ‘choices’ than we like to credit ourselves with.

    As for the ‘robbing…’ Think of it in these terms. Say that at any given point in time a society generates only a certain amount of explicit interpretative ambiguity, which gets divvied up and distributed to interpreters in certain ways. I’m arguing that we have a dysfunctional distribution system. In our society, the literary establishment tends to direct producers of interpretative ambiguity toward interpreters that have the least need for it, and away from those who have the most. The rehabilitation of genre as a category worthy of serious literary consideration, I’m suggesting, is one way to reverse this trend.

    This would probably be a good metaphor to work into the article, I think…

  9. Niall, on point 3, you may be thinking of this quote from David Foster Wallace:

    “TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.”

    (quoted here.)

  10. Ted: yes, that’s the quote I was thinking of, thanks.

    RS (or Scott, or R…): thanks for the followup. I’m sorry if I have misread you, and I’m glad you think my comments were helpful. It’s probably not worth going round this again in detail, but a couple of points.

    – When you say that interpretative literacy is not the purview of science education, and then switch to talking about the literary establishment, I assumed you were talking at least in part about the literary establishment’s role in education. Hence, English classes.

    – If we agree on point 2 (I didn’t realise we did) then I do think it needs to be a bit clearer that you’re talking about the literary establishment as a contributory party only; the way I read the current version, it sounds like you think they deserve the lion’s share of the blame.

    – I don’t see why the amount of interpretative ambiguity should function like a limited resource, so I’m not sure about this new metaphor, either. :)

  11. When you said ‘English teachers’ I assumed you were talking about public school educators, which I wouldn’t readily include in the ‘literary establishment.’

    Quick question then: How much explicit interpretative ambiguity makes it into popular culture?

    It seems almost a truism to say that the vast majority of popular narratives (no matter what the media) try to relieve consumers of interpretative work. Do you disagree with this?

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