The OF Blog: Literary miscegenation and revolution

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Literary miscegenation and revolution

Miscegenation is such an ugly word where I live in the American South. It was used as a pejorative to label the offspring of a biracial mating as being somehow "less" than others. It is still a sensitive topic in my family today, since I have two first cousins once removed that are multiracial and I myself have a mixed Cherokee and Celtic heritage due to intermarriages ranging over three centuries.

However, miscegenation is as good/poor of a word as any to describe literary streams intermingling that produce offspring that is six of one, half-dozen of the other, never really belonging in either camp. It is a word that M. John Harrison used recently in an exchange between him and me on his blog to reference certain types of fictions:

I just have a lively interest in the way things might be done. I like miscegenation, texts that call themselves into question, & an audience who know how to keep their tongues firmly in their cheeks. So that’s what I talk about.
I went to sleep last night thinking about this comment and the resulting discussion about certain authors, such as Julio Cortázar, who dare to mix and mingle and to never be wholly of one part. I was further reminded of this when I read the Wednesday guest Omnivoracious post by Richard Morgan on Amazon. In that post, he begins by railing against the prejudices of the "literary mainstream" towards SF, only to note that the genre fans and writers themselves have much the same attitude in return towards "literary" stuff.

Truth is (and I’ve said this before in the second half of an article here) our only mistake within genre is to bother with these people at all – like bigots of any stripe, you can’t talk them round, you can’t argue the point, you can’t make them see the light, any more than you can persuade the Ku Klux Klan that the colour of someone’s skin is no good indicator of their worth as an individual. The stance of the mainstream with regard to genre fiction is neither critical nor analytical, it is deeply emotional – and you challenge people’s deeply held emotional beliefs at your peril.
Interesting imagery there, one that I believe ties in quite nice with that rather ugly word of miscegenation I've chosen to appropriate here. Although I disagreed with the article Morgan linked to above in regards to degree, I do agree that there are some close-minded attitudes when it comes to the various flavors of literature (itself but a branch of material culture, I might add just to piss off a few reading this).

Most of this I suspect revolves around "boundary" issues. Staking out tracts, seeking to define what is and what isn't (my recent post on Fantasy was more of an exploration of what people define as such rather than seeking anything "definitive," that being a term I usually avoid like the plague) - such behavior tends to lead to stratifications and stagnations. "Pure" anything that is "living" is bound to be more crippled with certain flaws, just as pure-bred dogs and cats tend to suffer from the concentration of certain genotypes that the "mutts" or mixed-breeds don't have in such quantities. I suspect the same is true with the literary genres. Concentrate too many tropes into an arbitrarily-defined space, let it compost there, and there might be a rankness emerge over time that some might confuse as being "typical qualities" of X genre.

I am reminded of a famous quote of Thomas Jefferson's in which he talks about how the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots. Looking beyond the bloodiness of the quote, he makes an interesting point. In the "from time to time," he is referring to the combating of stagnation, something that revolutionaries have recognized as the bane of their existence. "Don't trust anyone over 30" used to be heard frequently in the late 1960s. Now I wonder if perhaps we ought not to trust literary genres that are much older than that and which seem to be settling into particular patterns and aren't interested in "love and theft" (as Bob Dylan titled a recent album of his) from all sorts of literary traditions and styles. Why shouldn't "literary miscegenation" be encouraged? Why would any author feel "obligated" to use the forms of other writers when they have a story to tell? Why do people bandy about terms such as "literary mainstream" or "genre gatekeepers," when those terms have only as much power as the people uttering them permit?

Sometimes, I think Horace (and later Kant) had it right: Sapere aude.

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