Sunday, January 31, 2010

Realism is unrealistic

Ted Gioia, Notes on Conceptual Fiction:
Is it possible that the idea of "realism" as a guiding principle for fiction is itself unrealistic? After all, there are no Newtonian laws in stories—an apple can just as easily fly upward from a tree as drop to the ground. Characters can ride a magic carpet as easily as walk. Any restrictions are imposed by the author, not by any external "reality," however defined.
This I like, quite a bit, and is something I've long thought. It reminds me a bit of what I've always said about David Lynch fans (including myself), which is that all the focus on developing "theories" of "what really happened" in his movies is entertaining and intellectually stimulating but ultimately a bit perplexing; am I really to believe that there is some kind of reality beyond the image on the screen (and the sound from the speakers)? What "really happened" is that I watched a movie. And because I watched a movie, rather than having a real-world experience, anything was possible. And as a viewer, or in the case Gioia discusses, a reader, we should be excited and (though it sounds odd) grateful that the artist has chosen to acknowledge and take advantage of this.

Another thing it reminds me of is Michel Houellebecq's beautiful introduction to his book on Lovecraft (which he gave the excellent title H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life), which I quoted back in this blog's early, awkward days, and will quote again now:
Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us. All those prodigiously refined "notations", "situations", anecdotes... All they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already adequately nourished by any one of our "real life" days.

Now, here is Howard Phillips Lovecraft: "I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes."

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). We need a supreme antidote against all forms of realism.
Gioia, unfortunately, follows up with an essay that is most likely useful only to himself, or perhaps to those unfamiliar with the standard SF fandom grousing about the mainstream's view of genre (or, I guess, to those odd souls who seem content to endlessly restate the same things about this discussion over and over again). If Gioia really intends his essay to add anything new to sci-fi scholarship, he reminds me unfortunately of the eternally dense Philip Roth and his apparent belief that his Plot Against America was the first ever alternate history novel. He also tends towards an unpleasant snobbery, even as he says he's countering snobbery. In general, I hate to see the whole literary vs. genre quarrel brought up again, because honestly I don't think that quarrel particularly exists anymore, except in the minds of genre partisans (on both "sides," if we must) who refuse to let it die. Philip K. Dick is being published in editions with sewn-in silk bookmarks, for christ sake. Get over it, it's not that serious.

What particularly bugs me, especially after such a fantastic opening, is section six, in which Gioia arbitrarily brings up genres other than sci-fi and fantasy (mystery, romance, etc.) in order to put them down. Unlike those formulaic genres ("formula must be followed at all costs"), Gioia says, sounding just like the mainstream critics he's dissenting from, sci-fi and fantasy are unfettered and free to explore the outer reaches of imagination. If he can describe to me a formula that binds (for example) both Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler more than the one that binds (again, for example) both Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, I will be very impressed indeed.

Lest I sound too negative, there is a good point that Gioia makes, and in fact responding to it was my entire point in writing all this. But I'm so goddamn wordy that I'm breaking it into two parts, because this shit is too long. Second part tomorrow.


Unknown said...

You remind me of a tangent: Philip K. Dick - often fun but unbelievably creepy. Have you read his abortion-themed short story? I'm not usually Freudian, but that man is terrified of his mother. And it's unnerving.

Ethan said...

I think the only short story I've read by Dick is one where the narrator stops drinking the water so he stops getting the hallucinogenics that it's dosed with and can see the ruling class for the monsters they are, or some very Dickian thing like that. Do you happen to remember the name of the story you're talking about? I've read a fair number of his novels and found them to be among the very best things I've ever read, with a great deal of creepiness but not all that much of the type you're talking about, overlooking a relatively minor amount of the particular kind of misogyny that unfortunately comes with most sci-fi of his era. I don't doubt you at all, I just haven't noticed it before. I'll be on the lookout.

Unknown said...

It was called "The Pre-Persons" and was part of a compendium of his lesser known short stories. It's fairly obvious, when reading it, why they're lesser known. Damn near all of the stories in that book were seriously hair-raising in his hatred of women. And I'm not talking about the "women are bimbos/not real characters" sort of unconscious misogyny that's almost expected in science fiction. I mean a good number of his plots in that book were focused on how women are actively evil and out to get him. He was an amazing writer, but had some serious issues, probably including that ubiquitous demon, closeted homosexuality.

Ethan said...

"The Pre-Persons," christ. Ugh.

I'm now torn between tracking that story down and avoiding it like hell. From what I've read, Dick is one of my favorite writers, despite his flaws, and I'm not sure I want to compromise that.

JRB said...

Sounds like a dick.

Ethan said...

He'll be here all week, folks.