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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
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Daniel Green
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Joseph Kugelmass
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thanks to Adam Roberts, even academics writing books about comics are insufferable elitists.

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/21/09 at 09:54 PM

If you hadn’t noticed, one of my esteemed co-bloggers recently exploded the internet, such that people are saying things like:

Oh, I see. Popular is bad. Common feeling among self-defined elites.

That would be Kevin Standlee, responding to Rich Puchalsky and I on one of Adam Robert’s many other blogs.  The three of us are, in Standlee’s estimation, elitists who hate science fiction:

Oh, I see, you’re saying that anyone who likes SF is stupid.

Those words were written in response to a post that argues:

[T]he very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of science fiction if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?

I would frame that argument differently: when I read science fiction, I want to replicate the wonder my nine-year-old self experienced when he first read Frederik Pohl’s Gateway.  I had never considered the possibility that the universe might be littered with the archeological remains of civilizations snuffed out before the proto-pre-dawn of human history.  The thought of it was so sublime that, a decade later, I watched five seasons of Babylon 5 trying to recapture it.  Not that I’ve stopped, mind you, but when you consider the sheer volume of science fiction I’ve consumed in the twenty years since I read Gateway, I think you can see why that experience is increasingly illusive: more often than not, what I read contains ideas I’ve already encountered, so the only avenue to awe is through the quality of execution.  There are exceptions—Perdido Street Station being the one example, Adam’s conceptually audacious novels being another—but they merely apply meat to Adam’s claim that the nominees for the 2009 Hugo Awards fail to engender what proper science fiction should; namely, Schopenhauer’s sublime

[I]f the beholder [of a work of art] does not direct his attention to this eminently hostile relation to his will, but, although perceiving and recognizing it, turns consciously away from it, forcibly detaches himself from his will and its relations, and, giving himself up entirely to knowledge, quietly contemplates those very objects that are so terrible to the will, comprehends only their Idea, which is foreign to all relation, so that he lingers gladly over its contemplation, and is thereby raised above himself, his person, his will, and all will—in that case he is filled with the sense of the sublime, he is in the state of spiritual exaltation, and therefore the object producing such a state is called sublime.

If Schopenhauer’s baroque prose doesn’t do it for you,, even though he attributes to Kant an elaboration that properly belongs to Schopenhauer, Žižek’s nice and pithy:

The Sublime is therefore the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unrepresentable.

I don’t think I’m being pedantic when I point out that a conversation that’s been going on almost 2,000 years and concerns how literature works in/on people’s heads is relevant.  But I would say that, as would Adam:

I’m so sick and tired of these elitist blowhards with doctorates in whatever looking down from their ivy league towers and scoffing at the lowly undergrads working the fields. Dude, so what! You spent three years studying the works of Robert Browning . . . writing a hundred-thousand-word dissertation on his blah, blah, blah. Just what the hell does Robert Browning have to do with twenty-first century science fiction anyway? Do you really, really think that your PhD in poetry makes you the resident genius in the science fiction community? I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from a reputable university. I published three science fiction short stories with the undergraduate review, acquired a brick of rejection slips from Asimov et al, won an academic prize in Religion, and have written a science fiction novel, which I’m now shopping around to the trade publishers. Now, in your world, does this mean that my opinion matters more than some “uneducated” science fiction fan mucking it out in the real world, but less than yours? Because let’s face it, Roberts. Academia is not the real world. It’s where over-opinionated literary daydreamers like you end up, grinding it out with the nineteen year olds year after year, feeling superior because of the Latin on your wall. Well, I got lots of Latin on my wall too, Bard.

Where do you even begin with a blanket dismissal like this?  By pointing to the fact that having dedicated years to the study of a particular subject might be a good thing?  By noting that Adam’s post contained none of the classist rhetoric this commenter attributes to him?  Or by pointing out that his idea of what Adam thinks and does reminds me of nothing so much as a Cambridge police officer stuffing a certain prominent academic into a hilariously inappropriate box?  You are, this commenter insists, what I say you are, and should you disagree with his mischaracterization, he’ll repeat himself:

McAuley’s The Quiet War? That’s my point with ego-flexing academics like Adam Roberts. They always go with obscure writings. It makes them look more smarty-pants than the lowly serfs tilling the fields (most of whom couldn’t even fathom what a pair of pants were; burlap sacks they’d know, of course). Trust me, Adam Roberts spends hours a week researching obscure quotes and references to out of print book titles for the sole purpose of milking his own Bovine somatotropin-injected udders and ceremonially serving it to the lactose intolerant masses like a sacred Hindu cow.

I quote this commenter’s vitriol at length not because it’s typical of aggreived fanboys whose mettle is daily tested by the slings and arrows of imaginary persecutors with outrageous fortunes (although it is), nor because I think such screeds against the expertise of experts is so atypical as to warrant an extra ration of sunlight (because it ain’t); no, I reprint them at such length because they are made at such length, and as such, are indicative not of a reasonable quibble with a particular institution so much as the complete devaluation of the Umgangssprache that fans of science fiction who happen to be academics could use to communicate with the community at large.  I realize that Umgangssprache is a loaded term, but I don’t mean to say that academics speak the standard form while fans speak the dialect, merely that when the very fact of belonging to one group or the other precludes the development of a common tongue, that’s a situation in which the imaginative paucity of the bigoted party becomes meaningful. 

Because if, as I described above, science fiction is about exploring but failing to encompass that which can’t be known, people like this commenter aren’t ever really experiencing science fiction.  They’re reading books they bought from the ghetto labeled as such, but they’re not reading them in the spirit in which, ideally, they were written; and if there are awards designed to reflect the tastes of such readers, they shouldn’t purport to be representing science fiction, because that’s a category error.  They’re pablum that happens to take place in space, in the distant future, on a platform orbiting near a black hole and peopled by characters flattened into convention by authors who assume too much. 

Not that any of the current nominees have produced such pablum, mind you.  Nor should any of the other participants in this debate should see themselves reflected in my response to those comments, as there are some eminently reasonable, yet openly critical, responses to Adam’s initial post.  But it’s the direction the genre’s headed if its most passionate fans angrily insist on rewarding works antithetical to genre’s motivating spirit.


Comments

Do you reckon SF has any historical entanglement with being, you know, simply beautiful rather than sublime?  Delightful, entertaining, formally well-balanced?  I think most folks might agree that being both beautiful and sublime is better than being just one or the other, and the Hugos do tend to pick those works out for nomination (not always, but looking over my short list of books that have achieved it, pretty darned often).  Since I agree this year’s slate falls a little heavily on the entertaining side rather than the deep and thought-provoking, I’d guess that when no work unambiguously reaches both heights, the beautiful wins.  Seriously.  It’s a popularity contest, so that’s kind of how it’s supposed to be, I think.  This isn’t rocket science.

By on 07/21/09 at 11:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scalzi’s original post is littered with dog-whistle anti-intellectualism and so it shouldn’t be a surprise when the whistle attracts a few mutts.

I think the question of what SF awards are actually for is a valid one.  Adam has been exploring it in different ways for a while now and I think it is an entirely valid line of questioning that deserves a lot better than Scalzi’s passive-aggression and Standlee’s histrionics.

By Jonathan M on 07/22/09 at 03:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

[T]he very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing.

I don’t think this is actually a very good description of what most literature does. Picking some of the canon at random, I don’t remember much that I’d call mindblowing in Anna Karenina or Dubliners or Ada or Henry V. Was Jane Austen, by writing novels for middle-class English people about middle-class English people, really trying to “draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them”?

By on 07/22/09 at 07:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For what is the point of science fiction if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?

Following up, I think this is an unnecessarily blunt reduction of SF to sense-of-wonder alone. Lots of great SF wasn’t about sensawunda, it was written as satire or political advocacy or social commentary - most of HG Wells, for instance.

By on 07/22/09 at 07:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Was Jane Austen, by writing novels for middle-class English people about middle-class English people, really trying to “draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them”?

My short, snarky answer: Um, yes.  And your other examples only prove the point further.  I mean, Dubliners?  That was a pretty mind-blowing experience when I first encountered it.

By on 07/22/09 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s bracket off the usual Punch-and-Judy antics of academics v. the public or what’s popular vs. what’s artistic for a moment.

I’m more interested in the driving force of Adam’s particular valuations of good and mediocre SF (and by implication other fictional) work. Namely, as I read it, the first and primary quality of good work is its aesthetic novelty, its sense of individual distinctiveness from other work, its originality.

This is a pretty distinctively modernist & romantic way to value artistic or cultural work. This is not to say it’s wrong, but it is to say that it is maybe a more particular and less intuitive argument about what makes for good culture than the critics who implicitly or explicitly rely upon tend to think.

It is a view that has a lot of influence still in contemporary culture, and isn’t limited to cultural critics, but it does tend to be especially pronounced among folks who have an especially intense interest in and knowledge about a particular cultural subsystem, genre, school or work, what have you. It’s also an especially strong assumption about good and bad work among critics who have very strong reputational or professional capital invested in critical knowledge about a field or genre of cultural work.

Like I said, you can make the argument about novelty and originality on its own merits--though sometimes I’m struck that the cultural critics who highly value novelty and originality don’t necessarily seem to buy into a lot of what strike me as long-time accompanying arguments about heroic individuality, etc. But you could also argue that a high value to originality is in the self-interest of critics with extensive knowledge of and experience in a particular cultural subsystem in two respects.

First, they’ve seen so much of a particular kind of work that they gain disproportionate pleasure at some new variation or innovation, and are disproportionately bored or frustrated by work that closely resembles what they’ve already seen. E.g., this is about basic consumer psychology, not necessarily a fully worked-out critical theory. For a consumer of culture with less experience, the first work they encounter in a field can seem startling and novel, and older work encountered later can seem anachronistically derivative. I used to think the Honeymooners mice on Warner Brothers cartoons were the original and the Honeymooners sitcom was the derived property when I was a kid: but I still found the mice funny when I first saw them.

Second, you could argue that the relative position of a cultural critic with professional or reputation capital invested in some area of cultural work almost requires a high valuation of originality or novelty because that’s one of the things the experienced critic can notice more quickly, and one of the places where the experienced critic can actually influence other consumers, by heralding or promoting or identifying original work.

--------------

Valuing originality is a different thing than valuing craftsmanship or skill in writing as the primary mark of distinction, also. If what Adam was saying is that the work he values he values for its superior craftmanship, then I think things get much murkier, because Scalzi (for example) strikes me as a very skilled writer in terms of creating a voice, tone and situation, using words to strike a mood, etc.. If craftmanship = originality, then that’s a pretty distinctive use of that term.

I guess if I read Adam right, he could also mean that quality is defined not quite by originality or distinctive individuality but by something in the content of fiction: say, that Delany’s take on sexuality is more challenging or original or thoughtful or provocative than Heinlein’s. Ok, much as with valuing originality, I’ll cop to thinking something like this myself. But man, this is a tough road to go down once you start thinking it through, because it very easily leads to wanting fiction to simply mirror your own checklist of valued ideas, ideologies, beliefs, etc., to mirror your most complimentary understanding of your own subjectivity. I mean, if we accept that Heinlein’s take on sexuality is that of a randy male teenager, why do we assume that’s *easy* or *simple* or somehow something that we the reader already have mastered, discarded or understood sufficiently, that we’re ready to move onto less priapic, more polymorphous, more interior, more contradictory sexualities in our SF?

By Timothy Burke on 07/22/09 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tom, I think you must have a very easily blown mind.

By on 07/22/09 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But man, this is a tough road to go down once you start thinking it through, because it very easily leads to wanting fiction to simply mirror your own checklist of valued ideas, ideologies, beliefs, etc., to mirror your most complimentary understanding of your own subjectivity.

I don’t think this is what Adam is saying.  I guess, Timothy, I’m a little confused about what exactly bothers you about “originality.” Why shouldn’t this be a consideration when evaluating new work?  Adam isn’t advocating simply that books mirror his own ideas about sex or whatnot, but that the SF world is already too full of books whose ideas about sex haven’t progressed much beyond Heinlein.  Better to promote and award work that is more “original” with its ideas and approaches.  It’s not that he would prefer books he agreed with, but books that approach these and other ideas in new ways.

I don’t think that “Valuing originality is a different thing than valuing craftsmanship or skill in writing as the primary mark of distinction,” or at least not usually.  There are people who write beautifully about stupid stories, and people with great stories who write poorly.  But the kind of new and exciting original works that ought to be promoted would, it seems to me, usually have both these things.  For originality of craftsmanship is half the battle.  Maybe in SF this isn’t as obvious as other genres, since SF places a lot more premium on “ideas,” but the best and most original SF writers are also great craftsmen (and women).

By on 07/22/09 at 02:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a science fiction author, I want my stories to entertain and distract readers from the evening news. It’s important that the characters in my stories are well-developed and the plot is complete. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.

By Sharon E. Dreyer on 07/22/09 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"As a science fiction author, I want my stories to entertain and distract readers from the evening news.”

It’s a mystery where science fiction gets its reputation for fluffy escapism.

Oh, and put me in the column that says that Dubliners is mind-blowing, for whatever that’s worth.

By tomemos on 07/22/09 at 04:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"As a science fiction author, I want my stories to entertain and distract readers from the evening news”

What?  :-O

You want to distract your readers from watching the news?  What ever for?  Why would you want to prevent people from knowing what’s going on in the world?

I don’t agree with Scalzi but at least he doesn’t want his readers bare-foot and ignorant.

By Jonathan M on 07/22/09 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s not be too hard on the beginning author.  Sharon, though, please don’t put ads for your book on unrelated threads, it’s annoying.  And please—to anticipate your next probable response—don’t comment again to apologize and in the process write something else about your book.

Getting back to the subject at hand, Scott, you probably understood my problem with Adam’s original post before Scalzi’s ridiculous concern trolling sucked up all the oxygen.  Aren’t you doing a version of the same thing with “it’s the direction the genre’s headed if its most passionate fans angrily insist on rewarding works antithetical to genre’s motivating spirit.” But that was always the core fan community in the U.S., ever since the “Golden Age”, wasn’t it?  There was always this fake populism, this insistence on pulp values without the honesty of limited pulp resources, this proud self-description as people of ideas who held proudly to invincible ignorance.  Can you really imply that this is new, or that it’s going in a direction that’s new?

Let me suggest the reverse. This period is the last gasp of that particular fan subculture.  Let’s just let it go.  The proper response to the Hugo shortlist should be “who cares”, not “they aren’t voting for literary SF”.  The SF section of the bookstores is slowly but surely being taken over by books with a dragon or a guy with a sword on the cover rather than a spaceship, and the trend towards more literary SF among what remains is, if anything, growing.

By on 07/22/09 at 05:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan M: Perhaps you misunderstood my comment. It’s not that I “. . . want to prevent people from knowing what’s goin on in the world;” it’s that everyone needs some distraction from the worries of everyday life. This is especially true for people with high pressure jobs. Finally, I do not my readers to be “. . . barefoot and ignorant” because they wouldn’t be able to read my books, much less enjoy my stories.

By Sharon E. Dreyer on 07/22/09 at 06:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good grief, an argument about as old as I am. Does it precede Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, Milford, and the Nebulas? As in Stapledon vs Doc Smith? Whatever happened to the Nebulas anyway, nobody seems to have mentioned them.

And one snob with one philistine born to carry on, I suppose

By on 07/22/09 at 10:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, this is odd. I was fortunate enough to read Adam’s post before it was bludgeoned with the Scalzi-hammer, and it didn’t even occur to me that it was anything controversial.

I don’t find it controversial, for one thing, to say that an award broadly recognized as the canonical register of achievement in the field has a certain responsibility to uphold - a responsibility to be a) a representative guide to the genre that new readers can and will use as a reliable source of introductory recommendations, and b) a historically valuable document of what the genre was and where it promises to go. Diversity, innovation, and some measure of risk are all reasonable expectations: anything less would fail to represent the literary depth of SF/F, of which academics are already well aware.

I would argue, however, that the alleged failure of the Hugo shortlist to live up to this mandate (I say “alleged”, having read none of the shortlisted titles myself) is an intractable structural problem for any awards determined by public ballot at the exclusion of open critical debate. Individual readers don’t appear to vote for individual books with this mandate in mind. Like many long-standing industry awards, the Hugo gets by on the momentum of how long it’s already been around, which tends to have the side effect of retroactively creating a reified canon.

And any award that rightfully recognized The Yiddish Policemen’s Union can’t be that hermetic. How quickly people forget.

By Nicholas Tam on 07/23/09 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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