The OF Blog: Dabblers, dilettantes, and other assorted clap-trap

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dabblers, dilettantes, and other assorted clap-trap

This morning, on my day off from work, I decided to read my Twitter feed with a bit more care than usual.  I noticed there was a link to yet another one of the UK newspaper The Guardian's seemingly interminable back-and-forths dealing with matters of writing, genre, and so forth.  The guilty party this time is Scottish writer Iain (M.) Banks.

I'm somewhat aware of Banks' output in multiple literary fields (even though I've read only two of his Culture novels), so I could reasonably see this piece as being a corrective warning/word of advice from a writer who has had barbs launched at him from several sides of this perceived literary/genre "divide."  Yet there is something about this piece that still rankles me.  Perhaps it is due to the uncomfortableness I felt in realizing there is a strong parallel between Banks' piece and what I felt for years as a history major/grad student who had to endure "popular historians" being praised for their histories.  After all, when one is engrossed in a field and sees intricate interactions that so often are not involved to "outsiders," particularly those pesky journalist types who think they have a grasp on "the story" without ever demonstrating an awareness of the arguments (e.g. the Historikerstreit of the late 1980s), it is so easy to dismiss those interlopers as "dabblers" or "dilettantes" who have no business appropriating "our" research and our shop talk without at first grounding themselves in the debates.

Yet there is a catch to all this.  If I were to talk in minute detail about the Intentionalists and the Functionalists as it relates to 1925-1945, after a while, those who aren't aware of the authors cited and their stances might find their eyes glazing over.  Far enough down the rabbit hole, the matter becomes impenetrable for those gazing at the surface and wanting a succinct exploration of what's just below.  The same can hold true for certain literary conventions and the "dialogue" that authors may enter into with others, dead or alive.  There is a faint hint of dismissiveness when someone endeavors to "explore" something that apparently has been "explored unto death."  One only has to look at the reaction that acclaimed writer Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel, The Road, received from certain quarters.  In some (mostly apocalyptic SF) circles, McCarthy's novel was derided for its setting (an America after some traumatic, possibly nuclear, event) resembling 1950s SF without there being some sort of acknowledgement about it.  It is a puzzling complaint, one that strikes me as being more of a blind territorialism than a valid complaint (what McCarthy does with this beginning and how he chooses to tell this story differs significantly from the apocalyptic literature of that time period).

General awareness of the various "literary dialogues" may be desirable if a writer (and ultimately, that writer's intended audience) is going to write a fiction.  Yet it is not a requisite.  Sometimes, a writer may be a "dabbler" who is seeking to appropriate all sorts of other elements in order to create something different, similar in some aspects to certain collage techniques.  Occasionally, that "dilettante" may want to create something that her audience will appreciate due to it being free of certain types of "clutter" that takes place when one tries too hard to "continue the dialogue"; conventions that arise out of these "dialogues" can become rather conservative and restrictive after some time.

Frequently, motifs and even modicums of expression can arise (semi)independently of other bodies of literary thought.  Take for instance my recent review of Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole.  If one were not aware of the novel's gestation, that story could easily be reinterpreted as being "out of step" with certain conventions that had developed in the US and UK over the past half-century.  Yet it is a worthwhile story because the author touches upon points that are not often discussed in recent novels due to it "being played out so much."  Sometimes (of course, not always), those outside certain literary circles do manage to renovate older tropes, sometimes by combining them with other elements that may be held in contempt by partisans of certain literary genres.

It is that belief that those who aren't too heavily involved in certain traditions can and often do make the old fresh again that makes me skeptical of some of Banks' claims here.  This is not to deny that often there are those who want to reinvent the wheel without improving upon it.  No, those people are not the writers of whom I speak here.  Rather, it is my belief that in some quarters (apparently the UK more than the US, considering most of these pieces I see appearing in UK publications), certain artificial divisions have ossified to the point where any movement toward another literary field creaks loudly enough to draw skepticism and occasional derision from those who are invested in one "side" of the (d)evolved discussion.  It is a shame, but hopefully those who dabble in hopes of creating a new dialogue will continue to be dilettantes that flirt and dart between genre conventions, cherrypicking elements that will make their stories richer for the appropriations.

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