Saturday, September 8, 2018

Shelley, Verne and Wells--especially Wells

When we recount the history of science fiction, it is common to point to some early figure as its founder--for instance, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

The emphasis on identifying a single, founding work by a single author strikes me as unsatisfying for numerous reasons, only one of which I want to go into here right now---that it makes much more sense to credit them with each defining a crucial strand of science fiction, already in place before it coalesced into a genre (in the '20s, on the watch of Hugo Gernsback).

Note that I write defining here, not founding, because it would be excessive to claim that they did something that had never been done before to any degree. Rather they did what others might have done before in a certain way, got noticed for it, and became a model for those who followed in the process.

The Gothic writer Shelley defined the science-based horror story--where the scientific endeavor goes very, very bad. Verne defined the science-based adventure--where a discovery or invention sets us up for a thrill ride to the center of the Earth or the moon or for twenty thousand leagues under the sea which might teach us something along the way, most likely in the way of scientific facts. And Wells defined the science-based story not about some hero or anti-hero, but where, to borrow Isaac Asimov's phrase, humanity as a whole is the protagonist; the story which uses science to think about society, and considers how science, by way of ideas and technology, might change it; the story about a future that is clearly not the same as today, broadly, deeply and densely imagined; the science fiction story which can criticize things as they are, and bear the hope of progress.

Of these the last perhaps accounts for a smaller part of the genre's overall output than the other, older strands. Certainly it is less present in the more popular work than the influences of Shelley or Verne. (Horror stories, adventure stories, are the easier sell.) Still, it is Wells' strand that seems to me to not only have been far and away the most intellectually interesting, but to have given science fiction a cultural role beyond mere entertainment, or in some general way getting people excited about science; to have enabled science fiction to really matter. And it seems to me that the vigor of that particular tradition is, more than any other factor, the determinant of the health of the genre as a whole.

Are Books Too Long These Days?

Are books too long these days?

I will say up front that many of the novels that have most impressed, most affected, most influenced me were thousand-pagers. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Karamazov Brothers, for example. (I can't imagine Tales From the Singularity without that one.) Or Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. (Which is still in a lot of ways The Way We Live Now in the twenty-first century.) Or Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. (Has anything equally ambitious, sweeping, worthwhile been written about American life since?)

And reading my way through the classics, I encountered a good many that don't have a membership in that pantheon, but where I could appreciate what they were going for, and that trying to do it took half a million words (as Victor Hugo did in his national epic of France, Les Miserables, and Leo Tolstoy did in War and Peace).

Still, not every book needs to be so long as that. Not every story requires so much sheer mass. Most are better off without it. And in general I think those books that most of even that small minority that actually reads tends to actually read--the romances and thrillers and romantic thrillers--are ill-served by the demand for doorstops. What might be a brisk entertainment instead ends up bloated and slow, and often pretentious, and I find myself nostalgic for the quick and dirty writing of a half century ago, and the still older pulps. Reading Dirk Pitt at the series' best was a lot of fun, but there is a lot to be said for those who came before him, not least that other Clark-from-New-York-with-a-Fortress-of-Solitude, Doc Savage.

The Summer 2018 Box Office: Solo and The Meg

I haven't done an overview of the summer box office in quite a while, in part because it has become so damned repetitive, in its commercial successes--and perhaps even more consistently, its artistic failures. Every year Hollywood laments its earnings, every year the more critical critics decry the shallowness and sameness and staleness of it all, every year we hear promises that Hollywood will change, and every year, it demonstrates that not only has it not done so, but that its lack of memory is utter and total, the promise unremembered.

So I'll restrict my comments on the whole tedious thing to the two films I felt I actually had somethijng to say about: Solo and Meg.

After over three months of release in which it has had long play in every major market (even Japan got it before the end of June), Solo remains short of the $400 million global mark, like I guessed it would be after what, only in the context of the money poured into it, was regarded as a dismal weekend. What it will mean for the franchise remains very much a matter of rumor and speculation. But the shock seems undeniable.

By contrast Meg proved that rarity, a movie that performs above expectations rather than below them, and that still greater rarity, the seemingly written-off dump month release that proves a blockbuster. (The predictions were $10-20 million in its opening weekend in North America, but it actually pulled in more than twice the high end of the range, $45 million.) A somewhat more modest production with much more modest expectations, The Meg has already outgrossed Solo globally (the China market has helped a lot), and if the figures discussed earlier are to be believed (a $400 million break-even point, due to the advantages it enjoys as a Chinese coproduction in that makret), already well into the black, and still raking it in (in its fourth weekend of U.S. release, still at #2).

A follow-up is not a sure thing (given the nine figure budgets and equally hefty promotional bills, the hefty competition and the terms of Meg's success as a bit of goofy fun, the margins are not exactly vast), but it still looks quite likely. We might even see other Steve Alten works finding their way to the big screen as a result, in what looks like at least partial redemption of the dashed hopes held for it all way back when we first heard of the hopes for the project.

From the standpoint of the business Meg's success falls far short of balancing out Solo's underperformance, and all it represents (the ultimate in the Hollywood franchise mentality, by way of the franchise that did more than any other to establish the blockbuster as we know it). Still, looking at the two trajectories together, I suppose there's a certain symmetry in them.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Ian Watt, Irony and Criticism in Our Own Time

For me one of the most memorable aspects of Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (reviewed here) is his discussion of the proneness of critics to read irony where there is often actually none--which specifically cited Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf's readings of Daniel Defoe.

Defoe, in Watts' view, had no such attitude to the apparent contradictions in his characters' behavior--their combination of relentless money-grubbing and relentless, verbose declarations of their piety, for example. This was not only because such things did not look as ridiculously hypocritical to them as they do to people of our own time, but because a display of such irony required a level of technical mastery in this kind of "realist" writing that eighteenth century novelists had yet to achieve. Indeed, Defoe's sloppiness as a writer is something Watt discusses quite some length, replying to Woolf's declaration that Defoe subdued "every element to his design" with the opinion that there is no
design whatsoever in the usual sense of the term . . . such an interpretation really a kind of indirect critical repayment for the feeling of superiority which Defoe enables us to derive from his humble and unconsidered prose, a feeling of superiority which enables us to convert the extreme cases of his narrative gaucherie into irony . . .
There is far, far too much such "conversion of narrative gaucherie into irony" today--more than in his, more perhaps than in any other time in history--with at least some of it coming from people who ought to know better. (I hesitate to name names, but one recent critic whom I hold in a good deal of regard reviewed Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games in exactly this way, and then admitted that it was his way of spicing up the boring task of reviewing a book with such artless world-building--essentially, an admission that he wasn't doing his job of reviewing the book at all.) After all, in our postmodern day, the most inane subjective reaction can be held up as profound insight, and "irony for irony's sake" might be the critical slogan--irony for irony's sake because they cannot resist that "worst form of snobbery," because there is no better barrier to really thinking about anything than blowing it off in this pseudo-literate person's equivalent of the eternal "Whatever!"

Of Character and the Larger Scene: A Note on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel

Recently reading Ian Watt's classic of literary criticism, The Rise of the Novel, one of the book's more compelling aspects seemed to me his attentiveness to the differing emphases novels can have--what I tend to think of as the Henry James-like emphasis on character and the "play of individualities" as the cornerstone of good writing, and an H.G. Wells-like stress on the larger social scene. Where the "highbrows" are concerned, James carried the day.

As Watt makes clear, however, both approaches were strongly represented among those foundational writers of the eighteenth century English novel. Watt identified Samuel Richardson with the stress on character (and the domestic themes to which such writing inclines), Henry Fielding with society. Consequently, while they share comparable status as founders of the English novel (indeed, in that long-ago eighteenth century lit course I had, we read both Richardson's Pamela and Fielding's Tom Jones), it would seem to be that James' victory over Wells' was also Richardson's over Fielding's.

Ian Watt and Shakespeare

Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel was, as discussed here, a study of eighteenth century literature. Still, that outstanding piece of literary analysis, history and sociology was comprehensive enough to have much to say about other subjects--not least, the works of William Shakespeare.

His remarks about the Bard were, of course, offhand. Still, in noting that Shakespeare, as very much a Medieval rather than a modern, and noting that such writers dealt in universal types rather than specific individuals; that they had their eye on abstractions rather than concrete facts; that they were prone to be loose in handling the flow of time or cause and effect relationships; and that in describing it all they were inclined to prettily decorate rather than rigorously denote and describe; he strikes me as having sum up a very large part of the challenge that reading Shakespeare presents a twenty-first century reader, a challenge they tend to fail.

Thus we read Julius Ceaser and find instead of a historical drama about ancient Rome as we would understand the term--just the dilemma of Brutus. Thus we read Hamlet--and feel that he's endlessly dithering, which becomes ammunition for pompous lectures on the character's lack of decisiveness. Or we don't find those things, because we don't really have enough of a handle on what's going on to have those reactions. We just read them because we're supposed to, without worrying about whether we "get it" or not, and then, if the statistics are accurate, after completing the obligatory school requirement (under the eye of a teacher who might not get all this themselves; they're probably taking all this on authority just as much the student), most of us probably don't read much of anything ever again.

Is there anyone else who thinks this isn't how it's supposed to go?

My Posts on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
Reading Literary Classics
What is Literature?

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: A Second Note

As Anthony Trollope's great satire of late Victorian society opens, we are looking at Lady Carbury, who is in the midst of preparing for a release of her book Criminal Queens, soliciting what she hopes will be favorable reviews from the major London newspapers.

A writer anxiously soliciting reviews in the hope that they will make her book a success!

Alas, all the advances in technology since that time when railroads were the stuff of tech bubbles has not spared writers the burdens and annoyances and headaches and embarrassments and nerves of publicity-seeking, as every self-published author knows only too well.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: A Note

Anthony Trollope's classic The Way We Live Now is his classic satire of late Victorian society, which bears more resemblance to our own than most of us can appreciate. It is something of a truism that railroads were the dot-coms of Trollope's time, but reading that novel, centered on a massive financial scandal centered on such a steampunk dot-com, shows in dramatic fashion just how much this was so. ("The object of Fisker, Montague, and Montague was not to make a railway to Vera Cruz, but to float a company.")

Trollope's take on it all has real bite, one reason why critics in his day were unappreciative of that book, and why they might be similarly unappreciative in ours (as a cursory look at a number of lists of nineteenth century classics has suggested to me), but it seems to have enjoyed a bit of an upsurge in popularity in recent years, because of its relevance--and I suppose, also by more recent writers' failings. Among their many disservices Modernism, postmodernism and the rest have rendered today's "serious" literature too toothless to properly write such an epic in our own time, and so for satire we can hardly do better than look to a tale of comparable doings in a time long past.

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