21 March 2004

A Psychological Phenomenon

I haven't posted anything of particular weight here in a few days because I've been working on what has become a long, incoherent article about the relationship of science fiction (with nods to fantasy and horror) to mainstream literature (the stuff in the "fiction" section of bookstores), with a second half about why genre-bending isn't a bad thing or the product of left-wing agitators who hate science and progress. It's aimed at a mainstream audience (i.e., all my friends who think I'm batty and have lost any taste I once had because now I read a lot of that sci-fi stuff), but may not ever be in any shape to show to anyone. In any case, while working on it I've come to some interesting little realizations ... wannabe epiphanies, if you will.

The one I keep thinking about is my own progress away from and then back to reading genre fiction. I was one of the stereotypical 12-year-olds who falls in love with stories about space ships and ray guns, read SF voraciously and indiscriminately, condemned fantasy as silly stuff about elves, liked horror only at its splatterpunkiest. My tastes matured a bit as I worked my way through high school, but I also developed a love of weird plays (Beckett was my hero, and still is) and some mainstream fiction. In college, my genre reading began to fall off -- I didn't want to be seen with those gaudy magazines and mass-market paperbacks, I wanted to be seen with my beloved, battered copies of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky. I suddenly all but rejected genre fiction -- let my subscription to Asimov's lapse, stopped keeping up with who was writing what, and was known to say that it was all just fine for people who had no literary taste, but that SF stuff really can't compete with Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison or Borges.

For about six years, I not only read almost no SF, but I actively avoided it, scorned it, laughed at it -- as if I was trying to purge it from my past, to scrub my temporal lobe of any memory that once upon a time I had actually lived for the thing I now so disdained.

When I returned to reading genre fiction -- a slow process, a word here or there, a sentence, a whole page, a short story, a book, more books, more stories -- I soon became a sort of evangelist. I knew the arguments against SF, because I'd made them all myself. When I was young, I had been a true believer, and like many true believers, once I became disillusioned, I went vehemently in the other direction. Having lived on both extremes, I now found myself not in the middle, but rather in a more complex, discerning, and open-minded netherworld.

One SF writer told me that he had gone through the same development, not reading genre fiction for about six years, then returning to it with both more vigor and more perspective.

I wonder if this is a common experience for anyone? For me it has a parallel in my political views, which, when I began reading SF, were far to the right-wing, became by the end of high school extremely left-wing, leading me in college to work with groups such as Earth First! and to nearly get arrested protesting the pope with ACT-UP and later marching for Mumia-Abu Jamal with 200 other people through the streets of Burlington, VT. At this point, though my politics are hardly moderate, they're certainly more muddied and multi-layered.

Developmental psychology and aesthetic judgment ... anybody need to write a dissertation?

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