Science Fiction Repair Shop: Surface Tension Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-08-02 14:00:00 No comments

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I just returned from a vacation during which I came back several pounds heavier than when I left — most of it books and not body fat, thank goodness. Among them were new entries in the Vampire Hunter D series, which I've written about in these very pages, Miyuki Miyabe's ICO: Castle in the Mist novel, miscellaneous manga, and (c-c-c-combo breaker!) Ödön von Horváth's The Eternal Philistine. One of these things is most definitely not like the other.

It's been said that the main difference between "popular" and "literary" work is the amount of effort required to read the product in question and get the most out of it. A short book that is very densely written can be far more effort to plumb than one four times its length but pumped full of air via descriptions and digressions and all the other kind of writing-by-the-yard that can be read by simply moving one's gaze down the middle of the page. The fact that a book is like this has little or nothing to do with what it's really about (e.g., SF vs. "kitchen sink" fiction), but how it is about it, and it's the how that I think creates the most difficulties of approach for both writers and readers. We all want to write to be read, but some of us know that what we have to say cannot be said any other way.

I wonder now how much of that notion exists under false pretenses — that to express a complex idea, one must present the reader with complexity. It seems more and more of the same fallacious breed as the idea that to write about an incoherent world, one must write incoherently, or some other variant on that theme. Even those of us who want our literature to recapitulate what it is about life that is difficult and painful do not want the reading itself to be a difficult and painful experience. There are, I admit, some readers who thrive on a challenge — who are only too happy to take up the gauntlet thrown down by the likes of a William Gaddis.

What I find most problematic about the "difficult" books is that what's most difficult about them is not their insights or their strains of thought, but their surfaces. The style is the razor wire and electrified fences set up to keep out all but the elect — but once you are inside the compound, you typically find precious little worth battering down the door for.

The follow-up argument to this is that the whole point is to present an artful surface and that every plot worth telling has been told already so why get hung up about it, but that is a version of the same mistake made in the visual arts in decades past. It is the idea that any reader worth a writer's time — any writer's time — must necessarily also be a historian, a scholar, of the variety of work in question, and that any use of comfortably-established tradition as a time-saving measure (or simply as a story-telling method) is wasted effort because it brings nothing new to the table. There's a contradiction for you: litfic insists nothing is new under the sun, but lambasts everyone else for not trying anyway.

A parallel argument about music comes to mind. Most people do not listen to music as if they were music critics, have no interest in doing so, and are arguably no worse off for not having done so. Those who are driven to listen to music (or read books) in a critical vein are looking for rewards that have almost nothing to do with what everyone else does or why. The pleasures they savor are rarefied, quite deliberately so. The idea that they are morally superior to someone who simply says they know what they like is fatuous.

I suspect the moral component of all this comes in because many of the people who assume the mantle of the critic and interpreter are also angling to become a tastemaker, if only on the smallest of scales. Likewise, when someone reads a "difficult" book — or, better yet, when they throw enormous effort into writing one — they're attempting to ascend to the same throne. Every writer wants an audience, and a few of them would like, if possible, to ensure there are that many less other kinds of audiences than the ones that savor their own work.

I don't think most creators are conscious of this, but the more the appreciation for their work rests on theoretical foundations (or within a tradition whose aesthetics are more grounded in theory than execution), the less likely they are to balance their own needs against an audience's. A piece of creative art is a communication between two spirits, and the contents of that communication can be anything from the substance of a life to rarefied aesthetic insights. It's best to include both whenever possible, and not to just pretend a coat of paint is the same thing as a comfortably-furnished room.

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