Why Fun Matters


I think if you were going to boil down everything I've been trying to say about literature since starting this site, you'd end up with this:

If you look at the bestselling novels at any given time, one thing almost all of them have in common is that they could be described as fun. Obviously, fun is something we value in our literature. And yet in the common way we think about literature, especially in universities and "highbrow" book reviews, fun is pretty low on the list of things we say makes a book good. Which seems like an obvious disconnect between what we actually think is important in literature and what we say we think is important in literature. Granted that 'fun' can be nebulous and subjective, but so can most values we look for in literature.

So among whatever other criteria I use, for a book to be 'good' to me, it should be fun.

The Meaning of Novelty: Convention, Form, Genre and an Existential Crisis

What is a Convention?

Allow me to describe a conception of art based around the twin poles of convention and novelty (which I will resist calling Convention and Novelty, because I am not French). A convention is simply a norm or collection of norms, and all art exists within certain conventions. In the visual arts, applying paint with a brush is a convention of method, and a landscape is a convention of genre, containing its own, respective conventions that can differ from time to time and place to place, as illustrated by the clear differences between traditional East Asian landscape paintings and traditional European ones. (European landscapes tend to be wider than they are high and emphasize the horizon, while East Asian landscapes tend to be higher than they are wide and emphasize scale. Each convention produces a remarkably different effect.) There is no art, or even expression, without conventions of some sort; conventions are the means by which things are expressed, the (sometimes literal, sometimes figurative) vocabulary and grammar we use to convey things. In this sense, conventions are a type of language.

Reading a Book About Roland Barthes

Barthes refers to what he calls the 'Flaubertization' of writing, by which he means a move to a notion of writing as 'hard work', a laborious craft. Writers such as Flaubert, in other words, attempted to cure their increasing sense of alienation from bourgeois Literature by figuring themselves as workers, craftsmen and craftswomen. It is obvious, however, how easily such a strategy can be absorbed by dominant culture and transformed into bourgeois cultural values which have always in themselves emphasized hard work and perseverance.

Thus, MFA programs, writer's workshops and James Wood.

...An even more important and far-reaching example follows the discussion of Flaubert's strategy of hard work, that being the emergence in the nineteenth century of the realist novel. Realism and Naturalism (nowadays a less commonly used term) set out to cure the alienation of literary writing by producing an accurate and artless form. One definition of realism in the novel which is still employed in university courses today is as follows: 'Realism, a form of writing which does not bring attention to its own artifice, its own constructedness'. Barthes's thesis is, however, confirmed in that very definition, since the realist novel, so dominant from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, is by definition an alienated form of writing, hiding its literariness at the same time as establishing this more as the standard of 'good writing', of 'literary' writing. Barthes refers to the fact that the realist novel is at one and the same time the kind of novel still privileged in bourgeois schools and the kind of novel officially sanctioned by Soviet Communism and its interenational off-shoots, such as the PCF (Writing Degree Zero: pg 58-61). The realist novel, far from creating an unalienated mode of writing, has become the 'sign of Literature' for both bourgeois and anti-bourgeois culture. ... Thus, a mode of writing that was created initially in an attempt to move beyond literary conventions towards an accurate representation of the social world, ends by establishing tenacious codes and conventions for the creation of the illusion of reality.

Roland Barthes, Graham Allen

The Poetics of Aggravated SF Assaults

So in the interests of being less vitriolic and not just hurling insults, I thought I'd approach some of the more irritating aesthetic (as opposed to political, ethical, or social) problems with the SF Ghetto and Con Culture in particular. Some of this stuff is just dumb, and it's probably not worth pointing out why. But I think it needs saying in order to point out the differences between what I think about this stuff, and the things I'm more vocally critical of.

1. Filk

Filk makes no sense to me. My enduring image of filk is that guy from Trekkies who was really bad at being in drag, singing a klingon hymn of some sort. It made me cringe. I still cringe when I think about it. It was that bad. Supposedly the idea behind filk is a group of people getting together and singing songs. That, on its own, is a good thing. Music is wonderful and we all need more of it in our lives, even people like me who have a lot of it. What doesn't make sense to me is the form that Filk takes, which, to an outsider, appears to be something like a cross between Weird Al Yankovic and Mark Russell, only with none of the musicianship or genius to be found in those musical satirists. The point here is not that the idea of filk is a bad one, it's that it seems to be executed in an internally contradictory way. What I mean by that is that on the one hand it's pushing this "everyone can sing" idea which is laudable. But at the same time, the actual activity itself is rife with in jokes and jargon that are only really accessible to a very small group of people. It's this internal irony, that seems to be completely missed by the participants, that I find displeasing about filk.

2. Costuming

The Minority View

Just for the record, on 9-11-2001, eight years ago today, a bunch of religious nuts flew airplanes into buildings in the united states and crashed one plane in a field somewhere in pennsylvania.

Today, eight years later, the world is the same as it was on september 10th 2001 with the following exceptions:

1.) Air Travel is a much bigger pain in the ass than it used to be

2.) roughly 10,000 americans have died who might not have otherwise.

3.) The US has further pissed off the folks in the middle east by waging a war in Iraq for going on six years now, and has still failed to put down the dogs who supported the attackers 8 years ago in Afghanistan.

4.) roughly a million iraqis and afghans have died who might not have otherwise.

5.) lots of assholes are using the eleventh of september and the deaths of all those people to advance their political cause

6.) we all have to spend the eleventh of september talking about how we felt about it.

I remember how I felt about it. It was horrifying. It was beautiful. I couldn't look away. The attack was an act that was awesome, revolting, compelling, brutal, despicable, unfathomable, moving, and many other things.

I remember how I felt afterward, as we got done mourning the loss of innocent life as all around me came a rising tide of jingoism.

I remember how disgusting it was to see the terror my fellow citizens felt turn them into mindless flagwaving drones of an overreaching government hell bent on turning the tragedy of September 11th into a vehicle for it's own twisted political agenda.

Now, finally, I think we're back to normal.

In two years it will be the tenth anniversary.

After that I hope we don't have to talk about it again for a good long while.

Why "Racism = Prejudice + Power" Is The Wrong Way to Approach the Problems of Racism

Critical Race Theory is a popular pass-time among my comrades on the radical left who ascribe to various positions within the broad political ideology of identity politics. Since I'm a Marxist, or at least a Marxian, it's largely been something I've ignored. This is because for the most part it has appeared, looking in from outside the social circles where this particular family of ideas have currency, to be little more than a self-serving rhetorical tactic of petit-bourgeois academics seeking, out of narcissism, to claim for themselves and certain of their peers some of the political capital owed to the working class and won by them through hard graft during the civil rights movements of the fifties and sixties. The basic tactic as I see it is that Theorist A looks on the problems of some segment of the proletariat to whom he is peripherally related via an essentialized category established by historical capitalist precedent and Theorist A claims that rather than the disadvantages owing to oppressive economic structures, the actual oppressive structure is something else which is specifically in place to target whatever group Theorist A can make a case for his or her own membership of. This move is then co-opted by non-members of the cohort as a further disenfranchisement of the proper class consciousness, and all turned on its head as a condescending way to tell working class folks that they're really the oppressors in society, rather than the victims of the Capital that has been so kind to the afforementioned theorists in their cozy endowed fellowships and well funded "activist" groups, funded primarily by the tax breaks given to capital so that it can spend more of itself extracting surplus labor from the workforce. No One Is Innocent. But I digress.

Racefail and the SciFi Ghetto: Why It's Really All About High School

As you may or may not be aware, there is a maelstrom brewing under the surface of the internet regarding racism and sexism in the world of Science Fiction. Generally referred to as "RaceFail," the simplest way I can think of to describe it is as sort of a metaflamewar that's been bouncing around the blogosphere for a few years now. It's been going on so long and has involved so many different players that I don't think anyone involved in it really understands the whole thing. To this gigantic clusterfuck of fevered egos, I have decided to add my own small contribution, in part to try to at least sort of map the whole thing, and also to try to talk about what I see as the real underpinnings of the whole controversy and where it comes from. No, it's not Nick Mamatas's fault.

Adventures in Hyperreality: Live Suicide and Why It Doesn't Matter

So last night my Twitter account started pinging my phone with updates featuing the #chase hashtag. Apparently something was going on in Los Angeles involving a slow speed chase through north Hollywood. Curious to see what was going on, I signed in and started following the updates. A man in a white Bentley had been leading police around for 3 hours before stopping in front of a Toyota dealership. Local Fox and ABC affiliates had helicopters on the scene and Fox was streaming the actual unedited camera feed through it's website. Twitter en masse was enthralled with updates coming rapidly with the unfiltered immediate responses of the people watching. Eventually, the driver killed himself. The feeds went off. People went to bed. And now comes the analytical aftermath of what in my opinion amounts to a non event.

What's the Issue with Issue 1?

So a couple of guys named Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter have created a new poetry Journal called Issue 1. It's nearly 4000 pages long and is available in PDF form here. It's been creating quite a stir among certain poetry circles lately, mostly because a quick survey of the contributors shows it to be possibly the most significant collection of poets ever assembled. With work ranging from the likes of William Shakespeare, my own 13th Great Grandfather Geof Chaucer, to Contemporary figures like Ron Silliman and Susan Howe, to less widely known but still enormously talented poets like Anny Ballardini, Amy King, and, um, yours truly.

Now, of course, none of us actually wrote any of the pieces attributed to us in the book, but frankly i kind of wish I had written my three contributions. "A Cat of Countries" (page 1248):

A cat of countries

The sympathy of darkness
Beardless and eternal
A room of countries
Of progress
Reluctance and fun
Firing beside a cat
Like a considerable sweeping
Feeling love

"Whole as a passage" (page 2646):

Whole as a passage
Into a swept whisper a fascinating trader
The passages mumbled
Those were whole
A rapid rib, cheap rib,
   useful rib of an impossible thieving
Was he impenetrable?
Let her stare
Should he have been silent?
From his difficult arm he hungered for
   one, having, from his throat demoralization
That was the creek’s wilderness
Sorrow, you were
   not there, making like a head
Fascinating and enthralling
He would sooner
   be different,
Big and little
”I save brass,” he whispered
He was lived by a
He was thinking of the ghastly lives
   of bailiffs, knocking silently beside reckless conceptions
Now the thievings filled in the breeze

And my favorite, and the one that sounds the most like me, "Changing news like intelligence" (page 3573):

Changing News Like Intelligence

To burn descending on an art
A person
His anodyne news

Beginning beside a tree
More minor than a beggar

Now, of course there are some people who think this is lame. Others who take issue, like Silliman who made some vague mention of legal action in his blog about it.

To such people, I say chill out. It's a nice piece of something. There's no damage to your reputation taking place here. Clearly the list of authors was gleaned in someway from Buffalo poetics/the kinds of magazines folks like us get printed in. And frankly, taking Rita Dove at one end, and myself at the other, of a spectrum of fame, none of us are all that well known to the point that anybody outside our little poetry world will care about this one way or another. Take it as a compliment and relax. This thing is the best piece of flarf I've ever come across and frankly, like Anny Ballardini said on the Buffalo list today, I wish I'd had the idea.

Must Characters Be Round?

I recently watched the Russian mini-series of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which was wonderful and supposedly scrupulously faithful to the novel (which I haven't read). One of the remarkable things about it, as with Dostoevsky in general, is that despite the fact that there's a huge cast of characters, every single one seems incredibly real and true to life, as if they could simply step off the page (or in this case, screen).

In his book, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester separates characters into "round" and "flat." The difference is deceptively simple; a flat character is "constructed round a single idea or quality"; "The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as 'I never will desert Mr. Micawber.'" The round character, on the other hand, is a character "capable of surprising in a convincing way"; "It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book."

Upon first glance, it would seem like a tautology that round characters are better than flat ones, with Dostoevsky as the perfect example. But Forester does not take this view at all, rather he says, "In Russian novels, where [flat characters] so seldom occur, they would be a decided help."