Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Writing, Style, and Fandom

John Banville writes a wonderful article for Bookforum about Houellebecq's reading of Lovecraft and how Lovecraftian themes and insights get reworked for today in Houellebecq's work. (via The Elegant Variation)

There one part-paragraph in the article that I would have liked to see more developed:
The French, as we know, have peculiar tastes. One is thinking not only of frogs' legs and andouillettes; these people also consider Poe a great writer, Hitchcock a major
artist. Can they be serious, or is it just a Gallic joke at the expense of the rest of us? Houellebecq seems entirely sincere in his deep admiration for the work of Lovecraft, but his enthusiasm is a little hard to credit.

Two really problematic things are compressed here.

1. The problem of style. American style has tended towards the plain. Even Hawthorne can seem baroque to a modern reader at times. Poe's prose sentence was within the aesthetic conventions of his time, although distinctly towards one end, an end that was getting rapidly marginalized. Unlike someone like, say, Thomas De Quincey, Poe used a florid style with some overtly sensationalized thematics.

Okay, but here's the tricky part. French prose style has different conventions and aesthetic conventions. Baudelaire, Poe's French translator, is one of the great stalking giants of 19th-century French thought and writing. I have tried on many occasions to translate some of Baudelaire's Poemes en prose; the temptation to cut down the embedded clauses, run-on sentences, and exclamations is overwhelming. Baudelaire's sentences work wonders in French, and my French-language mind oohs and aahs over the tricky-tricky turns his sentences take. Shove the same material into English, and my English-language mind is appalled by the sinuous lack of directness. I recently taught both Poe and Lovecraft in English to German students. At a certain point, I had to explain rather coarsely why some of their sentences sounded ludricrous to modern American ears. It's not self-evident.

The most interesting question, when evaluating matters of taste, would be formulated in terms of "how" and "why." To assert the old de gustibus non disputandum est is to foreclose inquiry. Working through the stylistic conventions of different languages and their traditions is of course about the most difficult and dry thesis one could imagine; I'll bet that some crazy, devoted scholar tried it before 1950, though, back when scholars could tinker with ideas without fear of losing their teaching positions.

But to get away from the metaphysics of taste, Poe's writings, both fictional and critical, have some real importance in the history of ideas, which have generally come through the French tradition, as Poe's style has generally annoyed American readers so much that his work has tended to be marketed for young audiences and forgotten. His "imp of the perverse" is an important precursor to the psychoanalytical understanding of the death drive, or, in its mitigated form, why people purposively act in a way to undermine themselves. He's one of the first American writers to embrace Continental themes and forms. His perhaps overstated "Philosophy of Composition," describing making a poem as a rational, mechanistic process had tremendous influence on modernist and surrealist thinking about poetics as a structural and controllable practice. And Poe's "Man of the Crowd" tale gave rise to Baudelaire's famous figure of the flaneur, which proved such a great focus for Walter Benjamin's theory of the individual within consumer capitalism.

2. Fandom. Neither Houellebecq nor Banville deal intelligently with the throngs of SF readers for whom Lovecraft is a major precursor figure; fans have been doing Lovecraft studies since the man first started working. Lovecraft is in this sense a turning-point figure. He used a lot of the 19th-century themes and generic forms of the high-art Fantastic Tale (Hoffmann, Poe, Gautier, Nodier, Maupassant...), but he was publishing in, and had his greatest impact on, the burgeoning underground literature of science fiction, weird tales, alternative universe literature, fantasy, whatever you want to call it. You know, the stuff that makes booksellers so much of their money? I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the early contours of SF/Fantasy publishing or fandom (my survey course of the 19th-c American Fantastic ended with Lovecraft as a sign of things to come), but I do know that HPL is seen as a giant in the origins of the genre, that the Cthulu myth has something unusually detachable about it, and that hordes of SF fans would find a rabid enthusiasm for HPL's universe to be an entirely comprehensible condition. It's not a French thing.

I'm at a university and mostly study older texts; I haven't really followed any of the various fannish cultures that my interests might lead me into. I've kicked it with only one Janeite (rabid fans of Austen), I note eagerly the (very few) articles about the Drones' Club's shenanigans (r.f. of P.G. Wodehouse), the Sherlockians register vaguely on my consciousness through prefaces, press releases, and that bizarre case of the Holmes scholar who made his suicide look like a murder, the Buffy cult has permeated grad student life entirely although actual participation in Buffy fan fora seems beyond grad student fannish means, neither I nor the couple of people in my department whom I know to read and study SF have ever attended a WorldCon...

While we don't have the time or energy to join fandom, literary scholars and critics need to stop acting so damned surprised that subcultures flourish around artistic production that doesn't meet their generic, stylistic, or formal values. The more interesting question, which, to be fair, both Houellebecq in his HPL book and Banville in his article eventually get around to answering, is how these texts provoke fannish reactions or are interesting in themselves.

Fandom is sociologically interesting and can be understood from within a historical perspective of media culture, but fans also produce some really good critical analysis. One blog that really opened my eyes to the dimensions of fandom is Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Light. Teresa is an editor at the Tor publishing house, which specializes in SF titles. This is one particularly good post on the insights into making fiction that fandom has generated. In that post, I learned that fandom has come up with a wonderfully brief term to classify those characters in a first-person perspective-tied narrative who are almost bare id-constructs, entities whose purpose is solely to enact private fantasies of the author. Fandom calls these kinds of characters "Mary Sue"--and sometimes "Gary Stu." Teresa's wise post about the kinds of Mary Sues floating around has given me a whole new perspective on some of my favorite first-person narratives from the 19th century.

And here's why, really: fandom produces utter crap, unmitigated garbage, intimate fantasies, and mindless dithering--as well as a few rare sparks of real creative potential. The people who participate in fandom see this stuff unedited, unfiltered, and uncensored. They are empirically deriving criteria to determine the utter dregs from that which is worth encouraging. Critics and scholars aren't really in this position: many of our rules are deductive (that evidence that will fit into the theoretical argument we are trying to make), and much of our evidence has been pre-selected by our disciplinary requirements. We are supposed to be professionals, after all! Enthusiasm is suspect! We read only good writing! We are a serious discipline!

Lovecraft is a wonderful borderline case. I didn't do him justice in my class because I pared him with the more conservative but more stylistically consistent MR James--who, it should be noted, has not had nearly the impact on aspiring writers as Lovecraft had. I didn't open up Lovecraft's work to the phenomenon of fandom. The reception of Hoffmann in 1830s Paris is a version of fandom; why should the enthusiasm engendered by Lovecraft be so different? And, in the context of the Banville article on Houellebecq on Lovecraft, why does it take a high-art mediation for a popular artist to be recognized?


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