Demonizing Literature

By John Kessel

(from SHORT FORM, 2, 5, September 1990)

Iím beginning to wonder whether the whole idea of writers doing criticism isn't a bad one. It's too hard to separate judgment from justification of your own practice. What I say here is more an expression of my personality than some absolute truth. And in the final analysis it's my work that is my critique, not what I say here.

That said, I'm going to spend the rest of this space disagreeing with the man who pays the bills for this magazine, 0rson Scott Card. What I have to say is based on ten years of reading his critical opinions, expressed in forums from Science Fiction Review to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But specifically I'll refer to his "Vulgar Art" from the last Green Pages and to his column in the May 1990 F&SF. (You may want to look up the F&SF before going on.)

Let me tell you first those things that I agree with Card about:

If this were the total content of Card's criticism I would have no problem with it. But throughout his commentary runs a line of inconsistency, distortion, and resentment that drives me up the wall. I don't think Orson Scott Card is inviting us to reason: he's more interested in hurling hand grenades. Here's my list of charges:
Most trivially, Card gets his facts wrong. In "Vulgar Art" his description of the plot of Rendezvous with Rama indicates he either has a faulty memory or no understanding of celestial mechanics. Rama enters the solar system on a hyperbolic orbit; from the first, everyone in the book knows it's going to make one quick pass around the sun and head out again. It doesn't, as Card says, take up an elliptical orbit around the sun, then "all of a sudden...start moving."

He uses bad works to tar good ones. Card cites Gore Vidal's Kalki to demonstrate that non-sf writers can't write sf because they don't know the idiom. I can provide many examples of works by non- genre writers (The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, even Vidal's earlier Messiah) that bring something new and powerful to the genre, and I could make the case that they do this because they don't know the idiom. Card himself admits that John Hersey can write both sf and non-sf, but he doesn't seem to think this weakens his argument.

He overgeneralizes. Card states, "'high' art, 'serious' art, has stopped trying to communicate with the unschooled audience." What books is he talking about? If he's saying all high lit abandons its audience, I challenge him to prove it. Lots of "serious" lit is popular (Pynchon, De Lillo), though it may not be as popular as Stephen King or Orson Scott Card or Piers Anthony.

Rather than support his arguments with examples, he misrepresents, ignores, and bullies. Card says: "But the conclusion such abused students reach after trips to museums to see incomprehensible art or after being forced to read boring or impenetrable literary works or listen to utterly incomprehensible, anti-melodic music--the conclusion they reach is, 'if I like it, it must not be good; and if it's good, I'm not going to like it."' (italics mine) This is name calling, not argument. What incomprehensible art is he talking about? Rothko? Picasso? Van Gogh? Whistler? Rossetti? All of these artists, in their times, were accused of being incomprehensible. How about Melville's Moby Dick, Stravinskiís Rite of Spring? The one was declared impenetrable by contemporaries, the other "anti-melodic (though 25 years after its debut it was the soundtrack of a Disney movie).

He equates popularity with quality. This is not crime; I just disagree strongly. Card says, "If all popular art were the same, it would all sell the same, but it doesnít. . . . art that has been publicly funded shows little discernible reason why the public should fund it. The people have already voted against this sort of art in the bookshop and the record store." I assume this means that if it doesnít sell, it isnít good. If it appeals to a specialized audience, itís anti-democratic. PLEASE NOTE: Iím not saying that popularity is a sign that art is bad. Iím saying that popularity is only one of many factors that can be used to argue a piece's worth. Popularity can also be dangerous to your artistic health, and should, like drugs, be used carefully. (This was the point of my comments on the effect of Heinleinís immense popularity on his later writing in my column in Vol. 2, Issue 3.)

He assumes "li-fi" writers don't care to reach the reader, that "literature" has no value, that ambiguity is merely and always self-indulgent obscurantism, that if someone likes "1iterature" it's because they're sucking up to some cultural elite or have had their tastes corrupted by that elite. Just read the whole F&SF column for this.

Card tells us he wants to tear down the wall between elitist and popular art. I used to take him at his word, but I've come to the conclusion that what he's really after, and what he's labored long and hard over the years to do, is erect this wall more firmly than ever and then sling mud at those writers he sees on the other side of it, using every rhetorical and emotional trick at his disposal. He's interested in demonizing literary fiction, and those who write, read, and teach it.

"...too often," he tells us in F&SF , "we who are so trained [in academic literary criticism] discover that the 'insight' [pro- vided by literary fiction] is puerile, quotidian, or extravagantly dumb. Clearly it is no longer the supposed insight that the academic literary establishment writes and reads for, but rather the encoding itself; the reward is not the discovery of truth, but rather the reassuring knowledge that the literary reader knows a secret code that lesser mortals will never learn."

I teach literature in a university, so I suppose that makes my testimony suspect. But this sounds to me more like the ravings of a hurt child than a reasoned description. It's the complaint of a student who had some very bad teachers. Now I'm ready to admit that there are a lot of bad teachersóI've seen them, I've taken classes from them, some of them are my colleagues, and I suppose, at times, I've been oneóbut that isn't the fault of literature, any more than bad writers are the fault of sf.

I sympathize with those students dumped by a bad teacher in the modernist wing of the art gallery. But you know, it might be a different experience if they had a good teacher. Some books are not easily accessible immediately. Even so-called "simple" books may have complex implications. It's the job of the good teacher to help the student along, to suggest to him or her that what may at first seem forbidding is worth working at, that all good writing speaks to certain human values, that old books have something new to say to people living today. A teacher is the memory of our culture. Lots of students come into my class with essentially the attitude toward literature that Scott Card espouses. That's a failure of their teachers and of the culture that surrounds them the eighteen hours a day they're not in school. I don't think it's the fault of the works.

I don't have any use for the arrogance or ignorance of the so-called literary establishment. It does exist. I have to deal with it often. (Although English professors, like sf writers, are not monolithic. Plenty of them are prepared to cut sf some slack, and some, even, are knowledgeable about it.) But is anyone who fails to appeal to Stephen King's audience, or Scott Card's, deficient as a writer? Are there no virtues to be had from fiction that is not like Gone With The Wind? Isn't it just barely possible that someone could like Melville, Conrad, Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Cheever, O'Connor, and other "establishment" writers on their own terms, without being T.S. Eliot's toady? Heaven forbid, didn't even Eliot write a couple of pretty good poems, despite the fact that he was an ambitious reactionary? Isn't it possible that some of these writers could offer a valuable experience legitimately unavailable from William Goldman? Isn't it just barely possible that they might offer some of the same experiences as Goldman? Maybe these writers aren't the elitist snobs that Card makes them out to be.

Maybe Card is setting up a little psychodrama for you, with the Big Bad Evil Adult Oppressors (your English teacher) attempting to squash the Vital, True-hearted, Democratic Child Hero (Orson Scott Card's version of the sf reader). We all love this story. But isn't it about time we grew up? If we are being ignored or misunderstood, why not devote our energies to educating others and ourselves, and ditch the vindictive name calling? Turnabout may be fair play but it's lousy criticism.

Let me be as honest as I can about this: the heart of my anger at Card's criticism is that when Scott attacks "1i-fi" he attacks what I've come to devote my professional and creative life to. He questions my motives and judgment. I do not think myself a fool or a snob. I do not think that all the people who love the books I teach are fools or snobs. I did not study literature because I was trying to impress my elders. I do not love and admire the works of Melville because someone told me I had to or because I am sucking up to some establishment, or because I could get a job out of it. I do not think such writing is the only kind of good writing. There are plenty of canonical writers whose work I do not like.

I want you, the potential reader of Flannery O'Connor, to decide whether her writing is worth the effort, not on the basis of the fact that it's required reading in a course taught by some professor who has a bad attitude toward sf, but on the basis of an open-minded reading of the work. Just as we would want the non-sf reader to make up his mind about sf on the basis of reading it, not on the basis of what some literary mandarin tells him about sf. I want you to make up your own minds about Ralph Ellison on the basis of what he wrote, not on what Scott Card tells you about the failings of the literary establishment. Having been an sf fan who had a prejudice against literature because I felt sf was looked down upon by "real lit," having come to love that "real lit" without abandoning my love for sf, I don't want you to be closed off to the experience of so-called "li-fi" by the opinions of a man whose criticisms are powered by resentment and who seems to me to be pursuing some private agenda.

I'll admit my self-interest in this, and my personal resentment. If you reject literature without giving it a chance, then it's pretty likely you're going to reject a lot of contemporary sf writers who admire literature. If you take Scott's word for what James Joyce is about, then you're in danger of taking his word for what Kim Stanley Robinson or Karen Joy Fowler or Connie Willis or John Kessel are about.

Scott has more than once characterized me as a proponent of literary fiction. I'm not against this if he simply means to describe the kind of fiction I like, but when he sets up a straw man of li-fi, defines it as unreadable crap, and then points to me as a proponent of infecting sf with this virus, I take umbrage.

Scott has attacked writers inside sf along the same lines as this attack on those outside of it ("What is the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction?" SF Review #61). In the very first Short Form, he referred to those sf writers "who self-referentially manipulate the props of the academic-literary genre." But when Andrew Weiner challenged Card to support this characterization with examples, Card neglected to reply.

I propose that he make his case. Who are these sf writers who don't care about communicating with their audiences? What are these sf works that are interested only in playing secret decoder games? If Card has a case, let him make it in individual instances. If he identifies one bad book, let him consistently apply that standard to other books. Recently, for instance, Card expressed disappointment with the difficulty of Wolfe's Soldier of Arete. Yet this novel is no more difficult than the numerous earlier Wolfe stories Card has praised effusively, at the same time heís complained about other writers' self-referential obscurity. I can think of some sf books that strike me as being too obscure, but by the standards of high modernism there aren't many. I sure don't see much evidence of sf in the nineties following Finnegan's Wake down the rathole, and I frankly don't think this is an argument Card can win on its merits.

So tell me: how hard does a work have to be before it's put on Scott Card's Index of the Boring and Impenetrable? What does he mean by work that doesn't offer its insights plainly? Are all readers supposed to like the same things? I readily admit that all stories are not equally easy to interpret. Some fiction, instead of spelling out its meanings, seeks to embody them in the world it presents. Some writers, rather than distilling for readers a message that they deliver clearly and unequivocally, demonstrate that life is neither clear nor unequivocal. The world is not a simple place. Some truths don't fit on bumper stickers. Even those that do may have complex implications when expressed through a character's life. "Li-fi" may seem like a guessing game, a closed club; for some of us it's real life.

But here's Card's version: "In short, a fair part of the study of literature has come to resemble the bestowing of Captain Marvel decoder rings, and the process of reading literary fiction has come to resemble the process of working one's way through an issue of Games Magazine. It's very hard work, and not everyone can do it, but when it's done, what do you have except a bunch of meaningless marks on paper? Yet they have the effrontery to call this 'serious literature.' Do they think the rest of us are only kidding?"

I want to know who Scott Card is kidding. I give him his multiple Nebulas and Hugos. I admit he's been voted one of the two most popular sf writers of the '80s. I want him to cut the demagoguery. I want to see him name some names. What works of literature is he talking about? If this is what he really thinks of, say, The Confidence Man, or Dubliners, or "The Metamorphosis," or A Passage to India, or The Sound and the Fury, or Invisible Man, or " A Good Man is Hard to Find," or The Inheritors, or Bullet Park, or White Noiseóthat they amount to nothing but a bunch of meaningless marks on paperóthen here's my question: Who is this man, and why should we listen to him?