A Spy In The House Of Pulp

“As an investigator you may be more interested to know that in self defense, I accuse the writers of fairy tales. Not hunger, not cruelty, not my parents, but these tales which promised that sleeping in the snow never caused pneumonia, that bread never turned stale, that trees blossomed out of season, that dragons could be killed with courage, that intense wishing would be followed immediately by fulfillment of the wish. Intrepid wishing, said the fairytales, was more effective than labor. The smoke issuing from Aladdin’s lamp was my first smokescreen, and the lies learned from fairy tales were my first perjuries. Let us say I had perverted tendencies:
I believed everything I read.”
Anais Nin, A Spy In The House Of Love

 I could, I suppose, begin this essay with a defense of New Wave, Slipstream, Magical Realism fiction, but I prefer to leave my exercises in futility to my fiction and restrict my essays to verbage that might actually reach people.  So I won’t waste time trying to explain why books like Gravity’s Rainbow, VALIS, Dhalgren, What Entropy Means To Me, and The Soft Machine are worthy of the time and attention needed to chew open their bones to get at the sweet marrow within.  It’s like Louis Armstrong observed, if ya gotta ask, ya ain’t never gonna know.

The blessed rage for order is either in your soul or it isn’t. You don’t get it, I get that. It’s like trying to explain Maxfield Parrish to the  colorblind or Herb Alpert to the tonedeaf. No point to it. There ain’t no coupe de ville hiding at the bottom of that Cracker Jack box.

What I am going to ask is that you concede that what you see as boring, offensive, or insulting (to quote Daddy Warpig) isn’t written to upset you.  It’s not written for you at all.

Sure, those of us who are passionate about something enjoy being able to share it with others. I remember listening to Tom Wait’s Swordfishtrombones for the first time and being absolutely blown away, but I am also adult enough to watch other people’s reaction when I play it for them.  If their eyes glaze over during the first track I’ll take it off and put the Go-Go’s back on.

So what am I doing on the Pulp Revival side of the aisle? Why have a crossed the corpse decorated trenches and butcher’s wire of No Man’s Land to hoist the banner of Good Clean Fun against what might be considered my own side? Why enlist with those who consider me a pervert, a mountebank, or a pedant?

Two reasons, one of which is quite simple and the other of which is rather conduplicate. I’ll begin with the difficult one.

It comes down to a suspicion that has grown into a certainty that the most vocal promoters of New Wave luminaries like Delany, Dick, and Disch don’t really “get them” either.

As an example I’ll choose Dhalgren, a novel that I consider one of the greatest feats of literature ever penned. Those who speak ill of the work tend to dwell on the pointless violence, casual and perverse sex, and racial themes as negatives. Those who praise it tend to speak of the pointless violence, casual and perverse sex, and racial themes as positives.

Both the vocal detractors and the vocal defenders in my opinion miss the point, which is that the pointless violence, casual and perverse sex, and racial themes are completely irrelevant to the main plot. The story isn’t about the races and sexes of the people that the Kid fights and fucks throughout the book.

The novel is an epistemological horror story told from the point of view of a man who slowly realizes that he can not trust his own mind. The rest of it–the “shocking” bits–are just sleight of hand.  It’s not the sex scenes or the fight scenes (and to be honest, there aren’t that many of either, considering the ox-stunning length of the book) where the main story takes place, it’s the lyrical descriptions of the Kid, bit by agonizing bit, losing the guideposts and benchmarks of reality.

Hearing people talking about Dhalgren is like listening to people arguing about the spangled outfit worn by a magician’s assistant, and if it was too low cut or high hemmed, and wanting to scream, “Did nobody else notice that a magician made a freakin’ elephant disappear on stage?  Or were you all too distracted by the girl in the fishnets and stilettos?”

The fact is that the modern Social Justice style of Science Fiction is not, as is intermittently claimed, the spiritual heir of the New Wave. It’s more of an opportunistic infection,moving onto the hills that the New Wave writers fought for and setting up their own brand of fast food stands.  Saying that both Ursula K Leguin and Margaret Atwood both “deal with gender issues” in their fiction is like saying that both Robert Howard and George Martin both “have swords” in their fiction. Philosophically the works are worlds apart.

That’s the hard reason, and I’m not sure that I can do it justice here. Suffice to say that I am not concerned with the superficial resemblance of one story to another.  I have a passion for deep structure, the multi-leveled web of meanings that induce the reader to tear apart language in order to see how it works.

The other reason is that I prefer the open marketplace to the company store. Self-publishing is a grand bazaar of ideas, with a place for all manner of obscure delicacies, and even some goods that are utterly rotten.  It’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy, sure, but, damnit, it’s alive. 

I am anti-authoritative.  I have, like Sabina in the opening quote, perverted tendencies. I’m always looking out the wrong window of the tour bus, wanting to see what the Reiseführer is directing my attention away from. I don’t read the manual, I do try this at home, and I don’t eat my goddamned spinach.  I have a selective blindness to warning labels and guideposts and an uncontrollable urge to see what is behind locked doors.

I don’t expect to be popular.  None of my heroes were ever particularly popular, even in the brief flowering of the New Wave movement, and a lot of them died broke. That sucks, but, you know, that’s life.

What I do expect is an honest chance to reach my audience. And that, stripped of the superficial invective, is the message of the Sad Puppies movement and the splinter sects that have followed in its wake. Let the people read what they want.

Not everyone is going to like everything. Some things are going to be liked by more people than others.  That’s just reality. You can’t make people like things against their will.  You can–sometimes–get them to buy it, and you can make them afraid to publically say that they don’t like it, but that’s not the same thing.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
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10 Responses to A Spy In The House Of Pulp

  1. Daddy Warpig says:

    “It’s not written for you at all.”

    Sure, and that’s kinda the point. SF became enraptured with stuff that wasn’t for normies, and it became way too high a percentage of the market. If, let’s say, 5% of the books were only of interest to connoisseurs, and the normies had lots of options, everything’s copacetic. But if a short story market gets to be 25% or 50% or 75% that stuff, you’ll drive the mainstream away.

    The problem (so far as retaining and cultivating a mainstream audience goes) isn’t that such stuff exists, its that it came to dominate SF, and it became “too difficult to pick through the boring, offensive, or insulting stories to find the gems.”

    I’ve never criticized a specific New Wave writer, and I like several books and short stories from that era. (I own both Dangerous Visions anthologies.) But when your genre begins to cater to a tiny niche that turns off normies, the normies will leave.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I think that fiction has room for different kinds of books for different tastes. I get that people don’t want me to call my work “Science Fiction”, so I don’t. You can argue about the meaning of that phrase with people who care–it’s not something I consider worth fighting over.

  2. Both the vocal detractors and the vocal defenders in my opinion miss the point, which is that the pointless violence, casual and perverse sex, and racial themes are completely irrelevant to the main plot…

    You really don’t see this as a problem?

    Imagine I wrote a brilliant book but then, halfway through, there’s a graphic rape and torture scene. Later a head explodes.

    Later, people say “I wanted to like the book, but the graphic rape and torture scenes and the exploding head were utterly gratuitous, pointless, and disgusting”.

    If my response is “You’re missing the point! They’re completely irrelevant to the main plot!”…you don’t see why there’s an issue?

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I don’t have a problem with anyone choosing not to read a book because of the content. There are books that I don’t read because of the content.

      • It’s less that than your description of its randomness.

        I saw “Logan” yesterday. Very good movie, but like a 13 of 10 on the violence scale. But this didn’t bother me, because the violence fit the movie and was crucial to the plot.

        Going by – admittedly, only – your description, the problem is not the content but that it *has nothing to do with the story*.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        New Wave works tend to operate on multiple levels.

        Yes, the events in Dhalgren are there for a reason, the gang violence and the sex scenes are an integral part of the setting, which is a city in dissolution. He’s describing an area in which all of the straight citizens have abandoned and left in the hands of gangs of petty thieves and outlaws. Sex, drugs, and violence are common ways of combatting the boredom for the kinds of people he’s describing.

        However, there is another story, and that is one in which the details of life in the city of Bellona are less important than the way in which these details are presented and how they change over time. It is this inner story that I think is more important, and which many commenters on the novel don’t even seem to realize is there.

        Could Delany have chosen to write this novel about a man whose base lifestyle was more accessible to the average reader? Yes, but it would have made Dhalgren a very different book. Part of what permits the inner story to unfold as it does is that the Kid lives in a very irregular world–there are no clocks or calendars, no time cards to punch, no jobs or weekends. Every day is like the last, which is how Delany maintains the ambiguity of the psychological events for so long–it’s hard to tell if you’re missing time when no one expects you to conform to a regular schedule.

        In any event, my point is that people’s tastes are different. I, personally, thought that Logan was two hours of my life that I’ll never get back. To me it felt like a Peckinpah film that had some mutant stuff sprinkled on top. But that’s me. I don’t care if other people like it, or if other people call it “Science Fiction”. I’m not worried that people who see it and are disgusted by its nihilistic message are going to boycott an entire genre based on that film.

  3. feralplum says:

    Cogent analysis. I am in many ways blind. Disch speaks not to me. Half of Delaney I love, half I ignore. I have given up on introducing folks to Brubeck. People judge you more on what you recommend than what you actually do.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I really struggled with the analogies, because I am trying to avoid even the appearance of elitism. I honestly don’t think that a taste for the lyrical and paradoxical in fiction means that I am smarter or better than people who like more straightforward tales. I get something out of it that other people don’t, that’s all.

  4. I don’t know about New Wave SF, but I know what I like, which is your stuff. I agree, if you don’t like it don’t read it. And are you anti-authoritarian or anti-authoritative?

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