Sunday, July 19, 2009

A tired plea for an "overlooked genius"

In 2009, it is so completely established, conventional, and even academically-approved to "elevate" a "genre writer" (H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain) to the status of "high" literature, that the gesture itself has completely lost the counterintuitive wink which surely began this retrospective-canonizing project in the first place.

And yet, undaunted by the banality of this "reversal," here is an article in which the NY Times Magazine makes a plea for one Jack Vance, "overlooked" science fiction writer.

We are told that he is as good as: Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Jane Austen, Henry James, Proust, Poe-- that his being-American (instead of being from some fashionable Romance tradition) may also have contributed to his unsexiness, in addition to the perceived silliness of the genre fiction he writes.

Let me respond to this in bullet points, since my overall response is probably too predictable to readers of this blog.
  • I for one am completely unimpressed by the blurbing this article heavily relies on, especially that of Michael Chabon (who cares?!), and quite nonplussed by the praise of Neil Gaimon. This name-dropping is also a phantom punch, as the completely banal rhetoric here is (as always) "Your favorite writer's favorite writer." But what sick mind takes any interest in Michael Chabon's literary heroes?
  • In order for this enterprise to succeed, the literary worthiness of Vance's output needs to be conveyed by some demonstration (plot summaries, interesting features, some indelible character). But, sadly, Vance doesn't really *do* these things: elaborate architecture of a fictional universe (he lacks Tolkien's “impulse to synthesize a mythology for a culture"); "Intricate plotting is not Vance’s forte"; etc.
  • So what DOES this literary genius do well? Evidently he turns a phrase nicely (this appears to be about all). OK, so show me some nice turns of phrase. The article instead gives instance of some completely pedestrian and irritating writing.
If I am going to believe that someone is as good as Proust, James, Austen, or Borges, then I would expect better writing than THIS:

“ ‘I can resolve your perplexity,’ said Fianosther. ‘Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.’

‘No need,’ said Cugel. ‘My interest was cursory.’ ”

Let me give a counter-example of good writing. It is the first paragraph of Joseph Conrad's "Outcast of the Islands," which is itself rather a bad novel. But it suffices here, and you will see that I'm not trying to overawe you with a big "name" like Moby-Dick, War and Peace, David Copperfield. Just read until you see my point.

When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had produced the desired effect. It was going to be a short episode—a sentence in brackets, so to speak—in the flowing tale of his life: a thing of no moment, to be done unwillingly, yet neatly, and to be quickly forgotten. He imagined that he could go on afterwards looking at the sunshine, enjoying the shade, breathing in the perfume of flowers in the small garden before his house. He fancied that nothing would be changed, that he would be able as heretofore to tyrannize good-humouredly over his half-caste wife, to notice with tender contempt his pale yellow child, to patronize loftily his dark-skinned brother-in-law, who loved pink neckties and wore patent-leather boots on his little feet, and was so humble before the white husband of the lucky sister. Those were the delights of his life, and he was unable to conceive that the moral significance of any act of his could interfere with the very nature of things, could dim the light of the sun, could destroy the perfume of the flowers, the submission of his wife, the smile of his child, the awe-struck respect of Leonard da Souza and of all the Da Souza family. That family's admiration was the great luxury of his life. It rounded and completed his existence in a perpetual assurance of unquestionable superiority. He loved to breathe the coarse incense they offered before the shrine of the successful white man; the man that had done them the honour to marry their daughter, sister, cousin; the rising man sure to climb very high; the confidential clerk of Hudig & Co. They were a numerous and an unclean crowd, living in ruined bamboo houses, surrounded by neglected compounds, on the outskirts of Macassar. He kept them at arm's length and even further off, perhaps, having no illusions as to their worth. They were a half-caste, lazy lot, and he saw them as they were—ragged, lean, unwashed, undersized men of various ages, shuffling about aimlessly in slippers; motionless old women who looked like monstrous bags of pink calico stuffed with shapeless lumps of fat, and deposited askew upon decaying rattan chairs in shady corners of dusty verandahs; young women, slim and yellow, big-eyed, long-haired, moving languidly amongst the dirt and rubbish of their dwellings as if every step they took was going to be their very last. He heard their shrill quarrellings, the squalling of their children, the grunting of their pigs; he smelt the odours of the heaps of garbage in their courtyards: and he was greatly disgusted.
  • This is a fairly obvious point, but in order for some genre fiction (and really, Conrad IS this in his early works) to be as "great" as the High Literary canon, some example of it has to be already have been canonized. For example, Poe. Now, Poe *has* been thoroughly canonized. The problem for Vance's reputation is that this was, for Poe, instantaneous. Charles Baudelaire, the high poet of French modernity, translated and advocated for Poe near-contemporaneously. Conrad, too, was apparently of the same "height" as James and Madox Ford. Not so for Vance (or Lovecraft, or Chandler, or Cain, or Dick).
  • What do we have here, then? ANYTHING BUT a "raising to the level of..." (Hemingway, Proust, Austen). Instead, if you follow the rhetoric closely, what is being advocated for is a second, subsidiary, parasitical canon. A "low" canon, if you will. Let's imagine for a second that this Vance character is as good as this article says--though I am not at all persuaded that he is even as good as Frank Herbert or Ray Bradbury (writers I dislike). That is still a very long way from being "as good as" Henry James; in fact, that is an insane proposition. The only thing conceivable is that Vance might stand, in relation to other sci-fi writers, analogously to James' standing in relation to literary fiction in general. And thus, at the level of what already exists as a concept for everyone: the "classics of popular fiction": Tolkien, CS Lewis, Patrick O'Brian, Elmore Leonard, Philip K Dick.
My overarching point here is, no one is going to confuse this writer who cannot a) create vast, intricate fictional mythologies, nor b) craft a memorable plot, nor c) write a citable example of interesting dialogue-- that a writer who cannot do any of these things is not susceptible to confusion with Borges, Poe, or (let's say) Balzac's fantasy works. That is to say, not susceptible with the "greats" of world literature. It IS possible (though, in this case, unlikely), that he may be confused with Ray Bradbury, Ursula K LeGuin, Robert Heinlein... but merely this list of names shows that it is a CONSTITUTIVE PRETENSION of science fiction to be regarded in this way. That is to say, that this very tired and played-out "revisiting" of a science fiction writer who deserves to be regarded as more thoughtful than mere genre fiction.... this is what science fiction, with its allegories and cultishness, is all about from the start.

In other words, the question this NY Times article begs is the *undifferentiated* "canonical status" of a Raymond Chandler, operating on a transitive confusion... "If this writer is as good as Raymond Chandler, and I seem to have heard somewhere that Raymond Chandler is 'now' canonical.... then Jack Vance must be as great as Proust!"

And this line of thought is precisely as idiotic as I have just indicated. If you are unconvinced, please reread the above comparison of his prose with Conrad's. And remember the #1 principle of all my contentions: that the "great" does not have FEWER pleasures to offer than the "popular", but greater, richer, and more substantial in every way. And the attempt to pass off unsophisticated genre fiction AS sophisticated will only ever fool, well... you know.


Eric Walker said...

Regrettably, you seem never to have read anything by Vance himself. The Rotella article is an excellent example of the powerful verity "I can save myself from my enemies, but only God can save me from my friends." I suggest that you undertake a fair sampling of Vance before passing judgement.

The curious may want to begin with this "first course" in Vance,, in which Vance's excellences are, I hope (speaking as the author of the page), more clearly delineated, and extensive examples of his style given.

It is grossly unfair to rely on a farrago like Rotella's to evaluate an author who has been creating for half a century.

B. Willett Parker said...

Eric, thank you for the link, and also for your delicate appreciation that the post had more to do with the presentation and rhetoric of the article, rather than with Vance's writing "in itself."