The OF Blog: Cultural materialism and historicism in the reading of speculative literature

Friday, August 06, 2010

Cultural materialism and historicism in the reading of speculative literature

Ever since I was five years old and I taught myself how to read by using my dad's textbooks, historia has always fascinated me.  Even now, when I'm so sickened by my experiences teaching in public school that I find myself at times thinking that I'd rather die than to subject myself to the inanities of the public school system, histories of all stripes fascinate me.  They are, after linguistic semantics, the most important and fascinating ideas and concepts that I'll probably ever come across.  Perhaps to others it might make some sense, but I just cannot fathom separating historia the recollection of the past from historia the invention of stories. 

Rarely does a month go by on the fora that I frequent that I don't encounter some crude attempt at "placing" a particular story, particularly epic fantasies.  I will see earnest people putting forth arguments that basically claim that "dark" and "gritty" fantasies are a relatively new occurrence, arising during the past 10-15 years.  Rarely is there any real understanding presented of the fantasy literature produced any earlier than that person's own childhood it seems; I rarely see discussions of pre-1977 fantasies, especially those of the epic variety.  For those readers, fantasy (particularly epic fantasies, considering the type of fora that I visit most often) seems to be divorced from any sense of history.

This is very strange to me, being not just a historian but also someone who has taught English literature on occasion at the high school level.  Perhaps it's because I was greatly influenced by the Cultural Materialists and the New Historicists during my graduate school years in the mid-1990s, but I find it odd that there is so little curiosity about the antecedents of current literary trends.  Yesterday, while I was composing my review of David Lindsay's 1920 novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, I found myself thinking about some of the similarities that novel shared with Symbolist and late-period Romantic writers.  Although this is reflected with only passing references to three authors (with J.K. Huysmans being the one I thought about most in relation to Lindsay's work), my review is informed with the notion that there is more to a literary work than the words on its pages or how the Author's psycho-sexual tensions may be reflected in it.

Too often I hear of people referring to History as some sort of static, "objective" entity that impartially doles out its judgments.  Rather, I see History as an evolving, "living" record of discourse that encompasses not just what people had to eat everyday during the Turnip Winter or the amount of munitions fired during the Siege of Leningrad, but also how people composed stories and why those stories may have import at one time and not at another.  Historia is not something that should be divided against itself.

In reading speculative literature, especially now that I'm reading dozens of older works for the Gollancz SF and Fantasy Masterworks review projects, I have found more layers of depth and meaning as I began exploring these texts, some of which are more than a century old, as narrative structures that are not to be separated from their historical pasts.  Reading social attitudes as embedded in a story just as William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land and not trying to understand the times in which those stories were written (not to mention trying to understand our own reactions and how these reactions may differ significantly from older generations' views on social mores),  that just seems to be a bit daft to me.  And yet there are quite a few readers who remain so non-curious about the antecedents for say a J.R.R. Tolkien that they see his The Lord of the Rings as a "beginning" of a tradition, rather than as a transitional work that mediates some of the themes and imagery found in Scandinavian, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Finnish sagas and epic poems, finding ways to transform these values and modes of expression into a more "modern" language.  The result of this seems to be a willful lack of understanding of how fantasy and SF narratives are not truly sui generis, but are rather just extensions of older expressions on the various concerns that make up the human condition.

Sure, there will be those who will argue that literature ought to be judged foremost by its own intrinsic qualities.  For the aesthetes, literature is to be analyzed on its inherent genius and not viewed through a historical lens that might take a Shakespeare or Cervantes and have their crowning achievements mixed in with pardoner accounts, Amadis of Gaul, the rise in popularity of teaching the ancient Greek and Latin in schools, and the growing divide between "high" and "popular" culture after the advent of the printing press.  There is something appealing about the notion of approaching Hamlet or Don Quijote as objets d'art rather than as integral parts of the national cultures of their day.  But when a peasant or merchant begins to quote scenes from these works, twisting them about to fit his/her immediate needs, then these works stop being just Art and become something much more amorphous but no less important:  they become cultural markers that are utilized in various way by various social classes over centuries, creating that odd situation, as Borges notes in some of his stories, where "by quoting Shakespeare, one becomes Shakespeare," if albeit only for a moment and with the understanding that multiple applications and interpretations will arise.

All fine and dandy, no doubt, but what about speculative literature?  It is rather disconcerting that the so-called "Sturgeon's Law" about where some high number (usually either 90% or 99%) of something is "crap," is cited so often by spec fic readers.  To me, it seems to be a sort of lazy shortcut, a way to avoid issues of arguing "quality," not to mention examining just how important certain literary works can be outside of formal assessments of their prose, themes, and characterizations.  John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress certainly was not viewed as being a masterpiece when it was published in the late 17th century.  It is inelegant in its construction, with virtually no subtlety in its prose, its wit, or its themes.  And yet for centuries it has been one of the most popular allegorical tales for religion orthodoxy in the English language.  One might be able to dismiss it with a curt "it is crap," but that would be akin to throwing one's self into the Slough of Despond.  Some things, despite their formalistic weaknesses, come to possess a great power with the public, sometimes lasting for decades or even centuries.

And speculative literature?  I believe a better way of assessing it is not to focus solely on its intrinsic qualities, but also to examine what sort of "conversation" it is having with previous works and with our own shared cultural histories.  Understanding the Zeitgeist and the Weltanschauungen surrounding a work's composition can enlighten our understanding of the work at hand immeasurably.  This holds true not just for a "classic" spec fic work published a generation or two ago, but also for those works being published today.  It would behoove us to consider the influences that may be found in a work, since nothing human-made is ever conceived in a vacuum.  Historia is, after all, the greatest, on-going story that we've ever heard or told.


Dave Cesarano said...

You should check out Lucian of Samosata's 2nd century AD Ἀληθῆ διηγήματα (A True Story). It reads like some crazy, off-the-wall Dungeons & Dragons adventure you might have played when you were twelve years old.

A party of adventurers sail into the ocean and get blown off course by a storm. They end up on the Moon (of all places) where they get embroiled in it's King's interplanetary war against the King of the Sun.

It was originally satirical, making fun of a lot of the mythical adventure stories prevalent in the Graeco-Roman world, as well as the travelogues of distant lands that were obviously wholly fabricated from the imagination. You can find translations of it online (like here).

Although it wasn't the author's intent, it is actually a great example of very old fantasy/science fiction/speculative fiction that is sadly overlooked.

Elena said...

I stumbled across a moment like this doing research for an historical fiction story last week. Apparently Dumas' Three Musketeers is based on a French book from 1700. It reminded me, actually, of studying the Romantic poets in particular, the discussion of Cristabel's effect on the genre before it was published, and how after it was published (10-15 years after it was first read out loud in those circles and prompted poets who'd heard it or heard about it to write their own "ghost" poems) it seemed derivative and...well, overhyped. You're right to say that nothing is created in a vacuum, and that every work is a dialogue with the works that have gone before (at least those the author and in a different sense reader) have encountered.

I think the...shall we say, not inability and not unwillingness but unknowingness of readers to examine books in this fashion has a lot to do with how reading is taught to kids and how books are presented. Almost none of the books we read in my junior high or high school classes were presented in a context against other books of the time or even strongly correlated to the culture of the time. We'd get, at most, one day on the time period and author and then just jump into reading. It was only at university, and in upper-level English classes, might I add, that books were presented in a cultural and literary context and held up against one another to see those threads of influence and reaction linking them.

Liviu said...

I tend to agree with the thrust of the post that older books need even more context than newer ones for full appreciation - at least this is what see the post boiling down too - but and this is a huge but, the question is who is providing the context since history is very ideological and everything except known facts - and even those sometime - can and have been reinterpreted in various fashions across time.

So if you pick any history book, whether is an encyclopedia, a monograph, a popular non-fiction or even a research paper, the ideology of the author or of his/her times or of his university will color the context first and foremost and facts as mentioned will be presented so they fit.

In a sense you can argue that history is a tale, partly fictional, partly factual, so putting older fiction in context is very tricky - for example even this notion of "the culture of the times" a previous commenter mentioned, is very subjective and will depend on who is presenting it.

Liviu said...

And for a very specific example in the sff case, look at the reactions about Yellow Blue Tibia and its presentation of USSR of 1986.

A known sff writer based on her husband recollections disagreed about its accurateness, while myself based on living next door at the time, I found it pitch perfect in a way I find it very rarely in descriptions of Eastern Europe by Western authors...

Jonah said...

OK, you lost me in the last two paragraphs. Are you saying that people dismiss things as crap rather than discussing the merits of a work within its social/historical context? (i.e. the equivalent of dismissing Bunyan rather than acknowledging its significance)
I agree with most of what you're saying, but I'm jut not sure wha you're trying to convey at the end.

Larry said...

Close, but not exactly. What I'm intending to do there is to illustrate, via what some contemporary readers (past and present alike), is that what some might label as "crap" might actually have some historical significance that lies outside the story's intrinsic qualities. Matters of public taste do change, after all, and that I'm just merely cautioning assuming something that is viewed as "crap" will remain "crap" decades from now.

Anonymous said...


From a historian's perspective a novel or other piece of literature may be interesting in a great many ways that it wouldn't be to a normal reader. But this is not necessarily true for an average reader. If they're genuinely interested in cultural history they'd probably be better off reading a good secondary work rather than wading through the huge amount of older literature that they wouldn't enjoy.

histories of all stripes fascinate me. They are, after linguistic semantics, the most important and fascinating ideas and concepts that I'll probably ever come across. Perhaps to others it might make some sense, but I just cannot fathom separating historia the recollection of the past from historia the invention of stories.

Too often I hear of people referring to History as some sort of static, "objective" entity that impartially doles out its judgments. Rather, I see History as an evolving, "living" record of discourse

If Jacek Dukaj's Ice (Lód is ever translated into one of your languages, read it. There's a lot of discussion about what is history and the nature of truth, all within the context of an alt-history late Tsarist Russia and its intellectual currents with a steampunk thriller plot someplace among the wandering narratives. I think you'd enjoy it.

Daniel Soler said...

Excellent post. Another facet of the fantasy genre that invites an historical perspective – and promises equal fascination – is the publishing industry that puts it on the shelves. For example, how many Tolkien fanatics are aware of convoluted U.S. publishing history of the "Lord of the Rings" series – and how much the subsequent controversy played a part in bringing the books greater attention that helped pave the way for a larger readership? What about the history of gaming labels that offered a consistent line of titles – like the now defunct TSR – and the part these publishers played in reinforcing genre stereotypes that not only delivered the goods that fans desired, they also furthered the very systems that these game companies promoted in their modules?

I agree with you: the story behind the story, so to speak, offers its own discoveries and thrills.

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