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January 7th, 2007


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09:54 pm - Literature, hope, and Ann Maxwell
Here's a very interesting article about popular and literary fiction, by Elizabeth Lowell, aka Ann Maxwell . I've read and loved all of her SF novels, which range from enjoyable and interesting SF romances like Fire Dancer and Timeshadow Rider to thought provoking novels of mystery and mysticism like The Jaws Of Menx or A Dead God Dancing. So, naturally I was interested in what she had to say. I do not completely agree with her idea that the central difference between fiction that is acclaimed at literary and popular fiction is that the world in literary novels is bleak and hopeless (or at minimum utterly pointless), while those in popular fiction are mostly optimistic and/or transcendent. It is clearly true that this is not a bad generalization, I think more than that is going on here, especially since there is not shortage of bleak and hopeless popular fiction, especially in horror and SF.

Where I do agree with her is that fiction that depicts the world as a bleak, pointless, and hopeless place is typically regarded as deeper, more "realistic" and ultimately more serious than fiction that does not, and that this has become increasingly true in the past 40 years. I see that particular distinction as a far more general problem than simply one having to do with the opinions of well-respected critics. A surfeit of irony, nihilism, violence, and despair has effectively become essential elements of any world-view that is widely regarded as "honest" or "realistic", while optimism and a belief in progress are in some way inherently suspect, naïve, or outdated. As a result, we have on the more literary side, and abundance of stories of pointless, hopeless lives and passive protagonists, and in the realms of adventure fictions of various sorts, far too many stories where either the alleged heroes are little or no better than the dire evils they are attempting to prevent or where the villains are grotesquely and outrageously vile in an attempt to show them to be truly bad people and more importantly to distinguish their actions from what is widely regarded as the limits of normal behavior, that anyone would engage in if given the chance.

As someone who greatly prefers stories that are optimistic, transcendent, and hopeful, I see this as being a problem that is exceedingly widespread, and I do very much agree with some of Lowell's points about the importance of optimistic fictions. We live in a world of obvious horrors and equally obvious wonders, and I often think that if the Marquis de Condorcet could write essays about the inevitability of progress and the wonders of the future, while hiding from the horrors of the French Terror, why so many people (including far too many members of the first world middle and upper classes) today find it so difficult to see the world as a hopeful place filled with possibilities rather than a dangerous place filled with a nearly endless number of things to fear.
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From:madmanofprague
Date:January 8th, 2007 09:48 am (UTC)
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Because we're writing after the French Terror.
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From:heronheart
Date:January 8th, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)
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As someone who greatly prefers stories that are optimistic, transcendent, and hopeful, I see this as being a problem that is exceedingly widespread, and I do very much agree with some of Lowell's points about the importance of optimistic fictions. We live in a world of obvious horrors and equally obvious wonders, and I often think that if the Marquis de Condorcet could write essays about the inevitability of progress and the wonders of the future, while hiding from the horrors of the French Terror, why so many people (including far too many members of the first world middle and upper classes) today find it so difficult to see the world as a hopeful place filled with possibilities rather than a dangerous place filled with a nearly endless number of things to fear.

I would suggest that some of it may have to do with living a passive vs. an active life. Surviving the French terror is a very active life. Being in middle management and toadying to upper management is a rather passive, dependent life.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:January 8th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC)
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"A surfeit of irony, nihilism, violence, and despair has effectively become essential elements of any world-view that is widely regarded as "honest" or "realistic", while optimism and a belief in progress are in some way inherently suspect, naïve, or outdated."

From my own personal experience, I have found that viewpoint completely unrealistic. Instead, I have learned, to my great surprise, that quite the opposite is true for me.

This is amazing because I am a natural pessimist with paranoid tendencies.
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From:rjgrady
Date:January 8th, 2007 11:18 pm (UTC)
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I think a lot of it has to do with reactionary anti-kitsch... that is, the equation of seriousness with bleakness is a an out-and-out pretense by "literary" critics. Popular fiction is generally upbeat because that sells, although other things sell, too... bathos, porn, gore-slash, and so sorth. In general, people who wish to present themselves as critical readers on a subject will oppose the mainstream... witness "erotica" versus "porn," people who write "characters" rather than "stereotypes," "understated" horror versus "gore fic." But, of course, some of the best porn is porographic, some of the most memorable characters exist in and further define a stereotype, and some of the best horror is horrific.

A fancy chef is not likely to stand up and say, "You know, sometimes what I could really go for is some Popeye's spicy chicken." But obviously, some chef somewhere probably does.

The problem with mainstream fiction, to me, is not the variety in which it is so bad, so much as how bad it is. Even hack writing comes in varieties of quality.

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From:robert_franson
Date:January 12th, 2007 07:32 pm (UTC)
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Good points. I play a little with these ideas in a review of Ann Maxwell's Western-romance Reckless Love (as by Elizabeth Lowell) at Troynovant.

The problem of depressive world-views does go much deeper than literature. It often is more visible in literature because so often it seems gratuitous wallowing in negativity.

(Thanks to whswhs for pointing me to this discussion.)
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From:heron61
Date:January 13th, 2007 12:23 am (UTC)
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The problem of depressive world-views does go much deeper than literature. It often is more visible in literature because so often it seems gratuitous wallowing in negativity.

Most definitely, behind the idea that hopelessness = realism in literature is a combination of fear of the the future (which is all too common among both progressive and conservatives) and a larger sense that the problems of the world are ultimately insoluble. One of the reasons I'm interested in Japanese culture is (as I discuss in this post) that (at least from the PoV of a total outsider, it seems to be one of the few first world nations where a belief in hope and progress is not at least considered somewhat suspicious and where new technology is not something that much of the populace (at least on some levels) fear (I go into further details about that in this post).

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