The OF Blog: Each Time, We Know Less

Monday, March 13, 2006

Each Time, We Know Less

Sabremos cada vez menos qué es un ser humano. - Libro de las previsiones
This quote, which can be roughly translated as "We will know less and less what is a human being," is found in the epigraph to José Saramago's latest work, Las intermitencias de la muerte. Very fitting that I come across this quote today, as I've been struggling a bit to put to words my thoughts on something that troubles me a bit as an occasional reviewer/commentator.

A source of my recent trouble might be found in reading some of the feedback posted on Locus Online in regards to the recent New York Times column regarding science fiction. While I agreed with much of what the majority of the people there were saying, a part of me couldn't help but flinch, wondering who's version, who's definition of what constitutes 'science fiction' was attempting to dominate there. Then this weekend I read the link to Norman Spinrad's column, "On Books," that is part of the April/May issue of Asimov's. In it, he devotes a considerable amount of time delineating what is 'science fiction,' as opposed to 'SF' or 'sci-fi' or 'speculative fiction.' While many of his points were interesting, there just this sense of unease that crept over me as I read on. And then earlier today, when doing my semi-weekly read of Matthew Cheney's blog, I read his most recent column on 'Nonrealist Fiction.' Now I'll need a bit more time to process just how I feel about some of his arguments, but there was something in Cheney's post that touches upon a topic near and dear to my heart, that of relationships between the Reader (and by extension, human beings) and the Text.

In some senses, what I am writing now, what I've created (and of course whatever you have created or the person down the street or that imagined person at the antipodes has created) is a fiction. It is a construct, something that has a meaning and form that depends upon human interpretations. As a construct, this fiction (and let's go ahead and start using other terms to describe this, say 'real' and 'non-real') is subjective in and of itself, that it depends in large part upon what its Creator, its Author, wants to convey, but also on what its Recipient, its Reader wants this fiction to be. It is a communication process, one which depends in large part upon the ability of the Creator to affect the Recipient and also how the Recipient chooses to process what the Creator has established. It is a ying-yang relationship to some extent, but with an inherent instability due to the dynamics of that communication between the Creator/Recipient.

Times change. Languages alter, fall out of use. New ideas, new forms of 'what is to be' come into vogue, then are dumped into the dustbins of 'history.' Perceptions of the world changes and 'order' can mean something completely different to one generation as 'suffer' or 'quit' meant to people of another generation. 'Education' used to refer to the process of 'bringing up,' or of training someone in how to interpret the world around them. Of course, this has changed greatly over the years, as we've gone more and more away from the Greco-Roman template to a model of child rearing/training that focuses more on 'practical' applications, with a concentration on how or what things are and not so much of a focus as to why things are as they are (or not are). In this shift, many of our transmission signals have become garbled.

Thus we can have a full-fledged (and often entertaining) debates as to what constitutes 'realism' versus 'nonrealism'; what is 'science fiction' as opposed to those other forms that I listed above. But we don't tend to have as much paper (or electronic) ink devoted to the issues of why this and not that when we discuss a work of fiction. Before some point out (correctly) that there are still plenty of authors, in a variety of fields, that address issues of 'why,' I would like to take the time to note that I am referring here to how the Reader/Recipients process what they have consumed from perviewing what the Author/Creator has brought into being.

How many times have some of us gone to an internet site and read commentaries that concentrate so much on the 'what' aspects of a fiction (the plot, the characters, the scenes) and 'how' they affected that particular reader? Or how about seeing commentaries about a work that seem to be so directed as toward illuminating that Reader's point of view that the voice of the Author has been lost in translation? This has happened to me on a very frequent basis.

Now I could cite quite a few websites devoted to the 'discussion' of 'fantasy' or 'SF' (or however else you want to define what it is that's being read), but for brevity's sake, I will not and will allow you, the Reader of this fiction of mine, to go forth to your own favorite site or blog or whatnot and discover whatever you may for yourself. I just will state here, however, that it has been my experience that the 'discussions' are so centered around that particular person's vantage point that I sometimes wonder if there has been any attempt to listen to what the author has to say. One egregious example would be that of 'Classics,' in particular William Shakespeare. Countless are the times that I see comments to the effect that Shakespeare is 'overrated,' or that 'he just didn't know how to write.' While part of me wants to dismiss such statements out of hand, there is something to be said about them. Like it or not, they demonstrate a very real concern of many in regards to the loss of efficacy when one reads (or better yet in my opinion, sees performed) Shakespeare. Somewhere in the march of the centuries and the many subtle or drastic changes in the English language, a connection was weakened or even lost in some cases. The world-view of 400 years ago is not that of today and the plays of Shakespeare's which appealed to both the elites and the common folk of his day are now more and more losing their direct hold on the average person's mind and sentiments. This is not to say that Shakespeare is any less or more important today as compared to 1606, but only to serve as an illustration for the fragile nature of the communication that we Readers have with our Authors. Maybe instead of 'we will know less and less what is a human being,' it will be 'less and less what the Author wants to say to us.'

2 comments:

Eric Joel Bresin said...

This was a beautiful post, Larry. In many ways, it sums up a lot of my opinions on literature with a capital "L" that I've shared at wotmania and my own blog.

You make some very good points, especially with the last paragraph of Shakespeare. It has often crossed my mind that to a certain degree texts do have to coexist with the readers (and if the reader no longer get it, or a great deal of them don't, then perhaps it does, indeed, say something about the text's value in regards to the subtle changes of language and the values of the culture).

Neth said...

The Voice of Literature Past?

Ahh...for better and worse, 'classic' literature will fade and loose touch with whenever the current time is. But, is anything actually lost? Were those ideas new? Each time period will have it's own 'literary' giants, standing on the shoulders of the multitudes of those that came before. And they won't be saying anything new either.


And now for something completely different:

I think I'm learning (stubbornly of course) to stay out of and ignore the various debates of definition - sci-fi vs. fantasy vs. SF vs. speculative fiction vs. unrealistic fiction vs. Larry's unwashed backside - too many of us just like to 'hear' ourselves defend our own opinions that don't really need to be defended in the first place.

As people brought to the various genre's from origins like Star Trek, Star Wars, LotR, etc. fade and grow ever older, what will be the 'new' face of the genre with an origin of Harry Potter?

 
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