Friday, March 23, 2012

Reading and Writing Manifestos

Some years ago I happened upon an essay in The Atlantic that became a standalone book, "A Reader's Manifesto." It lamented the sorry state of American contemporary literature: What respectable authors wrote as serious, respectable literature was just awful, pretentious, and affected as far as readers are concerned.

I'm sorry to say that though this essay resonated with me and most of my writer friends and all of my reader friends, the Brahmins who decide what shall be published and who give out MFA degrees did not take any deliveries from the clue bus.

Now we are hearing that the publishing industry is doomed, doomed I say because of ebooks. Or something.

Doom is what happens to any business when those who decide upon the products to be offered make their decisions based upon ideology, politics, and group-think instead of based upon market demand. The jargon term is Market Failure and it happens when customers cannot acquire the goods they desire from providers. When this happens, the consumer Goes Somewhere Else. (If the market failure is caused by a government regulating prices or censorship, Somewhere Else is called a black market.)

Disruptive technologies are God's gift to humanity, because their disruptions often undermine formerly unassailable monopolies, creating opportunities for small, agile mammals to raid the nests of big, stupid dinosaurs. In this context, the disruptive technologies of the ebooks plus Internet booksellers, enable the unsatisfied reader to go Somewhere Else.

When I was a child, there was exactly one dystopian novel of any note. (Atlas Shrugged didn't seem dystopian, because I knew John Galt was going to stop the engine of the world and remake it in Ayn Rand's image.) 1984 was a young adult novel only because every high school student was required by Mrs. Grundy to read it in English class.

Why waste time with Big Brother when there are novels with rocket ships and space suits written by fellas a boy could identify with--featuring protagonists who were escaping danger and helping friends out of danger--or better--hunting for and finding treasure. They weren't filled with angst about who would bite them on the neck and suck the life out of them.

Heinlein's protagonist in this novel worked in a pharmacy and lamented his oversight of failing to stock his space suit with amphetamines. Let's see someone try to get away with something like that in today's YA market. Granted, times change and the American culture changes what it finds acceptable.

Hard work, initiative, and resourcefulness characterized Kip Russell (pictured above), not drug use. Readers of 1958 understood that. They saw NASA putting up satellites and would soon see men in orbit and then go to the moon. The future was full of hope and opportunity that could be exploited for everyone's gain.

Editors of 2012 have tended to steer book deals to Yet Another Dystopian story. (Remember when Star Trek made the Enterprise drive 55?) Is the present bleak and the future hopeless? Are there limits to growth?

Maybe. But I won't spend money buying books about it. None of this is new. I've made some of these observations before.

I believe reading is not punishment. The reader is primary and delivering value to the reader is the writer's duty and the reader--not the writer or the editor--defines what constitutes that value. I hope that my writing as it provides that value can also illustrate some of the wonder and beauty of the universe and human nature, but that can't get in the way of the story.

What is new this week is news of a subversive group of revolutionaries (or reactionaries) who are standing athwart history crying stop. Sarah Hoyt has invited fire by articulating certain principles that she thinks characterizes Human Wave Science Fiction writing. And she's put together a manifesto for Human Wave Science Fiction. She names names of writers producing prose that fits this label and manifesto. And she names my favorite SF authors in the process.

I have always thought the future might hold great tribulation, but things will improve as we get smarter about how the universe works. This optimism is probably the most subversive thing that Mrs. Hoyt, et al. is manifestoing.


1 comment:

  1. I remember Have Space Suit will Travel. The first YA Sci Fi book I read, I think, and by the master Heinlein (and later rather odd fellow -- him, not me). I think we're getting smarter or at least our technology is, and the future is certainly in the hands of the younger generation. I'd love to read about Human Wave Science Fiction. Thank you for mentioning it. Onward and upward. Perhaps I've already thought about it and didn't know it.

    Oscar Wilde, one of my heroes and possible related to me through marriage, said about pretentiousness (which can be rampant in youth as well as the older generation): "a little sincerity is a dangerous thing. A lot of sincerity is fatal." Haha I love Oscar Wilde, Poe, those old guys and also the new writers coming up. In their day Wilde and Poe were innovative and fresh. I think they still are.

    But I'm going to read A manifesto for Human Wave Science Fiction. Thanks there, Steve Poling. I assume because you're an English prof you're on the cutting edge of literature and I look forward to hearing more about it. I can't afford any more university courses, either my finances, time or talent, all of which are dwindling.


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