Yesterday on one of the Facebook groups I attend, I came across a post by one of the Puppy Kickers, (echoed by someone in the group in exasperation) which went something like “Neo nazis want books that are less about conscious feminism and diversity. So did the Sad Puppies. Are the Sad Puppies ashamed of themselves now?”
I don’t need to spend much time on the argument itself, and frankly, the person who made it is not a stupid man, and he should be ashamed of making such a stupid comparison. This argumentum ad similar tastes is ridiculous. Say, didn’t Hitler love dogs? And wasn’t he a conscious vegetarian? So, are dog lovers and vegetarians ashamed, yet? Mao (probably) loved Chinese food. Are all Chinese food lovers ashamed? Che Guevara, one of history’s most disgusting mass murderers (in that he preferred to club children and puppies to death himself) wore a beard. Are all beard wearers ashamed now?
In the discussion someone said “But most people prefer non-preachy fiction, so why would the fact even neo-nazis prefer it something against SP?” And someone else mentioned that people like the poster who made that argument above (I’m not naming him, because at times he has flashes of sanity and I’m hoping he realizes his argument is insane.) might not consider anything that ISN’T consciously feminist/diversity preaching GOOD.
This argument interests me far more, because it gets to the roots of what we consider “Good” which I think is what is at the basis of the split in science fiction. Their position is not without … defense. In fact it is the traditionalist position in literature. And our position is a bit of a rebellion, a very much “Aristo, aristo a la lanterne” position, a populist and revolutionary stance, if you prefer.
We’ll dispose before we go on of the fact that yes, the neo-nazis probably oppose feminism and diversity in science fiction because they oppose it EVERYWHERE. My position (I can’t speak for all of Sad Puppies, since we’re a lose and non dogmatic (ah ah) movement, and what we agree on is that literature should be a ludic endeavor (more on that later) is that I agree with the “motte” part of the feminist argument which is that women should have the same opportunities at pursuit of happiness as men, and not with their bailey argument, in which they find sexism under every rock and are, in the end, in revolt against being a woman. Nature is neither equal nor egalitarian and attempts to make it so have filled countless graves. Women are not statistical incidences nor somehow flawed males. Every woman is an individual. I believe in equality before the law for female and male individuals, and after that each of us must make his/her own way through life and find out what we’re good at and what we love doing. I owe no loyalty to anyone just because she too has a vagina, and no one is my natural enemy because he has a penis. Insofar as the self-conscious feminism in books is of the “woe to me for I have a vagina and I’m oppressed” variety, the book dents the wall. But I have never had a problem with strong female characters, particularly those that ring true. And I know what strong women are like, since most of the female ancestresses I was privileged to meet were of the “I am not oppressed; the bastard hasn’t been born who could oppress me” variety, and that in a genuinely sexist society.
As for diversity — meh — diversity of what? I have no issues with characters of various hues, though I often forget to mention what color my characters are because it fails to interest me to any marked degree. I like characters from different backgrounds and with different modes of thought, because that’s just good writing and interesting fiction. Like most science fiction and fantasy (and even mystery) readers I’m drawn to different settings and different cultures, because again that’s just interesting.
I am not interested in arguments about how all these cultures have been victimized by the west. (Oh, sure, to an extent it is true. Africa wouldn’t be the mess it is, if our “intellectuals” had exported socialism and fixed pie economics. But it would probably still be a mess, due to the evil of tribalism. And that is not something we exported but arguably something our ancestors escaped if the out-of-Africa hypothesis is true.) I am not interested in economic arguments where you somehow injure a place by buying its products, because that’s fixed pie, Marxist and (but I repeat myself) stupid. And I’m not interested in stories about how the poor victim gets up, is victimized and goes to bed being a victim. (This was 90% of the books my kids were assigned in school.) You don’t need to raise our awareness that victims exist. Anyone who has survived middle school knows that. And we’re all of us victimized enough that we’re far more interested in the story (often a fantasy, but still heartwarming) of the victim overcoming oppression. That is more likely to give us strength to go on another day.
And this gets us back to what “good books” are.
Once upon a time, in the beginning of the present literary culture, what was considered “good literature” was that which bore the signs that its author had an excellent classical education.
Part of the reason this was important is that books were expensive, and while — because we’re human — a lot of them would have a ludic undertone, such as the stories of Arthur, they were also supposed to serve a greater purpose, so you could justify buying the d*mn book. Even onto Shakespeare’s time there was supposed to be an educational purpose, yeah, even to the plays that made the groundlings throw their greasy caps in the air in joy. So things were advertised as “the most piteous and instructive tragedy” etc. For enlightenment see the end of Romeo and Juliet.
Now both the legends of Arthur and Shakespeare were not “high literature” (no really) and therefore wouldn’t have references to classical antiquity. Marlowe, otoh, who was far better educated than Shakespeare couldn’t help himself and not only wove classical references (and took the themes of his plays from classical stories) but also is said to have written stage instructions in Latin (which the actors crossed out and wrote above, at least according to one of the biographies I read.)
You can find marks of this “I had a good classical education” in the classical references that hit you out of nowhere in nineteenth and even early twentieth century books.
There was a (justifiable) rebellion against this in the early twentieth century. Probably as a result of World War One, which was viewed as a madness of the elites, people sought “authentic” experiences to write about, and for a little while, because let’s face it, they were rebelling against a literature that never existed, where everything was noble and good (no, not even Victorian literature was like that. That’s why novels were considered bad influences) this devolved to, as Agatha Christie speaking through her Miss Marple characterized it unpleasant people doing unpleasant things in the most unbelievable of ways.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and so does intellectual snobbery. Partly because these novels weren’t any fun and people didn’t want to read them, they needed the shelter or academia to “empower” the authors and tell them they were ever so much better than their stuffy predecessors.
And the Academia, by the middle twentieth century was thoroughly infested with Marxist thought (though often not called by that name.) There was a time there, between the end of World War One and the end of World War Two where the new hotness to show how educated you were was pseudo-Freudianism. And even if Freud hadn’t by now been thoroughly discredited, what these people thought of as psychological was something even Freud wouldn’t recognize. If you come across one of these, you’ll be caught up between a desire to throw the book against the nearest wall and laughing to hard to do it.
But for the last sixty or seventy years, the way to signal your “hotness” sorry, your “good literary credentials” was to preach Marxism, in whatever incarnation it took at the time. A lot of it started with the oppressed proletarian, and now it’s devolved to the rather bastardized version of Marxism taught in our best colleges (which like the Freudianism mentioned above, would give Marx himself kitten fits.) The proletariat having proved less than amenable to revolution, the true revolutionary force is sought in far distant places, in people oppressed by colonialism, and in that most rare and obscure of creatures, the oppressed woman. (There are oppressed women aplenty, just as there are oppressed men aplenty. And some women might be hated because they are women. Most of those are abroad, though, and our feminists can neither mention them nor help them, as that would be “colonialism” and also little brownz peoplez are always right and their culture is precious. There are some women in our midst who are oppressed theoretically for being women. What they’re really oppressed for is being themselves and the sort of people who allow it, since the law is on their side in escaping oppression, and there are plenty of groups to help them. But never mind.)
Because Marxism like the puritans (with whom it shares a number o characteristics and in fact it’s not amazing the same families who were once puritans now fall into Marxism) believed that humans should be USEFUL, rather than simply being — and trust me, I was raised this way and one of the motos inscribed in one of my notebooks for high school was “The important thing is not to be happy but to be useful” — even though books are cheap enough to justify spending money on them simply to “enjoy”, people feel guilty about simply “enjoying” a story. So a book must be “good for something” and advance the causes that are pushed in the best educational establishments: Equality (of results), Diversity (of skin color) and Feminism (of the all men oppress women by existing, because penis, variety.)
Which means to excellently educated people, including those who don’t consciously buy into the Marxist vision, finding these “markers” in a book makes the book “good.” The most piteous tragedy of the oppressed woman is instructional and therefore can be enjoyed, and in fact MUST be enjoyed, even if you doze multiple times in the course of reading it, and end up downing three pots of coffee just to finish the novel… and even if you sometimes don’t finish the novel. You know these are novels your literature professors would approve of, and therefore are sure it is a “good” book.
This vision collides at a fundamental level with that most of the Sad Puppies supporters have. THAT vision is that reading is a ludic endeavor. It exists to be enjoyed. We are not interested in whether it advances the cause of social progress, the cause of social retrogress or no cause at all. We don’t believe that the purpose of literature is to be useful, but to be enjoyed.
We think “good” in a novel or story depends on how deeply it moves us, how much it stays with us, what impact it has on us and our life.
We don’t count heads, or try to figure out if every woman, including the walk in in the third chapter is a “well rounded” character. We couldn’t care less. We just care that characters speak to us, and the plot makes us experience something that moves us, and stays with us.
Btw, unlike the other side (and possibly because the other side needs SOMETHING to make their academic-status-pushing books bearable) we don’t even care if the characters look (or think) like us.
I’ve been doing a tour of early science fiction, and yes, most of the characters are men, and many of them are in the hard sciences. And yet, I fell in love with these books as a young girl in Portugal. The characters didn’t look like me, and their culture was not like the culture I lived in — and why should this matter in science fiction, a literature of the strange? — but they were identifiably human, and like me they longed for adventure, interesting scientific developments, and human expansion.
A lot of these books are even confidently socialist or communist, having been written by communist or socialist authors.
But the books take very few pauses to preach. The writers’ beliefs are just baked into the world building and how people react. THAT doesn’t disturb me.
I’ve also recently come across some books (mostly indie) who do the “preaching and useful” thing, but do it from the right. I’ve found my distaste of Piers Plowman type stories is not confined to those that push feminism and diversity. Those that mock people who push feminism and diversity with just as heavy a hand as those people use, also meet the wall with force.
This is because my main purpose in reading is ludic. My interest in story is that it allows me to experience something out of the scope of my days. My interest in reading over movies or games, is that it allows me to be INSIDE someone else’s head for a while. It allows me to escape the space behind the eyes. Now I have nothing against the space behind my eyes, but I think it’s interesting to “be” someone else now and then. I also think it makes me a more rounded and better person in the long run, but that’s not why I read books that allow me to “escape.” I do it, because the books are enjoyable and I enjoy them. It is the reason I started reading for pleasure.
I knew the other side had issues with this, when the feminists started complaining about “escapism” in both books and games, and insisting that we should do these things for some reason that had nothing to do with entertainment, but more with “raising consciousness” which is modern for “being morally educated.”
They assume that because we don’t want to be preached at we must oppose the aims of the preaching, instead of our viewing books as completely different objects than they do.
We won’t change them, of course.
However, with Marx now entering his final phase of discomfirmation as a prophet, and with our universities teethering on the verge of irrelevancy, certainly for all non-stem disciplines, we will need a new theory of literary criticism.
Yes, I know it couldn’t matter less to the rest of us, but to the extent literature is an academic subject and that it is even important to study, insofar as it’s part of the history of western thought, there needs to be a theory by which academics can identify what is “good” and those interested in academic acclaim might put such markers in their stories.
I propose we go back to the Greeks. A good literary work makes you experience Catharsis. I’d add a good literary work speaks to people across the generations and sometimes across difficulty of changed language.
If you combine those two, you get a work that can be enjoyed at a pure ludic level too. What this means is basically that good works can be enjoyed.
And while I’m sure that even mass murderers and thieves can enjoy literature at this level, I’m not ashamed to enjoy it, nor do I think it associates me with them, except to the extent I’m human.
Liking good stories is a human thing, that has been going on since we’ve been human (and maybe before according to some stuff I’ve read.)
I’m not now, nor have I ever been ashamed of being human.