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.