Remember Weird Tales? I do - not the original original original
magazine, I'm too young, but the bloody excellent incarnation helmed by Ann VanderMeer, which published some really wonderful, often progressive strange fiction while remaining engaged with its old-weird roots. It showcased a lot of voices and opinions; it was by turns nostalgic and critical and innovative and totally off-kilter. It was good
Well, those were the days. The sad tale of the magazine's new direction
has now taken a turn for the gut-churningly awful. Heard of Victoria Foyt's Save the Pearls
? Here's all you need to know
. Anyway, Marvin Kaye, WT's new editor, posted this defence of it today: A Thoroughly Non-Racist Book
I mean come on, the title of that post alone
doth protest too much. Kaye goes on to announce that WT is
printing the novel's first chapter in their next issue, and to express a wish that those who have criticised it "acquire sufficient wit, wisdom and depth of literary analysis to understand what they read".
This is disingenuous bullshit, and it disturbs me that I'm seeing the same kind of disingenuous bullshit crop up all over the place - directed at those who critique racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry in fiction. It goes beyond the claim of "it's just art" (which is a stifling enough claim, intellectually and creatively, in itself) and into the completely baffling realm of "those who critique on such grounds are incapable of appreciating art!" As if it were as simple as:
If you criticise the racism in this book, it's because you are stupid! Don't you realise it's satire?
If you criticise the exoticism in this book, it's because you are imaginatively stunted! Don't you realise it's beautiful?
If you had your way, Heart of Darkness
would be banned! O the slippery slope, O woe is literature!
People, Chinua Achebe wrote an acclaimed essay about the racism in Heart of Darkness
four decades ago. That book is still in libraries, is still a staple of university reading lists. It doesn't need protecting! Achebe never called for it to be banned; just for it to be read more critically. Literature students can critique it, argue about it, damn it - and why shouldn't they; what tutor would prefer a seminar without argument? Are those students lacking "depth of literary analysis"? Are they fuck!
These arguments are especially disturbing because I am seeing them come from people who say they oppose bigotry, but who also want to dismiss voices more radical than their own by claiming that those speaking lack imagination, lack an understanding of nuance, lack the ability to see beauty.
As if art floated above everything else, disconnected from the snarling mess of this world. No. It is part of the tangle. And when art hurts people, when it feeds off and into narratives of oppression, why should those who it harms consider artistic merit
before their own pain, or anger? Why does expression of that pain, that anger, signify a lack of imagination? How devoid of respect and compassion do you have to be, to believe that?
I like Achebe's response to criticisms of his criticism:
I never said at any point that you should stop attaching artistic merit to Heart of Darkness; if you want to you can. There are all kinds of sophisticated readings of Heart of Darkness, and there are some people who will not be persuaded there is anything wrong with it. But all that I'm really demanding, I'm not simply putting it, I'm demanding that my reading stand beside these other readings... Although he's writing good sentences, he's also writing about a people, and their life. And he says about these people that they are rudimentary souls... The Africans are the rudimentaries, and then on top are the good whites. Now I don't accept that, as a basis for... As a basis for anything.
Thing is, I do understand where some of these cries of "but ART!" are coming from. A resistance to the idea of limiting one's artistic voice, one's range of expression, one's subject matter - I see how that's daunting. I just don't think it's a very well thought through reaction. I think it masks a kind of laziness.
See, another thing I'm seeing crop up a lot, this time in books or blogs about the writing process
, is an emphasis on the artistic usefulness of constraints. It's something I wholeheartedly agree with - that experimenting with technical limits (say, taking away features you overly rely on) can push you to produce much better art, because it makes you work harder, think
harder. But for some reason, a lot of writers seem to think that only applies to technique, not content. Sure, I'll try varying my sentence structure, and alright, perhaps I rely too much on flashbacks, but attempt to write without exoticism - nevar!
To which I can only say, if you care so much about imagination... well, use some?
To use myself as an example. I know I have a long way to go in cutting problematic crap out of my own work - it creeps in through the gutters of the mind, and it takes work to recognise it, and clear it out. But doing so improves - without fail - the quality of my work. I have to think harder, be better, get more creative, and that's not always easy but it is always good. Which is not the reason I do it. Decency and respect, and anger at systems of privilege and oppression that have poisoned my brain to the point where I repeat their tropes without a thought - these are the reasons I do it.
But that is also a kind of artistic integrity, because it's an attempt to drag art a little way out of the tangling bullshit, to resist laziness and ugliness.
Honestly, I see no good reason not to value angry criticism, on moral or artistic grounds. Unless we're happy to hold ourselves to low standards.
I'm sure there are angles of this that I haven't properly puzzled out, so comments are very welcome. Stupidity or derailing will be ignored, because I have better things to do with my tired mind right now.
Assortment of sort-of related reading:
Aliette de Bodard: Worldbuilding, Patchwork, and Filing off the Serial Numbers
Requires Hate: fight! fight!
China Miéville on Tintin, racism, and straw thought police