Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The graying lensmen

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The Hugo Losers Party

There were thousands of fans in attendance at last week’s World Science Fiction Convention, but I swear that I kept seeing the same fifty faces. With the exception of a reading that I did with a few writers from Analog, all of my events revolved around the history of science fiction, which an emphasis on stories and authors from the golden age. Not surprisingly, the audience at these panels tended to skew older, and many attendees had clearly been coming to Worldcon for decades. I was almost always the youngest panelist at the head table, and I can’t be sure that I wasn’t also the youngest person in the room on more than one occasion. Whenever we discussed the genre, the same handful of names kept popping up, and many of them would have inspired blank stares from a younger crowd: John W. Campbell himself, of course, but also writers like E.E. Smith, author of Gray Lensman, and A.E. van Vogt. (At one point, at a discussion titled “Classics in the Corner,” I said: “I’m not sure how many people read E.E. Smith these days.” A lot of hands shot up, which led another panelist to observe: “This is probably the wrong room to ask that question.”) And although I was aware that the average age at Worldcon has long been higher than that at most similar gatherings, and it seems to get older every year, it felt as if I were spending the weekend at a convention within the convention—an enclave in which a vibrant but graying crowd gathers to celebrate writers, stories, and a shared history that the larger community is beginning to forget.

And these fears are far from groundless. A high point of the weekend, at least for me, was a roundtable discussion held by the academic conference about Campbell and the golden age. The tone of the panel was reverent, if not toward Campbell personally then toward his impact on the field, and the only discordant note was struck by a panelist who noted that his writing students aren’t especially interested in Campbell these days—if they’re even aware of who he was. In response, Robert Silverberg said: “You can’t see oxygen, either, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the dissenting voice had a point. For a lot of younger writers, Campbell is a tertiary influence, at best, and he certainly isn’t the living presence that he was for the fans and authors of an earlier generation. His place has largely been taken by more recent artists whose struggles and victories seem more urgent than those of writers whose best work was published before World War II. When you look more closely, of course, you find that their concerns are far closer to the present than they might first appear, and you can draw agonizingly important lessons from their example. But this takes time and energy that a lot of younger writers have rightly devoted to other matters. It was Campbell himself, I think, who observed that readers are essentially hiring writers to perform a service: to think more deeply about a subject than they can for themselves. And my hope is that the book I’m writing will do some of the necessary legwork, allowing writers and readers my age or younger to plunder Campbell, Heinlein, and all the rest for what they have to offer.

The June 1992 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

This only reflects my own journey, which has more in common, in many respects, with the young writers who aren’t aware of Campbell than with the older fans and authors whom I’ve encountered along the way. I came into the genre as randomly as most of us do, assembling my picture of it from an assortment of heterogenous materials: a single issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, now lost, which I got for Christmas when I was twelve and replaced a few days ago with a copy I bought at the dealer’s room at the convention; novels by writers like Madeline L’Engle, Jane Yolen, and Orson Scott Card; and the nearly simultaneous discovery of Jorge Luis Borges and The X-Files. None of it was systematic, or even conscious, and my exposures to older influences weren’t exactly in the best possible order. (When I mentioned at a panel that the first Heinlein novel I ever read was The Number of the Beast, there was an audible gasp.) I’d been writing science fiction seriously for almost ten years before I realized that I was harking back, without knowing it, to stories like “Who Goes There?” and Sinister Barrier. It wasn’t until I began thinking about this book that I sought out authors like Smith or van Vogt, and I’m constantly confronted by areas that I have yet to explore. Part of me wishes that I’d been more deliberate about it much earlier, but that isn’t how fans evolve. And in trying to go back and build myself into the kind of reader who is capable of tackling Campbell and the others on their own terms, I’ve become more conscious both of what the different generations of fans have in common and of the ways in which they continue to diverge.

But I’ve also come to realize that older and younger fans are snapshots of a single continuum. The Futurians, as I’ve noted before, were incredibly young when the fan community began—most of them were still living with their parents—and the patterns that they inaugurated are still being played out online. We think of these guys as men with white beards, but that’s only because what they alternately created and rebelled against has endured to the time of their grandchildren. (When Slan won the Retro Hugo award for Best Novel on Thursday, A.E. van Vogt’s granddaughter was there to accept it, and she got the most rapturous round of applause that I heard all weekend.) On the last night of the convention, I found myself at the Hugo Losers Party, which began decades ago as an informal gathering in George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’s hotel room and has been transformed since into a lavish event with hundreds of guests. It felt like a real moment of catharsis, after a weekend that had been charged with powerful emotions and occasional tensions, and it threw a random sampling of attendees onto the same dance floor and shook them all up. Looking around the Midland Theatre, I saw emerging writers and aging legends standing side by side, or crowding into the same elevator, and it was more clear to me than ever how one ripens into the other. Virtually everyone enters the fandom at a young age, and even if the years have started to show for some, it only puts me in mind of what James Caan reminds us in The Way of the Gun: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” And I should only be so lucky to survive as long.

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2016 at 8:25 am

Quote of the Day

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Photograph by Helen Levitt

[Luck] is one of the cardinal creative forces in the universe…It is true that most artists, though they know their own talent and its gifts as luck, work as well as they can against luck, and that in most good works of art, as in little else in creation, luck is either locked out or locked in and semi-domesticated, or put to wholly constructive work; but it is peculiarly a part of the good photographer’s adventure to know where luck is most likely to lie in the stream, to hook it, and to bring it in without unfair play and without too much subduing it. Most good photographs, especially the quick and lyrical kind, are battles between the artist and luck, and the happiest victories for the artist are draws.

James Agee, in the introduction to A Way of Seeing by Helen Levitt

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August 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

The past through tomorrow

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Robert A. Heinlein at MidAmeriCon

Precedent is merely the assumption that somebody else, in the past with less information, nevertheless knows better than the man on the spot…Tradition is something very different. To follow a tradition means to do things in the same grand style as your predecessors; it does not mean to do the same things.

Robert A. Heinlein, Space Cadet

On Thursday, I took part in a panel at the World Science Fiction Convention titled “Old Time Radio and New Tales in the Age of Podcasts.” Now that the event is safely behind me, I might as well confess that I’m not sure why I was included: I’ve written one radio play, still unaired, and I’m married to a professional podcaster, but I doubt that the organizers knew this, and nothing else in my résumé stamps me as an authority on the topic. But I’ll happily talk about anything, so I went back to review the handful of blog posts I’ve written about radio and worked up a few additional thoughts in advance. As it turned out, the panel was my fourth event in five hours, including a draining solo presentation on John W. Campbell’s work during World War II, so my energy level was pretty low. For the most part, I was content to sit back and allow the other speakers to do most of the heavy lifting, chiming in whenever I felt I had something to contribute. The one big point I wanted to make is that contemporary podcasts aren’t the same thing as classic radio dramas—if you’re writing for audio these days, you’ve got to prepare for the possibility that your listeners are giving you maybe a quarter of their complete attention. Two of my fellow panelists disagreed, saying that writers and producers had to encourage their audiences to embrace an old-fashioned “theater of the mind.” Personally, I think that this is a nice sentiment, but not particularly realistic. Still, it was all very cordial. Afterward, one of the other participants shook my hand, saying that he thought that I did a good job, and essentially apologized for taking over the discussion. “I don’t usually talk much,” he told me, “but when I’m on a panel like this, I just can’t stop myself.”

And this turned out to be a prophetic remark. The next day, the very same participant was expelled from the convention for hijacking another panel that he was moderating, using his position to indulge in a ten-minute speech on how political correctness was destroying science fiction and fantasy. I wasn’t there, but I later spoke to another member of that panel, who noted dryly that it was the first time she had ever found herself on the most controversial event of the weekend. Based on other accounts of the incident, the speaker—who, again, had been nothing but polite to me the day before—said that the fear of giving offense had made it hard for writers to write the same kinds of innovative, challenging stories that they had in the past. Inevitably, there are those who believe that his expulsion simply proved his point, and that he was cast out by the convention’s thought police for expressing an unpopular opinion. But that isn’t really what happened. As another blogger correctly observes, the participant wasn’t expelled for his words, but for his actions: he deliberately derailed a panel that he was supposed to moderate, recorded it without the consent of the other panelists, and planned the whole thing in advance, complete with props and a prepared statement. He came into the event with the intention of disrupting any real conversation, rather than facilitating it, and the result was an act of massive discourtesy. For a supposed champion of free speech, he didn’t seem very interested in encouraging it. As a result, he was clearly in violation of the convention’s code of conduct, and his removal was justified.

The Futurians

Either way, though, he got exactly what he wanted. If he had been allowed to stay, he would have taken it as a tacit endorsement of his approach; now, by being expelled, he gets to use this perceived injustice to whip up his sympathizers, and we’re already seeing the results online. But this kind of tactic is as old as fandom itself. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the famous incident in which the Futurians were excluded from the first Worldcon in New York. In The Immortal Storm, the historian Sam Moskowitz—who was the one who forced them to leave—says of the episode:

Looking at the circumstances in the most pessimistic light, we can see that the Futurians had everything to gain and nothing to lose. If allowed to enter, they could have disrupted proceedings, and thus proved their prior claim that New Fandom was incompetent to run a successful convention; if not allowed to enter, they could point to another prior claim of New Fandom’s being essentially dictatorial as proved. Indeed, Futurian strategy may have been devised with these possibilities foremost in mind. Whether it was or not, the Futurians stood to gain public sympathy as a result of the convention if they played their cards properly no matter what stand New Fandom took.

And although I don’t think the Futurians were organized enough to consciously act with this end in mind, it worked more or less as Moskowitz says. For while, public sympathy tipped in their favor, and while this victory was short-lived, the fact remains that what we hyperbolically call the Great Exclusion Act is just about the only thing that anybody remembers about the first Worldcon.

I doubt that the kerfuffle from this weekend will resonate for nearly as long, and I suspect that we’re more likely to remember the convention for the landmark victories by women and writers of color at the following evening’s Hugo Awards. If the stunt had taken place in the early days of fandom, it might have merited a paragraph in The Immortal Storm. (Or as Borges puts it in “Three Versions of Judas”: “His name would have helped swell the catalogs of minor heresiarchs.”) As it stands, it’s going to be little more than a footnote. But I have a hunch that it was motivated, at least on a subconscious level, by a nostalgia for the controversies that have animated fandom in the past, despite the fact that the community that we have now is larger, more diverse, and more interesting. Donald A. Wollheim, who was a better troll than anyone living today, once said of the fan William Sykora: “You got the impression that for him, it was still 1937.” You could say much the same thing about the current crop of reactionaries, both in the positions that they take and the means that they use to express them. Just as contemporary podcasters have to adjust to the realities of the medium, rather than pining for a golden age of radio that no longer exists, writers these days have to operate within a set of standards that weren’t even on the table when a lot of classic science fiction was written. And that’s just how it should be. As I’ve noted before, increasing the diversity of voices within the genre can only lead to greater innovation, and the science fiction of an earlier era didn’t succeed because of its indifference to these concerns, but in spite of it. It’s good to have a debate, but any side that remains stuck in the past—especially in science fiction—is bound to lose. And if it can’t adapt, maybe it deserves it.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2016 at 8:52 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2016 at 7:30 am

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The painter’s refusals

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Number 30 by Ad Reinhardt

And today many artists like myself refuse to be involved in some ideas. In painting, for me no fooling-the-eye, no window-hole-in-the-wall, no illusions, no representations, no associations, no distortions, no paint-caricaturings, no cream pictures or drippings, no delirium trimmings, no sadism or slashings, no therapy, no kicking-the-effigy, no clowning, no acrobatics, no heroics, no self-pity, no guilt, no anguish, no supernaturalism or subhumanism, no divine inspiration or daily perspiration, no personality-picturesqueness, no romantic bait, no gallery gimmicks, no neo-religious or neo-architectural hocus-pocus, no poetry or drama or theater, no entertainment business, no free-for-all history, no art history in America of ashcan-regional-WPA-Pepsi-Cola styles, no professionalism, no equity, no cultural enterprises, no bargain-art commodity, no juries, no contests, no masterpieces, no prizes, no mannerisms or techniques, no communication of information, no magic tools, no bag of tricks-of-the-trade, no structure, no paint qualities, no impasto, no plasticity, no relationships, no experiments, no rules, no coercion, no anarchy, no anti-intellectualism, no irresponsibility, no innocence, no irrationalism, no low level of consciousness, no nature-mending, no reality-reducing, no life-mirroring, no abstracting from anything, no nonsense, no involvements, no confusing painting with everything that is not painting.

Ad Reinhardt, Art as Art

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August 21, 2016 at 7:30 am

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Braddock’s defeat and the pitfalls of skill

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Harold Rosenberg

For me the most dramatic example of the newcomer’s illusion of being elsewhere is Braddock’s Defeat. I recall in my grammar-school history book a linecut illustration which shows the Redcoats marching abreast through the woods, while from behind trees and rocks naked Indians and coonskinned trappers pick them off with musket balls. Maybe it wasn’t Braddock’s defeat but some ambush of the Revolutionary War. In any case, the Redcoats march in file through the New World wilderness, with its disorder of rocks, underbrush, and sharpshooters, as if they were on a parade ground or on the meadows of a classical European battlefield and one by one they fall and die.

I was never satisfied with the explanation that the Redcoats were simply stupid or stubborn, wooden copies of King George III. In my opinion what defeated them was their skill. They were such extreme European professionals, even the Colonials among them, they did not see the American trees. Their too highly perfected technique forbade them to acknowledge such chance topographical phenomena. According to the assumptions of their military art, by which their senses were controlled, a battlefield had to have a certain appearance and structure, that is to say, a style. Failing to qualify, these American trees and rocks from which come such deadly but meaningless stings are overlooked. The Redcoats fall, expecting at any moment to enter upon the true battlefield, the soft rolling greenswards prescribed by the canons of their craft and presupposed by every principle that makes warfare intelligible to the soldier of the eighteenth century.

Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New

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August 20, 2016 at 7:30 am

Should a writer have children?

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Karl Ove Knausgaard

Note: I’m away at the World Science Fiction Convention for the rest of the week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, on June 15, 2015.

Early in My Struggle, the extraordinary autobiographical novel in six volumes by Karl Ove Knausgaard, there’s a moment that made me sit up and pay attention. Knausgaard is describing life with his three children, with all the small joys and frustrations it carries, and it culminates on a note of utter despair:

The family is not my goal either. If it had been, and I could have devoted all my energy to it, we would have had a fantastic time, of that I am sure…Every day I see families who successfully organize their lives in this way. The children are clean, their clothes nice, the parents are happy and although once in a while they might raise their voices they never stand there like idiots bawling at them…Why should the fact that I am a writer exclude me from that world? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean our strollers all look like junk we found on a junk heap? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean I turn up at the nursery with crazed eyes and a face stiffened into a mask of frustration? Why should the fact that I am a writer mean that our children do their utmost to get their own way, whatever the consequences? Where does all this mess in our lives come from?

There’s a great deal more in this line—Knausgaard, while an exceptionally graceful writer, doesn’t shy away from repeatedly hammering at the same point—and it leads to a bleak conclusion: “I know I can change all this, I know we too can become that kind of family, but then I would have to want it and in which case life would have to revolve around nothing else. And that is not what I want.” And although I don’t see my own life in such stark terms, I can’t help but feel a glimmer of recognition. When you’re a writer, it’s all you can do to keep your own work under control, and it becomes all that much harder, as I’ve learned firsthand, if you’re simultaneously dealing with the borderline chaos that accompanies a small child, let alone three. Everything becomes a series of compromises: the bed is unmade, the dishes unwashed, and you ignore or live with exactly as much as you can afford. It affects your writing as much as anything, and even if you’re clever about strategizing and managing your time, you’re left with the nagging sense that you’re neither the best parent nor the best writer you could be. And it’s enough to make you wonder if a writer has any business having kids at all. (The fact that the majority of writers do, in fact, appear to have children and a fairly conventional family life doesn’t make the question any less worth asking.)

The author's daughter

Really, though, it’s just a special case of the more general issue of how kids fit into a life of simplicity. On simple living forums like the one on Reddit, one of the baseline assumptions seems to be that children don’t have a place in a truly simple life, or at least make it a more difficult proposition. Writers may not have it worse than your average parent—if anything, I’m lucky that I have a job that allows me to spend so much time with my daughter—but the tradeoffs are particularly vivid. Much of a writer’s time is spent guarding the citadel of his or her solitude, not just as a practical matter of finding enough hours to crank out some pages, but to preserve the degree of detachment that the creative process requires. When you’re a parent, that sense of holding yourself apart is obliterated, and your circle of aloneness grows ever smaller in both time and space. Similarly, most writers learn to keep the externals as simple as possible, both as an immediate tactic for survival and as a lifelong strategy for enabling happy accidents. When children arrive, you’re suddenly confronted by enough complications for a second job, and between daycare, toilet training, trips to the doctor and afternoons at the playground, most of your inner resources become devoted to satisfying the demands of the insatiable creature in your house. And you’re already doing that with a novel.

But what I’ve found is that having a child has made my life more simple, not the opposite. It imposes a kind of ruthless editing of the nonessential: one by one, the things that I took for granted have fallen away, from going to the movies to sleeping late, and I’ve found that I don’t really mind. And it forces me into the sort of perpetual engagement with the world—largely through my daughter’s questions about it—that a writer needs more than anybody. When you’re single, or married without kids, you find ways of filling your spare time: few of us can spend more than five or hours writing without burning out, and the rest of the day is occupied with miscellaneous activity. Having children leads to a fundamental reorganization of those free moments. You find yourself streamlining relentlessly, to an extent that wouldn’t occur to you if you didn’t have that internal pressure, until you’re left with work, kids, and not much else. That’s simplification in its purest form, and it leads to a series of renunciations, a letting go of the superfluous, that stick to an extent that they otherwise wouldn’t. If a writer’s psychic goal is strip away the meaningless while focusing intently on the meaningful, having kids is as effective a way as any. It’s not reason alone to have them, and it doesn’t prevent all kinds of complications and compromises from being introduced in the meantime. But if, like Knausgaard, you find yourself with a stroller in your hands and an unwritten book in your brain, you can take consolation in the fact that your life is exactly as simple as it needs to be.

Written by nevalalee

August 19, 2016 at 9:00 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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