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Monday, May 12, 2008

The War Between Wells and James

Posted by Adam Roberts on 05/12/08 at 12:19 PM

Over at Torque Control there’s a good account of, and interesting comment-thread discussion about, last Thursday’s day-symposium on ‘Science Fiction as a Literary Genre’ at Gresham College in London.  I couldn’t make the actual day, which was a shame for me, as it sounds like it was a cracker.  Luckily Niall Harrison gives good accounts of the papers presented by Neal Stephenson, John Clute, Dr Roger Luckhurst, Andy Sawyer, Dr Martin Willis and Professor Tim Connell.  Some interesting points get aired in the comments, not least the divide between university-academic critics or science fiction and the gentlewo/men-amateur scholars, theorists and reviewers, with which the genre is particularly lavishly supplied.  I’m particularly sorry I missed Roger Luckhurst’s paper, and not only because he’s a friend of mine and both a ferociously clever man and an excellent speaker; but because, indeed, it was on an especially interesting topic.  Click the link and you’ll see: the relationship between SF and Literary Modernism.  Niall summarises: ‘he talked about three different implications of modern: modernity, meaning a philosophically and scientifically enlightened society as we have had for the past few hundred years (in theory); modernisation, meaning the technological and ecological consequences of the industrial revolution and urbanisation; and Modernism, meaning the literary movement at the start of the twentieth century. Sf ... is a literature of modernity and modernisation but has an ambivalent relationship, at best, with Modernism.’ In the comments Nick Hubble stands up for Luckhurst’s thesis:

In defence of Luckhurst (whom I don’t know), it has to be said that his position is extremely radical for a specialist in Modern and Contemporary Literature. I should note at this point that this is also my field and so I had absolutely no problem following him because I’m familiar with the idiom and the general outlines of the positions ... What was especially striking was that he more-or-less said that sf was THE literature of modernity and concluded that what was modern about it was the absence of Modernism. People in the field of Modern and Contemporary Literature do not usually say this kind of thing (and that’s putting it mildly). So for me, that was EXCITING. I can see that others might be underwhelmed but that is because they don’t share the same underlying assumptions as people who work in Modern and Contemporary Literature. This was succinctly defined by Luckhurst as being that Henry James won the war with Wells and so came to dominate the modern definition of literary fiction. Of course, the reason others don’t share this assumption is because it is demonstrably false - only in the minds of academics and the literary elite did James win this war; the heirs of Wells, from Orwell onwards, inherited the real world and modernism burnt itself out by 1940. Therefore, what we were seeing in Luckhurst’s paper was the beginning of a sea change (well, it’s been coming some time) by which received academic opinion is transforming itself and recanting the last 100 years or so.

This is, as the thread notes, one of the core arguments of Luckhurts’s recent (and excellent) cultural history of SF, Science Fiction (Polity 2005).  I reviewed this book when it came out, for an academic journal, and although I was very positive I also carped a little.  Looking back the carping was ungracious: I complained that for a self-proclaimed cultural history of SF it was a shame Luckhurst didn’t include discussion of film and TV SF.  But this was actually a reviewerish faux pas, criticising a book by somebody else because they didn’t choose to write it exactly as I would have done.  You see it so happens that I also published a history of SF, in which one of my main arguments was that since the 1970s SF has, by and large, jumped media from written to visual forms--but of course it’s asinine to criticise Luckhurst for thinking for himself rather than sharing my peculiar views.  The other of my main arguments is that SF begins in 1600.  Luckhurst takes the much more orthodox view that SF begins in the latter half of the 19th-century, which is to say, at the same time (more or less) and determined by the same cultural logics (more or less) as Modernism.  And as such his overall thesis was much more radical, and much more exciting, than I gave it credit for in my review.  So, sorry about that: and you should buy Luckhurst’s book.  It’s very good indeed.  Better than mine, if I’m frank.

Now, positing Modernism in terms of ‘a war between Wells and James’ is, clearly, a slightly polemical way of putting it; and asserting either the victory of James, or dedicating oneself to a Maquis-style battle on Wells’s behalf, lacks a certain nuance.  It’s a shorthand, not an all-encompassing critical description.  Keen says ‘I’m not denying the influence of James—I suppose I am trying to reflect the bifurcated culture: James only won in realm of elitist literary culture and the academic modernist industry (he didn’t win in the wider world).’ He goes on ‘admittedly, those spheres are very influential and have cast a distorting material effect over the wider culture’.  I wonder whether he’s right to assert that ‘current Modernist studies are showing signs of this position [i.e. the victory of James] breaking down; but as is so often the case, the immediate result of this will be a massive retrenchment with hordes of top scholars declaring contemporary literature to have gone wrong and demanding a return to James (this is starting to happen).’ Coincidentally I have recently been rereading James and my reaction has been a sort of ingenuous surprise at how good he is.  That looks rather stupid written down there like that, but its been my reaction, prompted in part by a long period (going back to my undergraduate experience) of not especially liking James.  I’ll say more about that in a day or two.  But for now I’ll close with this: in my history I cover the period of Modernism in two chapters, one for ‘high’ cultural Modernism and one for Pulps like E E Doc Smith, although my main thesis is (given the, I argue, deeper roots of the genre) they’re basically the same thing.  By this I mean that both popular sf and High Modernist art are responding in similar ways to a similar cultural logic: that, in a nutshell, High Modernism is sf.  Proust’s Recherche, say, whatever critics have said about it, is actually a time-travel story deeply indebted to Wells’s Time Machine.  Similar cases can be made for Kafka, Marinetti, Eliot etc.  Enough! Or too much.


Comments

I also recommend his book on telepathy.

How about Jameson, re the block quote, etc. ?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 05/12/08 at 03:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would argue that High Modernism *is* the dialectic between Wells and James.  The realism that came before it—from Dickens and Eliot through to Dreiser and Wharton—seemed not to stake out an either/or on the issue.  The Modernists, no matter their ultimate position, felt the tug of war, whether it’s Joyce on pornography or West on a novel in comic form or Brecht on alienation effects.

I’m not a sci-fi expert, but it would seem that with Bradbury as a towering giant in the field—especially among young readers who first dip back into the sci-fi canon—it’s hard to take seriously the idea that sci-fi sides with Wells over Joyce.  It’s not a terribly insightful, although true, observation that *The Martian Chronicles* is Sherwood Anderson on Mars (and you can replace Cather or Toomer or early Stein for Anderson there).

As a genre that comes of age in the Age of Modernism—like noir mystery—sci-fi seems to revel in the see-saw between Wells and James.

By on 05/12/08 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

@Adam : Having read your Palgrave history, your position on this matter surprises me not in the least :-)

But I wonder if in fact, this period isn’t a bigger problem for your approach than you let on.  I take your approach to defining SF to be not a social one but an essentialist one, allowing you to have stuff be SF without it being aware that it is SF and without having any causal social relationship with the stuff we generally think of as being SF.

Now, going backwards to times when there was no SF, this works as you can talk about the roots of the genre being deeper than first thought and claiming that actually certain roman authors were doing pretty much the same stuff as Wells.

BUT, what happens when people are aware of SF and reject it?  James might not have done so (I don’t know) but there are people out there who do ostensibly the same kind of thing James was doing whilst vehemently denying the fact that it is SF.  In fact, Dave Langford does rather well for himself cataloging cases such as these.

Now, is it not problematic for your approach to have this kind of situation arise, because doesn’t it in effect force you into accepting the death of the author and thereby into the postmodernist camp?  and if so, how is your historical approach to other postmodern works of history such as Black Isis etc.

I suppose that James’ disciples could just be wrong about their own work :-)

By Jonathan M on 05/12/08 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

... What was especially striking was that he more-or-less said that sf was THE literature of modernity and concluded that what was modern about it was the absence of Modernism. People in the field of Modern and Contemporary Literature do not usually say this kind of thing (and that’s putting it mildly). So for me, that was EXCITING. I can see that others might be underwhelmed but that is because they don’t share the same underlying assumptions as people who work in Modern and Contemporary Literature.

See, the funning thing is, I’m a little bit underwhelmed by the argument, yet I count myself as someone who works (at least on occasion) in the Modern and Contemporary Literature camp.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against the argument, and I think it’s a good one. I think it’s a bit much to say that SF is THE literature of modernity, but that’s obviously hyperbole for effect. I’m just surprised that the argument needed to be made. The distinction seems to me to be another manifestation of nature/culture split and of Romanticism’s antipathy towards the latter, the influence of which on the history of ideas that followed I took for granted that everyone understood and accepted. Maybe I’m wrong to think that? Do people (i.e. of the mod and contemp lit camp) not generally make sense of modernism and modernity in terms its differential affirmation of an Enlightenment and Romantic heritage and in terms of the social and cultural changes manifesting as “the great transformation”?

By on 05/12/08 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan M: “BUT, what happens when people are aware of SF and reject it?”

Foolish of me to answer a question about Adam’s book within Adam’s thread, but on my reading of the book, people who write SF while denying doing so are simply wrong.  That’s a natural consequence of defining SF in a more or less essentialist way, even fuzzily as Adam does, as certain kinds of stories.  It’s not postmodern at all, I don’t think, and doesn’t imply any strong version of the death of the author—it only says that authors may be wrong, purposefully or inadvertently, about the genre classification of their works.

LB: “Bradbury as a towering giant in the field”

The problem is, he’s not.  What SF criticism that I’ve read on him has been pretty harsh, ever since Lem’s savaging.  And fan readers seem to mostly treat his work as nostalgic period pieces that lose their impact as his historical era fades.  He’s become a “young readers” author.

By on 05/12/08 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that this question has to be looked at within the context of SF’s internal self-image, as seen by writers and fans.  Since the 60s, SF had two paths available to it, according to people who were at all concerned with literariness within SF.  These were, in short, either to merge with mainstream literature, or to carve out some special sense in which SF could be literary in a way that was different from non-SF literary writing.  The first camp tended to take up post-modernism, if I had to generalize—Delany, say, and the repeated trope which Lethem is still grinding at that the symbol of everything going wrong was Gravity’s Rainbow‘s failure to win a Hugo.  The second camp, which I’d identify with the British New Wave centered around Moorcock, started out with what I’d characterize as Modernist experimentation.  But the problem is that the SF reading public, even the literary SF reading public, isn’t really interested in Modernist experimentation, so that can’t be the path for SF.

I tend to think of most SF as a thinly veiled vehicle for mysticism.  (Clearly I’m not the only person to do so; this is a well-known SF critical idea.) That complicates the idea of a return to SF’s “pulp roots” as alternative to either modernist or postmodernist writing.  Classic pulp SF was certainly mystical, often in a rather fascist vein.  But that’s not the *kind* of mysticism that people want now.  Until recently, what they wanted was the type in cyberpunk—the feeling that surfing a wave of technoprogress would enable them to sort of dive within themselves.  Where pulp SF reordered the entire universe according to an unthinking personal vision, cyberpunk reorders the self according to the universe. 

So the question of literary style is always, I think, going to remain temporary as long as SF remains a definable genre.  It’s going to be whatever style best allows the form of mysticism amenable to the time.

By on 05/12/08 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich—Thanks for the corrective.  Still, it seems when Bradbury’s drubbing comes from another writer modeled on the High Modernists—Lem—it’s no longer about the James/Wells debate.

By on 05/13/08 at 06:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Proust’s Recherche, say, whatever critics have said about it, is actually a time-travel story deeply indebted to Wells’s Time Machine.

I don’t know enough about Proust to know whether there’s a deeper connection with Wells (ie did he ever read Wells), but in what way is Recherche “deeply indebted” to The Time Machine? The Time Machine is after all jumping forward in time, while Recherche goes back, and the trope of a narrator “returning” to the past was hardly new or what makes Recherche a Modernist work. At best I only see the vaguest connection between the two books, certainly not a deep indebtedness.

By on 05/13/08 at 08:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To gang up on poor old Adam, I second H’s point. Much as the idea of a Proust that rubs up against SF, albeit in the loosest sense, is attractive, there’s a world of difference between time travel in the SFictional sense and the Recherche’s parsing of remembering, else we can surely add, say, Beowulf to the list.

By on 05/13/08 at 09:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Another quick point:

Luckhurst assumes that the popular sci-fi of the past, say, 50 years owes more to Wells than to James.

That seems to ignore Wells’s pedagogical, didactic purposes.  It also seems to ignore that even during Wells’s and James’s time, there was a third element—contemporary crap popular literature—that both Wells and James would have looked down on.  How much popular sci-fi shares *either* James’s modernist prose or Wells’s intense social didacticism?  (And what about another important modernist style—the clean, clear prose of Hemingway, Cather, Anderson, etc.?  That clearly has affected nearly *all* popular literature today.)

By on 05/13/08 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

James vs. Wells was more fun than Leavis vs. Snow, for sure. For such a soft-spoken guy, James was certainly involved in a lot of All-Star Punch-Ups. There’s James vs. Howells, James vs. Zola, and James vs. James, too.

Anyway, it sounds as if the symposium might have been better titled “Fictional Genres as Abstractions About Which We Can Say Any Crazy Damn Thing Whatsoever”. Neal Stephenson’s “You can’t fool me, because I’m a moron” argument must’ve sounded even sillier than usual with a stylist as daunting as John Clute sitting right there. In their very different ways, English sf writers Clute, China Mieville, Gwyneth Jones, M. John Harrison, and Stephen Baxter all seem less “accessible” than any but the very latest Henry James.

By Ray Davis on 05/13/08 at 10:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I could swear my textbooks always held that detective fiction was the modernist genre par excellence. Did some clever academic put this one to bed without my noticing?

By on 05/13/08 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Pardon my ignorance and pedantry, but what *is* the substance of the James vs. Wells dialectic here? They certainly are different writers, but I’ve scanned this thread in vain despair for an more in-depth explanation of what exactly is at stake in the distinction; at least what’s given here (I don’t have the Luckhurts book), the distinction feels more impressionistic than thoroughly nailed down. And I’m not sure my impressions of these authors are the same as others’; for one thing, while wikipedia informs us that Wells “harshly portrayed James as a hippopotamus laboriously attempting to pick up a pea that has got into a corner of its cage,” the difference being evoked feels more than simply the kind formal and stylistic distinction he was drawing. After all, while you can easily contrast the subject matter of the two authors’ most “characteristic” works (say War of the Worlds vs The Golden Bowl) it’s also true that James wrote ghost stories and his final (unfinished) novel, The Sense of the Past, was about time travel. 

So, is Luther Blissett’s posing of “James’s modernist prose” to “Wells’s intense social didacticism” (though he meant that in a slightly different valence I think) an adequate dichotomy? Especially given the formulation of modernist = SF that’s in play here, there’s a certain recursive tautology here I’d like to see teased out.

By on 05/13/08 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Exactly, Aaron. It’s absurd to imply that late-period Henry James is in any way representative of the whole of non-science-fiction fiction—good luck finding anything in any New Yorker issue that reads as oddly as The Golden Bowl!—or that H. G. Wells was a genre writer. If Ulysses and The Making of Americans are “mundane”, what adjective does that leave for John P. Marquand (who, come to think of it, also created Mr. Moto) or Saul Bellow (who, come to think of it, did write Henderson the Rain King)? What about James’s and Nabokov’s great respect for Robert Lewis Stevenson? One might as well start from Pound vs. Yeats and posit a split between socially dynamic science fiction and vegging-out fantasy.

There may be interesting things to say about canon-formation and canon-enforcement across various literary communities, but using author names as synecdoches distracts from what’s really a story about institutions.

By Ray Davis on 05/13/08 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From an earlier letter from James to Wells:

“I have read you, as I always read you, and as I read no one else, with a complete abdication of all those ‘principles of criticism,’ canons of form, preconceptions of felicity, references to the idea of method or the sacred laws of composition, which I roam, which I totter, through the pages of others attended in some dim degree by the fond yet feeble theory of, but which I shake off, as I advance under your spell, with the most cynical inconsistency.”

From Wells to James, apologizing for his satire Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses of the Devil, and The Last Trump:

“There is of course a real and very fundamental difference in our innate and developed attitudes towards life and literature. To you literature like painting is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use. Your view was, I felt, altogether too prominent in the world of criticism and I assailed it in lines of harsh antagonism.... I had rather be called a journalist than an artist, that is the essence of it, and there was no other antagonist possible than yourself. But since it was printed I have regretted a hundred times that I did not express out profound and incurable difference and contrast with a better grace....”

From James’s reply:

“I am bound to tell you that I don’t think your letter makes out any sort of case for the bad manners of ‘Boon,’ as far as your indulgence in them at the expense of your poor old H.J. is concerned—I say ‘your’ simply because he has been yours, in the most admiring and abounding critical way, ever since he began to know your writings: as to which you have had copious testimony. ... Nor do I feel it anywhere evident that my ‘view of life and literature,’ or what you impute to me as such, is carrying everything before it and becoming a public menace—so unaware do I seem, on the contrary, that my products constitute an example in any measurable degree followed or a cause in any degree successfully pleaded: I can’t but think that if this were the case I should find it somewhat attested in their circulation—which, alas, I have reached a very advanced age in the entirely defeated hope of. But I have no view of life and literature, I maintain, other than that our form of the latter in especial is admirable exactly by its range and variety, its plasticity and liberality, its fairly living on the sincere and shifting experience of the individual practitioner. That is why I have always so admired your so free and strong application of it, the particular rich receptacle of intelligences and impressions emptied out with an energy of its own, that your genius constitutes; and that is in particular why, in my letter of two or three days since I pronounced it curious and interesting that you should find the case I constitute myself only ridiculous and vacuous to the extent of your having to proclaim your sense of it. The curiosity and the interest, however, in this latter connection are of course for my mind those of the break of perception (perception of the veracity of my variety) on the part of a talent so generally inquiring and apprehensive as yours. Of course for myself I live, live intensely and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it be, is in my own kind of expression of that. Therefore I am pulled up to wonder by the fact that for you my kind (my sort of sense of expression and sort of sense of life alike) doesn’t exist; and that wonder is, I admit, a disconcerting comment on my idea of the various appreciability of our addiction to the novel and of all the personal and intellectual history, sympathy and curiosity, behind the given example of it. It is when that history and curiosity have been determined in the way most different from my own that I want to get at them—precisely for the extension of life, which is the novel’s best gift. But that is another matter. Meanwhile I absolutely dissent from the claim that there are any differences whatever in the amenability to art of forms of literature aesthetically determined, and hold your distinction between a form that is (like) painting and a form that is (like) architecture wholly null and void. There is no sense in which architecture is aesthetically ‘for use’ that doesn’t leave any other art whatever exactly as much so; and so far from that of literature being irrelevant to the literary report upon life, and to its being made as interesting as possible, I regard it as relevant in a degree that leaves everything else behind. It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. If I were Boon I should say that any pretence of such a substitute is helpless and hopeless humbug; but I wouldn’t be Boon for the world, and am only yours faithfully,”

By Ray Davis on 05/13/08 at 02:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In short, Wells argued for utilitarian journalism and James argued for free-ranging imagination. And although the commercial genre of science fiction may have started from Wells, I’d say it ended up at James.

By Ray Davis on 05/13/08 at 02:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To throw another quote on the grill, in The Future in America, H.G. Wells’ travelogue to the US, he makes reference first to his own personal “prophetic” turn of mind, and then notes:

“And now that I am associating myself with great names, let me discover that I find this characteristic turn of mine, not only in Heraclitus, the most fragmentary of philosophers, but for one fine passage at any rate, in Mr. Henry James, the least fragmentary of novelists. In his recent impressions of America, I find him apostrophizing the great mansions of Fifth Avenue, in words quite after my heart;--

“‘It’s very well,’ he writes, “for you to look as if, since you’ve no past, you’re going in, as the next best thing, for a magnificent compensatory future. What are you going to make your future of, for all your airs, we want to know? What elements of a future, as futures have gone in the great world, are at all assured to you?”

“I had already, when I read that, figured myself as addressing if not these particular last triumphs of the fine Transatlantic art of architecture, then at least America in general in some words. It is not unpleasant to be anticipated by the chief Master of one’s craft, it is indeed, when one reflects upon his particular intimacy with this problem, enormously reassuring, and so I have gladly annexed his phrasing and put it her to honor and adorn and in a manner to explain my own enterprise.”

By on 05/13/08 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, thanks for those excerpts from the Wells-James exchange.

In light of them, I’m sticking to my original assertion: modernism, if it is to mean anything more than a certain style—in which case it’s incoherent—must point toward a certain aesthetic and social dialectic(s).  I’d argue that one of these dialectics is that between Wells and James.  Both are distinctly modernist insofar as for each, the other is a problem.  As I wrote before, this is not a problem for, say, Dickens or Eliot.

At the same time, one earlier dialectic that seems to be a root influence is the old realism/romance chestnut.  But who is the realist and who is the romancer with James and Wells is a questionable question. 

And then there’s Virginia Woolf’s “Modern Fiction,” where the dialectic is between Joyce (with precusors Hardy and Conrad) on the one side; and Galsworthy, Bennett, and Wells on the other.  Her terms debate the nature of realism itself: an earlier, heavy, materialist realism versus the modern, spiritual, interior realism of Joyce.  Woolf writes of Wells: “It can scarcely be said of Mr. Wells that he is a materialist in the sense that he takes too much delight in the solidity of his fabric. His mind is too generous in its sympathies to allow him to spend much time in making things shipshape and substantial. He is a materialist from sheer goodness of heart, taking upon his shoulders the work that ought to have been discharged by Government officials, and in the plethora of his ideas and facts scarcely having leisure to realise, or forgetting to think important, the crudity and coarseness of his human beings.”

By on 05/13/08 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To make matters stupider—and to show the futility and fun of proliferating genre heuristics—we can consider Brian McHale’s modernist/postmodernism dialectic as a shift from epistemology to ontology.

From that perspective, science fiction was postmodern from the start, insofar as it pushed the ontological bent of the realist and naturalist novel to an extreme far earlier than the postmodern art writers who detoured through the epistemological emphasis of Woolf, Joyce, Proust, et al. 

All this reminds me why my ideal school of criticism would be purely observational and descriptive of texts.  The minute the inductive impulse strikes, we just start making shit up.

By on 05/13/08 at 06:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Do people (i.e. of the mod and contemp lit camp) not generally make sense of modernism and modernity in terms its differential affirmation of an Enlightenment and Romantic heritage and in terms of the social and cultural changes manifesting as “the great transformation”?

Hm. Judging by the above commentary, the answer to my question would have to be that most do not…

By on 05/13/08 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For my groats, I like this as the definition of modernism: artists who are concerned with the problem of modernity.

Says nothing about what “the problem of modernity” actually is, of course, but that’s the point, to kick the unsolvable problem upstairs.

By on 05/13/08 at 08:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are we not taking this taxonomy more seriously than it deserves? Modernism, postmodernism, even naturalism surely do little more than serve as convenient shorthand for approximate historical periods or, at a push, writing that share certain characteristics (yes, even the epistemology/ontology canard). Investing these terms with much more significance is too easily undone by, for instance, the case that can be made for Tristram Shandy being postmodern, Beckett being high modernism, Raymond Chandler pursuing epistemological ends in writing detective fiction, Raymond Chandler actually pursuing ontological ends in writing such poor detective fiction (excellent books, but poorly wrought mysteries), and so on.
Unless we’re always in orbit about T.S. Eliot and Joyce. They were definitely modernists.

By on 05/14/08 at 05:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

While I was looking for those quotes I bumped into someone who even wanted to claim Henry James for postmodernism.

You’re just kidding about Joyce, though, right? So far as I know, he’s totally sci-fi.

By Ray Davis on 05/14/08 at 09:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Charles, that is why I’d argue for a criticism that is completely descriptive.  I wouldn’t argue strongly, but I’d argue.  It’s an impossible, and impossibly boring, vision for literary studies, but it highlights the problems with any idea that ventures beyond the minute particulars of a text.

At the same time, as long as these terms are defined, I think they can work as heuristics or maps for describing certain elements various texts share.  So modernism can be a stylistic description.  That’s fine, provided we’re upfront that we’re going to be excluding a bunch of work that is generally called “modernist.” For every Woolf there’s a West, and stylistically, I see few connections.

Or, following Jameson, we can see terms like “modernism” as highlighting certain social dialectics that unfold in texts.  That’s my preferred model, because it gives us a way of thinking about Woolf and West, Stein and Millay, in the same thought. 

But the James/Wells way of putting it doesn’t work for me precisely because I don’t think the same social dialectic is at work today as then.  James/Wells marks the site of a conflict that simply doesn’t exist today in the same form.

By on 05/14/08 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I sit corrected. Joyce is as sci-fi as Gene Roddenberry.

‘All modernities have within them the kernel of postmodernity’ (or thereabouts). Thomas Docherty, maybe? Talk about cake and eating it.

I assume it’s just me who’s developing a notion of writers as action figures a la Action Man/GI Joe. You get the bog standard regular version, say moustachioed Joyce replete with hat, cane, spectacles and jauntily-angled trilby, but then find your pocket money has to stretch to sundry other variations. Sci-fi Joyce (with spacesuit and ray gun), detective Joyce (six-shooter) etc.

I’m saving up for postmodern Henry James (with adjustable arms to demonstrate incredulity toward metanarratives) and, when somebody gets round to it, kung-fu Ezra Pound.

By on 05/14/08 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies for appearing to have absented myself from this thread: I’ve been having connectivity problems with my home machine.  Grr.

Charlie, H.: I’d say the Recherche does more than simply ‘parsing remembering’; it tries textually to embody and excavate time as a dimension (think of the last sentence of Temps Retrouvé).  But yes of course there’s a polemical element in the appropriation of the book for SF.

Charlie: you’re right about textbooks picking crime as the Modernist pop-genre: supposedly to do with epistemological rather than ontological cultural logics.  Of course, textbooks are sometimes wrong.

Aaron B.  I find ‘I’ve scanned this thread in vain despair for an more in-depth explanation of what exactly is at stake’ to be a particularly eloquent phrase, full of the pathos of contemporary internet textuality.

Ray: Joyce, like Neela from Futurama, only had one eye.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Jonathan M. “I take your approach to defining SF to be not a social one but an essentialist one, allowing you to have stuff be SF without it being aware that it is SF and without having any causal social relationship with the stuff we generally think of as being SF.“ Hmm.  You’re probably in a better position to judge this than I (having read my book, I mean); but I’m of a generation where ‘essentialist’ is kind-of fighting talk.  If you’d asked me I’d have said my approach was exactly social: which is to say, I take ‘literature’ to be, broadly, Fantastic (Realism being a relatively late, relatively minor branching off); and SF to be a particular variety of Fantastic Literature that gains effective coherence as a result of the impetus given to culture by the scientific and Copernican revolutions.  SF, I argue, is therefore shaped, whether individual writers of SF are consciously aware of it or not, by the cultural determinants of the Reformation and the rise of science: questions of atonement, salvation, transcendence, infinity (’the Sublime’, ‘sense of wonder’) and so on.  Certainly SF is a relatively minor branch of Literature from about 1600 to about 1900; and certainly it explodes in popularity and cultural penetration in the twentieth century—to do, I think, as much with increasing levels of literacy as with the acceleration of industrialisation.  But the body of literature thus produced is still surprisingly marked by the metaphysical problematic of the Reformation.  Or that’s what I reckon.  I may be wrong, of course, and most of the reviews of the book didn’t agree with my argument; but that’s not to say I was trying to identify an ‘essence’ of SF.

By Adam Roberts on 05/15/08 at 04:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Given that science fiction, as Adam usefully defines it, bears coherence by way of the scientific revolution - since that is such a specific delimited possible realm of focus for literature - it makes makes sense for, one might expect that, writers interested in exploring the more full human condition to tend toward, even fix on, elements of belief, opposite of science, such as “questions of atonement, salvation, transcendence.” To begin to approach the more full human condition, it may be a necessary counterbalance, and it all gives a certain spin.

First half of the twentieth century fiction (the “moderns,” then later the “postmoderns") seems to me to be an innovative decline from nineteenth century fiction ("Victorians"). The progressive diversity of fiction is possibly the main new hallmark of second half of the twentieth century fiction, if not its key essence.

By roughly mid twentieth century, Henry James was being held up as a good Cold War author, while, say, Richard Wright was being censored, for being too progressive, by prominent literary magazines (funded by the CIA). Meanwhile, saccharine “libertarian"/right wing/status quo SF writers like Robert Heinlein and Ayn Rand filled a void left by Wells, seems to me.

Take a look at what happened to once prominent liberal-turned-progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar. As I’ve written elsewhere:

The father of current editor of The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel, William vanden Heuvel, tag-teamed with current regular FOX political pundit William Kristol’s father Irving Kristol (who has come to be known as the “father of American neoconservatism”) – these two figures of the social and political establishment hastened to appear on national TV over four decades ago to attack directly to the face of the silenced progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar, on the occasion of the publication of his book of criticism about Henry James (“a primary Cold War literary figure”), Kristol and vanden Heuvel, two exemplars of the status quo, serving the retrograde interests of the state, executed a prominent role in destroying Geismar’s highly accomplished literary career and ending his run on a national literary television show, Books on Trial (“or something similar,” in Geismar’s recollection).

Geismar posits William vanden Heuvel as “a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA [who] had a large hand in embroiling [the U. S.] in Vietnam,” while Irving Kristol “as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, publishing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment.”

This combined liberal and reactionary political literary attack against the increasingly progressive literary stalwart Maxwell Geismar, having occurred on national TV no less, is one of the most significant moments in all of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century – yet it remains virtually unknown. Details may be found in Geismar’s decades-delayed, invaluable memoir, Reluctant Radical (2002).

Also see, “Art, Literature, and the CIA”: http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2007/01/26/art-literature-and-the-cia/

By Tony Christini on 05/15/08 at 10:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Having digested this for several days (while ostensibly dealing with marking deadlines) I have realised that I should actually get on with it and read The History of Science Fiction because viewing modernism as sf is an idea that has also crossed my mind.

As commented on above, modernism can be seen as a dialectical shift between Wells and James, but it is one in which Wells is too frequently hidden. It’s analogous to Zizek’s parallax shift argument: two is not just something other than one but the actual shift from one itself. You get a more symmetrical view if you look at the relationship between Wells and Ford Madox Ford.

Not that I don’t like James, but as Stevenson said of Portrait of a Lady, his endings are so often simply horror. Zizek claims that this horror has exemplary value as it demonstrates James’s preparedness to confront unflinchingly the deadlock when two sides of a parallax view cannot be brought together and, therefore, demonstrates his awareness of the crisis of modernity. However, I don’t see this horror as going anywhere, whereas Ford’s Parade’s End takes us into horror and beyond it, which is what differentiates sf from horror.

So those (high) Modernists who want to remain steadfastly confronting the horror can continue in what I suggest is an increasingly unstable pursuit; the rest of us should get on with configuring modernism and sf into a more productive paradigm.

Having read the previous comment though, I see this doesn’t really do things justice – really we also need a fictional history of the last 400 years with sf, Wells, James, the CIA, TV book shows etc – now who could do that justice I wonder?

By on 05/15/08 at 01:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Science Fiction, with its many, ever-shifting definitions (and canons; what, Ray Bradbury no longer cuts it?), won’t stabilize into a well-defined genre until “it” stops being so popular (ie, more “entertainment” than “art") that everyone wants to claim it.

I think we may be missing the point that in our highly-militarized Hegemony, hardware is power and power is sexy and “Sci Fi” is the narrative-fetishization (subtle or not) of hardware. Wells’ romance of hardware is powerfully resonant with the actual modern use of it to “defend” against, and dominate, brownies and nature alike… what is “progress” but the spiritual essence of this “defend against/dominate” meme in the Euro-Industrial soul?

That said, collating the various definitions of Sci Fi as presented above, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that we’ve missed (unless I’ve missed something) the chance to trace the whole thing back to its obvious source (predating Proust by a nice long stretch). Or, as I commented (semi-facetiously) in a Guardian thread:

“I read part of this collectively-written, space-opera-type book once… a wee bit like Dune… in which the parthenogenetically-created protag was immortal, could teleport as well as being telepathic and could alter matter on a molecular level with his mind, heal the seriously ill, reanimate the dead, see into the future, had hovercraft feet, etc. His dad, who invented light, gravity and matter (the protag was half-earthling, half-alien; his mother got pregnant via a ray of light) was locked in this millennia-old battle with another superbeing (a former chum or lover, the reader gathers)... the battlefield was bronze-age earth (would’ve been much cooler, though, set in the stoneage, or the wild west).

“Somehow (in a way the book never really made clear), the son’s appearance on earth was a tactical move of the dad’s against the enemy superbeing. Anyway, the son gets killed but soon enough reanimates. It turns out (through a time-travel subplot, I guess), the protag and the protag’s father are the same character!

“Sounds exciting, I know, but, truth is, it was dead boring, plus being poorly-structured, weirdly illogical, overly-moralistic in some places and surprisingly pornographic (and bloody) in others. A little light on the tech. The various unreliable narrators are a trifle *too* unreliable. And the damn thing is *way* too long.

“Oh, and, it’s fatally implausible; I mean, the writers weren’t *nearly* able to persuade me to suspend my disbelief… not for a sec. Popular bloody book, though! Not up there with “Harry Potter” but, still, sold millions...”

By Steven Augustine on 05/16/08 at 08:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I like the elitist bashing. When they turned against Clinton’s gas tax holiday, I saw the fine, filthy hand of Henry James again - always against those tax holidays for hardworking, uh, Americans, who want their tax holidays and their sci fi. And would revolt if Henry James re-wrote terminator from the point of view of an android chick who comes to the wedding of her best friend with the terminator and goes on a shopping spree with him to some futurist mall, buying him a crystal computer chip with a tiny crack in it.

Actually, the true influence on Proust is the sport story. Remember how, in the first book, he longs to go fishing with the Mme de Guermantes? Are we obviously talking about a subtext of big game fishing here, Marcel, Ernest and some photographer from Field and Stream, splashing through the briny deeps in search of barricuda, or what? It is fishing and cowboy stories that were the big success of the twentieth century, which modernist elites did so much to suppress, those bastards! But the common people aren’t buying it, the non-elites. Admit it - this is the Louis Lamour era.

By roger on 05/17/08 at 12:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just as a point of clarification. Rambo et al is for the masses, in serving corporate state power. Henry James type writing is for intellectuals, in this capacity. Other types of authors combine elements of both and cross over, Ayn Rand, for example, in a reactionary vein; and Victor Hugo, in a relatively progressive vein: see “PEN and Public or Political Fiction” http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/pen-and-public-or-political-fiction/

By Tony Christini on 05/17/08 at 09:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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