Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Words Are the Only Substance

Or as Jeff VanderMeer puts it, Style is Story is Style

Meanwhile, over on that Guardian piece I carry on the argument about the political import of those words. To some, it seems, the racism analogy is "cheap, in poor taste and absurdly self-regarding." Not wrong, just improper. But then why bother arguing when you can just Edward Woodward the Geek Show freakshow into that motherfuckingly massive ole Straw Man of "Why do these SF-fanatic commenters think everything outside their little world is part of a conspiracy to put them down?"

To which I say:

["Words are the only substance"? In a way. What I say is, with some parenthetical interjections here:]

Why do all you pharmacologists think the earth is flat? What? You're not a pharmacologist and you don't think the earth is flat? Ah, well, Foolish question then, I guess.

Me, I'm more of a pomo boho homo hobo who writes strange fiction and critique, literary and cultural -- though that's entirely irrelevant to the point unless you're going straight to the ad hominem. And that point itself is naught to do with a "conspiracy," entirely to do with the rhetoric of abjection at play in the culture -- i.e. institutionalised prejudice. The classism is focused on all the commercial categories born of the pulp boom in the early 20th century.

[Note the "conspiracy." Words are the only substance.]

My "little world" perspective looks back even beyond that. This "literary fiction" / "genre fiction" bollocks is just the latest iteration of the petit-bourgeois mindset that focused on the penny dreadfuls and dime novels before the pulps, and on the sensation novels and Gothic fictions before them, the latter being rather doubly maligned as not just vulgar pandering to the proles but as -- and you must imagine a middle-aged straight white Victorian gent here, looking down his nose with snootcocking snipewankery -- women's fiction. So throw in a bit of sexism while you're at it. No, this is very much not about some kneejerk SF fan defensiveness. It's about the lamentable follies of a discourse that we're all caught up in.

[Words are the only substance: "little world"; "women's fiction." This is discourse.]

As for the crass and uncouth comparison with racism, yes, I suppose it's quite tasteless, quite improper, not to mince my words. But that doesn't speak to the substance: that the usage of "genre" has been warped in a precise parallel with the usage of "colour" such that an empty property requiring a value inserted (like "DOB" on a questionnaire,) now signifies a specific subset of all which has that property; and that this is patently a rhetorical action born of, and feeding back into, political forces.

[Words are the only substance. Import is the action of that substance upon us. Rhetorical = political.]


But no, the fact of prejudice doesn't mean the victims don't deserve disdain in this argument. To the snootcocker they do, because being "genre fiction" is what makes "genre fiction" shitty.

It's about being derivative, really: "there's something genuinely valuable in a piece's un-genre-ness; its resistance to easy definition. Great fiction of all kinds transcends category - or forces the creation of a new one."

So, derivative dirty realism and magical realism -- which fall under the "literary fiction" umbrella -- can be judged on those grounds. The latter becomes "this odd whimsical form and is divorced from its original postcolonial significance" (I quite agree) as the conversation is distorted by its shortsightedness, by the focus on English language works, by the failure to see "the seminal works in other languages." (Again I agree.)

But is the twisted meaning of "genre" really important? We're all misusing it, since it "should properly be used to distinguish basic types like drama, poetry, epic, novel, etc.."

[Words are the only substance. Here are some more, my next response:]

I agree we're all misusing the term "genre". That's a large part of my point. But classification of idiom applies at different levels, so the war novel is a genre just as much as the novel is. So too are genres like absurdist satire, epic fantasy, contemporary realism, magical realism, Naturalism. These idioms are often only delimited by constraints if one is approaching them from the offset with a view to creating a derivative work that offers more of the same. This is where the shittiness comes in with derivative magical realism or dirty realism, genres of so-called 'lit-fic' -- formulation.

[Words are the only substance. The only constraint on that substance is selection and structure. I select the words "absurdist" and "satire," structure them into a descriptive phrase. Behold, the genre!]

These are genres as well as sub-genres, by the way, because a sub-class of a class is itself a class, whether we're talking Platonic forms, Object Oriented Programming or literary idioms.

[Words are the only substance. Platonic forms do not have substance. How do we constrain them then? Like this: "the sonnet has fourteen lines and a volta." But what have we constrained except the word "sonnet"?]

Some genres are delimited by formal constraints -- like the sonnet -- but this need not equate to formulation any more than Oulipo constraints do. Having fourteen lines and a volta is not what causes a sonnet to be shitty "genre poetry." Nor does it only become great by "transcending" such constraints and becoming -- gosh wow -- a shmonneting rather than a sonnet. That would be a vacuous valorisation of novelty over substance. There is a genuine value to the eschewing of trite and pandering formulation, but to collapse this to "resisting easy definition" is a crude reductionism that would damn Shakespeare's sonnets and probably the bulk of literature with it. "Blake? God, look at the rhythm and rhyme schemes. These are mere nursery rhymes!"

[Words are the only substance. If your only constraint is that they come in fourteen lines and a violent jab of blade in eyeball & twist, fuck you, what is that substance but a tyger jaunting furious, afire, anywhen?]

In fact, more often than not, to understand what's actually going on in any idiom, we need to turn the model inside out, view those technical features as core components, conceits around which individual works develop an entirely original articulation, not boundaries on what that articulation can be. We do better to understand the works of Aeschylus and Euripedes as Greek Tragedy than to extol them as transcending category by achieving some spurious quality of "un-genre-ness" (posited, presumably, on the idea that to write a Greek Tragedy back in the day would obviously be derivative hackwork because it was an identifiable idiom.)

[Words are the only substance. We should not merely hack off a lump of it.]

I absolutely agree that one of the things that distorts this conversation is the narrow scope, but it's not just cultural blinkers, it's temporal too. We're applying a notion of "genre" wrought in a specifically Western discourse of the last few hundred years, contemporaneous with the construction of "race" and bound to it where it becomes a way of establishing a dichotomy between "sophisticated" and "primitive" modes of narrative.

[Words are the only substance. Words are always already sophisticated
and primitive. All of them.]

First that discourse sets apart European "primitive" stories -- Romances in the chivalric sense, folklore and suchlike -- in a contradistinction to the basically Rationalist narrative form of the novel, as "proper" literature. The fiction of other cultures goes with a swift colonialist flip of dismissal into the other category of non-literature -- mere "storytelling". Which speaks directly to this commenter's point about rendering magical realism "a mere whimsical form divorced from its original post-colonial significance." This is how the privileged continue the infantilisation and orientalism.

[Words are the only substance. Rhetorics is politics. The word "mere" is the most important word in the previous paragraph because of the politics in the difference between "mere" and "simply."]

literature, says the white, middle-class Victorian male, isn't those "primitive" sort of stories which are recogniseably Other in their use of specific conceits of form or figurae. Those are the sort of works appreciated only by those who lack the nous to require more -- women, proles and colonial subjects. I talk of Gothic, sensation novels, penny dreadfuls and dime novels, but the "fanciful folklore" of colonised cultures is equally abjected, delegitimised. Unless it's being appropriated by Kipling, say, or expurgated so it can be (re)presented as children's fiction a la the Arabian Nights.

[Words are the only substance. To control how the word "literature" may be legitimately selected with other words and structured into sentences is the true constraint on that substance.]

Then with the impact of mass-production in the 20th century, you get the pulp boom. This is indeed heavily characterised by formulation, but it is simultaneously a substrate that nurtures writers simply unwilling to kowtow to a High Art / Low Art discourse that is a product of privilege
reinforcing privilege. Fact. All of the genres commercialised do become heavily codified with constraints of form by which more of the same can be churned out, but most demand ongoing detournement even there, and most publishers piggy-back off the formula fare to support the demand for works which treat a technique as core component, as mere conceit around which the developed articulation is prized precisely for its originality. To deny this is simply ignorance of the historical reality and of the underlying mechanisms by which literature evolves.

[Words are the only substance. Petrol in glass bottles handed out to the mob.]

It doesn't matter about the Chandlers or Besters though; now a name can be given to that which is not literature: pulp. Now we can use the formulation to redefine the very nature of fiction. Those genres around which marketing categories form can become the
only genres, can become "genre fiction." The same mechanisms of evolution -- including formulation -- take place within general fiction but hey, now the very language denies that those white, middle-class, men writing shitty derivative magic/dirty realism are guilty of that. They're not writing "genre fiction."

[Words are the only substance. To control how the words "genre fiction" may
not be legitimately selected with other words and structured into sentences is the true constraint on that substance.]

Oh, but the post-colonial Indian writer, Rushdie, who rejects the discourse, takes the idioms of his native culture and the idioms of the vulgar masses, treats them as core components, conceits around which he can develop a wholly original articulation -- he slams into that discourse with his first novel. It carries the stench of "genre fiction" in the conceits that are perceived as science fiction. Maybe it's a ropey first novel, but if you're throwing SF into the mix, we're certainly not dealing with formulaic magic realism, right? But regardless, this book is slammed.

[Words are the only substance. Make that a virgin Molotov, with a champagne chaser, please, and hold the rag; I'm on Atkins.]

Again, Grimus was touted for an SF award. Again, Delany's Dhalgren is canonical SF (with its black protagonist and explicit gay sex, by the way.) That's not to defend the genre but to point up the reality in which innovation is valorised within the cultures focused on idioms. "Transcends the genre" is the ultimate plaudit, so much so it's a cliché. Trust me, I've been scabrous in attacks on formulation within the genre I've ended up hanging out in. But I can write fiction as queer as I want it to be there, queer in all respects, rather than the "coming-of-age as a gay kid in suburban Scotland under Thatcher" novel that
would be formulation... but "literary" as opposed to "genre fiction."

[Words are the only substance. We do not
transcend the genre with words; we make it.]

Consider it in terms of sexuality rather than colour -- c.f. my masculinity analogy. "Genre fiction" is queer fiction. This means only that it identifies by orientations not the normative. These fall into distinct classes but there is nothing about being in one class that constrains behaviour beyond having the core component. Still all of those classes are subject to rampant stereotyping and a valorisation of the normative founded on it.

[Words are the only substance. I will not be painted in lies because of the words I kiss.]

You say "un-genre-ness," I hear "not queer." Great fiction "transcends" category? Like great people "transcend" their sexuality.

[Words. Are. The. Only. Substance.]

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Anonymous Emo said...

Most of the stuff you say here I've heard you say before, but somehow I never get tired of it. Maybe I like the way your model of thinking about this stuff works in different situations, the same way I never get tired of your analyses using the modalities model (which is pretty close to Delany's philosphy of reading, probably not incidentally :))

Happy to have you and Jeff pointing out the Style/Content fallacy. Sadly, it still doesn't seem to have much street cred in the strange genre. Over on the comments of Jeff's post the discussion still goes on, but my experience has been mostly of eyes glazing and jaws going slack from boredom OR some platitude, usually spat out or condescendingly offered to me as if something's wrong with my head :D

10:56 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Over on the comments of Jeff's post the discussion still goes on...

Hadn't kept an eye on it, but... oh dear. Kudos to Trip, whoe'er he may be; I've had yon S. Johnson sermonising here on numerous occasions and found it a thankless task trying to have a dialogue.

But, yes, as far as the style/content debate goes, I just find it ridiculous that some hold fast to what is essentially a figurative conceit of words as physical vessels for a substance called meaning.

1:41 pm  
Anonymous Emo said...

Yeah, Trip's me, but I'm kinda getting tired of trying to get the same point across over and over; it's interesting if you feel fatigued already, since it seems you've done it more often than I have.

And yeah, I guess back-patting (what I seem to be doing here) gets somewhat tiresome after a while, but I wonder the same thing: how is it that this *metaphor* seems to have acquired such a strong quality of truthfulness, while *detailed accounts* of what's wrong with it just can't get through.

Maybe because most don't even get to the realization that it *is* a metaphor. I mean, there are people, places and events, on the one hand, and fancy "literary" sentences that don't say stuff the way "normal people" say stuff, on the other. And so *of course* there's form and there's content.

2:19 pm  

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