Condemned to the Not-So-New

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The important thing isn’t to arrive first, but to arrive big.

Aphorism of the Day II: Imagination becomes a curse precisely when it begins catering to ambition. The world starves what hope enslaves.

One of the things I dislike about blogging is the way it reveals the vagaries of my mood. When it comes to novels, the sheer amount of time you spend with the text assures that you revisit each section with multiple frames of mind—the peaks and valleys are levelled through sheer interference as much as anything else. You can be ‘professional’ simply because you garble any trace of your emotional presence into a background of white-noise, the nowhere of the disinterested narrator. Not so with blogging. It’s all laid out for the careful reader to perceive. So much so that I even have a maxim: ‘Do not blog when manic or depressed.’

The rule I’m breaking right now.

I’ve had a busy weekend. The Nietzsche Workshop seemed like a smashing success. The paper I gave, “Outing the ‘It’ that Thinks: The Collapse of an Intellectual Ecosystem” seemed to go over far, far better than I had feared. I had worried that Horst Hutter, the one true Nietzsche scholar on our panel, would savage me on my interpretation of the crackpot messiah; he followed me away from the lectern he was so excited with my claims. I had also worried that Arthur Kroker, the one true culture and technology scholar on our panel, would hammer me for claiming that the humanities (as we know them) were about to go extinct in the wake of cognitive science; he had nothing but the highest praise.

So why so down, baby blue?

In the hurley-burley, I had no chance to read the weekend Globe and Mail. So first thing this morning, after getting my tea and Ruby settled with breakfast, I cracked open the Arts section, only to find that John Barber, the Globe’s lead arts reporter, had written yet another article on fantasy—this one on the literary re-evaluation of what should have never been a fallen genre. He mentions the success of A Game of Thrones, quotes Erin Morgenstern who’s Night Circus has become such a rage, and concludes with Lev Grossman—and in the middle he writes about an upcoming book of essays by the Grande Dame of Canadian Literature, Margaret Atwood, that critiques… you guessed it, the Incredible Shrinking Sublime: “Atwood’s essays,” he writes “present a multilayered argument in favour of magic in fiction, suggesting that what’s really weird (and perhaps passé) are the upstart conventions of social realism.”

I don’t know Margaret Atwood the person, but Margaret Atwood the public literary figure I well and truly despise, as do many others in the Canadian genre community. Why? Well, check this PBS piece out for one. Every time she comes out with something she fears might be written off as genre, she follows this pattern: Upon release, she says ‘This is Literature, not genre,’ then proceeds to do what she does in this interview—give the accepted definition of the genre (extrapolation of real technologies), and then claim that the genre (with the all-important proviso, ‘means to people’) is something obviously silly like ‘talking cabbages’ and ‘lizard men.’ If that wasn’t bad enough, once the book has been safely accepted as genuine literary fiction, she then turns the strategy upside down, claiming that the book is in fact genre and has been all along, in an effort to increase sales. Rather than fight for genre, she literally—explicitly—steps on it to feather her own nest.

I’ve exchanged a couple of correspondences on literature and fantasy with John Barber—he’s even read the “Dancing Bears and Wild Ones” (which is a cruder, earlier version of “The Future of Literature”) in the essay section—but the list of people he references makes clear his interest lies with those already in the cultural spotlight (which is to say, with those people his readers are already interested in). And the fact is, readers will be far more inclined to actually revalue fantasy fiction if they hear the argument from people they already know. In this respect, given all the years I’ve poured into this particular issue, I should be jumping for joy.

But when it’s Margaret Atwood who gets the credit?

Ego, huh? I mean why should this bug me so much? It’s not as though I’m in any way original in claiming that genre needs to be taken seriously (though I think my particular argument is original). Ed Kellar’s mind-bending presentation at the Workshop, which featured J. G. Ballard, reminded me how old the debate is. Christ, it goes all the way back to James and Wells!

Is it just the idea of outsiders, people who built reputations contra-genre, suddenly spinning with the turn of the tide and getting credit (and spikes in their sales) for their hypocrisy?

No. It’s bigger than that. I’ve felt it for some time, I think. The way I felt it after giving my paper (which I’ll be posting shortly) at the Nietzsche Workshop—or even, for that matter, my debate with G. M. Palmer last week. What troubled me so much about the paper was—and this is going to sound strange—that people found it so damn convincing. It’s almost like there’s an exhaustion in the air, an ambient, communal recognition that the old foundations have rotted beyond repair—that it’s time to build a new house. I went in wanting to convince everyone in the audience that this is an age of profound excitement and opportunity. Then I had this premonition, this sudden certainty that arriving first—or at least being ahead of the curve—doesn’t really count for anything, that culture will simply brick you over with nary a trace, especially if you fail—as I have failed—to cultivate the proper institutional affiliations. That the opportunity belonged to others, not me.

Being original counts against you, generally speaking. Being right, counts for nothing. Being accredited, successful, or networked, on the other hand…

And it makes me think that this ‘fighting for the future’ tone I constantly invoke is really just a sham. Have I just been fighting for myself all this time? I worry that my ambitions are every bit as preposterous and absurd as they seem when I glimpse them in the eyes of others.

And at the same time I hate myself for thinking this way: I mean, I’ve worked, been so poor I had to live off rice for a year, so I know that scraping by on my wits month to month the way I do is nothing short of a miracle–especially in an industry wobbling on the edge of collapse. It almost seems sinful, despairing for my old, youthful dreams of recognition when life is slack enough to afford me time to mope like this.

We should all be so lucky.

And yet, always this fucking hunger for more. Always starved. Always incarcerated.

Watching the likes of Margaret Atwood eat.