Science Fiction Repair Shop: A Washing Machine In The Sky Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2014-01-29 15:00:00 No comments

Which Authors or Books Have Worked on You as ‘Negative Influences’? -

[Thomas Mallon on Donald Bartheme:]

A writer freed from the need to calibrate with reality, or even be internally consistent, could put a washing machine into the sky along with a rainbow. So why not put a rhinoceros up there too? Where my contemporaries reacted with an “Oh, wow,” I shrugged with something more like “Whatever.” Barthelme, in an interview, insisted how in his work “it’s not the straightforward that’s being evaded but the too true,” and by that last phrase, he meant, I think, the trite and truistic. But I felt then, and mostly still do, that no verity can be too true; it can only, excitingly, be revealed as false or even truer, if you dig into it on its own terms.

When I first ran into the Bartheme brand of experimental fiction, my first temptation was to think of it as failed SF — or, rather, mislabeled SF. Why not just call such work SF and be done with it? That was long before I knew about the perceived stigma many non-SF writers had of SF generally: it was escapist b.s., newsstand pulp product for spotty mouth-breathers who hadn't yet left the nest, let alone pulled their pinkies out of their nostrils. I suspect the recent explosion of Dark Teen Fantasy product hasn't helped matters any: when the shelves are littered with third-hand Orwellisms like Divergent, it's hard not to feel a boiling clot of contempt rising in one's gorge for everything filed in that wing of the bookstore. (Goodness knows I feel it.)

Eventually I saw how the sense of the fantastic evinced by such authors was more intellectual than mystical or spiritual — in other words, it was more Jorge Luis Borges than it was Ray Bradbury. When you wanted to free yourself from the need to calibrate with reality, you didn't read — or write — "kid stuff". If you did, you were only asking for trouble, because none of your peers would take you seriously.

I think some of this silly stigma has worn off by now — the fact that we have Asimov and Phil Dick in Everyman's Library and Library of America editions seems to support that — but the way we arbitrarily slice our reading experiences into these different tranches, often to do no more than please some perceived establishment, hurts the next generation of writers as much as it does the current generation of readers.

My current feeling is that the best experiences to be had from any kind of fiction, be it fantastic or realistic, is going to come not from allegiance to a genre, style, school, or methodology. It comes most in the form of experiences with single books, single authors, single stories, from which one can glean specific insights, specific conceits, specific discoveries. That means broader tastes will yield bigger rewards — and it also means a good critical mind-set will help, too.

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