Friday, February 7, 2014

My first draft woke up like this: a ramble

A good chunk of Samuel R. Delany's essay on Theodore Sturgeon* is devoted to an explanation of why sf writers of the American pulp tradition (and their descendents) would so often wish to downplay the amount of effort they put into their writing: why they would positively brag that they write quickly and never revise, and insist that what you read is entirely first draft. He gives a number of reasons—all, of course, interlinked. Some I buy, some I don't.

* "Sturgeon", as collected in Starboard Wine. It's a great piece of writing, very worth reading—even if it doesn't particularly convince me about Sturgeon, who strikes me as intermittently interesting at best and whose influence seems largely responsible for many of my least favorite aspects of Delany's own fiction. But anyway.

He talks about sf's historical disreputability (and, implied, the lingering ridiculous inferiority complex left behind now that that disreputability has long evaporated), in contrast with the perceived virtues of "high art", literature, pointing out that to work long and hard at something "good for you" can be played off as heroic, while to do so at something disreputable can only be the action of "an outright criminal"—but someone who just dashes off something disreputable can perhaps be "a more or less lovable scamp." As an explanation of a part of what goes on in these writer's minds this makes a lot of sense to me—and is a great help in reading their personal writing fruitfully—though of course both sides of the equation are ludicrous in any real sense (as Delany himself is likely aware).

He also asserts that sf "is a highly affective mode of writing. Our audience gasps, applauds, rises stunned from the seats, falls back limp with hanging jaws—so that the writerly stance of the virtuoso is a valid one for us." I think he is right to bring up the "stance of the virtuoso" here, but the rest of this seems highly questionable. I do not deny that sf readers become highly involved with what they read, but (and perhaps this is just me?) Delany's description of the mode of this involvement rings false. For me if there is one near-universal constant in the sf of the tradition and era Delany is describing, it is what I would call serenity, a feeling of calm that is almost impossible to explain in the midst of all the pyrotechnics and wonder and awe and terror and planets blowing up that sf tends to deal with, a feeling that somehow manages not only to avoid feeling inappropriate to the grand subject matter but even to feel exactly right.* And even beyond this (what strikes me as a) misrepresentation of the readers' reaction, I'm not buying Delany's "so that"; even if an audience reacts as though something virtuosic had been accomplished, this does not necessarily justify the virtuosic stance itself. One would need to interrogate just what virtuosity is, and what problems might be inherent in it, in much greater depth** before having the right to make any such claim; but these are some of the questions Delany seems constitutionally uninterested in asking, and which I find to be of extraordinary importance.

*Remind me sometime to talk about this through Rendezvous with Rama, which though it was written later than the bulk of the work I'm talking about (and despite its more disgustingly Clarkean moments) is my favorite example of it, and of a lot of other things.
**And here perhaps a number of passages from Thomas Bernhard's
The Loser might serve well for the opposition; at any rate I won't be carrying out the interrogation here.

Delany mentions early on—and then, curiously, drops—the fact that this tradition we're talking about is one of commercial writing, that for these writers the "work" they put into their writing is—explicitly—work in the economic sense of the word at least as much as in any other. It's their job, or at least one of their jobs. In light of this (which Delany does not go in to!), the claims of the sf writer look very different. Being lazy at work is an entirely different thing, socially and (if you will) morally speaking, than being lazy while making art; and indeed we do see a reflection of this in sf writers bragging about being lazy—but getting the work done anyway, by gum!—while talking about their work as "work" in this sense, then turning around and talking up all the hard work they put in when talking about it as "art". See for example Heinlein's famous (and from my perspective fatuous) comment that writing sf is intrinsically harder (and therefore somehow better) than writing other kinds of fiction. He bases this claim on all of the rigorous scientific and technological knowledge and thinking that (for him) must go on before the writing even begins; and this, to writers of Heinlein's type, is where the "art" of sf writing is located.

Considering sf as commercial writing I think also sheds some light on Delany's "stance of the virtuoso", particularly if we also factor in the peculiar sociality of the sfnal world, the extremely close relationship between writers, critics, and fans that, so far as I know, has no parallel in any other field of artistic endeavor.* Under these circumstances, the writer, whose role in other situations is more closely analogous to that of composer, takes on also much more of the role of the performer than most writers traditionally have.** And what performer is not tempted to make it look easy?

*And in those fields in which the situation comes close, it usually seems to have been semi-deliberately modeled after that of sf.
**Though this seems to be shifting, as the capitalist celebrity cult extends its machinations into every realm it can possibly think to; and at any rate, the distinction I've set up has never been totally accurate—cf. Victor Hugo's celebrity, for example. As a broad generalization, though, I think it can stand.

Delany structures much of this part of his essay as a critique of something Stanisław Lem wrote in (I believe a letter to) Science Fiction Studies, and so it seems a bit mean to go after Lem here as well, but all of this did put me in mind of some comments of his that have always irked me. Lem is a wonderful writer of fiction, of course, a giant; but his science fiction criticism, though at times enjoyably cranky (a stance I obviously have much sympathy for!) and occasionally incisive, obsesses so much over the social milieu of American sf—a milieu of which Lem has no understanding whatsoever (nor has he any reason to)—that it more often becomes next to useless, and mostly just purposelessly infuriating (this is not to say that there is nothing to criticize in this milieu, simply that Lem does not know what it is). In his essay "On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction" (which I quote in Franz Rottensteiner, Bruce R. Gillespie, R.D. Mullen and Darko Suvin's committee translation, as collected in Lem's Microworlds), seemingly without noticing, he leaves behind structural questions to get in this gripe:

A quite general symptom of the sickness in science fiction can be found by comparing the spirit in ordinary literary circles to that in science-fiction circles. In the literature of the contemporary scene there is today uncertainty, distrust of all traditional narrative techniques, dissatisfaction with newly created work, general unrest that finds expression in ever new attempts and experiments; in science fiction, on the other hand, there is general satisfaction, contentedness, pride; and the results of such comparisons must give us some food for thought.
Indeed they do, but Lem seems to me to be eating a thought-apple and declaring it a cheeseburger. To begin with, I'm not certain I trust Lem's characterization of "the" (which?) "contemporary scene". Perhaps in continental Europe, perhaps even in the Anglophone literary world of the 1970s*, which was a highly abnormal time in that world, he is correct; but in general it is my sense that, while most of those doing work worth reading are filled with this kind of self-doubt and questioning and unrest, "ordinary literary circles" are for the most part filled with precisely the kind of self-satisfied triumphalism Lem claims to find in sf.

*I don't know when Lem wrote the article, but it appeared in Science Fiction Studies in 1973.

Much worse, though, Lem is wholly unaware of the various situations I have been discussing, through Delany's comments, in this post; and as such he takes the comments of American sf writers wholly at face value. But when we consider those writers as working in relative isolation, having to sell the products of their work (and therefore themselves as well), and working in extremely close quarters with their immediately-responsive audience, their words take on quite different meanings. A fruitful comparison might be made with Arnold Schoenberg's self-adulation in his letters, which I happen just to have read; at no point in the published letters does he (openly) express anything other than the utmost certainty in his enterprise and indeed in his primacy over all other living composers; he positions himself as the carrier of the flame of the European, particularly the German, musical tradition (a stance which does not stop him from being extraordinarily generous to other composers when he is in a position to do so). He also talks a good deal about money, of which he never has much, and about persecution—personal, artistic, and (as an Austrian Jew in the interwar period) religious. Are we to believe that Schoenberg, of all people, was never dissatisfied with his work, never distrusted traditional techniques (!), never doubted himself? Of course not. Self-doubt, though almost never explicitly spoken, runs painfully and palpably through all the letters alongside the self-assuredness and self-promotion. In a position like Schoenberg's, all of these strains are inevitable, and all are essential for survival.

An observation I'd like to just throw in here without feeling the need to connect it explicitly to anything: we tend to call sf of the American pulp tradition "popular" literature, because it was bought and sold, but it was never broadly popular in the usual sense of the word until the sudden attention brought by media properties like Star Trek in the mid 60s and, much more so, Star Wars in the late 70s. At the time that both Delany and Lem were writing their essays things were shifting substantially, the beginning of the trend that would lead to the situation we have today in which at least certain strains of sf are totally indistinguishable from "the mainstream", but until then both writing and reading sf were, despite being commercial, a rarefied pursuit of a tiny minority (with a large proportion of the readers also being writers), distrusted and not at all understood by the vast bulk of people.* Sound like anything else?

*This being said, I'm not trying to universally valorize the persecution complex of these writers, which can get pretty distasteful, particularly coming from such a predominantly straight male WASPy group, many (but far from all) of whom, though they apparently didn't recognize it, in their day jobs occupied positions of considerable power in the emerging American technocracy. (On the other hand, the sizable minority of them who were Jewish or other "ethnic" immigrants, like Isaac Asimov, or living lives of grinding working-class desperation, like Philip K. Dick, should not be ignored.) All I'm trying to do is contextualize their comments on their own enterprise.

I set out on this ramble because the other day, shortly after reading Delany's essay on Sturgeon, I picked up Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened To Modernism? to look up a comment of his on something totally unrelated (I no longer even recall what it was I was looking for). As so often happens with this little book that, despite its seemingly restricted subject-matter, seems somehow to encompass everything in the world, I found myself engrossed in re-reading whole passages and finding wholly unexpected, totally new-to-me things in them (this even though I just re-read the whole book a month ago—a completely accidental re-read sparked by a similar situation: I picked it up to look up one specific thing and then was unwilling to put it down again). This time it was the final chapter, the section in which Josipovici summarizes and extends an argument T.J. Clark makes in his (excellent) Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. Layer upon layer upon layer, Clark himself refers back to Hegel; forgive me for this extended blockquote:

Clark rightly recognizes that modernity is bound up with disenchantment, which is linked to secularism. He quotes Hegel in his Aesthetics: 'Art, considered in light of its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.' This does not of course mean that art ceases after 1820, only that its ability effortlessly to articulate the world has gone. Viewing Modernism through the prism of Hegel's chapter on the Unhappy Consciousness in the Phenomenology, he argues that for art to remain meaningful in these changed circumstances it has to accept what he calls contingency, and I call arbitrariness. Art's being able to continue, he argues, has depended on its being able to make Hegel's dictum in the Aesthetics 'specific and punctual'. 'That is to say, on fixing the moment of art's last flowering at some point in the comparatively recent past, and discovering that enough remains from this finale for a work of ironic or melancholy or decadent continuation to seem possible nonetheless.' This he calls, invoking Beckett, the 'can't go on, will go on' syndrome. And he understands that once the Hegelian view is accepted technique will always be seen as 'a kind of shame', while at the same time artists, desperate for something stable beneath their feet, will tend, like Flaubert, to fetishize the notion of the sheer hard practical and technical work involved in making art.
I hope to have a post soon (hah!) on the role of "contingency" or "arbitrariness" in sf considered as a field phenomenon (because it's not as though this one paragraph sent my mind going in only one direction!), but for now I think Josipovici's comments here through Clark (through Hegel) can illuminate for us the similar-but-different situations of the "modernist" writer and the sf writer, and why these situations give rise to such seemingly different self-evaluations. Simultaneously, technique is "a kind of a shame" and hard work is something to be fetishized (the example of Flaubert is probably the obvious one, and Delany mentions him too, along with James Joyce). A peculiar, obviously contradictory situation, but one which does arise quite naturally out of the disenchanted world in which we find ourselves. The modernists, writing for the most part not for money and largely in isolation from their audiences, react with agonized statements of the kind Lem implicitly lauds, and with endless attention to the work; the sf writers, writing for money* and in close quarters with their audiences, react with bravado (often palbably uncomfortable, which Lem also misses) both in downplaying the amount of work that goes into the writing and in overstating the amount of work that comes before it.

*But, importantly—and I think this gets overlooked—not for very much of it. The sf writers of this tradition cannot, I think, be dismissed as mere crass commercialists, for if they were, they surely would have chosen a more lucrative field. A love of what they were doing and a need to do it had to have been involved, and clearly were.

Viewed this way, it seems to me that what's going on here is not actually all that different—that it is not some intrinsic "sickness in science fiction" that creates the seemingly different (and oh so vulgar!) behavior of the sf writers, rather a difference in the material conditions under which the writers worked. In an interview collected in her Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Marge Piercy compares the process of writing and selling novel after novel to that of building a house, selling it out from under you, and then building another. Asked if moving out of one house and immediately on to another is not terribly difficult, she sardonically replies:

Capitalism is a great assistance in that. Since you sell your labor, in this case you sell the novel, it is literally bought by someone else and belongs to them, so you had better cut your ties. Once the book goes into production, you must cut the ties.
And that seems as good a place to end this ramble as any.

1 comment:

WM said...

In an odd way, this is why the bravado of the self-publishers makes sense. It's self-consciously building on and reacting against both of those traditions.