Saturday, 19 November 2016

Looking Back

Retrospect is always an interesting tool for analysis, and nothing brings home change as solidly as when looking at a work considering its own contemporary period as the present – when that present was forty years ago.

The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction was published by Octopus in 1978, and, despite the title, is by no means arranged as an A-Z, but is a connected series of essays by leading names of the day – e.g., Brian Stableford, Harry Harrison, David Hardy, Patrick Moore, Alan Frank – on various aspects of the genre.

It is almost quaint to consider the avant garde of a time long gone – this was years before the Space Shuttle went into service, and the newest kid on the black was Star Wars, by which I mean A New Hope, which was still in its exponential growth phase as the fan phenomenon of the era. The schism between literary and film SF and where the money was trending could not be more clear on this score: the cover painting/dust jacket features a medley of recognisable images – a Foss-esque space ship, a tripod from War of the Worlds, a generic planet or two, plus Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet, the space station from 2001, and Darth Vader, a Star Destroyer and a stormtrooper. These are all immediately recognisable visual tropes to catch the attention of the customer in the book shop, and have remarkably little to do with the mostly literarily-oriented contents. Indeed, in his opening chapter, the late Robert Holdstock at the very least calls into question the value of Star Wars as typically Hollywood bad science fiction, with the comment: “A genre grows out of a reader-population’s demand for ‘more of the same’, and there are always writers – usually bad writers – ready to supply the cheap cuts of the body literate, to fulfil the popular demand; watch out for the effect of Star Wars on the written market!” In his chapter on SF cinema Alan Frank is considerably more charitable to the movie, while, it cannot be overlooked, cheap knock-offs of the Star Wars model did indeed appear on bookshelves simultaneously with the late-70s “Star-anything avalanche” in the visual idiom.

A number of interesting points jump off the page at the modern reader looking back this far. Besides the historical chapters charting the development of speculative fiction from Shelley onward, and the rise and fall of the Golden Age pulps, the sense of immediacy and analysis pervading the genre of the late ‘70s is every bit as dynamic and serious as today, or indeed as it had been to serious thinkers a generation earlier. The doing of science fiction, the craft of it, was brought into focus early in the volume, and a quick review was made of the resulting writing workshops and anthologies. In those days a small group of highly motivated professionals taught short courses on what constituted both good writing and good SF – Samuel R. Delany, Fred Pohl, Ursula K. Le Guinn, Harlan Ellison, Chris Priest, David Gerrold, Damon Knight – and Holdstock comments, apropos of the anthologies springing from the “Clarion” workshops: “The anthologies indicate one thing very clearly – that science fiction writing cannot be taught with complete success. They are depressing things, these collections, accumulations of images, half considered ideas, half finished stories – the voice is monotonously similar… The stories in the collection were much influenced by the teachers, by unlike minds… The ultimate lesson of any such informal education is that there is nothing more important than a writer’s own voice or vision, and this is something inborn, instinctive, something that cannot be diminished or encouraged by anything but the writer’s own experience.”

This suggests a certain malady inherent in the very system – individual voice and unique perspective are smothered in either the veneer of commercialism or the force of personality of the teacher. Perhaps it is inevitable that in taking on board the lessons of a powerful professor one starts to sound a bit like him or her, and this is unfortunate to say the least when subjective expression is the medium.

I saw a cartoon which epitomises this point. Sadly I can’t afford the agency fee to reproduce it here; suffice to say a woman is commenting on a manuscript she has read, telling the author, “your poetry embodies all the raw, primal emotion of the writing workshops you’ve attended.” Say no more, eh? (Artist: Carole Cable, agency: Jantoo.)

The writer Terry Bisson in his “Sixty Rules for Short SF(and Fantasy)”  lists as tip #4, “Never write in present tense. It makes events less, not more, immediate. Past tense IS present tense.” His tips are pithy, compact soundbytes of advice, some of which would benefit from some context, but this one was perhaps a reaction to the prevalence of this device in the modern marketplace. A recent edition of Clarkesworld featured seven stories, all of which were told in the first person and six of them were in the present tense, so it would seem Mr Bisson’s objection is something of a singular viewpoint in itself. Clarkesworld certainly know their readership’s tastes and are serving them.

But does this not make the same point apropos of the workshop anthologies of the ‘70s? We work in a creative field but that creativity is not free, but bound tightly by conceptions of what constitutes a “good” story on one hand and “good SF” on the other. Going by Mr. Bisson’s directives, he must rate 99% of all stories produced as bad writing, yet much of it will be in pro print. Reviews at Goodreads are so predominantly scathing it would seem the readership for general fiction is really, broadly not enjoying what is published, but this is a paradox because publishers would go out of business if they consistently failed to deliver what readers want. That in turn suggests the bad, bad reviews are posted by a vocal minority whose object is merely to attack, while a less aggressively motivated wider readership continues to buy and enjoy regardless.

All of this brings into focus the notion of gatekeepers and what they are looking for. First and foremost it has to be commercial, but beyond that, subjective viewpoint and the constraints of specific market niche – subgenre, orientation, length parameters, subject matter, etc., etc., etc. – present a formidable barrier to the new writer.

Has anything changed in the 45 years since those early courses and workshops? We still have workshops today in which writers tear each other’s work to shreds in the name of improving it, a kind of literary feeding frenzy in which a new writer with pages held in trembling hands is forgiven for feeling like blood in the water for the top predators of the social circle, and it is easy to see how such situations can get out of hand. (Here I’m thinking back on meetings of a romance writers’ circle many years ago – passions ran hot in more ways than one! I was there in the context of a contract printer in the POD game but got to observe the workings of the group.)

Which brings me back to the big old hardback coffee-table volume, with the sometimes intimidating prose of big boys playing hardball. They all cleared the gatekeepers, and that alone gives them the edge, the right to say what matters and what doesn’t. The mechanisms are likely unchanged today, except by a matter of degree – the process is what it is. Today we have electronic submission and can churn through rejections at a pace never imagined in the paper and typewriters era, and the expectations of what constitutes good writing have evolved: Poul Anderson’s classics from the ‘50s would be unlikely to get past the gatekeepers who are the arbiters of public consumption today, simply because storytelling must keep pace with the expectations of generations experiencing change all around them at an unprecedented rate. Yes, a case can be made that humanity has suffered in this, the human experience may be expressly foregrounded in guidelines but it is now compressed into MTV-sized bytes and smelling the roses equates to tedium and a lack of conciseness.

I miss the days when that big book was published. They seemed more innocent, or maybe it was just me who was more innocent. Whatever, it seemed the world was filled with opportunity, and I used to read this volume, study the wealth of art it contains, and dream big dreams – ironically not of being a science fiction writer as such, but of telling stories that inspired me, and in my naivety I had no real conception of the competitive shark pool awaiting anyone aspiring to do it for real. Or maybe I did, and that’s why I didn’t try it then.

Cheers, Mike Adamson

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