Clowns and Pedestals

I love fantasy (including its subgenre, science fiction), I take it very seriously, especially when I’m trying to write some or read some or when I should be doing something else or when I’m breathing. I want other people to take it seriously. Nonetheless, I think some people take it too seriously.

An example is the recent discussion at Lotus Lyceum about art and the marketplace. Not all of the positions that emerged in the comments were incompatible, just because they were different, but I became impatient with the dichotomy I saw developing between Art (We are artists here, dammit!) and the Marketplace (i.e. brothel). Plus, someone ventured to use the word “pulp” as if it were self-evidently a term of dispraise, and I love the glorious schlock-spangled tradition of American fantasy because of what it is, not because it is some sterile Parnassus where literary priests can conduct their mystagogic rites (which it is, in part).

I’m totally in sympathy with the writer who wants to blow her reader’s mind so hard that the top of his head comes off, and I read high literature (for pleasure, not as a sort of cultural vitamin) as well as popular literature. But to force an Art-or-Market dichotomy on American fantasy is to miss something important about why it thrived in the 20th C.

Le Guin, of course, had the words I was groping for in the face of this rampant dichotomizationifyificationizingism. So I stole them.

“I totally oppose the notion that you can put Art over here on a pedestal, and Entertainment down here in a clown suit. Art and Entertainment and the same thing, in that the more deeply and genuinely entertaining a work it is, the better art it is. … Every artist is deeply serious and passionate about his work, and every artist also wears a clown suit and capers in public for pennies. The fellows who put on the clown suit and the painted grin, but don’t care about performing well, are neither entertainers nor artists; they’re fakes.”
–Le Guin, The Language of the Night, p. 232

There’s more, but that gets at the core of my discontent with the high-road-or-the-no-road types. Their error is that they mistake the style of the clown-paint for the quality of the performance. A capable clown in vulgar paint will deliver capers worth watching. A mime too dignified to move is a fraud. If I prefer the work of Fritz Leiber to the fiction of his younger contemporary Susan Sontag (and I do) it is not because I read nothing but genre paperbacks. It’s because, in fiction, Sontag is a less honest or less capable clown. (If the field in question were essays rather than stories, it would be a different story.) Pulpiness is neither here nor there in evaluating fiction, in short.

“So what?” I hear you scream ask. “Let people have their motionless mime and call it what they want.”

Well, I do (there being nothing I can do to stop it), but I think (there being nothing I can do to stop that, either) there’s a limit to which a popular art can be refined without killing it. Jazz is the example I usually use: it was not only more popular when it was the normative mode of American popular music, it was better. That’s because popular music demands swing (later specialized as bop, rock etc.) and “serious” music does not. (It need not even be music: I cite John Cage.) When jazz became serious music it became “free” to not swing (i.e. free to suck). Audiences stayed away in droves and if jazz is not dead, it is not at all well. And it would be a bad thing if that near-death-by-respectability happened to sf/f.

Because then no one would be left to buy my self-published opus, Someone Who Looks Like Me Saves the Universe with His Big Protuberant Ray-Gun.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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22 Responses to Clowns and Pedestals

  1. pauljessup says:

    You completely misunderstood what I was trying to say. The literary art crowd doesn’t exist. What both I and Vandermeer were saying was that is only the people that don’t like literary stuff that are putting up a wall. That’s it.

    I’ve written all sorts of stuff. From experimental to non, to traditional fantasy. I see no difference, none at all.

    But some people try to put up a wall.

    That’s all we are saying. We don’t want a wall. Yet some people want to construct one.

    • JE says:

      Your criticism of pulplike entertainment is, I think, unambiguous (e.g. “The blogosphere is rippling with people who want to return to mundane pulp roots- of entertainment that is mindless and insipid, and exists only to wallow in the lowest common denominator”). But in my view, that’s where the action is. We can disagree without this without either of us being confused (or even wrong). Creative tension sometimes involves people pulling in different directions.

      Mr. Vandermeer did write with extreme hostility of “an anti-art point of view that talks in terms of saleability, audience (in a commercial sense), and the like–especially for things like the short form, which are almost inherently not commercial to begin with.” This seems to me reductive and ungenerous, particularly in the context where it appeared. He might have remembered Frost’s lines: “No wonder poets sometimes have to seem so much more businesslike than businessmen: their wares are so much harder to get rid of.” The fact that one wants one’s work read and is willing to strategize to that end doesn’t make one an enemy of art, or horses, or even evil monkeys.

      • pauljessup says:

        But in my view, that’s where the action is. We can disagree without this without either of us being confused (or even wrong). Creative tension sometimes involves people pulling in different directions.

        Oh! Very true. But I’m not sure if this is where the action is- I’m not disagreeing with you on Quality- but I’m not sure if a return to pulpish is the next big thing per se. But that’s all party politics in a way.

        The fact that one wants one’s work read and is willing to strategize to that end doesn’t make one an enemy of art, or horses, or even evil monkeys.

        Actually, I think he was probably still mostly pissed off about this sort of thing->

        Which, after reading it you can kind of understand his position right now. People are taking pot shots at him.

        Anyway- on marketing- well, I guess I’m lucky. When I was writing for the market (trying to write towards stuff that I thought would sell) I wasn’t selling at all. It was only when I stopped and just wrote whatever I enjoyed was when I started selling.

        And besides, pulpy stuff can be literature too. Ever read Delany’s Neveryon series? It’s just this violent reaction against people who write differently, who experiment (I hesitate to sue the term literary, cause it’s bullshit and I don’t agree with it) or try weird shit that’s seems oddly distancing.

        • JE says:

          Which, after reading it you can kind of understand his position right now. People are taking pot shots at him.

          The post Nick Mamatas quoted was uncivil and semi-literate, but I don’t really think that gives JV carte blanche to be uncivil to third parties. After all, maybe the flathead who wrote the post had been insulted and took it out on Vandermeer, Link et al. Melville’s Ishmael speaks approvingly (or at least stoically) about this sort of thing: “and so the universal thump is passed round” etc. Ishmael notwithstanding, I think this displaced hostility can screw up a conversation.

          Candidly, I think Vandermeer’s fiction looks sort of interesting, but every time I see him posting in some internet forum he’s insulting, overbearing and dismissive. Rightly or wrongly, this makes me less inclined to plonk down coin for his horses.

          I’ve read one of Delany’s Neveryon books and, although I don’t think it was his best work (pace Umberto Eco, who blurbed rather enthusiastically on its cover), it was interesting. But I don’t think it had the energy or the visceral impact of its pulpy progenitors. That energy and impact (not market considerations) are why I think pulplike entertainment is where the action is.

          • pauljessup says:

            That’s very true. I just think- right now there is a lot of pointless bickering in genre, broken up into two camps, and I feel it is causing unnecessary strife. But maybe that’s just me…I just don’t see the need for anyone to argue either for or against pulp or literary or what have you.

            And I see we had two different ideas of action when you said where the action was- you meant in the text, and I meant in the political hemisphere of the genre. Simple things like this can lead to big ass misunderstandings.

            Take Vandermeer out of the equation though- do you feel as if there is a war of sorts between pulpy writing and strange writing (surreal, whatever)? I’m not sure that I do.

            Maybe Neveryon was a bad example. But I did like it, and thought it was action packed. Maybe that is a perception thing. What about Cordwainer Smith? No doubting he’s got action- and he’s shooting at higher levels too.

          • JE says:

            It may be just that I was frosted by Delany’s style, which I find off-putting sometimes. I would never knock Cordwainer Smith, who is certainly pulpy for the broad strokes and bright colors with which he paints his strange unpulpy portraits of suffering and redemption. Flipping across the Atlantic, Italo Calvino makes good use of genre tropes (in Cosmicomics, but also in The Divided Viscount and The Non-Existent Knight… maybe I should include The Castle of Crossed Destinies, too).

            I don’t have any problem with, say, Kelly Link (to pick one of the writers criticized by the fathead whom Mamatas quotes) being published or acclaimed: in fact, I acclaim her. But I don’t see so much (i.e. enough) fiction on the other end of the spectrum–stories about people doing stuff, not just feeling stuff, in a fantastic setting.

            Stories like this can be harder to defend: at their worst they feature some pseudo-Conan or Tarl (“Houseplants of Gor”) Cabot. But at their best they are something like Leiber’s Lankhmar stories or Brackett’s Mars stories or Vance’s Cugel stories. Fiction like this is a big part of what fantasy has always been about.

            So I’m not trying to build a wall. As part of the group Steve Goble identifies as “the pulp camp,” what I want is not less (i.e. less literary fantasy, which is great) but more (i.e. more pulpy fantasy).

            “And some balloons” I was going to finish, with wry self-deprecation. But my wife just came home from work with a bunch of helium balloons. So it looks like whatever I m about to wish for with wry self-deprecation will come true. I’ll have to give this some thought…

          • pauljessup says:

            I’m very glad we’ve started talking about this conversation- it’s nice to talk to someone else who tinks about this in a similar way that I do. And also, very glad to meet another Kelly Link fan. Haven’t read any Calvino yet, but I do plan on doing so this year.

            Yeah, I can see your point. In some ways it is lacking (the amount of action stories in the current genre landscape), and there isn’t too many people trying to make up for it. It seems mostly to appear in anthologies these days.

            I’m not exactly sure why that is. I myself love all sorts of genre fiction (and I think the second ish of GrendelSong is going to really reflect that) and I feel other people feel the same way as I do.

          • JE says:

            I’m very glad we’ve started talking

            Me too!

            I suppose it’s not the end of the world that there’s less adventure fantasy in short form; as Steve pointed out, in booklength fantasy the shoe may be on the other foot. I would like to see new markets develop at shorter lengths, and I expect they will, athough the recently announced closing of Pitch-Black is a little disheartening.

          • pauljessup says:

            Well, I remember something Pete Crowther of PS Publishing said in an interview- that the short story form is slowly going extinct. Most people don’t want to invest in something that small- if they get attached to characters they want to follow them for a long while, not get introduced to a new one every 20 pages or so.

  2. Awesome response, James. And thank you for saving me from responding.

    • JE says:

      Thanks… but now I wish I’d read yourresponse.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m not sure there really is a wall between the “pulp camp” and the “literary camp.” Nor do I think anyone wants to erect one.

        I do think there is a subset of readers who like the pulpy stuff but have great difficulty finding it in the magazines that appear on their bookshelves, and wish to hell someone out there would publish more short pulpy fiction. I think they have better luck with novels in that regard, but short fiction is much harder to come by. The small press produces that sort of stuff, but it is really hit-or-miss regarding quality. Get burned once or twice, and you almost feel like giving up.

        What the pulp camp wants, I think, is to be able to buy a professionally edited zine with some good fun stuff in it and be confident that the stuff will, in fact, be good.

        But I could be wrong.

        — Steve Goble

        • pauljessup says:

          But why have a pulp camp? In seems like that breeds exclusivity. I know that you personally Steve are not erecting any walls- but a lot of people are trying to. And it disturbs me.

          And on the magazine side- doesn’t Black Gate match that description 🙂

        • JE says:

          a subset of readers who like the pulpy stuff but have great difficulty finding it in the magazines that appear on their bookshelves, and wish to hell someone out there would publish more short pulpy fiction.

          *[Enge raises his hand]*

      • pauljessup says:

        Yeah I kept bugging him about posting a response. Maybe if we join forces, we can get him to break his silence?

        • Anonymous says:

          Paul: “Black Gate” does, indeed, serve that nitch. Long time between issues, though …

          And “Black Gate” is just one magazine, and can be hard to find. I imagine many people are reluctant to plunk down money until they see an issue. Alas, while I see “Realms of Fantasy” and “Fantasy & Science Fiction” on the shelves every time I visit a decent book store, I have yet to see a “Black Gate” on the rack. Maybe that’s evidence that the “pulp camp” is not so large as some think. I dunno.

          — Steve

          • Anonymous says:

            And now Pitch-Black Books, along with Flashing Swords, bites the dust. Argh.

            A toast in their memory, gentlemen.

            — Steve

          • pauljessup says:

            Or maybe it’s just a problem getting a distributor? I remember my friend Tim trying to get a magazine in the brick and mortar store. Not that easy. Even harder now that one distributor went belly up.

            Most indie mags aren’t in brick or mortar stores either. So, it’s not just a matter of pulp taste.

          • JE says:

            a problem getting a distributor?

            I think the infrequency with which BG appears makes it difficult to get a distributor. But I understand that subscriptions are at an all-time high, so I don’t think we need worry about Black Gate going the way of Pitch-Black just yet.

            One-shot anthologies or anthology series might be way to keep the adventure-fantasy flame alive. This didn’t work for Pitch-Black, but one has the feeling there was a lot of behind the scene turbulence at Pitch-Black, and their problems might not have been merely financial/market related.

          • filomancer says:

            Black Gate is the hobby of a CEO of a software company who doesn’t need it to make a profit to keep it in business. But the extent of his other time commitments has also been what has made it so irregular.

            You know, pulp vs. art… the question is whether you’re doing ethnography or proposing a writer’s (or a genre’s) mission statement. Kris Rusch used her last editorial of F&SF to complain about the cabal of lit’ry writers that had excluded her. I don’t think there is a cabal, but there are definite (if somewhat fluid) hierarchies of status (of people) and of value (of writers and kinds of fiction) which if viewed from some points of view can look as if they are setting up dichotomies like art vs. commerce. I think that’s too simple, but anyway that’s about the social organization of it.

            Regarding the rightful role of pulp in sf/f (mission statement), it’s too late at night to launch a full-fledged rant on the subject. But, while I think there is room for all kinds of writing–I like to read lots of different kinds of writing and I write lots of different kinds–I do think sf will die when its pulpy core is extinguished. Not fantasy, probably–fantasy has deeper and more diverse roots in, among other things, folk literatures and folk beliefs of many cultures. Dystopias, utopias, and other politically-driven thought experiments will live on. But there is an important way in which pulp is sf’s reason for being.

          • Anonymous says:

            One more note on Black Gate. The magazine has edited some editorial help, and rumor is that they’re even cutting into that legendary slush pile. Who knows? Maybe one day response times will be in terms of three or four months, as opposed to 10 to 14 months!

            — Steve

          • JE says:

            it’s too late at night to launch a full-fledged rant on the subject. But … I do think sf will die when its pulpy core is extinguished.

            I hope we get the rant eventually, though (here or elsewhere).

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