Tuesday, March 3, 2020

More Concerning “Serious People,” This Time With Regard to Fiction

     It would be a mistake to group genuinely serious people such as I wrote about below with self-important types who imagine that their tastes and prejudices render them superior to others. That latter group can often seem appallingly large. Dave Freer highlights a manifestation of interest to us who write speculative fiction:

     The Onion: You’re quite a writer. You’ve a gift for language, you’re a deft hand at plotting, and your books seem to have an enormous amount of attention to detail put into them. You’re so good you could write anything. Why write fantasy?

     Sir Terry Pratchett: I had a decent lunch, and I’m feeling quite amiable. That’s why you’re still alive. I think you’d have to explain to me why you’ve asked that question.

     O: It’s a rather ghettoized genre.

     P: This is true. I cannot speak for the US, where I merely sort of sell okay. But in the UK I think every book— I think I’ve done twenty in the series— since the fourth book, every one has been one of the top ten national bestsellers, either as hardcover or paperback, and quite often as both. Twelve or thirteen have been number one. I’ve done six juveniles, all of those have nevertheless crossed over to the adult bestseller list. On one occasion I had the adult best seller, the paperback best-seller in a different title, and a third book on the juvenile bestseller list. Now tell me again that this is a ghettoized genre.

     O: It’s certainly regarded as less than serious fiction.

     Do you get the sense that the Onion’s interviewer shares the notion that fantasy is somehow “less than serious fiction” — ? I did. But does that interviewer, or any of the unnamed persons who share that assessment, have a reason for regarding it thus? One they would care to defend in public?

     The attitude is comparable to that of the supercilious atheist: he who sneers at theists because what we believe “simply can’t be true.” The emotional infrastructure is the same: a desire to believe oneself superior.

     Note also this exchange between Pratchett and a bookstore manager:

     “Bookstores treat science fiction like the literary equivalent of an STD: no one wants to admit to having one,” Pratchett lamented.

     In England, as elsewhere, it’s common for bookstores to have a section reserved for the newest bestsellers. Jolly good. So, his agent expected that he would find Terry there. After all, Terry’s books tend to spend weeks on the bestseller lists. But despite this, the bookstores would have his books in the science fiction section—frequently in the basement or the back, back of the store. One day, Terry chanced to confront a store manager about this practice.

     “Excuse me, how come I’m not in the bestseller section?”

     “Because you’re science fiction,” the officious manager told him.

     “Yes, but I have been on the lists,” Terry reminded him.

     “But you write science fiction,” the manager said patiently.

     Terry persisted, “I’m on the lists. Why aren’t I in the bestseller section?”

     Terry imitates the manager’s reaction: He tilts his head, narrows his eyes and twists his mouth. He leans in close and lowers his voice, and at this point his voice goes prissy in the telling.

     “Well, you’re not really bestseller material,” the manager confides, as if this settles everything.

     The circularity of the attitude could hardly be clearer.

     One of the worst contemporary intellectual shortcomings, itself a pandemic of sorts (and in certain ways as destructive as any), is the inability to distinguish one’s opinions from the universe of verifiable facts. I say inability to be kind, even though in many cases – perhaps even a majority – it’s more a matter of unwillingness. The serious person, who expects to base significant decisions on his thinking, must learn to do so early in life. Yea verily, even if it should sometimes pain him to do so...which it will.

     While we must always respect Sturgeon’s Law, a serious person, even if his personal preferences should tend away from the speculative genres, will admit that they have known their share of writers of ability and grace. Gregory Benford. James Blish. Arthur C. Clarke. Robert A. Heinlein. Ursula Le Guin. Clive Staples Lewis. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Jack Vance. For artistry and elegance, I’d put any of them – especially Vance – up against any “literary” writer without a qualm.

     Are they shown little respect by the “literati?” Indeed. But beneath their dismissals lies an almost palpable envy: the resentment he of little imagination bears toward him who sees more widely and thinks more courageously. For it is imagination that makes possible the concoction of settings, conflicts, and challenges that evoke a sense of drama. Without imagination, nothing can animate a writer’s tales except what is plainly visible to him.

     The great asset of the fantasy or SF writer is his imagination: his ability to conceive of new situations in which the human mind and heart would be tested in new ways. He could not write F&SF without it. As a reviewer of one of my books once wrote, in a truly new situation, new morality – perhaps more precisely, new thinking about morality – must emerge. That novelty, rather than the rocket ships, ray guns, teleporters, magicians, elves, dwarves, or zombies, is what makes for excitement.

     But the supercilious literary writer (or critic) can’t — or won’t – see that far. It’s his failing, not ours. He’s simply not inclined to think beyond the constructs to which he’s acclimated himself. In discussing such things, he refuses to be serious.

     Let him enjoy his self-imposed limitations while we enjoy our admiring readers and sales figures.


sykes.1 said...

Tolkien is getting some respect. John Bowers in the Great Courses "The Western Literary Canon in Context" puts Tolkien in the canon.

PS. Pratchett and Kim Robinson are two authors I cannot read.

JWM said...

When I had "The Modern Novel" in college I also had the perfect stereotype of the horrible English prof. She was a fat, nasty, supercilious lesbian, who had contempt and condescension for her students (especially the male ones) honed to an art form. And she loved her some James Joyce. To her every novel ever written pointed to Ulysses, and every book after that was a pale imitation. I slogged through that boring nightmare of a book, and hated every page of it. And just to be sure, I read it twice. Once I had the temerity to ask why "Gone With the Wind" wasn't included in the reading list. Her sneer could have curdled milk. GWTW was of a lower order, understand. Not fit for college reading. Still, it stands as one of the best novels I've ever picked up. Ulysses? Couldn't even dump it at a yard sale.


Redd Stater said...

It's not just in the literary world. It always amazes me that "smart" people who will argue in one breath that truth is "subjective" and propose relativist viewpoints will, in their next breath, reveal their blindness to their own prejudices. Do they really lack the capacity for self reflection?

I've encountered the type many times. There was always such a crowd in college, but the really smart guys rolled their eyes and smirked at them. Later I represented a district filled with the type. I was never part of that crowd, and I think they doubly resented me because I didn't share many of their "superior" opinions, and yet they were hard pressed to call me a rube. How do you fit that label to a reasonably articulate and well-informed policy wonk who studies issues thoroughly and can hold tables of data and pages material in memory, especially when you know the same guy majored in math and physics at one of the most rigorous institutions in the country? If you want to tick off an elitist, make them look and feel like rubes.

That said, elitism is a target of the satire in my novel. To answer my previous question about how these guys can be oblivious to their own prejudice, the answer is that they are not. That's where the idea of "intersubjectivity" comes in. It's kind of like philosophy courtesy of the pigs on Animal Farm: it holds that while all truth is a matter of opinion that some opinions are better than others. I have an entire section of dialog about the idea. It's presented as funny, but it's a very serious matter.

By the way, Francis, I produced a Kindle version of the book and plan to make it free for a couple of days in the future. I'll let you know when, if you're interested in reading it. Right now I'm trying to figure out how to narrow cast the free offer to a wide but select group. I don't think everyone will like it, which is fine, but I don't want to make it easily, freely available to the sort of people who will obviously hate it.

All the Best

Redd Stater

Lord Squirrel said...


I agree that ENVY seems to be the defining characteristic of these deeply unserious people. It's so much easier to tear down another's creation than to build your own. We see that across the spectrum of media. Numerous intellectual properties have been DESTROYED because the people now in charge cannot admit that they don't live up to the original vision of the creators. Star Trek, Star Wars, and with the finale of Season 12, Doctor Who--all of these venerable properties are just shambling husks of what they used to be. I learned much more from these franchises than I ever did from the literature I read for my Bachelor's degree in English Lit.

A Reader said...

It's worse than that. If they loved those franchises, but weren't truly competent to carry their respective torches, they would occassionally, accidentally get it right, if only for love of them and with a great deal of effort. Mouse Wars, Stream Trek, and Doctor Why fail as they do because their producers act from malice, not well-intentioned stupidity.

Linda Fox said...

GWTW was a corker - complex characters, minor characters well developed, and a completely consuming read. Modern writers could learn a lot from studying it.

Unknown said...

Hello Francis, true that personal preferences shouldn't give anyone the idea that they are superior over others. No genre deserves to be belittled, there are readers from different walks of life enjoying genres that might not be based on anything they do. Now that is the essence of life, much beyond the comparisons. Stay awesome, and do check out https://www.bloghasting.com for latest in fashion ideas!