Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Essay Rant Thingy

Elitism vs Populism. In case you missed it the first time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did miss it, so thanks for putting up the link. I've been arguing that Elitism vs. Populism needs to be tossed out the window for twenty years. And that if fans truly want variety as they say they do, then that means accepting approaches that don't appeal to them. Thanks for putting it all so well. And you do indeed have both immediacy and complexity in your writing, as you well know and better never doubt. Just bought Ink. Looking forward to reading Hell. Make sure you're eating something.

4:24 pm  
Blogger Spherical Time said...

(So far, I love Vellum/Ink and your blog, but I play devil's advocate for a moment.)

I don't necessarily think that Elitism vs. Populism is an artificial split. Those books are "not for them" because they don't necessarily like them, while they've found that they do like the other descriptor.

What readers are looking for are more books that they will like reading. Some like to escape quickly into a some easier more simple world, and that is populism. Some like to be challenged, and search out the best and the most interesting and are willing to put the work into achieving that elitist status. There is no one human taste, and there never has been.

So, in that sense, the tempest is a manufactured one, not the split.

I asked on the other site, but I suppose you don't monitor it:

Why did you structure Vellum/Ink in that particular way?

And the followup, now that I'm halfway through Ink: given the extreme complexity of this work, where it requires that fourteen year old girl to re-read to understand all of it, did you really set yourself to write for popular appeal?

Because even if you want popular appeal, you can't produce a work of art and expect everyone to get it. Those works that achieve that status are so very rare, and more by accident than design.

Again, I'm loving your books although I can't pretend I understand them at all.

7:42 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

KatG: Cheers. (Heh, and though many believe I subsist entirely on a diet of fags and booze, I do actually eat like a horse. I just have a metabolism stuck on "breakneck".) :D

SphericalTime: Also cheers. Glad yer liking the books. I'm going to answer yer queries on them upfront, I think, cause I've just realised I can draw a parallel that should work quite well, I think, to explain a) why I took this approach and b) why it doesn't faze as many casual readers as you might think.

As to elitism vs populism... OK:

What readers are looking for are more books that they will like reading. [...cut...] There is no one human taste, and there never has been.

Absolutely. Agreed 100%.

Some like to escape quickly into some easier more simple world, and that is populism.

No, that's escapism. Yes, there's a huge overlap, but there's a whole set of confusions created by conflating them as the same thing. Hell, the term "escapism" needs to be teased apart the way I've tried to tackle "populism" and "elitism". For some (contemporary realist) readers all strange fiction is "escapist" because it dislocates the reader to an elsewhen (see my Strange Fiction essays for my theory on *how*... if you have a spare three days;)). Others (generally defenders of the genre approach) would argue that *all* reading is a suspense of engagement with reality and thereby "escapist". But these are smearings of meaning.

The first glosses over the negative attitude to reality implied in an idea of *flight from it* and the actuality of engagement with it on a metaphoric level in many such texts. Even a simpler world, an elsewhen like Gormenghast, say, built on the abstracted societal structure of the (basically) Edwardian Big House, can be using that as a way to address all sorts of ideas, to challenge the readers on all sorts of levels. This is what a lot of non-sf-readers don't get, their preconceptions largely shaped by the predominance of formulation. A simpler elsewhen, even one imbued with wonder, is not necessarily a refuge. The Kentigern of the Jack Flash sequences of Vellum is comic book lurid. It's boldly coloured and broadly drawn. I'll happily cop to populism in that respect. The "Shit Blows Up" fun of Jack's rampaging could even be quite validly deemed escapist; it's just that I try to subvert the consolation subtly within the episodes or through their relationships with the rest of the text, to seduce the reader into engaging with reality even when the fantasy is at its most sensationalist.

The other glosses over the -ism of escapism, the systematic nature of the disengagement, the difference between a work we become immersed in because we do often want a bit of a refuge from reality, and a work designed to exploit that desire, to focus in on particular sources of discontent and offer us tailored panaceas. What makes the Jack Flash sequences arguably escapist is not just their gaucheness but the vicarious thrill of his anti-establishment rebellion. Again, I'm constantly seeking to subvert this, to push his swaggering punk-ass heroism to the point of absurdity, but he's still a figure that functions on the charm of the rogue. Someday I may well slip a scene into some wacky caper story where he ends up diguised in a dress and calling himself Mary-Sue.

Anyhoo, there's a huge other debate that branches off this is as to the arguable pros of consolation in a world that *can* be shitty versus the arguable cons of encouraging people to stick their heads in the sand and not deal with *why* the world is shitty. I make no judgement on the validity of this as an aesthetic. Despite my sympathies with many of the political arguments against systematic consolation I'm not in the camp that decries escapism as *essentially* wrong.

My own attitude is rather that escapism is not a bad thing per se. The two are not actually incompatible. You can give a miserable friend consolation and distraction, banter and booze, *while* talking through the source of their problems in the pub. So too with fiction. It's just that escapism *is* all too often a mechanism of maintaining order, exploiting and reinforcing conventional mindsets of fear and ignorance, not just bread and circuses for the masses but revivals and freak shows that carry highly dubious subtexts simply due to the subject matter they utilise to entertain. For me this is to be avoided or countered. So while a pirate story like "Island of the Pirate Gods" is basically as escapist as Pirates of the Caribbean, say, in its shameless whimsy, it deliberately seeks to avoid/counter some of the conventional subtexts that attach to race or sexuality within the pirate story genre by making slavery and sodomy parts of the story. You could say that tackling these ideas renders the story *not-actually-escapist* but the story is primarily a baudy romp and putting it in a contrasting camp to the PotC movies in terms of aesthetic purpose -- that would just feel like pompous bollocks to me. Ultimately it's all about the fun. But that's not the point here vis-a-vis populism.

What *is* the point is that reckoning out what escapism is *not* offers us a quite precise idea of what it *is* -- systematically consolatory, a concerted and methodical establishment and validation of fictive refuges from an implicitly unpalatable reality.

Now, absolutely this is one facet of populism. And unquestionably it is a *linchpin* of the Populism that gets all prescriptive about How To Write. When readers and writers proclaim that the core purpose of fiction is to entertain, when we interrogate them for what they *mean* by that term, often we'll find that what they mean is more than just the provision of pleasure; they mean *immersive* pleasure, *distracting* pleasure, pleasure that draws our focus from dull care. Where "entertainment" is used as a rallying-cry, a banner to gather the troops round, often the underlying assumption is an imperative to provide escapism of the most unreconstructed variety. I dare say that sometimes it even becomes a way of justifying an uncritical enjoyment of the literary equivalent of revivals and freak shows -- stories which aren't just harmless diversions but which carry deeply conservative moral messages or which reinforce society-wide prejudices. Critique an epic fantasy as right-wing and racialist and the response that "you're reading too much into it" is basically a "fuck you". Paired with an accusation of elitism, it's an assertion that the story is meant to be read for its escapist value alone and that any application of critical intellect is a fundamentally wrong approach to the text. Conversely, accusations of populism or escapism are often rooted in a notion that these approaches are held to with such rigidity that they *require* us to suspend critical awareness in the face of dubious subtexts.

But this is precisely the point in my use of capitalisation to distinguish populism as an aesthetic strategy from Populism as an adversarial politico-aesthetic stance. We could do the same with escapism. One way to look at it would be that a story -- like a Jack Flash story -- may be seen as escapist because of how it works, but that when we talk of "escapism" as an ideology held by readers and writers as to how valid those types of story are in relation to others, an ideology about the core purpose of fiction, then often find ourselves dealing with extreme positions that need to be distinguished -- not just escapism but capital-E Escapism that fiercely denies the legitimacy of a critical reading that says, "hey, wait a minute, this race of dark-skinned degenerate savages is kinda fucking racist".

Now, with respect to "Populism" and "populism" -- precisely what I'm trying to get at in that essay is that "populism" is *not* definitionally nailed to any particular prescriptive strategy such as escapism. Literally, definitionally, populism is the systematic attempt to appeal to a mass audience, to be popular. It's about policy rather than strategy, or strategies rather than tactics. The decision is made on a higher level, so it allows one to say, "OK, if I want to appeal to a larger audience, what lower-level approaches (strategies or tactics) am I going to implement to try and achieve that goal?" Adopting the escapist approach, saying, "Well, I can give readers fictive elsewhens that function as refuges" -- that's one approach. Others are possible.

Scott Bakker and myself have discussed our quite different approaches to this idea, for example. Both of us are fairly politically-minded. Both of us are trying to address reality. But both of us consider it important to reach that larger audience, not to be preaching to the choir. If I'm not misrepresenting him, he's said that working within the conventions of epic fantasy is a priority in his approach. He generally shuns much of the poncy literary malarky that I might use, seeing it as alienating to that mass-audience. My approach is to try and ramp up the cool quotient, which does often mean going for the literary equivalent of special effects -- effects that some critics have viewed as superficial, sensationalist. Both of us use spectacle, have described our own works as spectaculist, have said that epic is *built around* spectacle, and that this is in part why we are working in that idiom, because we know that we can reach a wider audience in that way. But neither of us see the systematic consolation of escapism as a requisite step towards achieving our populist aims.

Some like to be challenged, and search out the best and the most interesting and are willing to put the work into achieving that elitist status.

OK. I think there's a conflation of elite and elitist here, but you raise a very good point.

If you're talking about achieving status you're talking about becoming part of an elite, having "elite status". I don't really apply the concept of an elite to the audience itself in that essay, but it's valid. You could well talk in terms of an "elite" of readers with more commitment to reading as a *skill* to be developed, a capacity to deal with challenges. But being part of that elite would not entail a rejection of escapist works or works that were populist for some other reason (conventionality, sensationalism or spectacularity, say). Enjoying Finnegans Wake doesn't mean you stop enjoying brain candy.

However, seeing the "elite" as being composed of readers rather than writers does maybe make sense of why the adversarial use of the term neglects what I refer to as the "commercial elite" in favour of the "critical elite". With readers we're always going to be talking about kudos rather than cash, right? Elite status is always going to be about that skill level and the respect it might garner, rather than elevation to power and privilege on the basis of saleability.

Except, it occurs to me, maybe not. One might distinguish a different type of elite reader in sf in terms of the superfan, the reader valued for their contribution of simple graft, often most committed because their passion for the genre means they love it all uncritically, devouring it with little focus on the most challenging or interesting, the best, but rather passionate about it all for the sheer wonder it evokes. We have Big Name Fans, SMOFs, Fan Guests of Honour at conventions. The whole "secret master" joke is surely a recognition of the elite status conferred on those grafters.

But that's a side-point. Back to the -ism of elitism. For me, that -ism implies more than just an elite status for the kind of reader capable of (and committed to) tackling the most challenging works. Again we're moving into the territory of ideological systems here. It's the point I was making in that essay about not just having an elite, not even just recognising it, but investing it with authority. Elitism as *rule by elite*.

In terms of readers, again I think we can break the concept into two levels, a small-e elitism -- which says, sure, you can be in an elite of readers and that confers extra kudos, more respect and more weight given to your opinion -- and a capital-E Elitism -- which says, this is the type of reader you *should* be, this is How Reading Is Done, and to not read in this way is wrong.

And here, and only here, is the point where that elitism comes into conflict with populism. As I said above, enjoying Finnegans Wake doesn't mean you stop enjoying brain candy. Addendum: *unless* your investment in a hierarchical system of authority requires the rejection of such simple fun as *not* How Reading Is Done.

In terms of your own take on it, I read you as adopting a "different strokes for different folks" position that doesn't entail this sort of prescriptivism. But I'd say that sort of small-e elitism *isn't* what many mean when they use the term in arguments against readers who seem to be (and sometimes are) telling them that they simply shouldn't be reading "that sort of populist trash". What they mean is the sort of Elitist that couldn't go from Finnegans Wake to a *gasp* comic book because to do so would be "lowering oneself".

I'd *love* to point to one particularly scathing review of Vellum in light of this, if writerly dignity didn't bid me to bite my tongue and not argue with reviews, but I will say that part of my reason for talking of populism and elitism as compatible approaches and Populism and Elitism as the real ideological opponents is that Vellum has been damned for both. I've had accusations, fundamentally, of base motivations from both sides of the coin, Populist readers who could see nothing in it but some sort of intellectual charlatanry, an attempt to pander to the ponces of the "elitist" literary establishment with the fancy prose they value so highly, but also Elitist readers who could see nothing in it but some sort of shallow sensationalism, an attempt to pander to the plebs of the "populist" mass market with the glossy imagery *they* value so highly.

What intrigues me about this is not that they hate the book because they don't get it, because they don't see any structure there at all, and that just makes them loathe it as shallow. It's that the book is designed to work in three ways. Ideally, of course, I want people to *get* the structure, for the cubist thing to click with them as they read, for it to suddenly resolve into the Big Picture (and I've been reassured by many readers, thankfully, that it does for them). But, OK, say you're just not getting it, or you're only *partly* getting it, and you're plot-oriented enough that this structural complexity is frustrating. Well, then if what you enjoy is prose I want the language of it to be rich enough that it keeps you reading until you *do* get it. And if what you enjoy is eyeball-kicks I want those to be powerful enough to keep you reading until you *do* get it. Both of those are there for your enjoyment. Hell, I was kind of working on the assumption that both of those would be necessary to keep *any* reader with the book long enough for my insane approach to make sense to them. So I find it fascinating that some readers latch on to one or other of these features as a focus for their animosity. Like the fact that they can't make sense of the structure damns the book for them, and in order to express their hatred for it they reach for something emblematic, something that might be to blame, and it's quite revealing what they latch on to. If you're a Populist? Well, then you scorn the fancy prose because that's a marker of the enemy's aspirations to critical acclaim, a marker of the dread elitism. If you're an Elitist? Well, then you scorn the glossy imagery because that's a marker of the enemy's aspirations to commercial success, a marker of the dread populism.

But of course what you also get is those who recognise an equal value in both -- whether that valuation is high or low, whether the two together keep you reading till you get it or just aren't enough to compensate for the frustration of the fragmented structure. And in that zone is where I imagine readers who might be populist *or* elitist, in the non-capitalised sense of the terms.

4:06 am  

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