Old Dogs, New Tricks

I’ve noticed I’ve been posting a lot of obituary notices recently. Mordecai Richler, Eudora Welty, Poul Anderson – it’s enough to make you think about a changing of the guard. Many of the world’s most highly regarded authors are now very old and, frankly, we can’t expect them to be around much longer. This raises the question of succession. Who will be the literary lions of the twenty-first century?

But perhaps that’s moving just a bit too fast. Philip Roth, age 68, has his doubts about whether literature, at least as we know it, will even exist in the new millennium:

I’m not good at finding encouraging features in American culture. I think we’ve got a substantial group of original and talented writers who’ve been at work in America for the past 20 or 30 years, but their readership gets duller and smaller every year. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here.

Well! Imagine being a young American writer and reading that! America’s most original and talented writers are part of a group that have been writing for 20 or 30 years! So much for the next wave!

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Some Observations on the New SF

Introduction

In the following essay I want to take a look at what I see as some of the main trends in SF today. Before I get started, however, I have to provide some disclaimers. In the first place, I am not an authority on SF. While I am interested in SF, my fascination stays on this side of obsession. SF is a particularly lush field, and I can’t claim an acquaintance with the majority of it. The reviewing I do covers everything from history and biography to poetry and picture books, so I don’t have the time to give any one genre the full attention it deserves. In addition, my knowledge of the critical literature is sparse at best. Confessing my ignorance, but also delighting in my amateur status, I have decided to plunge straight in.

As a way of narrowing things down I have limited myself to discussing the stories found in the last three volumes of The Year’s Best Science-Fiction (that is, the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Annuals). The major issue this raises is the undue influence it gives to one man’s vision of SF – the editor of the Year’s Best anthologies, Gardner Dozois. But while I admit that this is a cause for some concern, I don’t see it as invalidating what I consider to be general thematic observations.

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Spring Cleaning

This year found the annual spring clean-up at my house taking on an added dimension. After extensively remodeling three other rooms, I finally came to the holy place where I keep my books. This forced me into special considerations. I definitely didn’t want any paint getting on my library. Just to be on the safe side I decided to put most of my books into boxes and move them well out of harm’s way.

The thought of putting these “moldering paper bricks” into temporary storage made me reflect. Once packed away, which books would ever come out again? I have room for about 1,500 volumes on my shelves, but I reached capacity some time ago and every week there are more coming in. Drastic times called for drastic measures. Several boxes were going to have to be put away for an indefinite period. How to choose?

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The Shrinking Canon

I attended the University of Toronto as both an undergraduate and graduate student from 1987 to 1996. In hindsight, we might say that these years marked the highpoint of the campus culture wars, before “politically incorrect” became the name of a bland late-night talk show. I can’t say that it was bliss in that dawn to be alive, but as an English student I did feel very much in the middle of things.

One of the offshoots of the political correctness debate in English departments everywhere was the campaign to update the “canon.” What this meant was opening the list of what had become more or less established texts to new voices. Certain writers, it was argued, had been unfairly excluded from the canon in the past. “Canon maintenance” was an expression on every young academic’s lips. It all seemed very important.

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The Death of the “Author”

It is one of the ironies of postmodernism that Roland Barthes’s claim to literary immortality comes from having pronounced the “death of the author.” What he meant was that an author’s intentions in creating a text are irrelevant in interpreting that text. The death of the author was life for the critic.

Academics immediately fell in love with the notion because it seemed to place them on an equal footing with genius. Meanwhile, authors who knew what Barthes’s theory amounted to were powerless to do anything about it. The announcement of the death of the author came after the fact, recognizing a dramatic shift in cultural power that had already occurred.

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Kid Stuff

The headline of the BBC report announcing the results said it all: “Top 100 books are child’s play.” In a poll to determine the nation’s favourite reads, children’s books made up over a third of the titles chosen. From classics like Black Beauty and Winnie the Pooh to all four installments (thus far) of the Harry Potter franchise, kid stuff ruled.

The news comes hard on the heels of a piece I wrote recently on the new popularity of children’s lit. What set me off then was a column by Philip Marchand in the Toronto Star on the gender gap among readers. What I found even more interesting was the age gap. According to Professor David Booth at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, “Boys stop reading fiction at the age of 12 or 13 . . . If they read a novel after that, it’s because they’ve been told to in school.”

There was probably some explanation here of why The Lord of the Rings and The Catcher in the Rye hold top spot on all of those “favourite book” lists. These may be the last books many people have read. And if reading is a childhood activity, is it any surprise that Britain’s Top 100 are “child’s play”?

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History Lessons

“Since Americans have recently found it more comfortable to see where they have been than to think of where they are going, their state of mind has become increasingly passive and spectatorial. Historical novels, fictionalized biographies, collections of pictures and cartoons, books on American regions and rivers, have poured forth to satisfy a ravenous appetite for Americana. This quest for the American past is carried on in a spirit of sentimental appreciation rather than of critical analysis. An awareness of history is always a part of any culturally alert national life; but I believe that what underlies this overpowering nostalgia of the past fifteen years is a keen feeling of insecurity. . . . American history, presenting itself as a rich and rewarding spectacle, a succession of well-fulfilled promises, induces a desire to observe and enjoy, not to analyze and act. The most common vision of national life, in its fondness for the panoramic backward gaze, has been that of the observation-car platform.” – Richard Hofstadter

The introduction to Hofstadter’s classic 1948 text The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It helps remind us of the reason for reading history in the first place. While every generation probably considers itself living through an age of insecurity, when I came across this description of America’s “observation-car platform” attitude toward its past it seemed more relevant now than ever. Wasn’t the current occupant of the White House said to be reading John Adams by David McCullough – a rather sentimentally inclined historian whose only flirtations with controversy have been the result of his gilding the historical lily? And what was this news out of Texas, that has policy groups lobbying the state Board of Education over which history textbooks are to be used? According to a story in the New York Times, standard school texts regularly give history a “facelift”: “Today’s books, and standardized tests issued by the same publishers, not only portray each minority as heroic, but every group (and each sex) is airbrushed to eliminate the possibility of stereotyping.” While suggesting that there is “nothing new about this” (Hofstadter would have agreed), the story concludes by asking, “Are books now more bland and mythical than before?”

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