The OF Blog: Tales Told by Idiots

Monday, September 04, 2006

Tales Told by Idiots

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of record time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.

There have certainly been quite a few tales told by idiots lately. Sometimes the sound and fury that they create influences our actions, so perhaps the part about it "signifying nothing" is false or at least misleading. It has been a while since I've written a thought piece here, but a couple of articles that I've read recently have compelled me to state my piece. Of course, I'm nobody special, nobody all that influential (on a good day, this blog won't attract more than a few dozen views, many of them for the Spanish-language literature that I review), but I have no problems in stating (and in some senses, restating) my opinions.

The first casus belli for me is a discussion of a post-Hugo rant found at William Lexner's blog. Although the matter appears to be resolved now, I couldn't read the developing "discussion" without feeling a ton of disconnect. I'm at that weird stage where I'm neither "old" nor "young," being 32 and having been involved in the running of wotmania's Other Fantasy section for virtually five years now. For some people in "fandom," however, I'd be little more than a mere pup, I suppose. Which is fine, because whether it's right or wrong, over the years, I've been developing this feeling (based on reading quite a few blog exchanges, anecdotes from various conventions, etc.) that the powers that be in WSFS and elsewhere are little more than bourgeois types, more focused on parliamentary procedures and how to protect the "purity" of their awards than about how to recognize the wide diversity of spec fic writings that abound. Oh, sure, some will argue against this, stating things such as: 1) It's their game, so play by their rules if you want to win their awards; 2) OK, smartypants, how would you define which awards should be awarded and how would you go about establishing procedures and protocols; 3) Do you have anything constructive to offer in all this?

For the hypothetical first point, my answer would simply be a shrug of the shoulders and the acknowledgement that the middle-aged, well-to-do, aspiring Grammy set can have their party with their awards that won't mean jackshit the vast majority of the spec fic reading public anyways. I'm just having fun here commenting on the amusing snipe fire when some just think that there are things that need to be corrected with the WSFS and related agencies. It's not like I'm a Big and Important person anyways, just a lowly schmuck who's bored of all this roundabout talk about how to tinker with a process that is already guaranteed by the nature of its balloting system of producing finalists that are going to be middle of the road, "safe" novels. Novels usually (not always, but usually, going by the finalists for the past few years) written by WASPs, with forms and stories that usually tend to harken back to the so-called "Golden Age" of SF. Which of course for some such as myself, it harkens back to an age of shitty, wooden dialogue, with this notion of a Big Idea dominating the plot/theme, and with furries/almost humans apparently symbolizing either humanity's corruption or its hope. While all nice and good I suppose, it really doesn't excite me and apparently not a lot of others. Sounds like something more befitting to the 1950s than to the dawn of the 21st century. At least those damn robots are fading out of the stories...somewhat.

Now as for what I'd do, I'd simply break shit up. No need for a single award or even a set of awards. There has been so much specialization of sub-genres and now cross-genre hybrids that to define works as being "the best" of a single field is kinda difficult to do. I would say either drop the pretense of 500-600 voting members deciding which bourgeois-leaning story is going to win, or just divide things up into a variety of categories - SF, Epic/Multi-Volume Fantasy, Magic Realism/Urban Fantasy, etc. That way, there's a better chance for more recognition of quality works that aren't feeling like they've been pausterized or which have the imprint of a previous work stamped all over them.

And as for the third point, of course not! I'm just a relatively small-time blogger/reviewer/moderator at a website devoted to some epic fantasist's work who is just only out to spread the glories of socialist writings, avant-garde writings that include works from outside the UK/US axis of SFdom, and who thinks that some of the best spec fic works in recent times weren't written in English or if they were, many were written by women and people whose skin color doesn't shine like a computer monitor on during the night. I guess it's good there are other awards for people writing in other traditions, because it's hard to recognize any of this in the "bigtime" awards like the Hugos. Ho-hum. I guess I'll have to read juried award finalists like the WFAs or the Spanish-language Alfaguara (technically mainstream, but not always) for some variety in the types of books up for consideration.

But enough sound and fury on that topic. Another blog exchange that I read about recently (thanks to Hal Duncan's blog) is yet another tired rehash of the Literary/SF issue, except this time it deals with Young Adult fiction as well. Scrolling through it, you'll see the usual stances about why "literary" fiction is this, while "genre" fiction has to be that, while others point out that no, they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive terms. I must say that I agreed mostly with Duncan's responses and his general attitude toward this farce of an argument, but I would add one little point here: most of the time, those arguing for/against the merits of spec fic in comparison to "literary" fiction fail to address adequately the social/cultural issue here. There is a lot of merit to either "side" in terms of reading them (although again, the limited-perspective, societal-confirming narrative tends to bore me personally, as it just reeks of a smugness that truly can be called "bourgeois" in its 19th century sense; it's as if Madame Bovary has come to dominate the story telling), but frankly, I've seen little to no focus on the world-views that are involved in these novels. Sometimes, what is not stated explicitly in a novel is of interest to the cultural historian, even if for the literary reviewer it would only be of limited value.

I guess I better elaborate more here: What do the pulps of the 40s and 50s have to say about our views of the world back then? What do novels such as The Tin Drum and Night have to say? Why the hell did The Lord of the Rings become so popular in the first place? To answer those questions, you have to step outside the literary debates and go to the sociological/historical epistomologies for possible explanations. But do these ever really come up in the usual herpes-like outbreaks of literary vs. genre fiction arguments? Apparently not.

But it really would be refreshing for someone to explore why and how 'sacred texts' such as that of the Gilgamesh legenda and the Flood 'switched' to being "fantasies." Now that is a prize-winning Ph.D. dissertation in the making, if one dares to travel down that road and to question everything. Until then, we just get a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing, including this half-hearted 'rant' from a bored individual such as myself.

4 comments:

William Lexner said...

Sometimes breaking into fandom is harder than selling your first story. It's kinda scary, and incredibly offputting.

It's sad to me, how absurd the Hugo's seem to be getting, and how out-of-touch the Old Guard are becoming.

I'll never forget the email I recieved from the Worldcon commitee, in reply to my asking for a Scott Bakker invitation to be a part of programming:

"Who?"

Xray the Enforcer said...

Re: Bakker

Sad.

How hard is it to Google someone?

jfclark said...

Good stuff, generally. Glad to see you returning to the fray. But I wasn't sure whether this was (i) a barricade-storming call for ideological purity in spec-fic, (ii) a Chouinard-esque malediction on poor-quality writing or (iii) a simple generationalist/populist manifesto against a crusty ancien regime. Perhaps all three.

Also, from the perspective of a guy who definitely prefers older spec-fic writings to anything current, an observation: for avant-garde writers, recognition equals cooptation. For avant-garde fans, that means a perpetual molting, a permanent state of restlessness in which dynamism is just another term for insecurity.

That's why in literature I prefer timelessness to timeliness. And when I do seek entertainment in dated stuff (e.g., fin-de-siecle psychic detective stuff, the old Weird Tales creepies) I'm not burdened by a need to rebel or excoriate.


Anyway, focusing on the dead guys means that award follies are normatively irrelevant (as opposed to merely positively so).

Freebird said...

Thanks for the responses, everyone!

William, yeah, I know what you're saying about the difficulties of breaking into that 'inner circle' of sorts. I didn't really go into it that much in my post, because I wanted it to be more caustic than reflective, but the vibe I get (as evidenced by the responses to your blog entry) is that some people view themselves as curators of fandom, almost to the degree that political and social historians of a certain time/place view their areas as being the definitive place and that all others must pass muster before being permitted the opportunity to voice an opinion.

As for that bit about Bakker...wow. They dig up veritable fossils like Ellison, but can't really start laying the groundwork for the upcoming generation of writers. *sigh*

jf,

Yeah, it's been a while since I've written anything like this - I've mostly shifted toward reading works of the Boom Generation of South American and their challengers, the McOndoists and the Crack Manifesto groups. I still need to stop by and post a bit at Gabe Mesa's board, as he invited me to, but alas, I've been very busy in my personal life, so that might be delayed a bit longer.

As for my aims, I think you summed it up rather well, in that there are definitely elements of all three in what I wrote. There's also a sense of absurdity within my rant, as it just baffles me at times at how 'particular' some groups of people get.

As for the advant-garde/traditionalist issue, I mostly concede your point. Sometimes, I just want a well-written, timeless work (as you put it), while at other times, I just want a work that'll challenge held assumptions about things. But works that resemble too closely certain classics often will leave me thinking that the original was much better. I just don't know if awards such as the Hugos should be placing as much emphasis on stories that hark back to other times, other stories. It seems like a treacherous path to take.

But I do know that in a month or two, I should have some spare cash so I can at least check out the WFA finalists. Hal Duncan's Vellum was exactly the sort of work I liked and from what I've heard about the others, this might be a tough decision. Shall be interesting to see what the final results are!

 
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