The OF Blog: A few thoughts on Jonathan Lethem's "Radisson Confidential" ( October issue of Harper's)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A few thoughts on Jonathan Lethem's "Radisson Confidential" ( October issue of Harper's)

I recently began a subscription to Harper's to serve as a complement to my The New Yorker subscription.  Between the two magazines, I have discovered a wealth of new fiction that I might not otherwise have encountered.  I also have the joy of reading intriguing pieces, even when I do not entirely agree with the underlying message.

This past week, I received the October issue.  On the cover was this little line at the top:  "Jonathan Lethem and Zadie Smith on Science Fiction."  Hrmm...interesting.  Knowing Lethem's early novels were firmly considered to be SFnal and that Smith had recently commented positively on Le Guin (which she reiterates in her review column), I was curious to see what insights might be derived from reading these two pieces.  The Smith is worth reading for its review of not just a new Le Guin mini-collection, but also for introducing me to Magnus Mills, an author whose works I may explore in the very near future.  The Lethem, on the other hand, was a much more ambiguous piece that still has me thinking about it three days after I first read it.  First, a few quotes:

Through the magic portal labeled SCIENCE FICTION WRITER I found a seat waiting for me on a dais in an endlessly resumed panel discussion, in a floating opera that touched down for weekends at Radissons, Hyatts, Ramadas, to the bewildered amusement of the hotel staff and the permanent obliviousness of anyone else.  (There may be one being enacted down the street as you read these words.)  I embraced the science fiction convention-going community instinctively, out of my long responsiveness to countercultures that feel themselves to be sufficient worlds, pocket universes in permanent abreaction to what lies outside their boundary.  Like hippies.  The title of the never-ending panel was "Science Fiction and the Mainstream."  The problem with the panel was that it was talking to itself.  The nervous readers, imperious critics, benighted booksellers, and tut-tutting librarians, all so invested in the quarantine against science fiction, were nowhere within hearing range.  So, the many brilliant and underestimated writers, when they sat on the never-ending panel, were in an echo chamber.  Afterward they'd move to the hotel bar and, defending against pain, gossip about conventions they'd attended five and ten and fifty years before.

The irony was, the writers in the bar had vacated a hotel conference room full of what many writers fear can't really exist:  devoted readers who weren't themselves aspiring writers and who savored their work, collected their editions, and were conversant in literary-critical context. Of course, this was a paraliterary context, full of names from an alternate twentieth-century canon:  Weinbaum, Simak, Effinger.  The readers could not only trace a given story's inner workings but quote the reaction to it in the letters column of Galaxy, May 1953.  The Radisson was a magical arena of sublime reverence for acts of the literary imagination and scrupulous regard for the results.  Yet for the writers, with few exceptions, this couldn't salve their self-perpetuating injuries. (Harper's, October 2011, p. 18)

These two paragraphs caught my attention because they remind me strongly of my own immediate reactions to whenever someone brings up "the mainstream" or "the stuffy critics":  there's this weird sort of echo chamber effect going, with people tossing about these fine-sounding and yet (to me, at least) hollow epithets directed toward this semi-real, semi-imagined, and wholly-misconstrued "mainstream," whatever that term might mean outside of a narrow, vaguely pejorative sense typically intended in such diatribes to the chanting chori of this updated Greek tragedy. 

Lethem focuses here on the writers but I cannot help but think of the readers who engage themselves in this game and who perpetuate its themes and motivations.  What gain is there to be had by continuing to espouse a literary "divide," when it might be that such perceptions are fueled not just by the thoughts and confusion of a few on the "other" side, but even more by those who seem to need an "other," misguided and yet somehow simultaneously culturally-blessed kudos-distributing entity.  The rhetoric often found at conventions and on various blogs, fansites, and forums resembles in tenor and even in word choice (gatekeepers, ivory tower, pretentious élites, etc.) those found in political propaganda:  the "others" think "they" are better than "us," with the ultimate reaction being a division into camps what started out as individual preferences for a particular political/social/literary style (or to be more honest, styles, since few people like to bind themselves to a single axis of preference).

The result is an echo chamber, where those inclined to believe such propaganda gravitate toward the like-minded.  Lethem continues by noting these similarities:

These were matters of class, hierarchy, caste; things Americans like to deny, or acknowledge only in others, as if observing from some pleasantly egalitarian aerie - the enlightened middle class to which we must certainly belong.  I'd write, "These were obviously matters of class, etc.," except that for all my attempts I've never made it obvious to anyone besides myself.  For me, the insight is definitive, which probably makes this a confession of some agonized caste-posture I'm not aware I've assumed (it feels like I'm walking up-right, I swear).  The idea that status-anxious guardians of literary culture require a designated underclass to revile:  that's never seemed too exotic a diagnosis.  More curious to me was the entrenched and defiant injustice-collecting of those who had been informed they'd contracted writing-cooties.  Twenty years later critics help me grasp the operations of "identity politics" in the late-twentieth-century literary marketplace:  the huge currency of authentic "outsider" roles and the baroque operations left to those without a simple claim by gender, race, orientation.  At that point the tribal sulks and credential inspections within the science fiction caste began to make a lot more sense.  By then, I'd also made lifelong friends in the bar of the Radisson. (Harper's, October 2011, p. 18)

This paragraph still occupies some of my waking thoughts.  It is the key to following the rest of Lethem's four-page article, down through the quasi-exploration of literary "Genius-Asperger's" (much of the second half of the article is devoted to this and it muddies the points made in the quoted passages) and the self-alienation of several writers (and readers) from a general literary "conversation."  It contains powerful accusations, several of which ring true for me.  I do believe there may be something to the "identity politics" angle that might explain much, if not all, of the distrust and antagonistic feelings several speculative fiction (yes, I'm using that loaded term here) readers and writers feel toward the parvenu who seem to be "invading" their space, their chosen genre, their selected and anointed traditions.

But what makes me uneasy is the degree and intensity of this perceived identity politics.  I am not convinced it is a strong association for most genre readers (I suspect the majority of those who read say fantasy and/or science fiction often read historical fictions, biographies, romances, contemporary fictions, and sundry other literary genres), but perhaps it does describe those who read almost exclusively in a particular literary genre.  Does a large literary genre (or genres, if you prefer) depend heavily on the distrust and animosity several of its supporters feel toward other literary traditions?  Or is there something else at play?  Lethem's article leaves me thinking, as he notes in the concluding paragraph, that perhaps the best discussions and thoughts will emerge not from those participating in the panel discussions but among those who are sitting in the crowd, trying to make sense of it all.

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