An Arogantly Lowbrow SF Fan Advocates The Need For Literary Criticism.

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First of all, I’d like to thank Burt Cottage for his essay. Secondly I’d like to admit that this started out as a posting in the comments section which quickly grew to ludicrous size as I’m eloquent and loquacious. Eventually I decided my reply was neither eloquent and loquacious agreement, nor disagreement, nor did it involve swear words (Yet, but the night is young) but rather was part of the 0% of postings that are eloquent and loquacious clarification of a point I didn’t adequately articulate before, and so, dammit (Ah, there it is!), I should expand it from a mere comment to a real blog entry.

So, Burt: Those are all valid points, and thanks or stating them so articulately. I think they’re worthy of discussion, and in fact Lem himself discusses all of these to a greater or lesser extent. Rather than restate his reasoning (Which is really extensive and detailed), I’ll just interpolate it, but I want to point out that when I first started reading “Microworlds” by Lem, I was entirely of the opinion you’ve stated. Who’s to say what’s high or low art, and how dare they? What kind of crazy anti-egalitarianism is that? By the end of the book, though, he’d won me over because Stanislaw Lem is actually on the short list of the greatest SF writers of the 20th century.

Were it anyone else, I wouldn’t have taken note. Among lots of the ‘critical’ elite - or at least the pop-critical elite - there’s an air of unmarried marriage counselors and childless child psychologists about them. Those that can’t do *Talk* about doing to hide the fact that they can’t do it. We’ve all seen or known examples of that, and it’s a valid point. Art is subjective, after all. What is brilliant to me is meaningless to you and vice versa. I love the early impressionists and surrealism, I can’t stand cubism. Why? There’s no attempt to delineate my likes and dislikes, I’m just wired to love Dali and yawn at Picasso. I’m not saying Picasso sucks, it’s just not my cup of tea.

However we’re all aware of Sturgeon’s law: “90% of everything is crap.” That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I love Hershey’s Kisses, and I really don’t like high-end Swiss chocolate. Again, it’s just the way I’m wired, I prefer the low quality stuff, and I loves me a good potboiler SF novel. In fact, I think we could argue that I’m pretty lowbrow: I’ve been reading Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” for six months now, and am only halfway through it. It’s undeniably a classic, everyone has been screaming at me to read it my entire life, but I’m unable to plow through it, and I don’t enjoy it. Where are the ray gun battles? Where’s the sudden Twilight Zone reality shift that makes us re-asses everything that went before and causes us to go “ooooh?” You know: Art! Instead, all I’ve got is a bunch of ignorant Oakies on a laborious fool’s errand who’s only point is to get screwed.

The purpose for Literary Criticism is not so much to ‘rate’ things, as to help us identify the difference between the seeds and the chaff. There’s not a value judgment here (Except among the pretentious), simply a case of identification. Why do we need this? Well, here’s one of Lem’s examples:

No one is ever going to mistake Crime and Punishment for being written by Mickey Spillane, but why is that? They both fit pretty solidly within the Crime genre. The difference is in intent, and in execution. In intent, C&P is attempting to explore and map out the frontiers of the human soul, whereas Spillane is simply trying to make some money selling books that can be read on the can. One book is content to operate entirely within the confines of a set genre, whereas the other transcends the genre. It uses it as a starting point, but then goes its own direction. Or, if you’d like another example we can use “Grapes of Wrath” versus J.G. Ballard’s “Hello America.” Both are unquestionably the literary equivalent of road stories: Hero goes on a journey, has adventures, learns a bit about himself in the process, and comes to some larger realization about life in the process. “Wrath” is clearly literature for the same reasons that C&P is literature and anything by Spillane isn’t, while the “Hello America” is a post-apocalyptic reflection upon and parody of American Life, a sociological critique set in an SF milieu. Or, if I’m less polite: a potboiler.

Which is better? Well, neither. For me, personally, I loved “Hello, America” and have read it three times. I’ll be lucky if I can finish “Wrath,” though. Literary criticism allows me to identify what I’m reading more accurately and efficiently, but that doesn’t mean that I’m highfalutin’ and automatically love “Literature.” Far from it. I reserve the right to like what I like whether it’s The Great American Novel, or some cheesy 19th century Nurse Romance. (and personally I tend towards pulp) Criticism helps me tell which is which, and it helps me make an informed decision.

Burt said that he kind of lost interest in SF as he got older. Valid. We all outgrow or become bored with things as we get older. It would be wrong not to. Watching “Yo, Gabba Gabba” is great when you’re three, but it’s more than a bit sad when you’re thirty, and full-on disturbing when you’re sixty. But there are things that we don’t get tired of as we get older for whatever reason: It can be because we’re emotionally invested in it enough for it to keep it’s hold over us, or it can be because it’s multifaceted enough that we keep finding new things in it, or maybe it just helps us reconnect with some earlier version of ourselves. What, specifically, these things are doesn’t matter, music, books, movies, TV shows, whatever. Conversely, there are things we grow out of not so much because we’ve matured, but simply because we got tired of them.

Take me for example: I got tired of Star Trek a long time ago. Loved it. I can still recognize any episode of TOS within 15 seconds or so of any scene of any episode. I liked TNG, but before long I hit a point of diminishing returns because, let’s face it, Trek only has about 8 stories (Transporter Malfunction, Poorly Conceived Time Travel Story, Aspergery Alien/Robot/Hologram is acting weird for no discernable reason, God turns out to be a child/insane/a computer/whatever, and so on) and after I’d seen all of them a hundred times or so, frankly, it’s hard to still hold my interest. Babylon 5, however, did stuff I’d never seen before, stories didn’t go where I expected them to, and although they only had ten or so plots (Mad Bomber on the Station, Misunderstandings between alien cultures, I can’t get past my hate, Who watches the watchmen, humans build communities, etc ) they were better root stories that hadn’t become cliché yet. B5 is a more evolved version of the same basic idea that Trek had. It’s what Trek would have become if Trek hadn’t simply given up on the whole SF thing in favor of the gripping drama of Riker’s lack of promotion and Troy painstakingly stating the obvious in lieu of any kind of character arc. Who wouldn’t get tired of that after 15 years or so?

If, however, criticism were accepted at Paramount, if someone had said “Hey you mooks, you’re telling the same 8 stories over and over and over again, maybe a 9th story would be a good idea?” Then Trek may have continued to evolve, rather than falling in to - here it is - a *Format.* A nice comfortable format where everything is different yet the same every week, and where the format never changes, and where five of the six trek series are essentially the same show with different casts and different interior decorators. There’s nothing *Wrong* with a format, a nice safe box in which to tell stories, but that’s all a genre is, right? A specific shoebox for a specific kind of shoe? And if you like that sort of thing, that’s fine, but, again, staying rigidly within the confines of your format/genre and appealing to the tried and true rather than challenging your audience a bit now and again means - inevitably - that your show is going to seem a bit pointless and repetitive after 100 episodes or so.

Again, there’s nothing *wrong* with Trek, it is a consistently good show, but this is why The Twilight Zone is still regarded as intellectually stimulating and high art by most people who think about such things, whereas Trek is regarded as an occasionally-embarrassing pop culture bauble. Both shoes did essentially the same thing, of course, but one is challenging whereas the other is merely a pop culture phenomenon. (And as a benefit of being art - sort of - people tend to simply overlook or forget the 23 terrible Ventriloquist Dummy episodes they did on the ’Zone.)

I’ve used TV and pop culture references, but this applies to books as well, and I’m sure you get where I’m going with it.

So Literary Criticism fulfils two functions: 1) It allows us to distinguish between stories that are content to remain within the confines of their genre, and stories that aspire to more and 2) it allows for a gradual evolution in quality *in the stories that aspire to more.* More normative genre entertainment remains unaffected.

I might add that 3) it frequently allows us to identify posers and the pretentious, and thereby avoid them.