I’m sorry I’m monstrously late with this. For some reason I seem to be sleeping till well past 8 am — my normal waking time being around 6 — and I have no idea why. And then there were errands and stuff which inevitably get pushed to Sunday morning, since Dan and I and the remaining cretur in the house have things scheduled through Saturday.
Anyway, so, yesterday I had an interview for Sean Sorentino’s Wrong Fun podcast (out soon!) and it got me to thinking.
One of the things that came out was that the Puppy Kickers kept saying that we’d nominated “bad quality” stuff. My normal stuff for that is to shrug my shoulders and say “de gustibus non est disputandum” or to quote mom in one of her more pungent moments “Tastes are like things, everyone must piss with his own.”
But to the extent that “Quality” is defined by established literary critics, yeah, they’re right. The problem here though is that the type of quality defined by literary critics and the “quality” that makes a reader read the book, get excited, go out and hand sell to all his friends are completely different things.
This is where we get into the “Taste” of the elites, which is what literary critics define as Quality.
Until round about WWI when the wheels came off European culture (and in that strata, American taste always molded itself on European taste, starting before the revolution) “high culture” and “proper taste” which defined “quality literature” involved the author making sure the upper classes knew he was one of them. That is, the story would be full of literary references, to either classical literature (a lot) or to various artists and writers which had become hallmarks of high culture. (Shakespeare or Chaucer, not “quality” or high class in their own times, but rendered more difficult and therefore more rarefied a taste by the change in language.)
Then the wheels came off. There was some insurgence and some of this type of thing before then, mind, but it was after WWI that self-loathing became the hallmark of the upper classes in Europe. Then, because they were still the elite and (in their own eyes) the taste makers, the mark of rarefied good taste became the nostalgie de la boue. Where Shakespeare and his like had written about kings and queens or at least Lords and Ladies, increasingly the “modern” and cutting edge literature bypassed even decent middle class who were despised as bourgeois and concentrated on ne’er do wells, the criminal element, the lowest of the low in morals more than in money. Alternately it concentrated on the corruption and bankrupt morals of the noveau rich, the noblemen, those that could be seen as winners in life.
This is what Agatha Christie in her Miss Marple books more than once characterizes as “Unpleasant people in unpleasant circumstances, doing unpleasant things.”
This trend, roughly akin to an adolescent reveling in writing things that upset his parents, as communism became an established thing and the USSR reached out tendrils of propaganda to the west, turned into a mess of set-pieces, the “international realism” of socialists, about as artistically relevant as the national realism of the fascists. It became set pieces to the point that you REALLY need to question your cultural assumptions to get at the truth.
The “literature” of this type has given us the exploited mill workers, for instance, living in horror and squalor. While this is absolutely true when compared to the conditions of our time, those mill workers didn’t get the chance to live in our time, in the conditions of our time. They had the choice of living off the land or going to the city and living in factories. Life on the land has been painted with the soft tints of the romantics and the glorious tints of the early Marxists, but if you actually LOOK at the industrial revolution going on before our eyes in China or India, you realize people are coming to the cities and getting factory jobs because life is BETTER there than in the rural fastnesses they come from. Sure, their lives as industrial workers would horrify American workers, but they’re relatively good for what they have available.
In this sense, the literature of that time did its job which was to sell a socialist future (though most of the authors who were trying to write quality were probably unaware of what they were doing or how the dictates of “quality” came from a self-hating and often outright traitorous elite.) It shaped even the minds of those who are naturally suspicious of socialist tripe.
Then the wheels came off again, as in, the Soviet Union fell. I know it’s hard for people now to believe it, but back in the eighties just before the fall many people believed the USSR life quality was roughly equivalent to the US’s, or perhaps a little better. “There is no unemployment” was something we all heard.
When it collapsed it took with them the taste of the elites, as it took with them the vision of the communists who had become sort of, sometimes openly (in Europe) the patterns of the high culture. (I don’t know, consider some of the hats that have been fashion in the past. Fashion is always crazy.)
For a while communists went around looking lost. Umberto Ecco referred to them as “defrocked priests” who have lost their vision of paradise. And then … And then they decided we just hadn’t tried it hard enough or well enough.
But by the time they found this “new vision” (these doomsday cults never admit they were wrong, you know) they had given up on the idea of the proletariat conquering the bourgeoisie and rich, and had instead turned into sort of missionaries of victims and wounded people.
Instead of social class meaning what it meant to Marx, which was entirely economics based, it now meant “group vaguely aligned through some (usually natural) characteristic.” So we have the oppressed class of oh, gay people who come from all backgrounds and regions and who face differing levels of acceptance from family and society, but who are deemed to be all equally victimized, and as such to need equal intervention from the elites to make them whole. Then there are racial groups, so factionalized that at some point we’re all going to become a race of one.
The elites took to this new way of viewing society like ducks to water, partly because you don’t actually need to do anything to help anyone anywhere. Like Marx, who mistreated his illegitimate son from the woman who was somewhere between an indentured servant and a slave to his family, even as he preached social revolution and the triumph of the lower classes, they can simply preach acceptance and talk about how poor victims suffer without bothering to notice that their neighbor is unemployed and surviving on cat food. If you ask them about this particular instance, they’ll tell you that, well, come the revolution he will have a job and food… Meanwhile they’re working for the greater cause of bringing about the revolution.
And thus, more dreary than the “quality” that consisted of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, we have the taste makers hailing the new “quality” which consists of “fighting patriarchy” or “white hegemony” or whatever latest crazycakes lens is applied to society. Yep, the people with the power are accusing other people of keeping them down because they have a vagina or can tan or whatever. (And the proof of this is the Dolezals of the world who find great rewards in pretending to be victims.)
Which brings us to “literature” by which you must understand I mean the stuff literary critics like. That is inevitably what follows the rules of victimhood and points out some new victimhood or other. Mind you, it’s not very fun to read, but it’s “quality” because it follows the taste of the elites and strokes their ego, same as references to Greek and Roman Myth used to.
And then we come to science fiction. Science fiction was not “literature.” Even if Heinlein made it more respectable, the actual literary critics still hate literature. Those who write literary science fiction often deny it’s science fiction at all to get into the club. Which is a little pathetic and makes me think of people with black ancestry “passing” in the time of discrimination. Or, of course, Rachel Dolezal. Because you will never be of them, and you have to deny what you are to PRETEND to be of them. And yet they aspire to this. (Of course, for some of them this means college posts and such, so…)
Which brings us to —
For the longest time, I’ve said that quality is personal, taste is personal. But I’ve noticed a certain trend among those things the practitioners of what we’ll call human wave. There is a quality of its own.
To me — note to me and note the elusive kind of thing it is, which might hit me but not you — “quality” fiction is that which portrays humans with such accuracy the characters impress you as people you know and the stories become part of you almost as if you’d lived through them.
To the extent that telling stories is part of what makes the human animal human — and there’s some evidence for this, both in passing on knowledge and in cultural binding — the stories that mimic reality (though making sense, which reality doesn’t. Yes, stories must make sense) to your back brain enough that you find yourself in a situation and you think “Oh, this is like so and so, in such and such story” are the best.
Pratchett had that touch. Though he wrote fantasy set in what we know is an imaginary world, his stories resounded with truth more than the truth itself. That more true than truth quality made him, to my mind, the best practitioner of our craft in recent years, and possibly we shall not see his like again in my lifetime.
And that, to me, is quality, and what should be getting the publicity benefit of awards: and thereby bringing new readers to the field.
The rest, politics, markers of “elite” all that are the games rich (or at least upper class) people play to convince themselves they’re above the common run of humans and that their taste is more elevated than ours. (Aristos should think deeply of their desire to be elevated.)
As for us, we’re a rabble with keyboards, an undisciplined peasantry, who refuses to bow and doff our hats to their “superior” taste. Because we’ve read it, and honestly, the tulip craze makes more sense.
We have a “quality” all our own.