1.11.2004

Theory & Chutzpah, Chutzpah & Theory

Let me tell you a story. It's a true story.

There were two boys who became fast friends because their parents were union leaders. The boys exchanged the information they learned from their well-informed parents. Rich men, they learned, were exploiting the lower classes, paying them as little as possible so they can drive their fancy, gas-guzzling Mercedes around to impress the other fancy, gas-guzzling SUVs. These rich pricks drove their lazy fat wives to the opera or to some other elitist event. The boys' parents worked hard to restore a little equity among the masses--at least enough to make life worth living.

One day the boys were bicycling along a gravel road when a BMW they didn't hear behind them honked and spewed gravel and dust in their faces. This not only pissed them off but also made them literally piss their pants. Their crotches were getting cold as they stopped at a bridge that overlooked the highway, bitching all the while and ignoring the stench that wafted up around them. The highway was relatively deserted with only one car: little more than a dot slaloming down the snowy road--a car that was undoubtedly a Volvo. The boys exchanged meaningful glances and, without a word, went to the ditch where large slabs of concrete sat from when the gravel road was paved.

***

Alex was in community college, studying for what he hoped would eventually turn out to be a J.D. He worked at J.C. Penney where he met a pretty young thing named Alicia. Both of their parents were immigrants who had been exploited by businesses that didn't want to pay Americans the minimum wage. So Alex hoped one day to be a lawyer that would prosecute businesses of such practices.

Alex and Alicia just married, so they needed only one car to get to work and go to school. Alex traded in their jalopies for a used Volvo on lease. It was still expensive as hell, but at least they didn't have to spend money to repair their jalopies every other week, which had become a real hassle, and who knew when those mechanics were lying about what needed to be repaired? And the cars still had problems when you got them back, anyway. One functioning vehicle seemed the best solution to all their problems....

At least it did until the twenty pound concrete rock fell through the window and killed his wife.

***

One of the saddest ironies of life is that we, who are working toward the same goals, work at cross-purposes.

Howard Dean has some serious questions to address, but he's also plagued by petty questions like his ridiculing the Iowa Caucus as fraught with special interests. Well, maybe it is. But that has little to do with whether he is suited to lead the Democratic party.

The same pettiness is happening to the genre. We all want the genre to get respect, no? But why are taking mindless pot shots at various aspects of the genre? Now if we raise serious questions that need to be addressed, good! This will only strengthen our cause. If Howard Dean can answer the serious allegations (and fuck the irrelevant pettiness), then he may be the best candidate. If not, a new candidate should be investigated--one with the best supportable theory to accomplish his or her goals.

Theory. n. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena. --American Heritage

In science, we find that the amount of information is so vast that not even a specialist can know all about his field. For instance, not all physicists know about string theory although they may be aware of the basic concepts. Now if that specialist were to dabble in or make comments on the work of another specialist in another field, he should also know what that specialist is up to, without doubt.

What makes a theory useful is not having read it, but having used it. When Einstein said the imagination was more powerful than knowledge, this is exactly what he meant.

When E.M. Forster wrote about Aspects of the Novel, he failed to mention all of the critical literary theory up until that time. When Janet Burroway, Donald Hall, John Gardner, Carol Bly, Flannery O'Connor, et al. wrote about fiction, they failed to mention the critical literary theory up until that time. They may have made use of such principles but in a practical, hands-on manner. I don't believe they've been properly criticized for such failure. Best of luck to any who would like to take them on. Do come armed with evidence, though.

What they did do was use literature as examples of what they were talking about. I don’t know how aware a military man like Wesley Clark is of political science theory, but is it really relevant if he has a workable theory of how to run the government? (Please, stick with me as I am not advocating Clark in particular but theory in general. If Republicans were searching for a candidate, I’d try to work in an example from their party as well. This is about theory.)

As we are all advocates of genre, we should be assessing its strengths and weaknesses, so as to present the best possible case for its inclusion in the literary pantheon. I don’t care who you are, so long as you are able to pick one text over another--even at random--you are creating a pantheon. We may as well have rules for why we pick what we do pick.

All theories, in theory, come down to a single purpose: to illuminate the human existence. Marketing? Statistics? Literary Theory? Biology? Chemistry? Physics? Psychology? It all boils down to what we’re seeing here in front of us. No one can be fully informed of everything to reason out theories -- although it wouldn’t hurt. All one needs to postulate any theory is that he have evidence for that theory and that that theory is provable in practice.

Psychologists have learned that medicine and biology are powerful tools to understanding their field. Biologists have learned that chemistry is a powerful tool to understand their field. Physics and chemistry also illuminate one another. Literature is a tool to understanding human nature in a practical manner, which is quite similar to psychology. Statistics is the study that most sciences are based upon. So theoretically, one might claim that readers of literature need to be aware of all studies of life before we discuss a story. The suggestion isn’t ludicrous since it’s undoubtedly quite valid, but is it practical?

***

We should also be state that criticisms of ideas or works of literatures are not criticisms of people. Good criticism, however, actually offers evidence or else you are one of the two boys dropping rocks on people in Volvos--well-meaning perhaps in their own way, but unhelpful and destructive.

Adam Roberts, on the other hand, wrote helpful criticism: why not have a theory that describes what we’re going through today? Not only that but he offered evidence of how a movement described what was going on in the world. That’s exactly what criticism must do. He didn't claim the novels were crappy--quite the contrary--nor did he claim anyone who calls them New Weird is "nuts." He wrote criticism that is useful.

Matt Peckham is a bright young man who graduated with an M.A. in English. He’s written decent reviews in SF Site, Sci Fi Weekly, and gaming magazines. He’s working on annotations for a book on the comic series, Lucifer. He is hip to critical theory (although just the other day he gave me a critical theory regarding music that did not rely on any history of critical theory). He’s worth listening to. I’d love to hear his thoughts in these theories that, theoretically, he knows how to apply constructively or critically to what we’re discussing here. In short, I’d love to hear his imagination, not his knowledge.

Here and here, Matt, well-meaning of course, drops rocks on various aspects of genre in an effort to preserve its sanctity, but it’s a little too vague to be helpful, presently (or to even know who he is addressing, whether New Weird or Interstiality or some mysterious future other who has yet to describe his theory in full). What I liked among his ramblings was his advocating 1) quality over quantity, 2) education of the tools of the literary trade, 3) respectable literate genre, 4) respect for respectable literate genre works, and especially 5) “I suppose my main point... is to reach out to writers who think theory is this separate animal that, like a color in the rainbow, is merely an optional practice.”

And so I reach out to Matt because Matt is bright and I believe capable of using imagination in a not dropping-rocks manner. I've had numerous fruitful discussions with the man before. Matt could be a tremendous asset if he would visit us and help educate on the tools of the literary trade as he sees them when we violate them or add his own thoughts when we fall within its boundaries. I don’t know to whom he addresses his comments, but like scientists, we could always use help when we posit theories that do not fall within said boundaries--and why, of course, or he’ll be back dropping rocks.

Also, so long as he restrains silly fluff like “Pot and kettle, iron and metal, hairy larry quite contrary, how your chutzpah grows,” which is rather lame. Besides I like chutzpah. Think of all the great writers who have or had it: Hemingway, Miller, Milton, Bukowski, O’Connor, Oates, Poe, Ellison--the list is endless. Some writers like Frost pretended not to have chutzpah, but you should hear him talk about free verse! Imagine the chutzpah of a fan writer who took on the biggest writer in SF (Knight and Vogt, respectively). And you know my favorite thing about Matt’s essay? It has chutzpah! Let’s put that sucker to work, so that we can get real work done.

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