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Why are we judging genre fiction by the standards of Modernism? These standards are historically conditioned, apply to a totally different kind of fiction, and are as arbitrary therefore as any critical standards are.
What we get from Modernism are valuing the short work over the long and the self-contained work, ie stand-alone, over the ongoing multi-volume work. Why do I say we get these standards from Modernism? Because before Modernism, highly-valued works of fiction were very long — consider Doestoevsky — and often on- going publications, such as Tristam Shandy. “Sequels” and roman fleuve abounded: Trollope’s Palliser novels, Balzac’s Comedie Humaine are only a few examples. Certainly in what we may call the “Golden Age of Reading,” from the 1750s to the invention of TV, popular entertainment fiction as well as literature came in long, sprawling forms. Consider all those three volume novels, written by and for women as well, and the ongoing sagas of Sir Walter Scott and the long novels of Charles Dickens.
Thus, is it a good idea to apply strict Modernist critical standards to genre fiction, which, aimed at a popular audience as it is, has different goals than Modernist literature? Of course, when I speak of fiction as having “goals,” I’m being Modernist to the core and following the New Criticism idea that each work of literature should be judged on the basis of how it achieves what its author set out to do with it.
Stand back for more gross oversimplification! We should, according to this school of criticism, look at each work as a thing in itself and judge it on the basis of its inherent purpose. Ie, if a book is meant to be entertaining, the critic should say whether or not it succeeds at entertaining, not whether or not it is Great Art. Conversely, a book that attempts to achieve artistic goals that comes off as a good read and nothing more is a failure by its own terms, no matter how moving it may be to read.
It could well be that by applying Modernist standards to SF and Fantasy, we are making it impossible to arrive at some real standards of quality, ie, standards that fit. How are we going to analyze the undoubted drek out there if we have the wrong tools? If, for instance, a critic dismisses most of a multi- volume work as “filler,” simply because it’s a multi-volume work and for no reason more, how is that critic going to know real filler when he or she sees it?
Because there is filler out there, and padding, and all that Bad Stuff. However, the careful building up of an alien culture in order to make the actions of alien characters comprehensible is not filler; nor more is the creation of a historical background for a culture in order to give the events that happen their depth; and finally, the depiction of relationships between characters in these exotic contexts is to many readers and writers the core of a book, not “romantic fluff” or more filler.
My theory, by Me, though I am not Anne Elk: the demand for short stand-alone novels on the part of some critics as the only “good” novels derives from Modernist literary theory. Modernism, however, was never meant to apply to popular culture, and thus the fit is a bad one. All through history, popular literature, and that includes Literature which was popular in its day, has favored the long, involving, multi-character production over the slender and beautifully crafted.
First, let us remember that literary movements often co-exist quite comfortably with their ancestors, no matter how much this vexes the proponents of the latest theories. Although we are all technically living in a “post-Modern world,” many academic writers still craft their books according to the tenets of this older system. The critical theories of Modernism have become a kind of gospel, in fact, at least in the USA, and especially in prestigious university writing programs.
People have written entire books about what Modernism is/was. I am about to make some vast oversimplifications for the sake of argument.
When it comes to writing, perhaps the most important strand is the definition of what makes a “story.” A lot of genre writers complain that Modernist writing has no “real stories” in it. Certainly if you’re looking for action and adventure, you are not going to find excitement of the exotic kind. The antecedents of Modernism lie in writers such as Henry James and Edith Wharton. The flowering of Modernism, with writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, moved the emphases of fiction away from the outer world and into the inner, the worlds of perception, of character, of thought and psychology.
All of these writers do tell stories — their stories merely take place within. They write novels of consciousness, of moral decision, of intellectual awakening, of sudden psychological insight, and the consequences of all of these things. In the context of late Victorian/early 20th century society, all of these “events” can be quite shattering to the character experiencing them and to the people around that character.
But they are inward events. They require their own ways of telling. And as this “genre of inwardness,” I suppose we could call it, got refined, it moved toward plainer and sparer texts. James of course really could go on about things and Wharton too, but their artistic descendants tended to work with a sparer technique.
Another main thrust of Modernism was a reaction against the Culture of the Parents of the time — full-blown lush Victorianism. The overdecorated Victorian parlors were as much spiritual ancestors of the Seagram’s Building as the grain elevators van der Rohe professed to love — they are both the work of the hated ancestors.. The same holds true in writing. “Three volume novel” was a real sneer from the lips of critics like Pound and Eliot. Popular works like Galsworthy ‘s Forsythe Saga and the Jalna books and so on were simply just too low-brow for words.
In the 1920s as now, big thick lurid novels sold very well, while thin and elegant examinations of consciousness did not. (Which is a pity to my way of thinking, because I like both.) While Virgina Woolf left literature forever changed, her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West is the one who raked in the pounds sterling with her historical “good reads.” The novel of ideas, even in its SF incarnation, which is pretty thin on ideas, has never been a popular item.
When High Culture ideas die, they are reborn as accepted truths. Impressionist paintings were shocking when new; now they show up on greeting cards. The thin spare novel of ideas is dead as literature; some SF critics now think it’s the only way to write genre fiction. But is this true?
You can use the term epic for the whole genre, if you’d like, but there is a real difference in tone, style, and construction between the two kinds: oral and literary. Tolkien was consciously trying to re-create stories from older, more tribal times.
Oral epics tend to be the creations of more than one person and thus reflect the ethos of an ethnos, as it were, instead of the point of a view of a single conscious artist. They date from pre-literate societies, generally from Iron Age cultures, when we talk about the surviving epics of Europe, which we were, but not always: vide the Belisarius epics of the Balkans and the Iskander epics of the Hindu Kush. (Not that the Hindu Kush is in Europe, despite the Indo-European languages spoken there, but Iskander was originally a Greek, so what the hell.)
Oral epics tend to tell it like it is (or was, in the bards’ lifetimes). Literary epics are attempting to re-create a generally idealized past. Literary epics are undertaken as works of art by highly educated poets, while the oral epic, even if shaped at some point by a single bard, as the Odyssey must have been, are composed at least partly as social records, preserving the memory of great men.
You can see the last in the Iliad — the “catalogue of ships” was an important political document in the Greece of classical and Hellenistic times.
Changes of tone, such as comic relief, speak of conscious art to me. Tolkien, despite his desire to create something archaic with Lord of the Rings, was a conscious artist and thus doomed to fail at his self-appointed task. The “failure” at that does not mean that the books aren’t great, of course. Besides, many of the passages in the Silmarillion do have the archaic feel he was trying for.
In genre fiction, almost every linked sequence of books is called a “series,” whether the label fits or not. We can define a series as a set of books, each a self-contained narrative episode, that focus on the same central character(s), such as we most often see in mystery series featuring a certain detective, or Lois McMasters Bujold’s “Miles” series. Although there may some overarching “frame tale” in a series, normally this on-going story is firmly subordinated to the events of each episode. The television show Star Trek: Voyager is a good example of the episodes within an over-plot.
Not all multi-volume works fit this mold, however, especially the type of novel that critics call the roman fleuve, a “watershed novel” or a “river basin” novel.
Like a major river, these long novels receive many tributaries of plot and run in many channels. Generally speaking, a roman fleuve covers several generations and several interrelated story lines; alternately, it may be a number of books set in the same mileu and featuring interrelated characters. The term was coined for Balzac’s “Comedie Humaine”, and Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga, Proust’s Recherche, and Faulkner’s Compson family novels provide other literary examples.
Especially since the term “series books” has acquired a sneer these days, there is surely room for recognition for this other form of connected novels, in which the entire sequence of books, once completed, will have a shape that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
And where did this sneer come from, anyway? Why are “series books”, whether or not they’re truly a series, looked down upon in SF and Fantasy circles? There’s a related prejudice in evidence in the field, too, against long books on general principles. I hear critics and readers both griping about “filler” and “fluff,” story elements that are supposedly polluting the pure waters of science fiction. When one pins the complainers down, though, it usually turns out that “filler and fluff” means “information that I personally find boring.” Yet they will still maintain that somehow or other, good books are those which stick to some ambiguously defined “real story.”
I recently posted some thoughts about this subject on Dueling Modems.
Why do you think nothing concrete and lasting happened out of the 60s? Lots of people have been saying this lately, and I can’t help feeling that the changes were so profound and total that no one remembers that there were changes! The 50s, my friends, happened in a different country than this one. We did not get everything we wanted, no. The world is not perfect now, and is that why some of us think we accomplished nothing?
Consider: in the 60s, the Civil Rights movement brought about the end of segregation and a raft of anti-discrimination laws, culminating in the Johnson administration’s Civil Rights Act, one of the most far-reaching pieces of law ever enacted. Local governments also produced laws against discrimination in housing, jobs, schooling. Even leisure activities — I remember a time when non-whites couldn’t enter most restaurants, go to Disneyland, or use the same beaches as whites. Mixed race couples were harassed everywhere they went unless they lived in Hawai’i. I could go on, but you get the picture.
Then there’s the Women’s Movement, which had its roots in the 60s though it flowered in the early 70s. Equal pay for equal work — I remember when “Help Wanted” ads came in two columns, male and female. The female jobs always paid less: waitresses less than waiters, secretaries less than administrative assistants, on and on. Women had no control over their own bodies — contraception depended on a man’s willingness to use a condom, and most weren’t willing. No legal abortion. Doctors who paid little attention to female complaints but lots to male illnesses. Natural childbirth wasn’t an option, and women were kept from breastfeeding even if they wanted to. And so on.
Consider the “social issues”. Women who had an illegimate child were horribly stigmatized, and the child suffered. Living with someone you weren’t married to was out of the question. Misogynistic and racial slurs were considered an integral part of humor. Sex was a tabu subject. Consider the food — filled with chemicals, stripped of flavor. And then there’s fashion — women like sheep bought what was “in” every year. Wearing homemade or second-clothes was considered faintly shameful in the 50s. Wearing jeans was definitely a sign of shameful poverty, or worse, rebellion. Every social occasion and job had one right way to dress, and that was that.
More importantly, we have the question of arguing with authority, with daring to question authority, whether that authority was a doctor, a cop, or a president. The Bushies are finding out to their horror that a great many people now see dissent as the American Way. That wasn’t the case in the 50s, not on your life. It’s a direct result of the huge numbers of people who turned out to protest in the 60s. At first the media tried to slight the rallies and the marches, but by the end TV news showed streets filled with people from all walks of life, marching to end the war or to give people of color access to all of American life, not just the servant classes.
No one questioned inventions like nuclear power plants, even. The environmental movement in this country dates to the 60s.
Whoops, I nearly forgot Gay Liberation. Probably I’ve forgotten other social causes, too.
No, the world’s not perfect. Not all the changes we wanted came about. Thanks to the damned Fundies of all religions, we’ve lost some ground — but we’re beginning to turn that around, too. But to say nothing lasting came out of the 60s?!? Try to remember what life was like in the 50s. That’s all I can say to that. It’s the power structures that are trying to pretend that the change wasn’t lasting, so they can convince people that protests and the like are futile now.
But they lie. I’m glad to see that many young people aren’t buying it.