13 April 2008

Two Distinctions

Richard Lupoff, from a review of Science Fiction of the Thirties (ed. Damon Knight) and The Fantastic Pulps (ed. Peter Haining) in Algol, Summer 1976:
Anybody who has followed this column for a number of years must be aware that I have a great fondness for the old pulp (and even pre-pulp) stuff. Yet I despise most of the contemporary would-be heirs and imitators of the pulp writers, and among moderns strongly prefer the serious and even experimental authors. ...

Those old pulp writers, Doc Smith, David Keller, Edmond Hamilton, Murray Leinster, Seabury Quinn, Lovecraft, Otto Binder, Jack Williamson, and all the rest of that crowd -- were writing the best they knew how! Their ideas might seem elementary, their technique primitive, to us. But to themselves and their contemporaries, the ideas were fresh and startling, the technique the most advanced they were capable of (and very likely the most sophisticated their readers were capable of assimilating).

And that's exactly the case with today's avant-garde -- Delany, Disch, Malzberg, Moorcock, Aldiss, and Le Guin. They're pushing at the boundaries, working at the limits of their capabilities, and sometimes stumbling as a result but also achieving things fresh and excellent. Roger Zelazny did that for a while, and that's why some of his early triumphs are still revered while his later works are disdained and there are people annoyed (or at least disappointed) with him -- he's settled back into the easy and the comfortable.

And the people who write "neo-pulp" are doing that and worse. They're not pushing at the boundaries ... nor even standing beside them, but retreating at speed to the old limitations, the old ideas and the old ways.
I thought this was an interesting distinction to make, and one I am mostly sympathetic too, since the pulp era fascinates me. I'm not sure I'd say the old pulp writers were writing the best they knew how, or the best way that was available to them, but rather that they were doing what they could under the circumstances -- circumstances that required writers to churn out a tremendous amount of words to be able to make a living. And yet a living could be made, and an audience existed, and the interaction between what the writers and publishers were capable of producing is an interaction worth as much study, I think, as the interactions that produced various other sorts of texts at the time.

The same issue of Algol contains a letter from Brian Stableford that also brings up some ideas worth considering:
The great majority of the words which are produced and read under the label of SF are not well-written, but are nevertheless successful -- indeed, may well be more successful than SF which is well written. ... I am not applauding this fact, but I am trying to explain it. From the point of view of the aesthetic critic, of course, it is not a fact which needs explaining -- the aesthetic critic accepts that 90% of everything is worthless and henceforward is content to ignore that 90%. If the fact that large numbers of people enjoy and prefer this 90% occurs to him at all it is simply seen as confirmation of his own aesthetic superiority. Literary criticism, being an entirely artificial discipline, thrives on its self-justificatory elitism. As a sociologist of literature, however, I cannot accept such narrow perspectives. I want to know why people read what they do, and why they enjoy it. The considerations of the literary critic are, by and large, irrelevant to this enquiry simply by virtue of the fact that the literary critic dismisses 90% of readers and 90% of writers as external to his own interests. Because literary critics denounce all literature save the favoured 10% in a derisive (and often ill-mannered) fashion, some literary critics have assumed that because I am interested in the remaining 90% I must be aggressively attacking the favoured ten. Let me assure them that this is not so.
I don't share the hostility toward "literary critics" (a straw-man argument, methinks, though perhaps less so then than now) or even aesthetic criticism that Stableford shows here -- and I wouldn't be surprised if he himself would today, more than thirty years later, say things differently (a person really should not be held accountable to the views expressed thirty years ago in a letter to a fanzine!). What I like about what he says here, though, is the distinction between literary criticism and literary sociology. I don't know that they always have to be separate worlds, or that the two techiques cannot talk to each other productively, but I find it a helpful way to separate my own tendencies and desires as a reader and writer.

1 comment:

  1. This is exactly why it frustrates me that Tor keeps getting people to do sequels to pulp novels; some books from that era have withstood the test of time, but most have not, because a tremendous part of their value lies in novelty. It's almost impossible to enjoy Slan as a modern reader because of having read so many things that were derived from or inspired by it!

    As for that 90%, I think there's really some talent in writing crap that people like. Rowling arguably has it. Dan Brown has it for sure. Danielle Steel and Piers Anthony used to have that skill; not sure whether they still do. There's no denying that their writing techniques leave a fair amount to be desired, but the books they write are enjoyable, and there are plenty of people who are technically proficient writers who simply can't imbue their work with that spark that makes people want to read and reread it. I think it's a grave error to discount the ability to write enjoyable crap... not least given the sales numbers of the people named above.

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