Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Essay: One Generation to Another

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

Elizabeth Bear raises a good point in her blog entry on the generation gap in science fiction and fantasy. My friends Kenneth and Bhex posted their own reactions to that topic which I think steers the discussion into a different direction. While Bear's entry is devoid of moral judgments and is quite open-ended, I find that there is a trace of self-justification in my friend's blog entries--along the lines of the current generation forgetting what has come before them and how we as readers should mourn this loss. John Klima on the other hand takes a different approach and cites some advantages for reading writers of the previous generation.

Before we go into the matter of my views on this "generation gap" (unless you want to disprove that such a phenomenon doesn't really exist), I first want to discuss why there is a gap. The first is awareness. I remember that when I first got into fantasy and science fiction back in 1995, I was clueless about the field. The only books that I read were those on bookstore shelves. How was I to know who were the good authors out there or what the history of the field was? It's easier said than done to say "do your research!" and at this point in time, I know how to do my research but when you're a newbie, doing research doesn't come as easy (especially not when it's a spontaneous decision). (Arguably this is where good book sellers come in but alas, we don't really have that type of customer service here in the Philippines.) This isn't helped by the fact that our genre is still a ghetto, at least as far as the academia is concerned, so if we go the institutional route of what's canon and the like, finding related literature is significantly more difficult than finding literature on a topic like Shakespeare or post-modern fiction. (Emory University had a class on "Science Fiction and Politics" which its professor, Courtney Brown, has available as a podcast but this is probably the exception rather than the norm--it certainly isn't in the syllabus of our universities here in the Philippines.) Of course my caveat there is that the 90's isn't like our current era. At least as far as the genre is concerned, it's probably much easier to do your research now. If anything, you have online services like Amazon's Listmania, book memes, or book networking sites like LibraryThing which provides reading lists to people. Archives of award winners are also more accessible these days (although again the trick is finding out that if you're looking for fantasy/science fiction awards, you need to enter "Nebula Awards" or "Hugo Awards" in Google).

So once you've found out who were the "classics" or authors of yesteryear, the next challenge is finding their material. Let's be honest, a lot of books in the genre, even the good ones, tend to go out of print. A lot of science fiction and fantasy texts aren't required reading for universities unless you're someone like T. H. White or C. S. Lewis. Various publishers, literary, independent, and mass-market have, at different times, taken on the mantle of reprinting these books. To me, one of the biggest challenges in the industry is sustaining such a business of reprints. For a time, game publisher White Wolf reprinted the works of Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber. Currently, the said books are being reprinted by Del Rey and comic publisher Dark Horse respectively. I'm crossing my fingers that they'll continue to publish such works in the future but there's no real guarantee. Game publisher Paizo, under its Planet Stories line, even goes farther back by reprinting pulp titles from the likes of C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett (who are, unfortunately, not as recognizable these days as either Moorcock or Leiber) while Night Shade Books has some collections from Clark Ashton Smith. However, these are the exceptions, and I can't say how long this will hold. I remember in the 90's, after hearing names like Tolkien or Lovecraft or Howard from Inquest Magazine, I wondered who these authors were and struggled to find their books. I solved the awareness problem but it was replaced by the dilemma of finding actual copies of their text. (Again, the 21st century is perhaps more forgiving. Aside from online stores like Amazons and Barnes & Noble and eBay, we also have eBooks and sites like Project Gutenberg. That's not to say finding an author like E. E. Doc Smith won't be difficult, but there's certainly more tools available at our disposal.)

The third problem is the actual generation gap in the writing style. Going back to my own personal experience, okay, so I've managed to track down some classical yet elusive authors. What if, for whatever reason, their writing doesn't appeal to me? Tolkien bored me, Lovecraft sounded too monotonous, and as for C. S. Lewis, well, Sarah Monette tackles one of the problems. Some older authors will even sound cliche--not because they're writing is stereotypical--but because they were so successful in their craft that many of today's writers draw from them (which is why we all have these Tolkien derivatives, or how many space opera writers have drawn from Lensman). At the very least, I can imagine modern readers sympathizing more with recent texts, if only because the subject matter hits closer to home, such as a preference for reading stories about the current Iraq/9-11 conflict as opposed to the Cold War or the Vietnam War.

Fourth comes the reality of peers (or why freshmen students will tend to get along more with fellow freshmen students as opposed to the senior students). Most likely among friends and family, the topics I'll discuss are recent events and in this case, it means recent authors (i.e. J. K. Rowling) or at the very least, old authors who give us a new reason to talk about them such as new movie adaptations (i.e. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien) and recent events (awards or sadly, their demise). There's also visibility and while there are a lot of writers/editors/publishers from the previous generation who blog and participate in forums, I also expect that the ones more likely to adjust and adopt to new mediums such as networking sites and the like are the newer writers. And if you're a writer/editor/publisher who attends and participates in workshops, you'll most likely associate with your peers there (who are most likely on the same professional level as you are). The same philosophy goes to peers who gets published in the same publications as you do (although of course various publications will have a mix of established and not-so-established contributors). Throw in some inferiority complexes (at least that's my case) when meeting established authors ("ca-ca-can you sign this book? I've been a fan ever since I was a kid.") as opposed to writers who are just starting out in their career ("My story got rejected in that publication too... let's have some beer.") and viola.

Now that I've managed to cite some reasons (feel free to add more in the comments) as to why there is a generation gap, I'd like to tackle some ideas with regards to it. First is the history. Much like what John Klima stated in his blog entry, there's great value in reading the classics. In fact, what we're presently reading wouldn't be where it is (for good or for ill) without what's been established previously. We can see what worked, what didn't work, and what worked back then but won't work now. I mean if Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft maintained their writing style and wrote under pseudonyms (it has to be said that some people will read anything those authors write simply because of their fame), I don't think their work would be accepted by today's publishers or even today's readers. Still, that doesn't mean that as a reader, I can't respect their work or appreciate what they've established (even to this day, a lot of horror continues to pay homages to Lovecraft for example).

Where I'll diverge however is in Bhex's blog entry, and how she admits to reading the classics but little of today's modern works. Now to me, that's as perilous as not reading the classics or exclusively reading modern fiction. For me, it's important to pay attention to both the past and the present--and at the end of the day, today's fiction is tomorrow's classics.

Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies for example was groundbreaking for its time. I'm sure it's still a good read these days (admittedly I've never read the anthologies) but there are also many modern editors attempting to push innovations in writing the same way Ellison did back in his time. It could be the Interstitial Fiction movement, the Mundane Science Fiction movement, Slipstream fiction, Singularity fiction, etc. Dangerous Visions was pivotal because it was being read and pushing boundaries three to four decades ago, not because it was pushing boundaries four decades later. Why bother waiting for history to unfold when you can participate in it?

Another is that we can't be tied down to notions of the previous generation. I mean one of the innovations of science fiction is that we're moving away from what's previously established. In the late 80's for example, there was less Asimovian Laws of Robotics and more Cyberpunk. These days, Cyberpunk is giving way to the singularity (and as far as the 'punk movement goes, different 'punks are being explored). Or better yet, when it comes to the authors themselves. For example, Peter S. Beagle is remembered by many for his novel The Last Unicorn yet for me, one of his best work was the short story published in last year's Eclipse One: "The Last and Only, or Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French". Said story is powerful on many levels and it gets better with multiple re-readings and I probably would have never discovered it if I kept on sticking to the canon or didn't keep up with the latest fiction.

Bhex mentions at how she gets tired of reading new fiction, mainly because a lot doesn't interest her and it's the exceptions that pull her back in. For me, that's Sturgeon's Law at work. Of course a lot of the work out there is crap. There's no filter or rather, the present generation is the filter for what's good and what isn't. I'm sure even the best classical writers have put out crap during their lifetime but because their work has been filtered, we're only reading the best and the brightest (and even then, some of their better works have been lost because they've gone out of print). Right now though, as modern readers, we make the decision as to what we want to read and what we can recommend to other people--while said work is still being circulated (and hopefully ensure it gets reprinted in the future). It's honestly a daunting task, with no established canon to fall back on and merely rely on our own opinions (a challenge reviewers everywhere constantly face).

So for me, it's important to both read fiction of the previous generation and that of the current one. In theory, I'd expect a chronological progression from old fiction to the new but that's not simply the world we live in. I first read Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time before I even gave Lord of the Rings a glance. Still, that does not mean I could not appreciate the latter, or how Tolkien has influenced the likes of Jordan and his peers. We need to respect and read what has come before, but we can't also let our reading stagnate. Reading isn't a binary choice: we need to look back while at the same time keeping out feet firmly planted in the present.


bhex said...

hi charles. sorry for the late reply, but i just got around to reading this post over the weekend. tamad talagang magbasa e no, hehe.

i think we pretty much share the same opinion on the matter re: balancing the classics with newer stuff, but i'm confused as to how exactly you were able to say that i "mourn" anything. was there anything i said in my post, or in my previous posts, that led you to this conclusion?

what i meant to say in my post was that many among us modern writers are losing touch with our past, but i never said we should dwell on it or beat ourselves up over it. i even enumerated the reasons why it's more difficult to acquire classical works than newer ones, but i never said that acquiring classical works is impossible, therefore we should mourn the generation gap per se!

in fact, i think i explicitly stated that i don't blame younger/newer readers for not being interested in the classics, just as i don't blame myself for not being interested in a lot of new titles. so i'm rather concerned about your interpretation of my post.

Charles said...

Hi Bhex.

I know that you had a disclaimer of sorts in your blog entry but it still had that vibe of classic SF is superior to what's being done now.

You're not attaching blame to anyone but I feel a reader who focuses on one but not the other is missing out on things.

bhex said...

ah... that really wasn't what the "vibe" i was aiming for at all, but i'm sorry it came across to you as that.