THE GREAT WALL
From Chris Wayan's journal, 1990/6/15
I just read "An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction" by Thomas Roberts. Since I write (and mostly read) what he calls junk, I wanted to know what a junk connoisseur thinks of the stuff.
I like his notion that classics are often examples of whole genres that died and were lost; we over-credit the classic with inventing techniques it often just did an outstanding job of using. Like a volcanic plug left after the rest of a peak has eroded away, it seems singular when it was just the best of a type.
Roberts has blind spots:
"Mainstream" fiction is itself a narrow genre now, limited to: personal relationships, current business and politics; detailed photographic realism (funny how painting is the opposite: photographic realism is seen as kitschy in visual art, while "literature" demands realism); purely internal psychology (if it's transpersonal, you're outa the club, bub!), mild social criticism but not radicalism or open preaching, spiritual issues in Christianity or Judaism not others... Oh, and words themselves! You can spot a mainstream book with little to say by the blurbs: they'll praise the writing and ignore the story. Most genre blurbs do the opposite: content not style. Though many fantasy blurbs value imaginitive worldbuilding, and science fiction blurbs often focus on ideas the book explores--so which genre is lowbrow?
As a kid, the way I pictured "literature" vs. my preferred reading (science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction, especially science) was to picture "literature" as stories that take place indoors. "Indoors" was just short for 'conventional reality' of course, but it took years to realize I'd swallowed the "realist" line: I believed their stifling definition of reality; I thought I was indulging escapism by reading as I did. Oh, I rationalized that I learned a lot through thought-experiments in the Frankenstein lab of science fiction, and that fantasy helped me face wishes, fears and dreams... but I accepted that the canonical, literary here-and-now (the lab within which it studies 'human' 'nature') was real... not just their own form of escapism. Escaping awful people like me.
The "junk" I read describes my life better than "literature"s paradigms. The canon's reality isn't what I live. Yes, characterization in literary fiction is often detailed and insightful, but only within a narrow range--only certain characters are believed possible. The thinly sketched characters (hey, is cartooning not art?) in science fiction or fantasy often do lack detail, but their proportions and nature--what they experience and what they do about it--are more useful to me, because they reflect issues I face--ones I couldn't articulate in literary language, which dismisses my world as uncouth... or unreal.
When I first read a scene from M. Z. Bradley's book The World Wreckers (a quite savage critique of corporate imperialism) in which a person enters a room and senses the characters of people assembled for a telepathic project, I realized "this is how I socialize--because I see like this! I'm a latent empath or telepath, or both." I didn't care much that the people in that room were lightly (even crudely) sketched in, and not terribly complex even when Bradley rounds them out. Because each one embodied a survival strategy for psychics--and that struggle concerns me, since I live it. As the book helped me realize!
So did the (better written) revelation in James Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World, in which a depressed doctor is forced slowly to recognize he's an empath, that an unrecognized psychic talent has shaped his life--that his despair is partly spill-over.
Or, to jump genres, the grim first-person narrative opening The Manchurian Candidate warned me how abusive my childhood had been, for I identified all too readily with the brainwashed assassin, whose abusive childhood had been cruelly played on. I read him as a tormented noir-ish antihero, until I found the other characters saw him as simply insane. My view was somewhat vindicated by the dénoument: the brainwashed assassin ignores his target and goes after his abuser instead.
What am I saying? At least some of us need literary genres that allow extreme experiments, uncouth subjects and 'unrealistic' premises, or we'll never know ourselves--or much else. The canon may aspire to universality, but what it's often restricted to is just life as the majority lives it. Certainly not mine.
You may be lucky, of course--your life may happen to be entirely within your people's definition of acceptable, sane and real. But even then, you won't really know where your Middle Kingdom is... til you've ventured beyond the Great Wall.
For a study of science fiction and superhero comics as genres meant for readers living outside "literature"s norms, try MUTANTS AND MYSTICS by Jeffrey Kripal. He concludes that many writers in these genres experience(d) paranormal events/abilities in their real lives much like those they write about. It's not metaphor or escapism, for either the writers or the readers. It's realism. Outside the Great Wall.
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