Monday, December 12, 2016

What Happened to Fun?

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.
That reading is something that is to be enjoyed may not seem like such a controversial statement, but for almost 150 years, the idea has come under attack.  These critics insist that there must be some other good to writing.  In most cases, this other good has a political end to it.  The Futurians and their heirs, when pushing for a more social minded science fiction before trying to write science fiction without any science to it, follow the tradition of William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly in the 1870s.

Howells crusaded against the fantastic.  In "On Writing as a Fantasist", Dave Wolverton tells how:
[Howells] proscribed writing about “interesting” characters–such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings–places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence. 
Howells did so because "he was a socialist, and he was trying to encourage–nay, dare I say bribe–other authors into writing propaganda for him."  Rather than making his proscriptions based on "how literature really worked; he tried instead to make it serve his political agenda."  And in serving agenda first, reading could no longer be about fun, but about message.  

Since Howells edited the Atlantic Monthly, one of the highest paid markets for fiction, his views quickly spread through the American writing community.  Appealing to his prejudices became the gateway to a payday, and the prestige of the Atlantic Monthly set the expectations of the high end market from that point on.  It is no accident that the writers of the exotic and the fantastic found their home in the pulps, and not the more prestigious and lucrative slicks.  Howells's editorial descendants left no other place for such tales.  They promoted message and propaganda with money and prestige.  And so the idea that reading is fun got regulated to a guilty pleasure.  In these days, 150 years removed from Howells, where the foes of escapism would deem every book you read a political act and a vector for a political disease message, mere enjoyment is now a sin.

From Campbell to the Futurians, New Wave to sf as speculative fiction, and Minimalism to the current push for Great Social Justice, every literary movement in science fiction that attempted to gain some of the prestige of the literary mainstream has done it by excluding elements of the fantastic from the writer's palette.  Each of these movements has also attempted to move the viewpoints of readers and fandom towards a given political goal.  Despite being a genre in declared pursuit of the sense of wonder, it has repeatedly needed to relearn that before you can educate, you first must entertain. This idea, expressed most recently by various Sad Puppies, has been voiced before, including by New Wave author Harlan Ellison, thirty, forty, and even fifty years prior.  Yet every time science fiction forgets about fun in the pursuit of propaganda, print sales have dropped, as they are doing now.

So once again, we must learn the basics of writing, starting with the first lesson:

Fiction is supposed to be fun.

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