This post was brought on partially because of a line of thought I developed yesterday while on this interview with Brad and Mad (political Mobius) Mike (Z. Williamson) yesterday. Link here for seriously uncaffeinated unslept Sarah. (You get a bonus chance to hear one of my cats, Euclid the very Neurotic, yelling at mommy for doing this stupid thing instead of pets.) Note for those who haven’t heard me before, yep that REALLY is my accent.
Anyway, some of you probably remember that I once almost sent a snippy letter to Orson Scott Card over his mis-understanding of the Portuguese language in Speaker for the Dead. (I think.) Then I realized that maybe ten of the many people who read that book gave a d*mn, and dropped it. Also realized that for someone who hadn’t ever SOLD a word to pick a fight with a bestseller would be stupid. Yeah, took a while for that to get through my head, because I’m that GOOD in social situations.
Anyway, one thing that Card got right (though not in the twentieth century in Portugal, but no answer for certain parts of Brazil because I ain’t never been there) was the… well, we should call it the inherent fanaticism of the Portuguese soul. I know that sounds mystical, but I don’t know how else to explain it. Consider it the remnants that stay with the culture from invasion to invasion. I’ve read a book that claimed the inherent fanaticism of the Portuguese character came from the Carthaginians/Phoenicians, most of whose proper names also made reference to religion and most of whose thought/conversation was completely bound up with their gods.
When I talk of the historically oppressive and all-pervasive character of Portuguese Catholicism, that’s what I’m talking about. Even through the Renaissance, though more humanized, the art was ONLY religious themes. In fact, Catholicism so perfectly scoured the region of the previous religions that there are no legends of fairies and elves, even though the North of Portugal was heavily Celtic.
Mind you, there are standing stones aplenty, but no charming legends of kings turned to stone, nothing. In the South of Portugal there’s remnants of Moorish legend, but even those are rather faint and not “serious.”
The only fairy tales I knew were the mannered fairy tales imported from France in the nineteenth century. Which probably explains my reluctance to fantasy.
Mind you, you can catch echoes, but you have to be deep in village circles, and even there they only speak in hints and deflections. Like the stories of women who fall asleep in the woods and this one village woman that grandma hinted (to one of her cronies) strongly had birthed a faun (if I understood it correctly. Something supernatural, anyway) which ran off into the woods.
BUT the culture at large tumbles from fanaticism to fanaticism, from compliance to compliance.
My family was, for various reasons, odd. My female ancestresses, as far back as I know, for instance, didn’t have “Maria” in their names. I and one of my cousins did, but only because of insistence from the person we were being named after.
This is not an explanation, but might be a contributing factor (remember no matter how alienated you feel, humans being social creatures, if you live in a culture some rubs off) for why in my teens I wrote the sentence “It is better to be useful than to be happy.”
Maybe. Because you see at that time Portugal had flipped from Catholicism to a sort of Marxism in which you should sacrifice yourself to the good of society or something, and this was as pervasive as Catholicism had been. And both of them might have come up with that I idea.
Mind you, in my teens I knew d*mn little of either happiness or usefulness, or for that matter misery.
You see, I’d led a very sheltered life, that allowed me to spend a lot of time searching for “meaning.” And if you’re thinking upteen revolutions with upheaval in my life and going hungry off and on for two years was not sheltered, you’re wrong. You’re sheltered so long as you don’t have the full power of decision in your life, and as long as someone will cushion you from truly dreadful decisions. So, you know, yeah, I’d gone hungry here and there, but it wasn’t MY fault, and it wasn’t my responsibility to haul us out of it. And the same way, I’d been pretty contented, but it’s hard to experience happiness as such when you’re not your own person. So I had no idea what I was choosing between, I just felt, I guess, that I was a rather useless person and so wanted to be useful.
Now, what does this all have to do with the price of kumquats? Well… In that podcast I found myself explaining how, when Western Civ turned against itself after WWI, we ended up looking for other ways to evaluate art/a lens through which to evaluate reality.
Part of it became a “tear down the past” lens, still fossilized in all the people who think they’re speaking truth to power and who, really, after 100 years, are speaking power to truth. This leads to “ever more shocking” stories and art pieces. If you’ve ever strolled through the modern art section of a museum, you’ve seen them. (If you haven’t, we’re considering selling tickets for a stroll through Denver Museum of Art called “Desecrate Art with the Hoyts.” We’ll donate the proceeds to charity, or something.)
And part of it was co-opted by the Marxists. This was especially true in literature where, in the long form at least, you can make it a blind scream fest at the west and civilization, but if that’s all you bring, you can’t even get intellectuals to read it. (We were forced to read a book that bragged of being plotless, when I was in college. “It breaks one of the units of story telling.” Oh, my, it sure did. It was two people in a car, talking. It was so new and revolutionary that I used it as a cure for insomnia for years.)
So, instead of just a “tear down” the stories had to be a “build up” of something. The book I had to read in the eleventh grade was about the futile struggle of the proletariat. Okay, “read” is a misnomer. I read the prologue, couldn’t stomach more, (by then we had read four or five books by this charmer, whose only vivid descriptions were of defecation) so in the test about the book I wrote how the prologue prefigured the book. (It was a snake crawling into the sun for warmth and getting burned to death. No, really.) I got an A so I’m going to guess I guessed right. The author has since won a Nobel prize. My second agent contacted me about translating that book, and I told him I’d rather gnaw my arms off at the shoulder. And I meant it.
But the problem is that this “usefulness” rule for literature and art has pervaded the “elite” judgements.
What I mean is, our universities, our high brow critics, our theorists of literature evaluate writing not on what it is, or even what it does emotionally, but on what it does for the “cause” which is muddled version of positional good (“We’re better than bourgeois society because we understand the West/civ is bad) and “advances progress” with progress understood as the march to a Marxist state. (The future of the past, you could say.)
In that sense, you can see why
If You Give A Dinosaur a Redneck, er, If You Were A Dinosaur My love, hit both of those square on (i.e. it positioned the author and readers who liked it as “enlightened” and it reinforced the Leninist idea that the working class was eaten up with false consciousness and that only the intellectuals could lead the revolution.) Hence its stunning success in nomination for awards.
So, now we know what the other side views as “Good.” This is the lens they’re evaluating stories under — a lens reinforced by literature classes in college where because real impact of real literature is very hard to explain and Marxism is easy and positional good, this is how they teach you to appreciate stories — and why they’re running around screaming that our nominees are very bad and “taint” the Hugo.
We don’t fit into the parameters of what they consider good. I.e. we neither shock the (no longer really existent but they’re still kicking the corpse for effect) traditional, hidebound Western civ, nor do we proclaim the glorious Marxism to come.
So we’re bad, bad bad bad baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.
Don’t hold it against them. Most of them are very sheltered university people, who, like my younger self, have never really experienced either happiness or usefulness, but are sure that usefulness is good, because they were told so. And for sheltered people “usefulness” is easier to evaluate and understand than the REAL effect of truly good literature.
I know it will shock the heck out of you guys, but I despise received wisdom and regurgitated pap, which 100 years into the left-utilitarian movement in fiction is what most of the output of the proponents of Literature-as-useful are putting out. In fact, in any art form I’d consider boring as an insurmountable defect.
To put this in Renaissance/Catholic terms, what I object to is not that the painting is of the nativity, no. What I object to is that it’s not The Virgin of the Rocks, with its ethereal light which makes you feel as though you’re in another realm, it’s the tenth copy of the nativity painted by a guy who knows it will be appreciated because it’s the nativity and he can futz the details and paint by rote. (Even if he’s not conscious of doing so.)
To put it another way: no one has an obligation to consume your “art” and though some will as a “positional good” the ever falling print runs should tell you that your “art” is failing of its primary purpose.
And what is the primary purpose, you ask?
This is entirely my opinion, because, you know, art has been taught this way before the Marxists. For a long time what was considered “good” was stuff that promoted the state religion, whatever that was, or which flattered the people reading it. (Actually that’s always a good route to elite-supported art.) Or even what promoted morality.
The thing is the stories that stayed did more than that. Shakespeare was very much a captive poet of the Tudors and protestantism, but his plays that stayed are the ones that were not considered very useful at the time, but only “entertaining.”
However what things like Romeo and Juliet do is go beyond message (yes, of course it has a message) to affect the reader in a way that the reader integrates it as “lived experience” and therefore interprets/lives it in his/her own way.
The same say with Way Station (mentioning it because it’s the last book I read. Starting City today.) For me, for instance, it is a novel about loneliness which reflects on my loneliness and allows me to deal with it/see it, and see it not as an involuntary tragedy but as a condition that refines and enriches parts of my life, when I accepted loneliness for a purpose.
I’m sure the reason it won the Hugo is because a superficial reason could see the moral as “the USSR and the US would get along if they only talked” which is false (as there were real differences, and also the USSR was a horror of human disaster and not a covalent system) and which is not, btw, endorsed by the book itself (the talisman had a deeper effect and would “redeem” the bad actors.) but it’s one that would have appealed to the number of voters (and there’s always a number like that) who are looking for correct messages.
We could then say that to me, at least, a successful/good story is one that produces a cathartic effect. (Yes, this is familiar!) I.e. it allows me to deal with some of the consequences of being human through a perspective not my own and to experience consequences that don’t actually hurt me, vicariously.
Now, if you look at my reading and preferences, I don’t read only “good” (by my lights) books. A lot of the books I read are purely a good plot/fun. But some percentage of the books I read stay with me and are processed along with my own experiences, resolving themselves as they go.
Because this experience; this ability to port your emotions/feelings into someone else’s head preferably wrapped in a fictional ICBM of good world building and good storytelling is highly individual, such stories tend to be far less of a snoozer than the utilitarian Marxist ones.
Thus, for instance, my favorites can range from The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, to Bridge of Birds, to Passage to Way Station to The Tomb. Oh, and from non SF, Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Effie Briest and Tom Sawyer, and…
This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, but I hope it explains how and why the selections of Sad Puppies, which I by and large agree with (though of course, these are Brad’s selections and mine would be different but the spirit of selection would be the same) are causing such fury on the other side.
We’re not merely suggesting different stories. We’re taking an ax to the pillars of their taste, the very thing that constitutes a great part of their claim to being WAY more enlightened than average.
In other words, we’re devaluing their positional good.
It’s as though everyone were wearing shell jewelry until someone starts selling metallic jewelry and people realize they like the shiny stuff better.
The elites who have accumulated a vast store of pierced shells see their investment devalued and are striking back.
Or in other terms, we’re speaking truth to critical power and power doesn’t like it.
Or in yet other words, it’s getting ugly and it’s going to get uglier. No one ever said a revolution, even when it starts in our little backwater, is easy or without consequences.
Hold on to your hats, though, and stay firm. The other side is not even any longer aware of why they consider something “good.” They’re running on the fumes of their predecessors convictions and all they have is received wisdom.
We can and will win this war (by which I don’t mean the Hugos, or at least not this year. Eventually, though? Sure.) But it’s a long war. Don’t get tired and don’t flinch from the ugly thrown at us.