Thought Projectors 3
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these but a very short notice reviewing gig deprived me of the couple of days in which I had planned to write something a bit more substantial. I have also come to the end of my slate of reviews for external publication meaning that, like the ocean in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, I languish in the doldrums of structureless being and wait for the arrival of new projects and inspirations.
Speaking of projects, I am currently in the process of taking another look at my semi-mythical history of the New Weird. I started it a couple of years ago and stopped when I quit Twitter back in 2015. Since then, the project has expanded to about 35,000 words and contracted back down to about 10,000 words before stabilising somewhere in between. One of the interesting things about the New Weird project is the way it has interfaced with the rest of my thinking about science fiction, fantasy and the construction of cultural history. Some of the ideas have since gone into Interzone columns but the process of writing those columns has itself had an impact on the project as I’ve returned to the original text and revised it based upon the changes in my mood and thinking. For a while, I was happy to sit on the project indefinitely as a) I didn’t want to open my mouth about science fiction in public without the kind of 6 month bumper provided by the Future Interrupted time-delay, and b) I was happy having that large project sit at the back of my head like a creative sub-conscious. I guess the question is whether I want that sub-conscious to remain sub-conscious or whether I want to bring it out into the open, making the entire thing conscious, and move on to develop something else. Dunno. Will see.
Anyway… on with the things that have been occupying my mind of late. Warning, some of these videos are quite long but all of them are awesome.
This not particularly recent piece by Terrence Rafferty is the type of essay that got me interested in criticism in the first place. Ostensibly a review of several recent works of crime fiction written by women, the article steps back from its supposed subject matter and provides an overview of an entire field. Now… this in and of itself is something of an accomplishment as the essay touches on dozens of books and manages to say something interesting about nearly all of them. However, what makes this type of critical writing enjoyable is the critic’s willingness to take a further step back and consider what the world of 21st Century female-authored crime fiction can tell us about the way that women see themselves at this point in history. The funny thing about this type of question is that while there have been countless essays written about the state of contemporary masculinity as viewed through books and films, it is still quite rare to see lengthy critical essays ask those types of questions about femininity or the female condition.
People discussing criticism often assume that the basic building block of critical practice is the review and that critics must therefore be in the business of articulating opinions about individual cultural objects. While I don’t think this is wrong per se, I think it is an understanding of critical practice that is overly reliant on images of critics as either academic researchers who learn everything there is to know about a particular text or cultural gatekeepers who assess new works and offer their opinions as to which ones are worthy of consideration. Pieces like Rafferty’s throw a third model into the mix, that of the critic as a storyteller who provides you with a cultural context that can inform both your understanding of particular texts and your choices as to which texts you choose to read.
I own quite a lot of published criticism and while I enjoy a well-written and insightful review, the pieces that keep me coming back are those that tell me how that cultural object fits into a wider world. To some extent, the exact nature of the object in question is neither here nor there… What I want to know about is the world that produced the object in the first place.
I’ll return to this issue later on but I think it’s worth bearing this idea in mind when thinking about how cultural products are marketed and how different cultural spaces attend to different types of narrative.
This relatively recent piece by Elif Batuman gets very close to articulating my exact position on this summer’s attempted reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise. This was a film that I desperately wanted to like as I adore all of the actors, I adore the creative team behind the project, and I desperately want something… anything… to shake up the bottomless horror that Hollywood’s summer output has become. Much to my chagrin, I found Ghostbusters 2016 to be a frustratingly slapdash affair in that neither the world nor the characters seemed to have been given enough room in which to breathe. Watching the film was a bit like wandering around a ruined priory in that you could see where the character arcs and world-building were supposed to have gone but you really had to use your imagination and good will to force the entire thing into a recognisable shape. For example, I don’t understand why the film spends a good 25 minutes dealing with Kristen Wiig’s lack of faith in ghosts only to not pay that amount of character-building off either in a scene where she rebuilds her friendship with Melissa McCarthy’s character or in a scene where she has to convince people in authority that ghosts actually exist. If Kristen Wiig’s relationship with either the supernatural or being believed is not going to provide the film with an emotional spine, why spend that amount of time establishing it? In truth, I suspect that there’s a version of this film where the entire film hinges on Wiig’s character (and women in general) being believed and accepted as authorities in their own right but the relevant scenes never made it into the final edit.
Batuman also raises an interesting question as to the film’s political message. She correctly points out that the original film is all about private enterprise shaming public sector fools but the remake is arguably just as right-wing in its own way. Batuman argues that the new Ghostbusters are probably Clinton supporters because while they are — by their own admission — dumped on the entire time, they also want the world to stay exactly as it is.
Some political commentators argue that 21st Century liberalism is actually a form of conservatism as while liberals want more justice and equality in the world, that desire only seems to extend as far as making our social hierarchies more representative. They never seem interested in dismantling the institutions and structures responsible for the social inequalities they claim to despise. Even if the 1% came to be made up of nothing but representatives of historically marginalised groups, that would still leave 99% of the population at the mercy of market forces. The fundamental conservatism of the Ghostbusters worldview is further driven home at the film’s climax when the evil mastermind turns back the clock on New York to a time before gentrification had priced already-marginalised groups out of the city. Far from viewing this lost world as a way of reconnecting with the historically marginalised, the film presents it as a dystopia that needs to be returned to the hell from which it sprang.
This fairly recent piece by David Stubbs raises some really interesting questions about the ebb and flow of racism and anti-racism in popular music culture over the last forty years. It begins by showing quite how easy it used to be for people to hold horribly racist views whilst enjoying not only wealth and social status but also wide-spread popular appeal. The article goes on to suggest that while British society has become less-and-less tolerant of overt racism, this shift in rhetorical standards has been accompanied by an old-fashioned dose of British hypocrisy in so far as non-white musicians are now finding it considerably harder to reach mainstream audiences than even a decade ago.
Stubbs wisely associates the growing and counter-intuitive whiteness of British popular culture with the growing reluctance of British institutions to do their bit and help break down the barriers blocking access to media-based social hierarchies. One of my first long-term relationships was with a director of Human Resources who always stressed the importance of rigid and open hiring practices precisely because it prevented people from hiring their mates and family-members. Institutions like the media and politics seem to rely solely upon flows of social capital to determine access and so these hierarchies tend to reproduce themselves in exactly the same ways. As anarchist thinkers like James C. Scott make clear, institutions will always seek to further their own self-interests unless forced to assume responsibilities beyond their narrow tactical purviews.
It is here that my personal politics are at their most conflicted as while my first instinct is to do away with all hierarchical institutions and embrace the universal horizontalism of anarchism, I recognise that a) anarchy is perhaps not a workable solution for advanced industrial societies, and that b) other people seem to enjoy social hierarchies and being-in-groups a whole lot more than I ever have. I suspect that one’s views of community are shaped — at least in part — by one’s experiences of family life and I suspect that my generalised hostility to all forms of social hierarchy is based in the fact that my family life was always unrelentingly awful. So while I may be over-correcting for my own conscious biases, I tend to think that hierarchies should be broken down, and forced to become not only more representative of society as a whole but also more responsive to society and more responsible to the societies from which they draw their power. The following video surfaced not long before the BBC’s charter renewal and it features the British comic Lenny Henry arguing for a commissioning process that would build diversity and representation right into the fabric of the BBC’s commissioning process. The entire conference is really fascinating but I recommend fast-forwarding to the 12-minute mark when Lenny Henry puts forward his model for a BBC that actively works to confront the kinds of social problems that have long been fostered by large institutions and social hierarchies.
This very recent piece by Adam Roberts struck a series of chords. As someone who still struggles to understand how I managed to get anywhere near an awards short-list, I have limited sympathy for people who view their failure to win or get nominated for awards as some sort of personal setback or affront to the smooth functioning of the universe. I understand that authors have professional skin in the awards game and that success or failure at an awards ceremony can make the difference between securing another contract and being forced to write your next novel on spec before traipsing about the place trying to get it published. I understand the economic dimension of the awards process but I also think that any critique of the publishing industry that begins and ends with awards is doomed not just to fail intellectually, but also to come across as a case of sour grapes. For every great author denied the security of a contract there are dozens of potential giants who never managed to get their first novel published and so wound up having their talents broken on the wheel of a genre publishing industry that is manifestly no longer fit for purpose. This being said, I feel for Adam personally and think that his piece touches on a number of really important points that intersect with how I see the current state of the genre culture.
I think that genre culture is in a state of socio-economic flux. The economics of genre publishing are under pressure because the wave of corporate buyouts that took place over the last couple of decades have made it really difficult to publish works that might not hit big right now but will probably stick around for years to come. Add to this change of corporate culture the fact that Amazon has devoured the entire book-selling industry and the margins become about as small as the desire to take risks. Genre publishing has never been either the most agile or the most rational of economic actors meaning that it took years for the industry to realise that science fiction was in trouble commercially and to begin shifting its towards the fantasy genre. Now that the market for commercial fantasy has begun to contract, genre publishing finds itself struggling to find a new cash cow as its lack of agility means that it missed the boat on young adult fiction and now finds itself trying to tap into a saturated marketplace without the prestige or the money to lure big name young adult writers. Its path to the economic escape pods engulfed in flame, the larger genre imprints can now be seen flapping around trying to publish woke variations on the same tired commercial genre themes that landed them in their current economic rut. As everyone scrambles to find some form of economic certainty, the pressure flows from the publishers at the top of the social hierarchy right down to the fans who sit at the bottom.
This pressure has warped the fabric of genre culture and effectively sucked all of English-language fandom into the gears of a creatively bankrupt and economically desperate American publishing industry where people are expected to attach themselves to one of two ideologically-themed street teams. Those not interested in either neo-fascist boosterism or liberal boosterism are marginalised, ignored, and eventually bullied into silence should they fail to conform.
The publishing industry may have been slow to pick up on changes to economic realities but genre culture has been quick to abandon the flawed horizontalism of traditional fan culture and replace it with a rigid class structure in which fans play the roles of passive consumers and unpaid marketers that are common elsewhere in geek culture. For those operating within the confines of genre culture’s social hierarchies, the changes are almost universally positive as the sexism and racism of the past have been replaced with a more economically efficient set of hierarchies that appear more representative of fandom as a whole. Never mind that the gap between those at the top and the bottom of those hierarchies has massively expanded. Never mind that people at the bottom of the pile have far less opportunity to have an impact on the culture than even five years ago. Never mind that genre culture has spent the last couple of years enforcing its already questionable social mores with a degree of brutality that would have been all but unthinkable in previous eras. Never mind that the pressure to conform has dissolved friendships, ended conversations and resulted in the creation of a culture where only those with the backing of publishers and large websites feel empowered to share their thoughts. These days, nothing gets discussed and everything is sold.
This relates to Roberts’ lament as I think one of the casualties of coarsening of genre culture has been books — like The Thing Itself — that are published outside of the US and whose pleasures do not easily fit into the established narratives of genre culture. In genre publishing, certain books have always sold themselves while other books only found their audience thanks to a certain kind of critical discourse that has come under pressure thanks to the campaign to make genre culture a better fit for the economic needs of the American publishing industry.
Usually, when this type of argument gets trotted out, it concludes with a more-or-less veiled call for the creation of gatekeepers who can assemble recommendation lists using a sort mechanism more humane than the competition between rival publishing companies’ marketing spends. Gatekeepers are one solution to the problem but I am perfectly capable of finding my own books to read and the last thing anyone wants is another bunch of jerks throwing their weight around and telling you what to read. No, the problem is not a lack of gatekeepers but the loss of a particular set of cultural narratives.
Humans crave meaning but have little appetite for truth.When trying to determine our beliefs we do not — like good Cartesians — trim the pubic hair of wisdom back to the itchy flesh of truth. Instead, we tend to latch onto sets of intuitions informed as much as blind prejudice as by our lived experience and the things we know to be objectively true. These intuitions guide not only how we respond to individual arguments and pieces of information, but also to how we view social groups and the ideologies that grow in and out of them. The quest for meaning is not just about the satisfaction of epistemological instincts, it is also about finding a place to stand and people to stand with. In the parlance of our times, you pick your own hill and you die on it.
The marketplace of ideas is full of attractive-looking hills and people make fortunes either by creating hills that appeal to other people or by building gardens and sun-terraces in already existing mountain ranges. These more-or-less ambitious forms of spiritual property development are nothing more or less than acts of cultural criticism: You are telling people what things mean, why they mean what they mean, and why their individual actions are important. Politicians and the mainstream media is in the business of performing cultural criticism for their followers and we are currently seeing the mountain-range of the third way undermined by its own failed promises resulting in a three-way bunfight between the hard right, the far left, and people who think that you can keep the third way alive by striking a balance between overt racism and the linguistic gymnastics of intersectional theory.
A similar battle is currently under way in genre culture as the 2000s attempt to re-invigorate genre writing by splicing the intellectual ambitions of science fiction into commercial fantasy resulted not so much in a new dawn as a stay of execution. When the pulps collapsed, genre culture adopted the language of literary sophistication in an effort to attach the field to the market for mainstream literature. When the market for conventional science fiction collapsed, genre culture adopted the language of evaporating genres in an effort to force the two markets together. Now that the market for epic fantasy is beginning to collapse, genre culture is scrabbling to reform its institutions and adopt the language of diversity in an effort to move closer to the (far more diverse) market for young adult fiction. Each change in rhetoric is a response to changing economic realities just as each change in rhetoric is a product of cultural criticism and an effort to provide a meaning and context to those who read, write, and spend money in genre spaces.
Roberts may frame his lament in terms of his own personal success and failure but the substance of his piece is that genre culture has changed from a place that supported works like The Thing Itself to a place that ignores works like The Thing Itself whilst lavishing attention on far less ambitious and commercial forms of writing. Nina Allan and Ian Sales do excellent work unravelling these strands and I won’t so much re-hash what they say as nod along in vague agreement before expanding and personalising the critique.
Rather than obsessing over the means by which this cultural shift was achieved or blaming those who saw the way the wind was blowing, I think it is worth pointing out that the reason genre culture shifted to a passive consumerist model of engagement is that people — like myself — have failed to make the case for an alternative vision of what it means to be a fan. We have failed to reach out to those who approach the field in an engagingly critical fashion. We have failed to defend a discourse that prizes honesty and insight over the ability to attach oneself to the PR machines of popular authors. We have failed to make a sustained case for the relevance of difficult books and when I say difficult I do not mean inherently superior or aesthetically more worthy, I simply mean books that approach the field at an acute angle and work outside of the broad commercial narratives about what it is that a science fiction novel is supposed to do. Ten years ago, The Thing Itself would have made it onto the Clarke short-list and its failure to do so would have sustained the cultural conversation for months on end. The reason people have not been discussing The Thing Itself in genre spaces is that the culture that once supported that type of discussion has allowed itself to be eroded, undermined, and blown away. For this, we must blame ourselves as to do anything else would be to repeat the mistakes of traditional fanzine fandom who spent a couple of decades hissing at interlopers without ever once stopping to consider why it was that nobody new ever chanced their arm at creating a fanzine.
I have issues with the state of genre culture but my biggest issue is with our failure to articulate an alternative. Books like The Thing Itself will never be celebrated unless we support a culture that encourages those sorts of books and the commentary that surrounds them.