Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Stuff the Idiom Was Made On

So why, specifically, the rhetorical pretense that category fiction is about "story" rather than the sensational? Here's the nub of it:

Blunt force disruptions as narrative triggers, stakes so extraordinary as to be incredible, complications solid as a fist in the face, events as physical as an airship exploding... it's only natural that these are more engaging. But that's the rub: they appeal to anyone and everyone -- including children and the uneducated -- and so to the petit-bourgeois reader they become signifiers of a base taste that must be abjured. Cock forbid we enjoy the sensational relished by the unsophisticated palate!

The miserable poverty of critical savvy in this attitude must be made clear. There's absolutely no need to lose one's appreciation of the sensational in order to gain an additional appreciation for the less immediately engaging, even the outright challenging. One just needs a keener attention, sharper reading senses to extend the range of works one finds rewarding. But if your middle-brow banality sets a glass ceiling here, well, you've little choice but to lower your valuation of the "sensational" thereby raising your valuation of the "intellectual" relative to it. Or "crude" and "sophisticated," or "juvenile" and "mature" -- pick your rhetoric. Of course, the strategy is compensation for an absence of development, for the absence of that additional attentive appreciation whereby Ulysses could be ten times as taxing and still be worth it for the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end.

If you're really reaping the rewards of subtler literature, you shouldn't have to cast them in relief against the rewards of sensationalist stories, rendering the latter as ignoble in order to glorify the former. There is nothing more adolescent than disdain for the infantile; so too with the self-styled sophisticate scorning the "jejune." And it is the mark of the true mediocrity never to mature beyond this sophomoric hubris. The action of expressing (which is to say posturing) a superior taste (which is to say superior propriety) only serves to advertise a failure to abstract and appreciate with objectivity the form and function of a literary spear-thrower.  Picasso saw the gracile purity of a cave painting. Joyce and Potter saw the same in popular music, trite as its sentiments might be. Obliviousness to the same in pulp fiction is a deficit in any artist or critic.

Sadly, middle-class propriety has institutionalised this sad strategy of self-validation. It's nigh impossible to be raised within the cloisters of the discourse and not have the received values drummed into you by the ceaselessly droned rote. Except one is sensitised by abjected status, perhaps, to that bootstrapping strategy of privilege by prejudice, it takes a rather thrawn soul to turn a harsh eye on one's own thoughtless dismissals. (Doubt is, after all, always-already thoughtlessly dismissed.) Even, it seems, for those of us allied with the sensational via category fiction and passionate about its potentials.

Indeed, through the slow gentrification of category fiction, the environmental antipathy to (or angst about) sensationalism has arguably consolidated into an institutional standard. We can talk about "sense of wonder" all we want. The very voices most fervent in lauding the potential of science fiction in that regard often seem those most wedded to the aesthetic that abjures the sensationalist. Call it Anglo-American Neorealism, that post-WWII return to the enterprise of edification, that literary trend begun by radicals, appropriated by reactionaries. In science fiction perhaps more than any other genre, concern with intellectual credibility (both scientific and literary) set technophiliac and scientistic enthusiasts in sympathy with those neorealists, disavowing intellectual credulousness, advocating to all intents and purposes against the very stuff the idiom was made on.

The argument has been productive, as all such dialectics of aesthetics are, but ultimately the weight of anti-sensational thought has prevailed in establishing an authoritative propriety that partitions science fiction in much the same way Krystal partitions literature. One can argue c.f. Knight and similar that sf is a nominal label for the extant body of all speculative literature, established as too diverse for definition in the marketing category up until the segregation out of Fantasy in the 1970s. But amid the chaos of clashing aesthetics, a dominating propriety fervently denies this, essentially setting only what we might call "neorealist science fiction" as legitimate. And subsequent to the segregation out of Fantasy, with the generation of terms like "slipstream" and "interstitial," it is hard to sustain an all-inclusive usage both practically and theoretically. Unlike Krystal's "literature," the neorealist's "science fiction" is quite solidly defensible.

Although the literary decorum of this mode of strange fiction is where, incidentally, I might well source the crisis characterised by Kincaid as "exhaustion."

Just so you know.


Monday, October 29, 2012

The Story of the Return of Story

If Grossman's "literary revolution" is not really against modernism, is it still nonetheless a return to "the good old days of good old-fashioned story-telling, disdained by the modernists"? Do we just need to substitute "contemporary realists" for the last word in that sentence?

No. That's geekspeak bullshit, "story" a rhetorical pretense that it's the substructure of narrative somehow being neglected if the disruption of equilibrium is subtle rather than blunt, if the stakes and strategies are everyday rather than extraordinary, if the complications are abstract rather than concrete, if the conflict worked through to resolution is internal rather than external. If we want to talk modernists, Joyce's Ulysses is every bit the told story that Homer's is, perhaps more so. I went to see a play adaptation of it the other night and it struck to me, not for the first time, how the text is so very much meant to be heard. Structured by the episode and suffused with the oral, it is absolutely a story. It's simply that the tensions resolved in the closing soliloquy are less boldly manifest, the register of action more low-key.

When enthusiasts of category fiction speak of "story-telling" in this way then, it's a stand-in for the more stirring register of action inherited from the pulps. It's not about the fiction being more story-ish in some sense -- more dramatic, one might say. Taxonomically speaking, all well-made dramas are equally dramatic. If better made, the low-key will be moreso than a series of high-octane set pieces strung together in a formulaic grammar of action/adventure by authorial fiat. The latter may be called "more dramatic" for its brasher impact, but this is dissimulation around the fact that it's simply more spectacular.

A peripeteia is not even more of a peripeteia if it involves the actor physically whirling around 180º on the stage.

Still, when we have a more spectacular narrative made from more immediately visible elements -- blunt force disruptions, extraordinary stakes, concrete complications, external conflicts -- is it not fair to say that the more obvious plot is more important in driving us onward through the story? That we can therefore segregate out such narratives as more "plot-driven"? No, again this is dissimulation. Similarly, plot is no less the motive draw in the "character-driven" story than in the "plot-driven." It's simply that in the former, the characters' structures of self are made the theatres of war, events are internal rather than external, and when plot is taking place in that substrate rather than the physical world it goes by the name of character development. Every revelation of character, however understated, is an action in the plot.

No, the geekspeak bullshit of "plot-driven" and "story-telling" is just a way NOT to say that the subtle disruptions and everyday goals bore us, that the abstract complications and internal plots are less spectacular than we want. Why the rhetorical pretence? An admission would be a confession -- of enjoying the sensational, or worse, the sensationalist. And even those who are ultimately defending such pleasures do so in a discourse so loaded with contempt for the sensationalist that dissimulation may be automatic, unconscious. It may be the discourse itself that is dissimulating. These inchoate notions of "story-telling" and "plot-driven" do serve to defend a particular approach in narrative, but they do so by diverting attention from the sensational, rerouting into a pre-existent -- a downright tired -- and self-sustaining argument of purpose, entertainment versus edification, both sides of which do narrative a gross disservice by casting it as means to an end.

It's time we cut the crap, discard the hollow effigy of Story as a fancied principle grand enough to warrant respect, and defend what it is that needs defended. Say what it is that category fiction does in its bones and muscle and sinew. Because this is the reason for the revolution.

The change signified by "the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, and Jennifer Egan" is only the restoration of quirks and associated plot dynamics deemed improperly sensational in that self-privileging imperialist aesthetic of literature which belongs back in 1880s, the aesthetic which reasserted itself in the recuperation of post-WWII realism. From Gothic Romance, through dime novels and penny dreadfuls, to the pulps and hence to modern category fiction -- I take the sensation novel as a linchpin wherein the disdain named its enemy; it's as good a point as any to situate the consolidation of that tedious philistinism masquerading as good taste.

The visceral drive in such sensational(ist) dynamics is the "sturdy narrative roots" that remain blatant as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, and Neil Gaiman cross the barricades from the other direction -- partly just by using these quintessential markers of pulp literature in sophisticated rather than formulaic ways. As has always been done. Why? Because the narrative devices characteristic of category fiction -- these quirks -- are not just crude buttons a writer may push; they're the meat of narrative itself. A writer who wants to "understand why the heart has reasons that reason cannot know" may absolutely employ the monstrum of the horror story and/or the cryptica of the police procedural; these quirks are custom-made to address exactly that sort of unknown. The only wonder is that it's taken so long for someone like McCarthy to do so.

Or perhaps that's not a great wonder. The rhetorical pretense that this is about the structural rather than the sensational, as I say, has not done the defenders of category fiction any favours.


Faut vous dire, monsieur

Arthur Krystal points to Lev Grossman's Time article:

"Literature, Grossman believes, is undergoing a revolution: high-voltage plotting is replacing the more refined intellection associated with modernism. Modernism and postmodernism, in fact, are ausgespielt, and the next new thing in fiction isn’t issuing from an élitist perch but, rather, is geysering upward from the supermarket shelves. In short, there’s a new literary sheriff in town, able to bend time, jump universes, solve crime, fight zombies, perform magic, and generally save mankind from itself."

But with the odd exception of a writer like Guy Davenport here and there, wasn't modernism ausgespielt near three quarters of a century ago, its uncompromising elitism seen as, well, rather tasteless in the wake of the fascism it, in places, flirted with? Wasn't the real reigning aesthetic in Western literature post-WWII fairly straight realism in its various flavours, historical or contemporary, drawing room or kitchen sink? The radical strangeness of Kafka, Yeats, Lorca, Stevens, Apollinaire, Rilke, Pound, Stein, Joyce may survive in the satirical absurdities of Heller or Vonnegut, more purely in the surreal absurdities of Pinter, but the revolution happened decades ago.

In parallel with, if not part of, the civil rights movement, Late modernism was rendered late in another sense entirely -- deceased -- its hoary spectre exiled to the ivory towers, postmodern prisons of irony shackles and ludic irrelevance. As long as it forsook sincerity it could construct all the grandiose metanarratives it wanted. In the new Germinal, angry young men claimed the field for a fiction about as modernist as Zola. Some of them were not even middle class! Some of them were even not-white, or not-straight, or even... not-men! Either way, the reigning spirit actually under challenge from Grossman's revolution is realist, an aesthetics and ethics of observation and insight, of social awareness, the watchword: relevance.

It's under challenge because it failed, was co-opted by the middle-brow as class tourist travel literature. Pillion passengers of Ginsberg's saintly motorcyclists, an audience of the eternally vicarious updated their mores with the times but never their mindset of propriety. They appreciated the machine between their legs, missed the whole point of the fucking in the ass, and over time recuperated the entire aesthetic to the old enterprise of edification, returning us to fiction by the bourgeois for the bourgeois. See James Kelman's Booker acceptance speech from 1994 for one last snarl of defiance.

Those people there, Jacques Brel called this petit-bourgeoisie, channeling a lovelorn drunken cat-killer. Faut vous dire, monsieur, he might have sung. You see those people there? They don't read, monsieur, don't read.

They review.


Is That So?

Is that so? asks Arthur Krystal.

Le Guin's insistence that literature is "the extant body of written art" is actually only a step in the right direction: the correct word is not "art" but "stuff." The sentence, "My doctor gave me some literature to look over," is a perfectly valid sentence, and the particular literature in such a usage is clearly not written art, just stuff -- leaflets on whatever. Literature can be functional as well as fictional: pamphlets are literature; instructions are literature; and so on. The first literature was not Gilgamesh but all the cuneiform tablets predating it, whether king lists or shopping lists. If we talk of "the academic literature" on early cuneiform, we're not talking of art (literature) of limited theoretical relevance (academic.) However you rate its quality, this essay into the definition of literature is literature.

Is that so? asks Arthur Krystal.

If Le Guin's narrowed definition has at least utility, a handy shorthand for that domain of art taking the written word as its medium, there's no such excuse for constricting the application of "literature" to only the "best" of this domain. We're dealing with a whole world and a half dozen millennia's worth of artworks in innumerable idioms, the aims and impacts of those idioms in constant dispute via the works themselves. Intersubjectivity fractured across eons and cultures, we must ask: whose best? If we're going to discard the bulk of literature as subliterary, mere creative writing, are we to retain the exemplars of every idiom or discard whole idioms as essentially trivial -- discard the limerick as doggerel, say? Discard the fairy tale as naive folk art? Discard the myth as mere superstition? Shall we retain the Biblical and Classical though, as the root of this great tradition of literature? Surely The Iliad is literature, after all. We must ask: who gets to choose?

Is that so? asks Arthur Krystal, implicitly asserting that right. That ability.

To imagine one can collapse all literature's babble of arguing ambitions to a universal gold standard which artworks either meet or don't only establishes that you're entirely unqualified to speak on the subject. By all means, play curator to the canon of works with lasting esteem and influence, but if partition by prestige is essentialised in your terms of discourse, don't dream for a second that your opinion has an iota of relevance. Sorry. The 1880s sent a telegram and asked for their conceit of objective aesthetic merit back.

While you're returning it, you might also return the dismissal of literature originating in the oral traditions of the peasant and the so-called primitive, the dismissal of Gothic Romance and sensation novels, the dismissal of dime novels and penny dreadfuls. You will likely find you have to, since these abjections are integral to the artifice of literature as you're casting it, key building blocks in its construction. You might want to consider that the next time you apply the term "literature" selectively -- consider the artists and audiences of the literature(s) that your partition by prestige is erasing, consider their race, gender, class. You might consider that a writer such as Le Guin, of patently deeper thought than yourself, may well have the legitimacy of pulp genres published as category fiction as a negligible concern when they insist that literature is all literature, not merely some subset held prestigious by you and your ilk.

Is that so? asks Krystal

Yes. Yes, that is so.


Friday, October 26, 2012

It's Coloreds. Not That There's Anything Wrong With It!

Last May, a piece I wrote for the magazine about colored people’s new-found respectability caused the digital highway to buckle ever so slightly. Despite my professed admiration for many colored people, I was blasted for thinking that human people are superior to colored people, and for not noticing that the zeitgeist had come and gone while I was presumably immersed in “The Golden Bowl.” Apparently, the dichotomy between colored people and human people isn’t just old news—it’s no news, it’s finis, or so the critics on Slate’s Culture Gabfest and the folks who run other literary Web sites informed me. The coloured-people writer Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, announced that humanity “is the extant body of living humans. All people belong to it.” Is that so?

Yes. Yes, Mr Krystal, that is so.

Oh, wait. Did I accidentally switch "genre fiction" and "literary fiction" for "colored people" and "human people" to illustrate that Arthur Krystal is a middle-brow petit-bourgeois Yahoo whose opinion on literature is about as worthy of consideration as that of a 1950s Segregationist on humanity, and for largely the same reasons?

My bad. Let's try that again.

Last May, a piece I wrote for the magazine about gay fiction’s new-found respectability caused the digital highway to buckle ever so slightly. Despite my professed admiration for many gay writers, I was blasted for thinking that literary fiction is superior to gay fiction, and for not noticing that the zeitgeist had come and gone while I was presumably immersed in “The Golden Bowl.” Apparently, the dichotomy between gay fiction and literary fiction isn’t just old news—it’s no news, it’s finis, or so the critics on Slate’s Culture Gabfest and the folks who run other literary Web sites informed me. The gay-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, announced that literature “is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.” Is that so?
Yes, actually. Again, that is so.

Oh, wait. Oopsy. I did it again. I only went and got genre fiction mixed up with gay fiction this time. You see my mistake though, there being dedicated gay presses, magazines, labelled shelves in bookstores and all that palaver, right? All the stuff that allows one to talk of Gay Fiction as a commercial marketing category? As a genre even? Which would make, say, a short story collection published via Lethe Press a work of "genre fiction" anyway, I guess. And therefore inherently inferior to, say, the exact same collection published via Macmillan.



Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fuck Gangnam Style!

MAH style is da bomb diggy bomb da dang da dang diggy diggy.

Just so you know.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Icarus #14

Now out: