The OF Blog: Regarding Richard Morgan's recent rant

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Regarding Richard Morgan's recent rant

Since I have little better to do with my time (besides finishing revisions on one review and waiting for the Lakers game tonight), I thought I'd respond to some of Richard Morgan's criticisms revolving around past criticisms that in turn criticize certain criticisms involving critiques, complaints, bitching, and/or moaning and groaning and the almost-prerequisite gnashing of teeth over the state of SF with, what else!, but some criticisms of my own, because we know that this is what any fine, upstanding SF reader/fan/critic lives for, the right to criticize and to write ourselves to a point of feeling good about ourselves at the end of a day that was dreary, pondering ourselves to weak and weary, perhaps over a many curious volumes of forgotten (critique) lore...or some shit like that. On with the expected horse and pony show:

I think Morgan starts off strong, noting in his own way pretty much what I said above, that SFFdom has almost created a fetish out of arguing matters of point. While some of you might have BDSM imagery dancing in your heads, I'm going to be wondering what in the hell Morgan thought he'd be adding after his "five years of reading [this crap-ed.]." More of the same?

But then, finally, at Eastercon 2006, things came to a head; one panel title in particular leapt out of the Glasgow Concussion programme at me, and I realized -- oh, for fuck's sake!!! -- that I'd really, really had it with this shit.

Won't Get Fooled Again, the item in question declaimed. Why don't we just completely trash the whole tired SF genre and try to take the discourse somewhere genuinely new?

What the hell is wrong with us?

Instead of having that program quoting The Who, perhaps Morgan would rather have had the first lines of Allan Ginsberg's "Howl" quoted, the bit about "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness"? Because in a sense, that seems to be what's bothering him, this thought that this is just insanity. Then he continues by noting a difference with another genre group, the crime fiction writers:

Here's a funny thing. Skip across the tracks to the world of crime fiction for a while, and you don't see this shit going on. You don't get this gnawing, mutilative thread of self-hatred, this bulemic purging of whole sub-genres or readership sub-sections as somehow unworthy. A quick trawl through a couple of dozen crime writer websites and messageboards reveals no agendas or dogme-style utterances, no towering rages or griping about how the genre's going to shit these days, how there's all this generic pap being published, how this strain of crime writing is so much more valid than this other strain, how maybe we shouldn't even be reading or writing crime fiction at all, how we need to Get Back to Basics, or Rip it Up and Start Again, or any other misbegotten Year Zero bullshit.

Go on, see for yourselves -- it just ain't there.

Of course, I'm finding myself asking "since when did crime fiction writers ever really have a symbiotic - parasitic? - relationship with its fans?" I dunno, was there a time when there were as many organized fan conventions for crime fiction as there have been for SF? Has there been anywhere near as much diversity in the crime fiction genre has there have been in all the flavors of SF and Fantasy? How many existentialist crises were caused by the hunt for the perpetrator? I just am not convinced that this is a solid comparison point, since one would have to accept as a fait accompli that SF and Fantasy are really homogeneous entities with a fairly well-understood impetus for crafting such stories. Color me unconvinced that this is the case.

Well, Ali and I batted that one back and forth for quite a while. Where does this rather less cannibalistic attitude come from? Is it maybe because there's a bigger pie to share in crime fiction, more readers, more dosh, and so a lot less anxiety about why >not enough people are buying my stuff, goddamnit, why don't they appreciate what I'm doing with the genre? Is it because, aside from the money, there's relatively more respectability in being a crime writer than in writing SF and Fantasy? Or is it perhaps that the line between reader and writer isn't as blurred in crime writing, that comparatively few of the crime readership are themselves aspiring to write what they read, so the genre lacks the bitchy that should be me up there dynamic? Is it because crime readers are older on average, or less demanding, or less transgressive, or maybe just less bloody-minded? Is it the readers, or the writers, or both (or neither)? And back on this side of the fence, is it just a few malcontent bad apples in the SF barrel, or is it something endemic to the form? Is it maybe just down to an overdeveloped literary ghetto grievance and a lack of self-esteem?
Nice questions, albeit ones asked along the tangential path being blazed by this point. While certainly there is some cause to wonder if certain authors (or unpublished/obscure ones in many cases) might meet much of this, I can't help but to believe that Morgan isn't really addressing the root causes here, especially that of there being such a fractured sense of what "the genre" really is.

But instead of addressing this potential departure point for exploring why such vehement disagreements come about, Morgan begins to lay it on thick with the Kumbayahisms:

At this point, you might be forgiven for asking the question So What? So there's a lot of bitching, lekking and squabbling in SF and Fantasy. So it's a cannibalistic, malcontent genre. So who cares?

I care.

Because it seems to me rather a shame that right here and now, in the form of fiction that's most fit to explore the twenty first century, at a time when our newer, sister media -- movies, TV, video games -- are replete with the genre's well-worn furniture, we still can't seem to get our fucking act together, find some faith in ourselves and just go do our thing. So you want to write Mundane SF. Good idea -- go away and do it; if Geoff Ryman's Air is anything to go by, something resembling Mundane SF might -- eventually -- win the genre its first Booker prize. But why the crushing need to denigrate the space opera end of SF before you start? What's with the superior attitude? Oh, and you guys -- before you start looking all smug 'n' shit behind this -- so you lot don't want to write (or read) mundane SF. Fine -- don't. But is it so terribly threatening when someone else does, that you have to vomit up this ocean of rage and abuse, as if the Mundanistas had come out suggesting re-education camps for the Star Trek fanbase. Is the Mundane manifesto really such an affront that established authors (who really should know better) and fans alike have to start hurling abuse around like they're a street gang and someone said something dirty about their mothers?

And while we're at it, all you self-professed New Weirdsters - did nailing your New Weird colours to the mast five years ago really have to mean such an avowed and out loud contempt for all that painstakingly imagined (and yes, mapped!) "consolatory" fantasy and those who like to immerse themselves in it? Was that the only way the manifesto could stand -- in fake-defiant from-the-barricades revolution-chic opposition to something else? Did there -- does there always -- have to be an enemy? Do we have to hate before we can get passionate about what we're doing? Or was it just a sneaking suspicion that those "consolatory" guys were going to steal readership share?

Which, of course, they inevitably will do. "Consolatory" fantasy does well. So does "consolatory" Space Opera. People like it, and so, not unreasonably, they buy it by the ton. Of course, it's become customary in genre debates to sneer and blame this sort of thing on marketing -- as if without the marketing departments, Terry Brooks fans would suddenly be marching en masse into Barnes and Noble and demanding a reprint of In Viriconium; as if marketing is what prevents the readers of Star Wars tie-in novels from developing a passion for Stanislaw Lem. I mean, come on, guys, get real -- enough of the false consciousness rap, already. People know what they like (and, yes, sadly, they tend to like what they know). And a large number of such people within the SF&F readership like straightforward, by-the-numbers story-telling with a lot of sensawunda, heroes who achieve their goals, bad guys who go down hard, and a solid happy ending. In this, they are no different than the reading (or indeed TV, or cinema-going) public in general. Marketing is simply a system for shifting product to that public in as large quantities as possible. And I never met an author yet who didn't want their books to sell in large quantities.

All nice and warm in one bit, all in-your-face,-motherfucker the next. But while to a degree I agree with the sentiment, I still believe that Morgan fails to address what's occurring here. Is it really a unified umbrella approach going on here? Or is it rather a barely-communicating loose set of confederations that has taken place over the years, each with vaguely-defined boundaries that need to be hashed out before much can occur? And as for the bit about the New Weird, I still am waiting for that "manifesto," considering one of the points of the recent The New Weird anthology was that it was far from an easily-defined "movement" at all during its tenuous "genesis" and dissemination. Sorry, but I'm just not buying this part of your argument right now, Mr. Morgan. As much as I want to agree with you about how there are readers that have defined tastes, there seems to be too much of a flow between these groups (look at my reviews over the past year here and the books I mention in passing, for example; hardly the sign of a homogeneous reading taste) for there to be that much justification for the criticisms leveled at the groups named in those passages.

So. This is the landscape around us, and we all know what it looks like. What we need to do is stop qvetching about the terrain, and just decide where we're going to pitch our bloody tents. Ian McEwan argues (obliquely, through conversation and event in The Child in Time) that good writers write for themselves, and I think probably that's true; certainly I try never to write for anybody else. But writing for yourself does carry an opportunity cost. If you're lucky, your self shares tastes with enough other people that your books are going to sell well; you can hand your finished product over to the marketing guys, and they'll run with it. As Neal Asher once remarked to me, I don't mind doing the crowd-pleasing stuff because most of the time what pleases the crowd also pleases me. But if that particular piece of serendipity doesn't happen for you, then you're simply going to have to make a choice. Want to make a shit-load of money? Want to make the bestseller lists? Then get on and write a three brick fantasy trilogy about a good hearted farm-boy who becomes a wizard or a warrior (or a space pilot) and defeats an evil empire. Want to write grim and gloomy portraits of emotional decay in unemployed, divorced or otherwise alienated Londoners who may -- or may not! -- have come from an ever so faintly different parallel universe? Prepare to keep your day job for some time to come.

Or, of course, you could reduce that parallel universe angle to such homeopathic dosage that it can be safely interpreted by mainstream critics as wholly illusory, in which case you can then make your genre-break escape bid. And the best of luck to you, if you do. Sincerely. There's gold in them thar TLS pages, and why shouldn't you have some of it? You might be the next Jonathan Lethem or David Mitchell in the making. But watch out -- don't allow even the whisper that you might be writing SF or Fantasy, because in the mainstream, that kind of thing still goes down about as well as lap dancers at a wedding. Sad fact, but an enduring one. The bulk of mainstreamers (and mainstream critics) are no different in this to the bulk of any other readership, including our own. They also know what they like, and like what they know. (And generally, they don't know or like SF&F very much). Yes, they are partisan and small "c" conservative and subject to prejudice, just like the rest of us. Big surprise.

Damn, I hoping for something other than more of the same, tired two paths. Can't one just be themselves within the genre without either conforming to some perceived "model" or some "genre-escaping" alternate? The fact that Morgan uses "mainstream" here in an almost pejorative sense makes me wonder why he bothered with the above, since it seems that unwittingly he has many of the same attitudes regarding this so-called "mainstream" and "mainstream critics" as those of many others that have preceded him on the Bitch Trail. For whatever reason, I get this bad image of a segregationist railing against the evils of racism when I read such comments that seem to validate (or at least encourage) this notion of a division between "Genre" and "Mainstream," with literary miscegenation being almost abhorrent for a great many of them. Irritating, that thought. Hope that isn't close to the heart of the matter here.

And now for the closing arguments:

I guess in the end what I'm saying is that it's about growing up. Not growing up in the sense of writing or reading "grown up" literature (whatever that actually is), or pretending -- on some Eastercon panel or messageboard somewhere -- to cast off a specious immaturity of prior literary taste in favour of more weighty and worthwhile prose. No, I'm talking about growing up in the sense of seeing both the genre and the wider world in the way they are instead of the way we'd like them to be. I'm talking about making conscious choices in what we write, and then taking responsibility for those choices, instead of railing against some crudely confected other that's spoiling everything for us. This is, above all, about getting a sense of perspective on what we do for a living, about accepting our genre as a whole, the way the crime guys accept theirs; accepting it has facets and seeing them that way, instead of constantly turning them into factions; accepting that just because you don't get off on a particular strain of SF&F, doesn't mean other people don't, can't or shouldn't. This is about accepting, as Iain Banks once said, that when all is said and done, we are all a part of the entertainment industry.

Is that so terrible to admit? It shouldn't be. Entertainment looks set to become the major industry of the twenty first century. It seeps into everything we are and do; it's as powerful a globalizing force as anything else in play right now. Not a bad place to be working, really. All we have to do is keep our perspective; shrug off that pitifully self-important delusion that we're locked in some sort of titanic struggle for the cultural soul of humanity against hostile elites or witless hordes or evil marketing empires. Let's save that kind of hyperbole for (some of) our fiction. Let's get a fucking life, people, let's get over ourselves and start enjoying this ride for its own sake -- rather than constantly glowering around with militant disapproval at our fellow passengers further down the car, all on account of what they're reading.
Enough bile. Gentlemen and ladies -- let's go to work.

For a writer who isn't the biggest fan of Conservatism, Morgan certainly sounds that way in his closing. For many (not all, but many certainly) writers, the point isn't to accept that genre is this static thing (after all, a lot of these hellraisers with whom Morgan seems to be irritated here created some very influential work that pushed SF and Fantasy writing in different directions, creating little globules from the greater globe for such exploration of style, theme, and characterization), but instead to push, push, and to keep on pushing to see what will emerge. Sometimes that means conceptual arguments as to what "should" and "shouldn't" be taking place. That's only natural, but it seems that Morgan poo-pahs this a bit too much. Maybe on occasion it gets to be a bit "ridiculous," maybe people push too far for other's comfort, but I'm sorry if I just cannot accept fully Morgan's alternative.

Sure, there is certainly hyperbole in a lot of these arguments, but underlaying quite a few of them is this searching quest for understanding and of exploration that is akin to the writing spirit. Entertainment is not a bad thing; it just isn't necessarily a great thing either. Some writers want to discover themselves and others as they write and while on occasion this spills out in invective that isn't all that enjoyable, I cannot help but to think that even this negative sort of discourse has had an ultimately beneficial effect on writing. So rage on, you followers of your Muses, rage on.


Anonymous said...

So pretentious.

Larry said...

Of course! Now to aim for a better pretentiousness with the next such post!

Jonathan M said...

I think his point (to the extent that he has a coherent one) is bullshit.

Who does it hurt that we squabble with each other? it doesn't hurt sales and it doesn't hurt our image because nobody outside of the scene knows about any of our debates. We're looked down upon from outside because we're into the genre we're into... not because of the way in which we express that interest.

The symbiotic relationship between fans and writers can be unhealthy but I find it kind of insulting that all SF commentators are considered SF writer wannabes. I have no ambitions at all in that area. This sounds a lot to me like "shut the fuck up and buy my books"

I actually think that the opposite is true. I think the fact that we squabble and fail to be a united genre gives us a real vibrancy that simply doesn't exist over in Crime Fiction.

For example, I'm a big fan of TV and movie crime stuff and I've recently started reading the books and am enjoying them a lot but when I went looking for the Crime Equivalent of Strange Horizons I found nothing but a lot of rather elderly and ugly looking websites full of capsule reviews, which were not only useless to me as a means of writing about crime but as a means of making purchasing decisions too. I mean, if I'm interested in the existentialist aspects of noir, I need a review that's intelligent enough and complete enough to address those issues.

So I think that SF's squabbling is a result of a more vibrant and engaged fan-base. One that pimps what it likes as much as it hurls insults at what it doesn't like.

So I think he's not only wrong, I think that we need MORE squabbling, more argument, more engagement. Fuck getting our act together.

Larry said...

For the most part, I agree with you. It's not as though our squabbling is at the level (and sometimes, but far from always, the sophistication) of academic territorial arguments, but it is akin to it in how such debates, heated as they may be, can often drive writers to create works of merit in response to stimuli from such spats. Civility is great and I value it, but being civil to the point of not challenging ourselves to explore why we like what we do (or why we won't try things that differs from our "comfort" zones) just seems to lead to stagnation, similar to what has happened to Westerns over the years.

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