Monday, August 24, 2015

The Weird Tales Controversy-Part Five

Andrew Klavan (b. 1954) has written mysteries, thrillers, and stories of the supernatural. A couple of his books have been turned into movies. Last week Mr. Klavan posted on line a smart-alecky essay called "Science Plus Politics Equals Politics" (Aug. 17, 2015). You can read it by clicking here. He begins with a quote from Ayn Rand, then follows with a much pithier quote from Mark Steyn:
It's a good basic axiom that if you take a quart of ice-cream and a quart of dog feces and mix 'em together the result will taste more like the latter than the former.
One of his commenters has, I think, an even better analogy:
Imagine a barrel of wine and a barrel of sewage. If you were to take a cup of the wine and pour it into the barrel of sewage, nothing would change; you would still have a barrel of wine and a barrel of sewage. But if you were to take a cup of the sewage and pour it into the wine, you would then have two barrels of sewage.
Andrew Klavan's point is in his title: Mix politics with anything and it becomes political. That's what has happened with science fiction and now seemingly with fantasy and weird fiction as well.

Science fiction is easily politicized because it is about the future; the political progressive stakes his or her exclusive claim to that territory. Fantasy or weird fiction would seem insulated from the process of politicization, as it tends to be about the past. But the past can also be made political by applying today's political ideas or political correctness to what has gone before us. (A current example is the Democratic Party's repudiation of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.) That's partly how the Weird Tales controversy got started: H.P. Lovecraft is seen as a racist and so his entire life's work is tainted, maybe beyond purification. He and it must be expunged. Race also came into the controversy by way of the novel Save the Pearls Part One: Revealing Eden by Victoria Hoyt (2012). Revealing Eden is science fiction. Strictly speaking, it should never have been considered for inclusion in Weird Tales. More than that, the book is racially, hence politically, charged. Marvin Kaye should not have touched it with a ten-foot pole. But even without that controversy, fantasy and weird fiction were bound to have become politicized because all things eventually will be.

Jeff VanderMeer, husband of the previous editor Ann VanderMeer, wrote an essay shortly after the controversy erupted. In it he expressed his values. They appear to be the clichéd values of progressivism: the necessity for innovation and progress over a "dead" or "cannibalistic" past; "inclusiveness"; "diversity" (whether race-based or otherwise); a preference for international, "non-Anglo," "marginalized," "forgotten," or "invisible" authors; etc. The VanderMeers may very well have seen Revealing Eden as an extreme reactionary response to their efforts--like I wrote yesterday, Marvin Kaye's "Revenge of the White People." I don't know. But I doubt that's how Mr. Kaye intended it. He seems to have stumbled into the controversy. Or maybe he himself decided to insert politics into art. Either way, the results were predictably disastrous.

Whatever else, Marvin Kaye appears to be backward-looking or conservative. For evidence, look at the three issues of Weird Tales of which he has been editor so far, the Cthulhu Returns Issue, the Fairy Tales Issue, and the Undead Issue. Look, too, at the theme of the next planned issue, sword and sorcery. All four themes are backward-looking: The first and last look to H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and the Weird Tales of the 1930s (Mr. Kaye's decade of birth). The middle two look back to even more ancient times, to before eighteenth-century rationalism and the Age of Reason. Jeff VanderMeer probably has in his way a legitimate complaint. The solution to all this is not political however. And it cannot involve race. Despite any claims to the contrary, race is not ultimately a psychological, cultural, or sociological phenomenon, and it certainly isn't a biological or a scientific fact. In the end, race is a political issue. To mix it with anything makes that thing also political, as we have seen with Weird Tales.

W.E.B. Du Bois famously predicted: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." Here we are more than a hundred years later and into another century and the problem still seems to be one of race. It's a mine field, a powder keg with a short fuse attached. I feel nervous just writing about it. But I would like these things to be said. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Can we not say the same thing about the artist? That the content or character of his or her work should be the basis for judging it, not the color of his or her skin? Does it really matter that H.P. Lovecraft was white? You don't have to know anything about him to enjoy--or be bored by--his fiction. Does it matter that other authors might be black or Asian or Latina? Isn't it the work itself that counts? Isn't consideration of the artist's skin color essentially a political consideration? How can it be otherwise? And if you're a whiter-than-white editor, are you not essentially taking up the white man's burden by looking at non-white writers as needing some kind of special help from you? Can writers not succeed--should they not succeed--on their own merits regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, or national origin? Duke Ellington said, "There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind." He also said, "If it sounds good, it is good." Those two judgments say nothing about the composer or the musician as a person, only about the work or performance itself. Why would those things not also be true of fiction? Does it really matter who wrote it? Isn't the most important thing whether it's good or not?

Art and literature are like wine; politics is sewage. Put a teaspoon of sewage into a cask of wine and it becomes sewage. Put politics into the arts and they become polluted. The problem is that politically-minded people will not restrain themselves. They carry a hip flask of sewage around with them everywhere they go and they're ready to pour it into the punchbowl. That tends to ruin the party for everybody.

Fantasy and weird fiction would appear to be antithetical to progressivism, and yet they seem to be in the process of being politicized, especially, though not exclusively, by progressives. But can there really be such a thing as progressive fantasy or weird fiction? C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were two exemplars of twentieth century fantasy. Neither was progressive. Both were Christian, conservative, and skeptical of the idea of progress. If there is any person more fitting for the image of the World Fantasy Award than H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkein would seem to be it. But would progressives stand for it? I'm not sure. C.S. Lewis is probably out of the question, for he was a Christian apologist and a convert from atheism to belief in Christ. So what are we left with? A token image? A unicorn? Or maybe no award at all.

On the same day that Andrew Klavan posted his essay, Joel J. Miller wrote about Lewis and Tolkein in a review called "What Tolkien and Lewis Teach Us About Surviving Dark Times." You can read it by clicking here. Following is a quote from Mr. Miller's review of Joseph Loconte's new book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18. The words in the Gothic typeface below are quotes from Joseph Loconte from within Mr. Miller's essay. The words in the Roman typeface are Mr. Miller's directly.
For the intellectual class as well as the ordinary man on the street, the Great War had defamed the values of the Old World, along with the religious doctrines that helped to underwrite them. Moral advancement, even the idea of morality itself, seemed an illusion. . . . [T]he war to make the world safe for democracy, the holy war to advance Christian ideals, was an unholy delusion.
Mr. Miller continues:
In his previous book The Searchers, Loconte explains the virtue of disillusionment, how it can serve--even with brutal and terrible imperfection--to sever us from harmful fantasy. He returns to that theme now with the example of the pre-war Myth of Progress.
This myth, says Loconte,
was proclaimed from nearly every sector of society. Scientists, physicians, educators, industrialists, salesmen, politicians, preachers--they all agreed on the upward flight of humankind. Each breakthrough in medicine, science, and technology seemed to confirm the Myth.
Christian ministers and theologians got swept along, baptizing and proof-texting all manner of bogus utopianism. And then it all went to hell. Every oracle of progress, including the preachers, looked like fools or charlatans. When the survivors cleared the rubble, many mistook the Myth for Christianity itself and tossed both in the garbage bin.
The war made utopianism impossible. But for those who could disentangle Christianity from the failed Myth of Progress, it remained a vital force for renewal. Tolkien was--and Lewis became--two such people.
Those are long quotes but I think necessary here. We have been shown again and again that the idea of progress is a myth, an often dangerous if not disastrous myth. The need to advance towards Utopia is equally a folly. And yet the myth persists. The folly goes on. Near the end of his essay, Jeff VanderMeer writes that he "loves . . . edgy, transgressive fiction . . . ." Again, progressive clichés. Like children or readers of Cosmopolitan ("50 Hot New Sex Moves"), we believe we're the first to try this or that thing. But what, at this late date, can there be that has not been done before? Only something technological, and so there remains the possibility for innovation of some kind. But there is no new transgression. In searching out the last transgression, progressivism wears itself out, like the characters in La Dolce Vita. The end point, as with Dystopia, is extreme decadence or a very sad and often disastrous dissolution.

We have arrived here in the twenty-first century after more than two centuries of innovation. We are now as people picking among the ruins of previous civilizations, civilizations ruined by the mindless and heedless pursuit of progress and perfection, still looking, looking for something new. We should remember the admonition of Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sun.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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