12.23.2003

Critical Theory & its Organs

Gabe's right. We do need "critical criticism." Good stories have much going on inside, like a living organism with a translucent skin and the organs sloshing around inside taking care of the business of life. You feel a depth in good stories that is missing in many publications. Because stories are such complex lifeforms, a theory is necessary to describe how it works. Of course, theories will always be incomplete as the lifeform morphs, but if we understand the basic organism, we can understand the various morphologies.

The basic organs essential to producing life are plot, character, theme, as well as setting and style. Due to a limitation in size, organs have to be limited in their development, lest they crowd out an essential organ. You will find certain organs more developed than another, which becomes part of an organism's style (assuming the organism's creator is aware of said organs). This is an example of efficiency where one organ takes over the duties of another.

Another example is character development: This develops not only the character organ but also the plot organ for literary fiction.

Setting can be the defining element for shaping a character: conforming or contrasting. In speculative fiction, setting is often a requisite organ for the genre forms, where a gun on the mantle puts the men in a locked room ill at ease or where space itself is the murder weapon.

Once you know the organs, they are meant to be tinkered with. Carol Emshwiller dispenses with much setting as functional designs, and she gets away with it, expertly. Others like Beckett strip away parts and thereby define the very limits for the existence of life. Jorge Luis Borges, on the other hand, ignores character and plot in favor of idea development.

They all get away with it because life does often live without perfectly functioning parts, just as we all live brains deficient in coordination or abstraction or speed or whatever. The organism draws attention to its other parts.

With Borges, another organ is introduced that has evolved over the past century or so: the idea organ, which is important for speculative fiction. When the outstanding Agni editor, Sven Birkerts, established inferiority of these lifeforms based on idea, he defined the limits of his present reading ability, for the world would be poorer without Borges.

Birkerts' attitude is not unusual. David Lehman in the March/April 2003 issue of American Poetry Review describes the reluctance of the Pulitzer committee (in the form of another outstanding poet, Louis Simpson) to honor the prose poems in Mark Strand's The Monument. New forms will always be reluctantly accepted because not all of the better readers have yet learned how to read the newer forms.

There is at least one other organ: history. Literature is in dialogue with the works of the past. Shakespeare is discussing Julius and pals with the Classical writers. This may be another reason Birkerts feels left out since he hasn't been apart of the historical discussion (although he is no doubt quite aware of the history of the standard poem, the standard novel and the standard short story). Readers won't know what James Gunn means by putting SF into historical context until they read the continuity of the change for themselves. The science fiction of the past that is not in dialogue, consciously or subconsciously, has fallen off the radar. Scholars have tried to catalog the enomorous body of SF prior to the first SF magazine. The curious can page through these catalogs and see all the deservedly forgotten works of the past.

So a good reader is aware of all the organs and looks for them in each new organism. Not that one cannot read for sheer pleasure without theory. One can and should. But the best organisms have a lot more going on than pleasure. If you want to witness what the great writers are up to, you will have to learn the critical organs.

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