Friday, February 03, 2012

Why I Like What I like 2

There was a famous friendship and then disagreement between Henry James and H.G. Wells at the end of the 19th century. Maybe that is point when English language literature (as I know it) split into high art and popular art. Not that Wells and James were responsible. But they could see the emerging differences.

This is what Wells said about the late work of James:
He splits his infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing. He presses the passing colloquialism into his service. His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness

I have read a little late James and don't like it. But Wells is being unfair.

I've read a fair amount of Wells' science fiction, which is ripping tales with big ideas in a style that is easily accessible.

James, I think, was trying for psychological and formal complexity, to capture what went on in the minds of the people he knew, who were educated and well to do.

Wells wanted to talk about biology, evolution, class struggle, imperialism and the future.

What I suspect was happening was -- printing had become cheap enough and literacy widespread enough, that different audiences for literature were developing, along with different kinds of writers.

This was not utterly new. Popular printing had existed much earlier. Broadside ballads appeared in the 16th century in England and reached their peak in the 17th century, before being replaced in the 18th century (per Wikipedia) by chapbooks, books and newspapers. So what we have is a gradual expansion of printing and reading century after century.

And maybe if I had read broadside ballads and dime novels in college, instead of Dickens, I would have a better idea of what led to 20th century pulp fiction and comic books.

In any case, my bias is toward popular fiction and popular culture, especially science fiction (and fantasy). I like the brightness and flatness, the energy, broad action and big ideas. For most part, science fiction is not about nuance and subtle change. Nor is it primarily about individuals and what goes on inside their heads. Rather, it's about entire societies and how they succeed or fail.

I know the real world fairly well. If I want to know more about it, I can walk out the door or read nonfiction. What I really want to do is examine basic premises and think about what might be possible, if only we had the ability to see.
As Antonio Gramsci wrote 70+ years ago:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
We are still in this same place, caught between a past that no longer works and a future we cannot see, with morbid symptoms all around us.

Fantastic fiction -- fantasy and science fiction -- is useful here, because it enables us to see things in new ways. Maybe it will help us find a road that leads forward.


Blogger Foxessa said...

"We are still in this same place, caught between a past that no longer works and a future we cannot see, with morbid symptoms all around us."

As you say, those words are as true, if not more so, as ever.

Love, C.

2:30 PM  

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