"On Writing as a Fantasist" by Dave Wolverton (LONG)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Mon Jan 31 18:33:57 EST 2000

On Mon, 24 Jan 2000 20:58:10 -0500, Nat Case wrote:

>Many thanks to Melissa for posting. What a great essay! I don't agree with
>all of it, but the majority of it rings very true.

I'm so slow to respond, but...

>Which isn't really quite to the point. I'd argue that all literary tastes
>are peculiar to their times, and that modernism and realism are all entirely
>appropriate to their eras. I don't much care for the glass-box school of
>architecture, but it makes a lot of sense in a mid-century world that was as
>scared of itself as we were. Similarly with literature; in our general
>societal quest for resolution to the power we found ourselves wielding (the
>image of Lady Macbeth looking at her hands comes to mind), we adopted as our
>"mainstream" writing that also sought resolution by exploring the problems
>Remember that in addition to fantasy and other genre fiction, these
>modernist elitists were also grappling with cultural forces like Billy
>Sunday, Joseph Stalin and Joe McCarthy. We've had an immensely traumatic
>period to contend with culturally (heck, we still do), and so I think much
>of that search for a pure truth, and much of the desire to REALLY SEE what
>was going on around us was far from a elitist, ghetto-making endeavor. 

>From other conversations I know that Wolverton's issues with postmodern
literature are twofold--first, the whole thing about it gaining primacy over
other genres, but also that he is simply disgusted by a lot of what was and
is produced within that genre.  For myself, I think the main problem is the
primacy issue; any time we have one set of writers claiming (however
indirectly) that theirs is the only way to explore the complexities of life,
literature is in trouble.

When I read Wolverton's article for the first time, and came across the term
"Manhattan angst", I had recently read a story that EXACTLY fit the
description.  (The only detail I remember is that the party in the story was
a costume party, and some man came dressed as a naked woman.)  It really
didn't appeal to me--I actually had no idea what the point was, or why it
was important to read this story--but what was worse was the implication
that I *should* have enjoyed and been moved by this story.  That, instead of
not being one of a subset of ideal readers for this kind of fiction, there
was something wrong with ME.  It's a disturbing and counterproductive
attitude, but one that is fairly common within the postmodern lit movement.
And that attitude didn't come from the writers of said fiction, but from
critics.  It still mostly comes from critics, though of course now we have
writers who are products of these college lit programs, so who knows to what
extent they are being affected?

In a broader sense, this ties into that thread on play presentation--talking
about The Rules.  The writers who shaped a generation were being genuine
ground-breakers and creating literature from their own inner vision.  But
some people looked at what they were doing and said "EVERYONE should write
like this!  It's PERFECT!"  Take Hemingway, for example.  I like most of his
stuff, though I don't think I want to write like him.  But I was reading a
book on writing called _Bird by Bird_ by Anne Lamott (a modern writer of
realistic fiction) and in her chapter on dialogue, she writes about how
dialogue before Hemingway used to be more studied and ornate, but now "good
dialogue [is] sharp and lean."  Huh?!?  This is the only kind of good
dialogue?  Granted, this is the kind I like to read, and what I write
myself, but still--this is A Rule.  One that just screams to be broken,
probably by Barry Hughart.

>All that said, I agree 100% that the notion of fancy is still recovering
>from being trivialized mid-century. To me it isn't the literary snobs who do
>the most damage now; it's the embarrassment people feel reading, viewing, or
>listening to music that isn't judged serious enough. More and more, that
>embarrassment feels like part of a naked-emperor story. I mean, come on.
>Every smart person I know reads murder mysteries, spy thrillers, children's
>books, fantasy or SF. What is lacking is a way to talk about how those books
>are important to us. 

The people I deal with most frequently, in the course of presenting book
reviews to small groups, are more average readers, people who read for
pleasure only.  They have set up two separate categories in their
heads--reading for fun and reading for education, and never the twain shall
meet.  So the possibility of applying any sort of analysis to the books they
read for fun (and here I'm talking specifically about the very simplest sort
of analysis, that would let them figure out just what they like about
certain books) is just a foreign idea.  And yeah, it probably all started in
school literature class.  I think everyone who reads so-called genre fiction
knows what's good and what's a cheap knock-off of Diana Wynne Jones. :)  And
that's all you really, truly need to be able to discuss a book
critically--the concept that one book is lacking in something that another

>I think the core of the problem is in the whole idea of criticism being the
>heart of the literary experience. It defines what it is OK to think of as
>"good" or "meaningful." It is true that it (and the canons it forms) do much
>to give us a common ground, but isn't that common ground a false one, being
>based on theory rather than experience?

As long as *this* is the approach to criticism, I think that's true.  The
challenging of what is canonical, by feminists and other -ists, helps break
that down a little, but unfortunately the central concept of "there is a One
True Literature" still remains.  Hmmm.  I suppose I mean that Criticism, as
it defines what is appropriately good, will always end up creating an elite
of some kind.  The mechanics of criticism--the analytical approach,
perhaps--are something separate that become servants of Criticism.  I can
feel other thoughts creeping around the corners in what I used to call my
mind, but I'm starting to catch this creeping rot of a cold, so it will have
to wait for later.  That's sufficient for now.

>Phew. I'm running out of steam here. Thanks again, Melissa, for the article.

I'm glad you liked it.  I think it's worth discussing.

Melissa Proffitt
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