Sunday, May 5, 2013

Readers, Writers, Scholars 'n shit.

Dumbasses Unite! 
I'm 34 years old now. That means I was born in 1979, was a child during the 80's, and a teenager during the 90's. 

The 80's were an interesting time. I was too young to take part in the massive cocaine and cash-burning parties that were taking place, but I did get my first exposure to movies in the mid to late eighties. Blockbusters, which first emerged in the late 70's, were coming in to their own, making the slow transformation into the awful crap-fests that would come to fill the theaters in the mid to late 90's and beyond. 

Star Wars was a given, particularly for a chubby only-child that got burned when exposed to sunlight. Indiana Jones came next, followed by a terrifying run in with Poltergeist, and sweet doubloon-laden adventure with the Goonies. 

You can argue with me. You might even win. But for me, the eighties were a pretty good time in terms of movie-watching. Maybe it was my youthful naivety. 

The 90's were a dark time for movies, so I turned to books. At first, I stuck with Dungeons and Dragons novels. I read several volumes of the Elminster series, every word set to paper about Drizzt Do'Urden (at that time, at least) and more than a couple of Volo's guides to Forgotten Realms. In between, I'd read D&D manuals and write adventures. Don't judge me. 

Eventually I grew up, got a job, went to college, fought a bear with a knife, built a house and swam with sharks. Most of those things are lies. All of them aside from the first three, in fact. But it's really only the third one that matters within the context of this entry. Going to college. 

College began with a film course. It felt like cheating. Going to class, watching movies, and then talking about them. Had I not been doing this for my entire life, without paying a cent of tuition for the privilege? But that first class was extraordinarily formative for me, in a lot of ways. 

First, I met a teacher that would help me realize that I was a writer. You don't always know that, and it's incredibly, incredibly awesome, when someone points a finger at you and tells you. But that's a whole different entry. 

The second way the class helped determine the direction of my life was by forcing me to write papers. We were told to pick a film, pick an element of that film (lighting, editing, mis en scene, etc.) and then write a paper about that particular element and why we found it worthy of an essay. For my paper, I chose the HP Lovecraft Historical Society silent film Call of Cthulhu. The film is shot in black and white, by an amateur crew, and is awesome. If you haven't seen it yet, go do so immediately. My topic of choice was the lighting in the film. 

This moment was significant for me because it was the first time I realized that academic thinking had practical application with ALL fiction, even genre. The realization made me go slightly apeshit and I spent the next few years writing paper after paper about George Romero and Takashi Miike movies. And more and more, as the time I spent writing grew and expanded and got more serious, I began to ask myself why we weren't doing the same thing with genre books. Why don't we ask these questions and give the same analysis to novels with swords, monsters, or spaceships? 

There were notable exceptions. Gene Wolfe, for example, has a body of critical writing devoted to this work. So do other writers, some of whom I've never heard of, and probably some that I have. But it's not as widespread as I'd like. 

Do a Google Scholar search (or better yet, a JSTOR search for those of you with database access) and see how many search results you return for, say, Salman Rushdie. Now do the same for Nick Harkaway, or M John Harrison. 

And yes, despite being immensely lazy, I have done what I just asked you to do. You won't find results for Harkaway or Harrison. You will find innumerable results for Rushdie. Why is this? 

Don't get me wrong: Rushdie is amazing. Incredible. Larger than life and twice as insane, controversial, and talented. But damned if Harkaway and Harrison aren't pretty mind-blowing, too. And quality isn't my point anyway. I'm not here to make the argument that one writer is better or worse than another; doing that is just a mindless invitation to argue about entirely subjective things that can and will never be settled. Which brings me to my point...

Why, oh why, do we, as genre fans, spend all of our time nitpicking bullshit on the internet when we could be engaging our literature in the same way academics engage Salman Rushdie? We don't need to be college professors to ask questions of what we read. Once upon a time, books were an interactive experience, rather than a consumptive act. (And no, before you ask, I'm not referring to Choose Your Own Adventure novels.) 

I don't expect us to start publishing critical journals. Nor do I expect us to go out and learn semiotics so we can try to compare Sauron's tower to a penis and speculate about the insufficiency for which he's compensating. I don't expect any kind of formality. 

All I'm asking is that we engage what we read. The more we do it, the better. Rather than JUST talking about who Jon Snow's real parents are (because let's face it, we all know who Jon Snow's REAL parents are, amiright?) let's consider, for a moment, the gender relations in Game of Thrones. Not because we want to make a case for or against anything, but simply because doing so helps us understand a little bit more about our world and the media we're consuming. 

You want to discuss identity? Read The Gone Away World. What does that say about identity? What does it say about violence? What does it say about resource consumption, or our relationship with the natural world? What does it say about fossil fuels? Anything? What does it say about the way we perceive narratives? I don't tell me. 

It's intimidating. I know. No one wants to sound like a dumbass. That's the beauty of what I'm suggesting here. No one should feel like a dumbass. There are no right or wrong answers. I once made a case for Charlie and the Chocolate factory as a Marxist text. Is it one? Who gives a shit? It doesn't matter that we're right. It just matters that we're thinking. We're engaging. We're asking questions. 

This isn't a suggestion to replace how we currently talk about our books, but rather a suggestion for something we could add. And I think it's a good one, and I say that with no fear of you thinking I'm a dumbass, because I don't care. If I'm a dumbass, I'm a dumbass. It's fun being a dumbass. Join me. I'm dying to hear what you're thinking. 

This will make us better. It will make our books better. Let's do it. 


  1. Right now, a lot of people are actively talking about the gender relations in Game of Thrones. As genre continues to ascend from the ghetto into the mainstream, it will be scrutinized in the same way "literary" or realistic fiction is. I would love to see more discussion and fewer flame wars too.

  2. Yes! Exactly. I'm glad people are doing that. Gender is a great place to start...

  3. A good book discussion group can be worth a lot. Many of them are inane, but if you hit the right one at the right time, it can add a whole new dimension to your appreciation of a book. We went through "A Night in the Lonesome October" by Zelazny last year, one chapter per day according to the chronology of the book. Some of the best, in-depth speculation about fiction I've enjoyed.

    But anyway, yes. More engagement would be welcome. Rather than ignore the reviewer you disagree with, establish a dialogue. It's often a good and valuable experience.