Notes from New Sodom

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

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Latest Teacup Tempest

Elitism, escapism, world-building, blah blah blah. I've had my head down in terms of forums and blog-brouhahs, but I finally noticed the latest ripple of ructions via the Lotus Lyceum. There's a lot of, um, passion being thrown about, which is a good thing -- it's nice to know people give a fuck -- but to be honest, I think a lot of the argument involves people talking at cross-purposes, people defending something that they think others are attacking, attacking something that they think others are defending, people saying that they're not attacking / defending something in the way that other people think they are, but actually attacking / defending something else entirely, something which is worth attacking / defending... as opposed to what other people "seem to be" defending / attacking and so on, and on, and on, and on, and ever on, like the last one million pages of climbing up a fucking mountain at the end of Tolkien's Lordy-Lordy-Massuh-Ah's-Ah-Gonna-Carry-You-Massuh-Frodo of the Rings.


Oh, right. Where was I?

Yeah, so in all this teacup tempest, with people attacking / defending, in particular, elitism, escapism and worldbuilding, what comes through loud and clear is that we have a lot of different ideas of what those terms mean. So, in the interest of laying out me own way of thinking about such things, I thought I'd just throw a definition in and follow through the ramifications to see where it takes us.



From the word elite. Question: what's an elite? Answer: a small group of the select few in a certain field, segregated out from their fellows on the basis of superiority and accorded a privileged status. That's pretty straightforward, right? But it begs another set of questions: what kind of an elite do you get in writing? How small is the group? How is the selection made? How is the segregation established? On what basis is superiority judged? What kind of privileged status does membership of that elite confer?

The reality is that there's at least two existing elites in genre -- the "writer's writers" (e.g. M. John Harrison) and the "publisher's writers" (e.g. Anne Rice) -- where superiority is measured in terms of kudos or cash.

Note: Critics and readers, of course, play a large part in defining those elites by distributing kudos and cash respectively; to the extent that we might even talk about "critic's writers" and "reader's writers", but I think to do so would just confuse matters. Here's why:

First off, critics are just a subset of writers, really, and the kudos distribution system of the strange fiction community makes the system more of a network of peers than the hierarchy of the classic literary establishment where kudos is bestowed by academic / journalistic authorities. (Fandom's greatest gift to strange fiction writers, perhaps, is the foundation it provides for a level of contact unknown, I would suggest, in any other art form. SF writers form a global community in a way that, historically, only handfuls of closely located artists in particular movements can match -- the Impressionists, the Beats, groups lke that.) So we're still essentially talking about "writer's writers" when it comes to the "elite" of writers who have generated a high enough level of kudos to be considered the great rather than the good.

Meanwhile "reader's writers" and "publisher's writers" are pretty much identical by definition, since the publisher and the reader are just the two sides of the exchange mechanism whereby the status of a writer is measured in cash. It may seem prejudical to talk of "publisher's writers" rather than "reader's writers", unfairly suggesting hackdom by association with Business versus Art, but since we're talking about a system of selection, segregation and allocation of privileged status, it's the publishing industry that's of more importance here than the fan community, because this is where the actual mechanisms of the systems are. So "publisher's writers" is a better term, I'd say, when it comes to the "elite" of writers who have generated a high enough level of cash to be considered the great rather than the good.

Note finished. Point is, we have a critical elite and a commercial elite, the most respected writers (as signified in kudos) and the most popular (as signified in cash). A writer can, of course, be in both elites but we'll consider them as functionally separate; they work differently.

Yay or Nay?

So, is the existence of these elites a good thing or a bad thing?

That question really breaks down into a number of different questions: Is the limitation (to a small group) fair or unfair? Is the selection just or unjust? Is the segregation legitimate or illegitimate? Is the judgement of superiority founded or unfounded? What privileges come with the higher status? And for all of these, what benefits and what harms accrue?

Most of these have the same answers: any such system of selection and privileging can be unfair because any such system can be played; we see alliances and compromises -- compromises of integrity; favouritism and nepotism are inevitable; cliques and coteries evolve; struggles for status lead to back-stabbing; the deserving can be wrongly excluded for invalid reasons; elevating a few lowers the many in relation to them; it may even lead to the marginalisation of a "negative elite"; and so on.

Sometimes it's fair, however, because the kudos and cash is deserved. In fact, because those are measures of "deservingness", of worth, it's probably fair to a large degree. The process of selection and segregation, the limitation of this to a small group, the judgement of their superiority -- all of that is founded largely on the recognition that there are some who are just on a whole other level when it comes to generating kudos or cash. And there's only so far that system can be played before the unworthy demonstrate they just can't cut it.

The idea that many members of the "elite" don't actually deserve to be there is pretty much unsupportable with the commercial elite. When the bottom line is popularity measured in cash, the proof is in the pudding at the publisher's Christmas party. The same idea persists though in the opinions of many with regard to the critical elite. Where you can't argue with Anne Rice's commercial status, you can easily argue with the critical status of any number of respected writers, and this is quite common with readers who "can't see what the fuss is about".

The kudos distribution system (KDS) is, time and again, accused of corruption on all levels, with writer's blurbs, reviewer's criticisms, every possible avenue of kudos distribution, being interrogated for its integrity. The "intellectual" form of this is a suspicion that there's "a man behind the curtain", that the KDS has been infiltrated by commercial pressures; the kudos is being conferred falsely because a publisher is pulling strings. The "anti-intellectual" form is a suspicion that "the emperor has no clothes", that the KDS has been usurped by social aspirations; the kudos is being conferred falsely because a writer or critic wants to be seen to be conferring kudos on the flavour of the month. Either way, the suspicion is that the kudos conferred on a writer -- or rather on their work -- is largely or even wholly unwarranted hype.

Bribes and Bandwagons

Both suspicions have more than a hint of the conspiracy theory -- which is not to say that they are intrinsically baseless, just that they require conspiracy within the system. It would be naive to imagine that publishers don't do their damnedest to garner kudos for a book -- a feature review, a blurb from a major author, front-of-store placement. And it would be naive to imagine that writers and critics are entirely unmoved by social pressures -- catching the buzz, jumping on the bandwagon, pimping books by friends. However, the idea that the kudos distribution system can be corrupted such that all or even the majority of a work's kudos is actually unwarranted hype born of bribes and bandwagons is just as naive. Publishers are gamblers and they won't put good money on a lame nag. Writers (critics included) are after-dinner speakers and their career rests on having something individual to say.

Let's get real here. For the most part, if that publisher is pulling any strings to get kudos, it's because an editor got a book they thought was fucking good. It's because that editor thought it was good enough to put their ass on the line for. It's because they fought tooth and nail to persuade their superiors it was saleable even though it's not using a shoo-in formula. It's because they got the money men and marketing department on side by persuading them who it could be sold to, maybe even how. Remember, we're talking about kudos here, not cash, critical rather than commercial success. That's not just the usual PR push for the next would-be, could-be blockbuster bestseller. That's the high-risk investment of trying to get the word out about a potential cult classic. That's where PR can get you nowhere at all or, worse still, backfire completely either because it creates a misperception of the book as commercial (i.e. populist) fiction (which leads to disappointed expectations) or because it generates that exact suspicion of the kudos all actually being unwarranted hype (which leads to hostility and high expectations). The sheer risk of that kind of investment says a hell of a lot more for the editor and the publisher than it says against the KDS.

As for the literati, the cognoscenti, the reality is that any blurb on a book that someone, somewhere, deems bad is a notch off your reputation with that reader. Any insult aimed at a writer you consider awful is one less sale of your own book to some avid fan of that writer. Writers share aims and interests, theories on how it should be done and how it shouldn't be done, and, whether it's through magazines or movements, you do get factions emerging where groups of writers, loose or cohesive, advocate this form of story, berate another. But that's the dynamics of passions, where writers are dumb enough to risk pissing off the world because they honestly believe in what they're saying. We know that the deeper we are into the KDS, the more we rant and rave, throwing kudos like blathering fools or throwing shit like screeching monkeys, the more likely we are to make fools of ourselves and enemies as well as friends. And the strange fiction scene is so hostile to the notion of a literary establishment, so devoted to the ghetto guerilla mentality of genre, that to do so in the hope of gaining entry to some elite of SF cogniscenti, well, you'd have to be a fucking loon.

So if the conspiracy theories are unrealistic, where do they come from? Well, what exactly is the conspiracy theory here?

A Conspiracy of Charlatans

When we point at an acclaimed work and say that it's not worthy of acclaim, maybe even that it's worthy of disdain, that's not a conspiracy theory. When we say it's over-rated, hyped even, again that's not a conspiracy theory. But when we start to get into the "man behind the curtain" and the "emperor has no clothes" arguments, we enter into a conspiracy theory in which the KDS is a grand sham we have so cunningly seen through, a theory of how all those publishers and/or writers must be conspiring behind the scenes or in plain view to pull the wool over our eyes.

There is often, I think, a sort of insecure arrogance at the heart of these conspiracy theories, where the integrity of kudos is being challenged largely because one's own judgement of a writer's worth is so at odds with their status that simply not confering kudos oneself is insufficient. Even conferring negative kudos is insufficient. Rather, the disparity is such that one feels the need to challenge the very motivations of those who, by conferring kudos, have elevated a certain writer's work to an unacceptable level of acclaim. The kudos is just hype. There's a man behind the curtain. The emperor has no clothes. The arrogance lies in an assumption that one's own negative opinion is of such obvious and unquestionable validity that no contrary, which is to say positive, opinion could be honest. The insecurity rests in the notion that those contrary opinions are ascribable to a concerted force which constitutes a threat.

Which brings us back to the notion of the elite.

The intellectual projects their conspiracy theory into the Evil Forces of the "publishing industry". The anti-intellectual projects their conspiracy theory into the Evil Forces of the "literary establishment". We'll come back to the intellectuals later, because the anti-intellectual argument is more pertinent here as regards the critical elite. The accusation of elitism goes hand in hand with -- is, in fact, often a way of expressing -- the idea that writers and critics with the highest level of kudos are actually a conspiracy of charlatans, maintaining their status by mutual sycophancy and deceit. The elite that's being referred to here is an unworthy one, one where the process of selection and segregation has been perverted, where the limitation to a small group is for base motives, where the judgement of superiority is invalid.

Leaving aside the unrealistic notion that writers and critics risk careers to hype shit books, leaving aside the insecure arrogance of thinking that any kudos given to a book you thought was shit is really just unwarranted hype, leaving aside reality, and looking at the end results of simply having a critical elite, worthy or unworthy, the obvious question is: what good does it do one to be a member? Which is to say, forget the mechanisms of selection and so on, what great privileges come with the status that would lead one to play the game that way?

Privilege and Power

Actually this opens us up again to discussing the commercial elite too. The privileged status of being a "writer's writer" doesn't mean much more than being listened to when you hold forth about How It Is, on a panel or on the interwebs. The privileged status of being a "publisher's writer" means fuckloads of money and not getting pulled up over turgid prose, rambling plots and just plain bad writing. The former can lead to a lot of hot air while the latter can lead to a lot of crap fiction, but a critical elite can become the hothouse of new approaches while a commercial elite keeps the publishers afloat.

One thing that, I think, feeds into the notion of elitism in terms of SF cogniscenti is an erroneous equation with the cogniscenti of High Art, where the critical and commercial elite rather seem to be, often as not, one and the same. Success in High Art is both kudos and cash, the system of distribution for both -- the gallery -- pretty much ensuring that the most esteemed artists are also the one's earning the most money. It may be unfair of me, after my argument against the accusation of elitism in SF, to damn the art world as elitist in exactly that sense, but I do think the system is one in which hype works. In the high-end market of "connosseurs", Saatchi is an emperor, his every purchase bestowing as much kudos as cash, and with conceptual art his taste in clothing -- a field explicitly predicated on explication rather than execution -- the slick-talking tailor who can sell him his own birthday suit is just an artist who can justify his work at the champagne-soaked opening, with references, perhaps, from other cogniscenti -- creative, critical or commercial -- also deeply embedded in the social circuit of the invited great and good. But I may just be showing my own prejudice here. The point is really that even if this is true with High Art, it's a mistake to think that set-up transfers to the world of strange fiction, where the most acclaimed writer may well be on the midlist (if they have a publisher at all), and where the real power and privilige comes from selling like Dan Brown.

The privileged status of a writer in the critical elite amounts to little more than a right to be obstreporous and opinionated in and of itself. This seems to be generally frowned upon by opponents of "elitism" who are inevitably talking about the critical elite and who, equally inevitably, have little to say on the matter of the commercial elite. Funny enough, this tends to come out when members of the critical elite are obstreporous and opinionated about the works of members of the commercial elite particularly favoured by the opponents of elitism. Writer X refers to writer Y as a derivative hack churning out puerile drivel for the lowest common denominator. Reader Z calls writer X elitist. And probably jealous. Both may well be right. Writer Y is, in all likelihood, a derivative hack churning out puerile drivel for the lowest common denominator. Writer X is, in all likelihood, aware of his place in a critical elite and using the privileged status that gives him to freely express his aesthetic as an implicit (or even explicit) universal imperative (to not be a derivative hack who churns out puerile drivel for the lowest common denominator since this is not the "proper" way to write), to be, in short, elitist. Writer X is probably also, yes, a little irked at writer Y earning vastly more while writing shit.

What reader Z is failing to realise, though, is that they are happily supporting elitism (of the commercial variety) every time they buy a book by writer Y. Thankfully, while many reader Zs don't see this as elitism, they're quite capable of recognising its pernicous effects and posting scathing forum comments or Amazon reviews of writer Y's latest piece of shit when Y's privileged status as member of the commercial elite means their books aren't edited worth a damn and come out as unreadable dreck. Writer X finds this highly amusing. Writer X finds it even more amusing when writer Y replies to those reviews with wild ranting screeds proclaiming that reader Z is a moron who can't handle the cutting edge challenge -- nay, the sheer genius -- of Y's softcore vampire porn, which no editer would DARE to sully with the red pencil.

Sadly though, it seems, there are reader Zs who either continue buying Y's work in the hope of improvement or still inexplicably enjoy its unedited and unmitigated bastardisation of the novelistic art form. Sadly, it seems, there's enough of them to keep the Ys of the world not just in business but right up there in their position of power and privilege, a ruling member of the commercial elite.

One should point out here that where writer X's privileged status gives him the right to express his aesthetic as an imperative, writer X has no power whatsoever to enforce that imperative. Writer Y's privileged status, on the other hand, renders their aesthetic a very real influence on the publishing industry. Writer X's kudos-creation capacity might make an editor pay attention when X is talking on a panel. Writer Y's cash-creation capacity will affect that editor's purchasing decisions, not just with Y but throughout the slush pile -- because if Y sells big time, and A, B and C are doing exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way, to exactly the same ends, then A, B and C might also sell big time. D might be a damn sight better writer but if they're doing something utterly different then that editor may well have no chance persuading the money men that it's D they should go after, not A, B or C. Play this across three publishers and you might have A, B and C all with contracts, all of them derivative hacks churning out puerile drivel for the lowest common denominator, and D, the only decent writer among them, unpublished. Maybe neither A nor B nor C will actually sell at the same level as Y, but that's OK. We can't all be at the top. We can't all be in the select few, can we? That's what elitism is all about.

And who's to blame? Who's keeping that elitism running? Who's ensuring that every publisher is looking for their very own writer Y to churn out the derivative hackwork that sells by the bucketload? Who's giving the realest, most solid and measurable support to the commercial elite?

I'll give you a clue. It comes after Y in the alphabet. Y as in "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? " And it rhymes with "Please put a bullet in my head."

So, yes, it's fair to say that elites can be pernicious things, things we shouldn't support. But in strange fiction, the critical elite is relatively harmless, while that commerical elite is just plain Bad News.

Populism and Elitism

Is elitism just a matter of supporting an elite though? The question of power in the examples of writer X's imperative and writer Y's influence opens up a new question. Is it fair to call someone elitist just for their belief in the actuality of an elite and the legitimacy of according its members a privileged status? Or is elitism all that, but with an added belief that the privileges of the elite rightly include a higher level of power -- whether it's authority in the field of writers and critics or influence in the publishing industry? When we're talking about (critical or commercial) elitism, I'd say, we're actually often talking about more than the recognition of an elite. We're talking about the system of rule by elite.

At this point, I'm going to redefine my terms. The term "populism" is the more common label for commercial elitism, while "elitism" is almost always reserved for critical elitism, so from here on in those are the terms I'll use. Make no mistake however; populism is a form of elitism in its own right, every bit as much as that critical elitism the term is inextricably linked with, invariably narrowed down to.

Populism and elitism have two levels, I'd say, one where being "populist" or "elitist" simply means according higher status to writers who garner more cash or kudos, another where being "populist" or "elitist" means accepting those writers as authorities -- leaders in the field, arbitors of taste. In privileging the techniques and approaches of writers in those elites as How Writing Is Done populism and elitism can and often do become prescriptive, ideological. For the sake of clarity, I'm going to capitalise the prescriptive variants, like all good ideologies, as Populism and Elitism. Even at the lower level, the higher status becomes an aesthetic judgement of how writing can be done. It's not hard to see how populism and elitism become aesthetic judgements on accessability and difficulty, on the delivery of sensational and intellectual satisfaction as an aim in writing. At the lower level populism is about trying to communicate as widely as possible while elitism is about trying to communicate as deeply as possible. We can defend both populism and elitism on that basis. Both are principled approaches, aesthetic judgements of what you can do with writing, where there might be a conflict (when communicating deeply narrows the audience and communicating widely simplifies the writing), and which approach this writer or that wants to implement in this work or that. We need to distinguish this, however, from the prescriptivisms of Populism and Elitism, where wide communication and deep communication respectively are absolute imperatives.

An almost certain marker of this pescriptivism in action is the use of these terms as insults, the dismissal of an opponent's aesthetic as "populist" or "elitist" implicitly asserting the illegitimacy of that aesthetic, which is to say the exclusive legitimacy of one's own contrary Elitist or Populist ideology.

This is another factor, I think, in those accusations that there's a "man behind the curtain" or that the "emperor has no clothes". What is surfacing in both cases may be, I think, a certain anti-populism on the one hand, anti-elitism on the other, resulting from the ideological antagonism of Elitism and Populism. Maybe we need to review that off-hand dismissal of these conspiracy theories. While those theories are unrealistic, maybe it's not simply insecure arrogance at play but rather the factionalism of Elitists and Populists each deeply suspicious of the other faction's aesthetic and projecting their conflict into the domain of writing.

Which is to say, what Elitists are really worried about is that the arbitration of taste on pure grounds of quality might be sullied by Populism (or even just populism). People might actually be fooled into thinking that something which doesn't fit those standards is good just because a lot of plebs like it. People might think that How Writing Is Done is open to debate. What Populists are really worried about is that the arbitration of taste on obvious grounds of common sense might be sullied by Elitism (or even just elitism). People might actually be fooled into thinking that something which doesn't fit those standards is good just because a few ponces like it. People might think that How Writing Is Done is open to debate.

How Writing Is Done

For the prescriptivist in both camps How Writing Is Done is definitely not open to debate. What we have here, I think, are philosophers and philistines, each suspecting the evil influence, the pernicious powers, of the other, viewing them as ponce or pleb. What we have here, I think, is in fact the philosophers and philistines each attempting to assert their own personal aesthetic ideology of How Writing Is Done, justifying it with appeals to the authority of kudos or cash. Each becomes, at worst, the very thing their opponent is criticising.

The Elitist who cries out about the "man behind the curtain" is essentially asserting a valid hierarchy of right and wrong kudos distribution with them implicitly positioned in the upper tier. They are seeking to claim the legitimacy of the Elitists to dispense kudos "properly" in asserting the illegitimacy of kudos dispensed by others. The opinions of those plebs is deeply suspect, such that their hype must be validated by those in the upper tier, those who know How Writing Is Done.

The Populist who cries that "the emperor has no clothes" is essentially asserting an invalid hierarchy of right and wrong kudos distribution with them implicitly positioned in the lower tier but with values reversed. They are seeking to claim the legitimacy of the Populists to dispense kudos "properly" in asserting the illegitimacy of kudos dispensed by the critical elite. The opinion of those ponces is deeply suspect, such that their hype must be validated by those in the lower tier, those who know How Writing Is Done.

Populists and Elitists are both, here, claiming the objectivity of the judgement of superiority which selects and segregates the great from the good. In writing, craft is the basis of any judgment of superiority, craft being simply a matter of achieving an effect with one's writing,of being able to write a piece of text which carries out its function successfully. Where success or failure are not arbitrary judgements on the part of an illogically forgiving or demanding reader, there is, arguably, a level of objectivity to this judgement. A bad sentence is a bad sentence whether we forgive it or not. A tight plot is a tight plot whether it bores us or not. Sloppiness is sloppiness.

Since different writers often approach the same form of writing aiming to achieve different effects, and different readers often approach the same forms looking to find different effects, however, there is often disagreement between writers and writers, readers and readers, and writers and readers, with one person seeing another's judgement as arbitrary and illogical, and vice versa. Contrary judgements must then be argued with theories of function as justfification, theories of what effects are valid or invalid as identifiers of a particular form, of what effects are valid or invalid as aims for writers, valid or invalid as expectations of readers. In strange fiction this results in endless tired arguments over what an "SF" story should and shouldn't do.

These could be resolved simply by recognising and accepting different sets of standards as different forms, with the writers who want to do X writing for the readers who want to see X, and the writiers who want to do Y writing for the readers who want to see Y. It's hardly difficult. But loyalty to and dependence on the genre label seems to lead to a pont blank refusal to recognise strange fiction as a diverse collection of aesthetic forms, and an adversarial attitude to all forms that do not fit one's own standards. Which is to say, this is an incursion of politics into aesthetics, an attempt to assert one's own standards as authoritative.

This assertion of authority is usually based on an argument from authority, referencing one of two recognisable features -- commercial success or critical success. With the first, you get the argument that X sells, so X is what readers really want to see, so X is what "good" writers really ought to be writing. With the latter, you get the argument that Y is acclaimed, so Y is what "good" writers want to write, so Y is what readers really ought to want. The ideologies of Populism and Elitism are rife with such arguments from authority.

Complexity and Immediacy

In the teacup tempests of most debates about populism versus elitism, the general assumption is that one cannot be both populist and elitist. The truth is that one can be both populist and elitist; it's just that one cannot be both Populist and Elitist. If accessability and complexity are different aims, if communicating widely and communicating deeply are different imperatives, this does not mean one must simply choose one or the other. One can compromise, seeking a balance between the two. Better still, one can be audacious as fuck and try and pull them both off. Not, however, if one is a Populist or an Elitist.

With Populists this is because their aesthetic is fundamentally anti-intellectual, rejecting complexity for the "inaccessability" it generates. With Elitists this is because their aesthetic is fundamentally anti-sensationalist, rejecting immediacy for the "superficiality" it generates. For one complex equals impenetrable equals bad. For the other immediate equals shallow equals bad. This places the philistine and the philosopher in direct opposition to each other's aesthetic.

It also makes them both quite tedious.

The whole debate has pretty much degenerated to the point where populism and elitism are so widely assumed to be prescriptive and oppositional that to defend them as non-imperative aesthetics is largely futile. Any argument for more populist or elitist values in writing will inevitably be (mis)read as an argument for the most extreme positions of Populism and Elitism and against the mildest of contrary positions. An argument for more complexity will be read as a dismissal of immediacy as "shallow", while an argument for more immediacy will be read as a dismissal of complexity as "impenetrable". The philistines and the philosophers seem to have taken over the debate.

This may be, in part, simply down to the fact that complexity and immediacy do often work against each other. The complexity of the reading experience must be developed through complexity of plot, character and theme, in the complexity of the symbolic and structural construction of these, from the level of story down through acts, chapters, scenes and paragraphs to the level of sentences. Such complexity requires attention on the reader's part. Immediacy of theme must be developed through immediacy of plot, character and theme, in the immediacy of the symbolic and structural construction of these, from the level of story down through acts, chapters, scenes and paragraphs to the level of sentences. Such immediacy requires immersion on the reader's part.

Note: This is where escapism and worldbuilding become points of contention. The latter is interesting because it involves a sort of complexity that is viewed as false by many (c.f. M John Harrison's "clomping foot of nerdism") because it's often in the service of immersion, of immediacy rather than complexity in terms of the reading experience -- the complexity of affective and intellectual engagement. It's window-dressing. Escapism, meanwhile, is used as a derogatory term because it sets up the immediacy of the text, the reader's immersion in it, as a disengagement with reality. It characterises reality as something we can and should disengage from, something we are imprisoned within. This is to deny that level of complexity in the reading experience where the reader is being asked to extend that affective and intellectual engagement beyond the text, to reality itself. Again, the conflict is really between immediacy and complexity.

With worldbuilding I personally tend to side with Harrison but would use the term "window-dressing" to distinguish the fussy obsession with detail he's berating as opposed to the rich layering of versimilitude as an aesthetic effect. This is largely however because I'm more interested in the eploitative approach to strange fiction than the explicatory or excusatory approach. (For an explanation of that distinction, I'm afraid you'll have to go read my previous entries on strange fiction and the three different techniques of dealing with conceits.)

With escapism I simply can't disassociate this from its implicit opposition to reality. While I can happily accept immersion as an end in its own right, books as temporary suspensions of reality, as diversions, I baulk at the idea of them as rejection of reality. It's one thing to step to one side for a moment, another thing to turn one's back entirely. Even seeing books as escapes is not so bad; it's the -ism that renders this a systematic approach and, perhaps, another aesthetic ideology -- Escapism rather than escapism, so to speak.

The point is, it's all about the conflict between complexity and immediacy, active engagement and passive immersion.

The Best of Both Worlds

It is a difficult task to write a book that achieves both. Personally though, as I've said many times before, I take CATCH-22 as evidence that it can be done, that complexity and immediacy are not completely incompatible. I would argue that it's not just possible to find an optimum compromise between the two, sacrificing a little of each in order to gain a little of the other. Actually I think a work can be open to both approaches by a reader, sacrificing neither. Ramp up both and what you can end up with is a book that can be enjoyed both as a roller-coaster ride, with complete passive immersion, and as a personal walking tour, with complete active engagement. Do it really well and you can satisfy readers who are only looking for one or the other. Do it really really well and I wonder if a reader who has developed hostility to one or the other from past experiences might be persuaded to re-evaluate their assumptions about certain types of books being "not for them".

As long as we persist in reducing any debate about immediacy and complexity to an argument over populism and elitism, though, that debate will continue to degenerate from a discussion of aesthetics to a political struggle between Populists and Elitists, each seeking to impose their view on How Writing Is Done. The philistines and philosophers will continue to call each other plebs and ponces. The teacup tempests will rage on, with exactly the same things being said over and over again.

But the glory of strange fiction, the very power of it, rests precisely in its capacity to fuse complexity and immediacy. It may even be the tension between populism and elitism that generates this power. Our peculiar brand of fiction is a sort of Pulp Modernism, as far as I'm concerned. It is innately populist in its focus on commerciality and innately elitist in its focus on conceptuality. It is a fiction which, at its best, is both unashamedly sensational and unashamedly intellectual. If the extremists are tiresome they may at least serve a function as counter-forces to each other, a tension of aesthetics which, in union, push writers to attempt the seemingly impossible, to achieve the best of both worlds.

I want both complexity and immediacy in my own work. I want readers who don't have a clue what's going on to be swept along by the visceral gut-punches. I want readers who don't give a fuck about exploding airships to be up to their elbows in the machinery of meaning. I want readers like the fourteen year old girl in New Hampshire who wrote me a fan letter about Vellum, gushing with praise, admitting she didn't understand it all but telling how she'd go back and re-read, and figure it out, and go on. I want readers like the guy who emailed to say he read it in a single sitting. I want it all, goddamnit. I want kudos and cash, cause I'm greedy that way. I want my cake and I damn well want to eat it too. Because I want my writing to be all it can be, regardless of what any Populist or Elitist says about How Writing Is Done. Bollocks to that. This is strange fiction, motherfucker. We don't need no steenking aesthetic ideology. We gots our own.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The elitist post I made on the Lyceum was mostly tongue in cheek- mostly because this whole argument is really beyond me. I mean, out of all the writers I know, none of them are elitst. They like what they like, and that includes pulpy stuff as well.

I just don't get it. So, I had to just call it out and make fun of it. Lot of stuff to chew on here- but I think in the end this will hopefully all blow over and go nowhere.

7:14 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

Hal, first let me say that I saw your book many times in bookstores and browsed it... it wasn't till I was coming back from an anti-war protest in Washington DC that, while waiting for my bus, desperately trying to find something interesting for the ride, and being frustrated by the crap offered in Union Station, that I payed careful attention to the people who wrote blurbs on your book... Jeffrey Ford who had impressed me with his strange lanscapes; Jeff Vandermeer who should be revered; Lucius Shepard an unrecogized but powerful author--they spoke to me and asked me to pick up your book and buy it--I trusted them (and that is saying a lot b/c I am a film teacher/scholar who is very cynical about blurbs... and while I trust what you have to say about them, you still come off a bit naive about corporate pressure on writers/filmmakers/critics to support "products" put forth by the corporate machine)... but I bought it... your right, I had not seen many blurbs by those authors and I trusted them. I'm on the epilogue of Vellum--thank you!!! I will write about this book because it affected me and transported me in the way that literature should--I love SF/Fantasy but have to wade through so much shit to find those works that do this, it is good to be once again rewarded. Actually I don't understand the SF realms problem w/ elitism... if you enjoy the potboilers why would you feel insecure, you obviously are in the majority, if you are a fan of more discriminating tastes (and the talents that produce them) you should feel secure as well. Fuck it--we all have our needs (and I say that as a deeply political person that worries about pure escapism as a reactionary method from leaving a fucked-up world, but still...)

I'm glad to see you have a place where you are expounding on your writerly (and our readerly concerns)...

8:24 am  
Blogger Scott Bakker said...

Hey Hal. Humans are hardwired to judge first and ask questions after - and then usually only about the other guy. The type of semi-fluid status coalitions you refer to are rife throughout all spheres of human activity, and won't be going away any time soon. I admit, I got worked up by MJH's world-building post, but with the help of a little argumentative fiber, it passed through me as quick as berries through a goose.

If I have any disagreement with your diagnosis it's with your emphasis on the 'distribution' end - with publishers. Given corporate logic and the fact of our market economy, I think critiques launched at this level are pretty much futile, at least when it comes to this particular problem.

Of course, I'm more than sympathetic to your overall aesthetic impulse: the great divide between spectacle and intellectual is certainly an arbitrary historical artifact, one that has led - I think - to an enormous amount of cultural damage. Spectacle draws the masses - its been that way since Homer - so of course, to be a good intellectual you have to run it down every chance you get. Contrarian self-identification is an age old way we trick ourselves into feeling special - everyone has a friend who suddenly diss beloved bands the moment they achieve mass popularity. The problem is that these intellectuals are entrusted with the training of new intellectuals - some of whom will become writers. This is why, as a young-writer-to-be, you learn quite quickly that if you want to be taken seriously in literary circles, you either have to fiddle with some kind of canned experimentalism or concentrate on 'tea and torment' narratives, which is to say, stories dominated by some emphasis on particularity (tea) and/or interiority (torment). As it happens, these are largely acquired tastes, usually requiring some degree of education to appreciate (as opposed to spectacle).

So if you look at our education system as giant game of Kerplunk, it becomes plain that intellectually inclined marbles are institutionally shunted away from spectacular literary forms and toward experimental and quotidian forms (where they can count on the approval of those likewise trained). What this means, ultimately, is that our system is institutionally rigged to direct those who want to challenge readers away from the general population, and toward pretrained 'challenge consumers.' This way, there's no surprises for anybody, and the status quo can keep lumbering along unbothered.

Don't blame your publisher. Blame your English professor. I'm convinced the one's who moan the most about the intellectual bankruptcy of popular culture are also those most responsible for it. My hope is that if people like you and me keep hammering academics with this critique long enough, we can bring about a sea change, and the next generation of Updikes and Mailers, encouraged to write for humanity at large rather than for peers or page, will jump out of the closed circuit of 'literature,' and begin communicating to people who, as it stands, so rarely confront perplexity or ambiguity or alterity that they really think that things are 'simple' and that they pretty much know the score.

People who literally think that things as ancient and as allusive as religious texts can have univocal interpretations.

I see a sunny future, where the challenger and the entertainer skip through fields of daisies hand in hand...

If you're interested, I wrote an entire article about this for Heliotrope, which you can find at

5:39 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

Scott--ok, I'll shoulder all the blame, since I am not only an English professor, but also a coordinator... perhaps...

If only it was that easy... do some quick factoring on societal influence percentages and I'm sure our English courses rank far down the list (even for aspiring writers) and the current globalized, media spectacle you speak of (brings to mind for me Debord's understanding, but even all the way back to bread/circus diversions) is short-circuiting the focused imagination necessary for most people to even approach a sustained, complex literary effort.

I would agree with you on the advanced/experimental writing education of most American universities and how they produce solipsistic doodlers/masturbators of the worst sort (I worked for many academic journals/presses and I cannot even begin to communicate the pstchic pain it caused me to wade through the submissions we would receive). It almost put me off of reading fiction entirely (and did for a few years).

11:14 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

Scott--thanks for the link to Heliotrope...

11:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If only it was that easy... do some quick factoring on societal influence percentages and I'm sure our English courses rank far down the list (even for aspiring writers) and the current globalized, media spectacle you speak of (brings to mind for me Debord's understanding, but even all the way back to bread/circus diversions) is short-circuiting the focused imagination necessary for most people to even approach a sustained, complex literary effort."

I wish you were MY english professor Abhor! About the complexity, I entirely agree. When it comes to cultural criticism, all we can do is throw crap at the wall and hope something sticks. BUT, I think you would agree, that there's precious few literary writers who haven't passed through the fingers of you and your kin! My personal experience was pretty dismal, to the point where it really is a fluke that I ever pursued publication at all. (In point of fact, I didn't - it was a friend of mine).

Maybe it isn't so bad. Almost all revolutions are borne of inferiority complexes.

As much as I WANT to agree with you on the 'short-circuiting of focussed imagination' it just seems that the 'good old days' tendency is too strong and too universal for me not to think I'm just doing what every damn generation does: make themselves the yardstick of creative intelligence.

Who knows? Maybe fragmentation is the way to go. I seriously doubt it, but then I seem to bump into quite a few scarey smart whipper-snappers.

11:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott and to a lesser extent Thivai --

As regards to the education system, I'm reminded partly of Sarah Monette's review of Clute's Darkening Garden (which talks about SFF's imperviousness to the techniques that comprise the "new criticism") and partly of the bit in Annie Hall when allen's character decides to kiss the girl at the start of the date because an intellectual can only ever intellectualise everything.

I actually think that the truth is in there somewhere. Yes, there are reasons why academics traditionally shy away from popular culture, particularly popular genre culture (except for Wittgenstein who was a great fan of detective novels) but on the other hand, I've been through the academic mixer as have you Scott and so have a number of critical big hitters like Farah Mendlesohn... yet here we are on a genre website.

I'd put your critique on its head and say the problem isn't with academics sucking people away from popular culture... the problems with people who allow themselves to think that that being "an intellectual" or a "serious thinker" or whatever term those darn kids are using nowadays is all about WHAT you like not how you like it.

My favourite example of this was when I toyed with the idea of going into publishing and announced my desire to a publisher to work with genre authors. He said that this was a breath of fresh air as all the english students that applied to work for him all wanted to work with the next Sam Beckett. I like Beckett, but I like Mary Gentle and Charlie Stross and Stephen Baxter too.

The problem isn't with academics and the intelligentsia luring people away from pop culture... it's the people who are dumb enough to think that being intelligent is all about having the same tastes as all the other "intelligent" people.

1:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I see a sunny future, where the challenger and the entertainer skip through fields of daisies hand in hand... "

Flags of Our Fathers comes to mind. Okay, so it's film, not prose, but still; spectacle (naval bombardment, hundreds of landing craft disgorging thousands of men, hundreds of ships, close air support, machineguns, flame throwers...) and challenge (everything else, pretty much) worked together quite well.

Of course, the box office release was a commercial flop. Guess the sunny future ain't here yet.

2:31 am  
Blogger Brian Malone said...

"It also makes them both quite tedious." And there you have it folks, all the wisdom and madness of Hal Duncan distilled to its essence. All of this sturm und drang is just plain tedious, with the same sides making the same invalid arguments and accusations.

What kills me is that these same people are all us, genre people, readers and writers of that *gasp* nerdy stuff. For what is Middle Earth, or Viriconium, or Bas-Lag, or the Vellum if not a vast landscape of nerdism? Isn't there enough space here for everyone of us?

What kills me is that the people who assume that we're all a bunch of escapist nerds, hardly need to because here we are doing ourselves in. The reaction against what Harrison wrote, that bit about the "great clomping boot of nerdism," is the hypocrisy. After all, what does Harrison write?

2:28 pm  
Blogger Michael said...


I'm working in a community college where I find writers of a profound level and those who may be considered illiterate--which is a difficult distinction as the most profound philosphers I have run into include those who lived on the streets, or worked jobs that never allowed them to write their thoughts out in a stylzed, publishable manner.

I'm sorry to hear you had such bad experiences at the hand of my kin... where I teach we have many genre oriented courses--and they hit the high and the low. I am a graduate of Popular Culture department at Bowling Green State University (MA) my PhD was at Illinois State University which was publishing Dalkey Archive Press, Fiction Collective 2, and other avant garde/experimental authors... so perhaps I have learned to like both and despise the escesses of both?

and my comments where in now way nostalgic--it is what it is... tastes and styles change, but I still make my distinctions (as we all do)

Jonathan M,

Many academics are big genre fans and I have spent many moments of awe perusing professors bookshelfs noticing many of my favorites, but there is the narrow-minded sort that looks down on my tastes... their loss...

I think it is more of a problem of a genaeral anti-intellectual impulse in American culture (this is long documented and part of the colonial reaction to European domination/influence). Popular tastes react to anything they find to intellectual (causing a mass popularizing of soft fiction) and tweedy intellectuals feel they mjust build a fortress of difficult, incomprehensible works to buttress their position/s.


A good point... our alegiances cross lines--and just like my politics--I'm skeptical of the fanatic, no matter where there allegiances may lay...

7:13 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hi y'all. Thanks for stopping by and feeding the discussion. I would have responded earlier but I've been busy as fuck.

Anyway, first off, I don't mean this to be about apportioning blame for anything. What Scott says about the critical elites as semi-fluid status coalitions... yup, that ain't gonna change anytime soon. And in terms of the commercial elites, I don't mean to imply that there's a blame being laid on publishers for simply doing what market pressure demands. If anything, I'm actually challenging the "anti-elitist" readers who prop up the commercial elite with dosh -- and that's more to point up the irony of their position, the fact that they're sustaining a genuine inequity of power and privilege by buying, say, godawful softcore vampire porn, etc., while complaining about a power and privilege (an elitism) that doesn't actually amount to much. To be clear, I don't think this "commercial elitism" is likely to change anytime soon either; it's a fact of life in the market economy and, hell, at least one European publisher, I know, is only able to publish Vellum because they have Eragon as a money-spinner.

So, I'm not treating the existence of these elites as a problem to be solved, just hoping that this kind of critique might redefine the debate a little in the potential middle ground offered by strange fiction, where we're trying to thrash out the viability of "populist" and "elitist" approaches but risk falling into "Populist" and "Elitist" prescriptivisms.

...our system is institutionally rigged to direct those who want to challenge readers away from the general population, and toward pretrained 'challenge consumers.

I've had some pretty OK experiences with academia's attitude to strange fictions. One of my tutors back in uni days actually ran a paper in SF as part of my English Honours. Another whole stream, devoted to "world literature", covered the small-f fantasy of Rabelais, the magic realism fantasy of Calvino, Marquez and Carter, and even the pomo fantasy of Katherine Dunne's Geek Love; while it didn't go much into genre it was deeply symathetic to the strange.

But even to the extent that strange fiction has been, I think, in the backlash against Modernism, rejected by proponents of Contemporary Realism and so marginalised -- either rendered safe by the "ludic" cop-out of pomo experimentalism ("It's all just a clever game, see. Don't hate us for being weird. We're not like Joyce et al.. You're not meant to take us seriously!") or exiled into the genres (the Pulp Modernism of ecerything from Bester through to Ballard) -- I'm not sure that this academic over-focus on CR really plays a big factor in genre. I'd agree with Scott's comment on the system as it pertains to that pomo experimentalism; I think much of it is literary Sudoku, and "challenge consumers" is a good term. But of those aspiring writers who want to challenge readers, only those drawn into the system can be directed by it, and most aspiring writers with an interest in the literary potentials of the strange are likely to be have been exposed to genre long before they enter that system. The institutional rigging largely comes too late to affect a reader already versed in Ballard, Burroughs, Moorcock, and so on, I think, with the result that those readers are as likely to scoff at the naive insularity of pretentious idiots who lack that knowledge and yet claim authority.

This is why, as a young-writer-to-be, you learn quite quickly that if you want to be taken seriously in literary circles...

See, my argument is that strange fiction has its own literary circles, its own distinct kudos distribution system, through fandom and the whole integrated (often online) community of self-identifyingly genre writers and critics it's engendered. Personally, as a young writer-to-be it was the GSFWC that I wanted to take me seriously. Above that, it was the Lucius Shepards and Chip Delanys and John Clutes and any number of other writers. I think in comparison with this critical elite the academic "literary establishment" is generally disregarded as irrelevant precisely because of its over-focus on CR, and its highly limited acceptance of the strange in the highly limited form of pomo.

Don't get me wrong; I do think the "training" system for critics and MFA grads pushes them towards exactly the quotidian and experimentalist forms you talk about, forms so safe and insular as to be risible -- and that this is harmful to writing and culture in general. But I think strange fiction offers alternative pathways -- training, apprenticeship, workshopping, zines and so on -- which are much more effective in directing aspiring writers away from those forms and into the genres of strange fiction where the real action's at.

5:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that alternative pathways exist, and I even think the old networks show signs of breaking down.

My experience is probably more than a little coloured by the fact that Canada has an 'official' literary culture - government funded to maintain a distinct non-American Canadian identity - one which out and out advertises the kinds of prejudices against spectacle and genericity that I'm talking about. Canada is actually a great place to be a writer, so long as you write extended meditations on the quotidian minutae of post-colonial, praire, urban Canadian life, and avoid doing anything remotely interesting to the masses.

I do disagree with your suggestion that literary-minded writers-to-be with a prior background in genre are largely unaffected by their university experience. Most I've known have been lost to Mammon, which is to be expected. We soak up norms quicker than bread soaks up soup, particularly in normative contexts like university. Certainly the influence has its limits, but it is without a doubt profoundly influential.

It might be interesting to compare 'manifestos,' at this point.

Among literary specialists, the more dear a generic form is to the unwashed masses, the more pronounced the prejudice against it will be. This is a pretty sturdy generalization, I think, and it represents a complete inversion of the ideal state of affairs, where reader-challenging writers infiltrate all corners of culture, so that all readers are regularly exposed to contrarian voices.

This is why every writer who wants to make some kind of positive difference as opposed to simply entertain (which I have no problem with) needs to ask themselves what kind of readers they're reaching. If it's only the like-minded and the likewise trained, then there's a real question whether any significant difference is being made at all.

This is why I think genres, with their dedicated and heterogenous readerships, represent such a profound opportunity. And if 'literature' is simply writing that makes a difference, you could argue it's the only place where literature is possible anymore.

But of course this is precisely the kind of self-congratulatory argument that I'm so suspicious of!


7:07 pm  
Blogger Ian Sales said...

On the subject of craft... I always think of this as the Dead Hand of Heinlein. The idea that if you learn the necessary skills, that if you just follow the "rules"... then great riches as a writer can be yours. You can see Heinlein following this philosophy in Grumbles from the Grave. As populist writers become more powerful, and their prose turns unreadable (from a clear lack of editing)... well, it only reinforces the myth. It's attractive to many because it sounds very meritocratic, very utopian - anyone can do it. You don't need talent. There's no special quality that makes for a good writer. Or a successful writer. Sadly, while craft as a basic level of achievement is a good thing, the concept has been warped into a prescription - chiefly by the Internet, I think. You see it in on-line writing workshops: comments from critiquers along the lines of "you can't start a chapter with dialogue", or a refusal to accept anything but tightly-coupled third-person point-of-view. It's all rubbish, but in any environment where authority goes hand in hand with level of engagement - the best critters are the ones that crit the most - anything prescriptive is going to be suspect. Which is a form of populism, I suppose.

10:45 am  

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