Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Notes: picking on Westfahl

In my first post inspired by L. Timmel Duchamp's response to Jonathan McCalmont's response to Gary Westfahl's Heinlein essay (heh), I mentioned that I might eventually have some things to say about Westfahl's essay itself. Looking over my notes while working on my (still forthcoming) essay on Cordwainer Smith, I realized that I have very little interest in exploring my reactions to Westfahl in any great depth--and I would feel bad picking specifically on him at any length greater than what follows, because it's not him specifically that I object to but a general culture his essay seems to represent--but since it does seem to represent that culture, it seems also worth responding to in some way. And since my Smith essay is still taking much longer than I expected to come into being, I've decided to post my notes here, slightly cleaned up and elaborated upon so as to be (hopefully) understandable to people who aren't me, but still left as scattered points rather than anything pretending to be an essay. I feel like doing so is a little narcissistic and more than a little lazy, and yet somehow I'm going to do it anyway!

In what follows, all blockquotes are from Westfahl.

Readers of contemporary science fiction might understandably grow impatient with commentators who keep talking about older science fiction writers, since they have largely been supplanted by new favorites in today’s marketplace. Still, there is at least one classic writer that every science fiction reader must come to terms with; for when you visit a bookstore today, the science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.
There's more going on here than a simple faux-populist philistinism. Sf people (writers, editors, etc.) tend to demystify the commercial aspect of their art (which can be very refreshing) while unfortunately remystifying it in other ways; the total mystification seems about equal to that of "literary" fiction people--but along different lines. That is, sf people straightforwardly acknowledge that, in the system we have, writing is necessarily a commercial thing: you sell your writing, people buy it. But in acknowledging this, they act as if this is all there is: writers become only people with a product to market; readers become only consumers--and it's all a matter only of favorites in the marketplace, as represented by shelf space occupied. Everything else that writing is or can be, and everything else that reading is or can be, doesn't seem much to matter. Meanwhile, the whole apparatus that actually produces and distributes the writing-product, as distinct from the writing, is mystified: production and "consumer" desire are considered to be the same thing, and what causes certain writing-products to remain in print and positioned in the bookstores (or heavily promoted online, etc.), while other writing-products go out of print, or stay in print but are "neglected," is erased.
After completing [Citizen of the Galaxy], Heinlein might have logically felt that he had taken the saga of humanity’s future about as far as it could go without venturing in discomfiting territory, like the emergence of a genuinely superhuman race or the tragedy of our species’ inevitable decline.

Thus, there was nothing for Heinlein to do but to go back to the beginning and to retell his epic story – only this time, instead of being earnest, he would be silly.

I've read very little Heinlein, so I have no opinion on how accurate the assessment after the dash in the last sentence is; nor do I particularly care. What interests me more is the assertion that Heinlein couldn't take things any farther without "venturing in discomfiting territory," and that "thus," (thus is always a tendentious word, and this is one of the most tendentious thuses I've ever encountered) "there was nothing for Heinlein to do." This is possibly true of Heinlein (and is certainly true of many sf writers), but to whatever extent it is true, it is a serious problem. More important than the issue of accuracy are the many harmful unstated assumptions that allow Westfahl to write what he does at all. Chief among them: that it is not the duty of writers to explore discomfiting territory when they reach it, and that the only possible subject for sf is the territorial expansion (or, less directly literally, the "progress") of humanity.
As to why this sea change in Heinlein’s career occurred in the year 1957, there is one obvious event to consider: the October, 1957 launch of Sputnik, humanity’s first venture into outer space...
Similar assertions crop up all over sf "criticism": Sputnik, we are to believe, singlehandedly explains everything from Isaac Asimov's decades-long departure from sf (one of the most plausible of these Sputniky claims, though I would argue it obscures at least as much as it explains) to, most sweepingly, the advent of the so-called "new wave." If I may propose an SAT-style analogy:

Sputnik : Sf :: World War I : Modernism

That is, Sputnik and World War I are simplistic historical punctuation marks that lend themselves to use by people outside of the writer's perspective (as McCalmont says of simple-mindedly historical criticism in general, "it allows them to step back from the text") to "explain" shifts in artistic methods and concerns, to separate artistic practice into a "before" and and "after"--even though in both cases the claim is plainly ahistorical: Modernist approaches to literature (and all the other arts) appear long before WWI; and if we must pinpoint a moment when sf (and it is primarily American sf I am speaking of here) began to change drastically into the various forms that would be lumped together under the new wave umbrella, that moment must be in the early 50s at the latest, and has less to do with anything zeitgeisty than with the appearance of new magazines under editors with interests very different from those that had dominated the field to that point, which gave previously unheard voices a space to explore different ground.

(On editing this for posting it occurs to me that the analogy is a bad one in that where Sputnik is used as an explanation for how things in sf changed, WWI is used as an explanation for how Modernism came to be. But whatever.)

Westfahl's use of Sputnik is particularly telling because, as we have seen, he had already given an explanation of the "sea change" in Heinlein that had nothing to do with it: he had reached the end of what he, as a writer, saw as possible. But to Westfahl, this is apparently not enough, and some one-to-one correspondence with an easily graspable world-historical event must also be found.

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