Monday, February 10, 2014

10 february

In a long aside in his 1977 essay “Sturgeon” (collected in Starboard Wine), Samuel Delany discusses the widespread fan impact of Theodore Sturgeon’s revision of his 1947 story “Maturity,” which was first published in Astounding, then printed in a significantly revised version in an anthology. Apparently, for a scifi author to revise his work was practically unheard of at the time. Delany relates this to  a wider phenomenon: that while writers of literature are apt to place an enormous value on the process of revision, at times even boasting about how many times they have worked and reworked a text before it sees publication (and here their models would seem to be Flaubert and Joyce), SF authors don’t talk much about their writing process, and would even seem to fetishize the production of first-draft publishable work.

Delany teases out two explanations for this: The first, a “synchronic” description of the genre, would have it that the field of science fiction is something like a circus, in which multiple wonders are performed simultaneously, and in which the desired effect of any given piece (ie, story) on an audience is something along the “gosh, wow” line of the audience's response to a particularly good trapeze jump or a particularly good piece of clownery. You do a trick, and then you go on to the next one; to go back and re-do that last tumble, just because it wasn't quite perfect, is pretty much unheard of—just not how it's done under the big top. Literary fiction, on the other hand, places a much greater emphasis on a kind of muted, methodical realism. SF writers, then, are far more likely to stress the ideas and the novums of their work; literary writers, in a kind of compensatory gesture, tell us how much labor and craft went into the making of their far more understated gestures.

Delany’s second explanation is a “diachronic” discussion of the differing fields of “serious” literature and science fiction and their historical development. Drawing on Stanley Fish’s Self-Consuming Artifacts, he argues that serious literature has developed under the aesthetic of the “Good Physician”—that it is meant in some way to be good for you. (This ties in with the general distrust of “reading for pleasure” in academic circles, which he talks about with some subtlety, including an excellent discussion of the sort of concerted work necessary to gain the eventual pleasure of any genre, including science fiction.) Sci fi, on the other hand, is a popular genre, rooted ultimately in the pulps—a kind of writing which is by definition and cultural consensus bad for you. If you are the “good physician,” you can go to some trouble to specify the labor that has gone into the writing that will presumably have a salubrious effect on your audience; if you writing in a genre that corrupts the youth, then to confess to an inordinate interest in craft is to confess yourself not just a scamp but an outright criminal.
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This should be tied, I think, to Moorcock’s revisions, and his compositional practices. One of the deepest “seams” in his overall stance is the implicit conflict between being a “popular” writer (MM’s own preferred term; he shies away repeatedly from confessing himself a genre writer) and being a “serious” or literary writer. Perhaps it’s an oversimplifiction to say that his ambition pulls him in one direction—“serious,” sprawling, complexly plotted and thematically “heavy” works like Mother London and the Pyat novels—while his audience, and economic pressures, pull him in another (fantasy, science fiction).

The New Worlds episode is perhaps exemplary, or at least parallel: while MM was editing the magazine, he sought as it were to push the field of writing (speculative fiction, what have you) in a more “serious” direction—to move it away from the adolescent fantasies of Golden Age SF, to incorporate the disjunctions of late modernist fiction (Burroughs especially), to explore not outer space but the human interior (“inner space”). At the same time, in order to keep the magazine afloat and the printers’ bill paid, he was churning out whole strings of fantasy novels, written to precise formulas and produced in a matter of days.

1 comment:

Bilal Hussain said...
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