Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Anti-Copernicus (IX)

Continuing from here a piece on Adam Roberts' E-published work Anti-Copernicus.

The Fixed Stars

“gambling, arrogance, boasting, stealing, self-mutilation, literary criticism, running with animals in the wild, or marrying strangers”-- fragment from Projects: A Manual of Ambition, by Jenna Moran

There are no fixed stars. All of the other sections in this piece are named after actual astronomical objects, although their order and implicitly their orbital center is wrong, based on what we now know to be an erroneous model. But the stars never were embedded in some material that kept them from moving relative to each other. They swirl around, although they do so on long time scales. So this section is really about unfixed stars, about familiar social-role reference points slowly shifting. In this case, the social roles around literary criticism. This section is also a sort of appendix, or a bait-and-switch; it has even less to do with the text Anti-Copernicus than some of the previous sections do. But I figure that anyone who has read this far must be really interested in literary criticism, and thus capable of writing answering opinions about it.

Because I think that this piece that I'm writing can be described as literary criticism, as a matter of genre classification. It's also fan labor, a subset of fanac, something that has existed as long as SF-as-a-genre has. Fan writing about SF is more often fanfic or book reviews, but literary criticism is sometimes written too. What good is this kind of thing, in general? Can it do anything other than participate in the fan gift/attention economy? Those aren't rhetorical questions.

The reasons why literary criticism is written are generally explicable in occupational terms. For a while, literary criticism was largely written by people who published in literary magazines. Then there was a shift to academia, with magazines generally going to the more restricted task of book reviewing. The reason for existence of the vast majority of current-day literary-critical essays is that they are either written by a student for a grade or by a professor for academic publication. These are understandable and familiar reasons.

Literary criticism might be written by ex-academics, or those with an academic education in the humanities, who never got or held a job in the field but don't want to give up doing what they like. I encourage anyone actually interested in this to read John Emerson's piece Les Érudits Maudits if they haven't already. But John Emerson does actual scholarly activities like translating Chinese texts and doing historical research. Most of the fans who write on SF are not under-or-differently-employed humanists, or even autodidacts who have found their own way to an education in the humanities. They aren't really capable of producing scholarship per se, even if the academically crowded humanities were disposed to include their work.

The usual response is to say something like “But fan communities can collect and annotate a huge amount of descriptive material. Have you seen any wiki page on something SF-related? Or TV Tropes? “ That isn't really what I have in mind either. People like Franco Moretti could undoubtedly make use of a horde of people without much training to classify works for some database or other, or analyze fan information already collected. But I'm interested in actually doing interpretations and readings, rather than furnishing raw material. In aesthetics, for instance.

Since the 1940s or so, SF in English has had a troubled relationship with attempts at aesthetic quality, starting out with Pulp, which didn't have time for it, and the Golden Age Campbellian work, which rather actively scorned it. The genre went through a "discovery" by academia, a single avant-garde movement, the New Wave, a reactionary period, during which many fans sullenly played up to SF's subcultural self-image by insisting that academia was ignoring SF and that academia's values had no place within it. And after that? Cyberpunk insisted that it was avant-garde in a certain sense, but particular qualities of writing really weren't one of those senses. Certain British writers, loosely grouped, had a lefti-ish political sensibility that gave their work coherence , and a willingness to do certain kinds of formal experimentation– here I'm thinking about Iain Banks, Alasdair Grey, the later Moorcock, et al. –but didn't really try to form an artistic sensibility as such. And other than some New Wave holdovers like M. John Harrison, and the scatter of individually gifted writers like John Crowley or Adam Roberts, that's about where things stood until China Miéville and the New Weird. Miéville, at least, combines a left political sensibility with influence from some current literary theorists, as least as shown by his interviews.

So now everything is fine, one would expect. Fans can read any one of a number of literary-SF writers, write screeds like this for whatever reason – but wait. Here's something that Martin Wisse recently wrote about:

"I don't have a problem with fandom," she says. "But I don't think fans realise the pressure they put on authors. The very vocal ones can change an author's next book, even an author's career, by what they say on the internet. And writers are expected to engage and respond." She pauses. "The internet is poison to authors."

Ouch. This is only one person's experience, of course, and not the only reason that Steph Swainston gave when she said that she was going to stop writing for now. But she was the only author that I remember reading when I was wondering if the New Weird actually meant anything more than China Miéville's books. The article mentions the first appearance of her character Jant, who (as I laughed to myself when I read her first book) was a kind of iconic shorthand of the New Weird: a winged guy in a T-shirt, carrying an ax, coming back on his way from doing illegal drugs and battling a giant insect to go to a press conference.

I'm used to thinking of what I write as having certain flaws. A tendency to start with a certain type of close reading and go on pointing everything out at far too much length. An impoverished critical vocabulary, due to never taking an English course that I remember past high school -- for instance, I really would have liked to use more than the word "concision" to describe (the real) Ange Mlinko's poetry, but I'm never able to come up with convenient descriptors or genre relationships in that regard. (Although I did cut myself off at a bare word because I was making a joke about egocentricity). I'm not used to thinking of it as potentially actually harmful.

I'm not thinking so much of Adam Roberts here; Adam seems to me to be a seasoned critic and not likely to be bothered by anything I might write. But what's the right attitude to take to something like, say, Jenna Moran's Hitherby Dragons? Hitherby is, I think, a work of genius, or could be, or contains them in some manner. It's unfinished, and may never be finished. It started as something written and published every day, so readers saw it as written, before later revision. Since I'm trying to consider more than this particular case, I won't try to describe specifically what I see in Hitherby. But the author claimed not to be writing high art, and I really wanted/want to perceive it as high art. I was itching to dig in, close-read, make an interpretive apparatus... all the usual. And to a limited extent, I did, in comments, along with fanfic and the usual fan exchanges.

And at some point I had to step back. What the work really seemed to me to need was an experienced publisher, hopefully one that employed both a publicist and an editor. It didn't need a critic, especially one that consistently saw the work in a different way than the author did. John Clute, a well-regarded SF critic -- well-regarded by me, at any rate -- wrote about misprision being a necessary element of good criticism. But that's after the work is sent out into the world, and can bear a "very vocal" (to quote Swainston) differing interpretation than the authorial one.

Hitherby is different from the vast majority of works that people read in that it is read before it's done. But this is not exactly new for SF and fantasy. It was in one of Adam Roberts' blog posts, I think, that I read that the fix-up -- linking short pieces together or re-writing a short story into a novel -- is a characteristic form of science fiction. (Apologies for the mis-paraphrase from memory.) And one of the other things that Swainston mentioned was the pressure to publish -- to keep writing books, in her case all within a linked series. If an author always is in the middle of writing the next book, then I can see how misprision could start to gum up the works. An author can always choose to ignore a fan, of course, but this is a small world and not that many people are actually paying attention, so it's correspondingly more difficult to ignore the very vocal ones.

None of this would be a problem if there were an accepted reason to do this kind of thing in the first place. Book reviewers have to write to get paid. Academics have to write to get tenure. But less and less literary criticism from either of these sources appears to be to be read by anyone outside the relevant professional communities. More and more of it, such as it is, is from fan sources like this one. And this is a form of writing that has no center. Theorizing one -- making reasons for readers to write something other than fan-chat and book reviews -- may be one of the more useful literary activities for SF at this time.

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