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SF/F: Field, or Dangerfield?

Thursday, October 8th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

“When I was a kid I got no respect. When my parents got divorced there was a custody fight over me… and no one showed up.”

–Rodney Dangerfield

Somewhere, even as I type, there is someone wearing a tuxedo who is looking at a piece of sf/f with an expession of scorn so intense that it hurts all genre readers everywhere. Isn’t there?

No. This person (variously called “the Establishment,” “the literati,” “English professors,” “the critics,” “your mom,” etc.) is largely imaginary and his power to hurt genre readers with his contempt is wholly imaginary. I’m not saying that no critic, no English professor, no mom has never expressed a hurtful opinion towards some genre or genre work. I am saying that markets for fiction are too diverse to be controlled by any centralized network of opinion.

But even if “the Establishment” (or whatever it’s called) actually existed, cries of outrage like this or this would still be pointless.

[Sail the whine-dark sea beyond the jump.]


_____

There are two problems with whining for somebody’s respect. One is that it never works. Whining is indeed a powerful force: it can compel harried parents to buy stuff for their kids; it can get people money, political influence, fame, and money (not necessarily in that order). But it can’t get you love, since it works by annoying the person it targets, and it can’t get you respect, since it emphasizes the whiner’s subservience to the person whined at–the whinee, I guess.

But, apart from the method, there’s something wrong with the goal. (I’ve beaten this drum before, but there’s no fun in beating a drum or a dead horse only once.) Respect comes in a package deal with respectability, and that’s good for bankers, accountants, physicians, attorneys, academics, civil servants. But it’s not good for clowns, jugglers, butter-sculptors and other creative types. Respectability sets limit; creativity has to push limits. Respectability counts pennies; creativity “capers in the marketplace for pennies” (to steal from Ursula Le Guin–not for the first or last time). Respectability turns the key on the lock of life to keep it safe. Creativity may break the lock or make it, but isn’t interested in using it or being constrained by it.

If genre fiction wants to go on being creative, productive of new ideas and new dreams and new stories, it should steer clear of the respectable. That way blandness lies.

10 Comments »

  1. All my heroes came from the genre ghetto, and I can think of none greater.

    Comment by Bill Ward - October 8, 2009 2:16 am

  2. How refreshing!

    After reading the John Howell article yesterday my mood took a down-turn. But I like your argument better anyway – I believe I shall make others aware of it.

    It is so easy to get uppity and desperate! Better to put on the red nose and throw butter sculptures at “The Establishment.”

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - October 8, 2009 11:42 am

  3. Hey Bill: All the stuff I really love in the genre is “deep genre”–if there are no talking squids in space (or the heroic fantasy equivalent–multilegged screaming mushrooms, maybe), I’m not interested. If the people who pick the Booker (or whatever) aren’t interested in that, that’s okay with me.

    Hey Claire:

    Throwing butter sculpture has got to be a better strategy. Has any army using butter sculpture as a weapon ever lost a culture war? Not as far as I know! Q.E.D.!

    Comment by James Enge - October 8, 2009 10:49 pm

  4. Respectability turns the key on the lock of life to keep it safe. Creativity may break the lock or make it, but isn’t interested in using it or being constrained by it.

    Beautifully put! English departments are chockablock with people who thought academia would be a fine day job for a novelist, and almost all of them give up writing fiction of any kind before they finish their degrees. Most of their muses die of respectability poisoning.

    I remember when I was working up my courage to leave academia, I got into a long argument with the ghost of Ezra Pound. “What do you got that I ain’t got?” I asked him, because in addition to being an okay poet, I was also a much nicer person than Pound, and, at least by comparison, pretty sane. Not that those distinctions are hard to accomplish.

    “You’re such a good girl,” said Pound’s ghost. “You’ve never quit anything, flunked out of anything, gotten caught at anything, gotten kicked out of anything, or had to high-tail it out of anything. You don’t need to take up anti-semitism or infidelity, but for gods’s sakes, get fired at least once in your life.”

    I’d like to say I took his advice, but all the non-tenure-track people in my department got laid off in a budget crisis before I could do anything to deserve a dismissal. He’s some of the reason I stayed gone, though. Bless nutty, nasty old Ezra.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - October 10, 2009 12:02 am

  5. in addition to being an okay poet, I was also a much nicer person than Pound, and, at least by comparison, pretty sane. Not that those distinctions are hard to accomplish.

    No doubt! I do like some of EP’s poetry (especially the shorter stuff) and I appreciate the careful and sympathetic editing and counsel he gave to TSE, for instance. But, in lots of ways, he really did put the rat in rat-bastard.

    Academia’s frosty embrace is dangerously seductive; I’m sure lots of creativity has gone to sleep there, never to wake again. On the other hand, it does offer opportunities for reading and writing that most jobs don’t… Feeling sleepy. Senses fading…

    Comment by James Enge - October 10, 2009 1:10 am

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