Gene Wolfe, Genre Work, and Literary Duty

Sometimes in this life we see justice done.

The Nebula Awards have just honored Gene Wolfe with a Grandmastership. The honor is overdue, and all lovers of literature should rejoice. Gene Wolfe is the Luis Borges of North America. He is the greatest living author writing in the English language today, and I do not confine that remark to genre authors. I mean he is better than any mainstream authors at their best, better in the very aspects of the craft in which they take most pride. The beauty, nuance, and manner of his prose, the depth and realism of his characterization, his ability to give each character a unique and memorable voice and speech-mannerism, the profundity of the themes he addresses, the dry and trenchant wit, the relevance to daily concerns, the ability to open the eyes of the readers to the horror and wonder of life — I defy anyone to name his superior in craft and execution either in the genre or out of it.

With no little satisfaction, I was contemplating this victory for one of my favorite authors (not to mention a fellow member of the famous Secret Conspiracy of Catholic Science Fiction Authors) when I was reminded of the larger question: When we honor an author, if the honor is not just flattery but is honestly meant, then we are honoring him for his skill, inspiration, and pertinacity in accomplishing a goal we admire. What is the goal of science fiction?

The obvious answer is that we science fiction writers, like all entertainers, are paid to tell entertaining tales, and must not cheat the audience who pays us of what they have a right to expect in return. That answer is sound enough as far as it goes, but it begs the larger question of what constitutes honest entertainment. What is it? More importantly, what is it for?

And in this case, the question was not just about pay but honor, which is a payment more rare and precious than gold. One only honors those who accomplish their duty. What, if any, be our duties as authors to literature, to our audience in particular and society in general, and to the truth?

The answer may perhaps be most easily seen if we look at it negatively. We might see what the duty is if we ask what is the source of the disappointment (or even outrage) seen when such an honor is denied.

You will frequently hear the complaint in science fiction circles that mainstream literature does not take science fiction seriously. This complaint is partly fair and partly unfair.

The complaint is fair to the degree that those who serve as watchdogs over the standards of good taste and moral edification in fine literature are not doing their duty justly and impartially. If, instead, the watchdogs are excluding from public attention memorable works of art on arbitrary or elitist grounds, we have a right to complain. Or (more to the point) if the watchdogs are adversaries rather than advocates of good taste and edification in fine literature, we not only have the right to complain, we have the right to riot, to storm their Bastille, and haul the snobs off to the guillotine of public scorn.

The complaint is unfair to the degree that we who write science fiction literature decide to write hackwork space-adventure stories or vampire romances instead of reaching as if with the quill of an angel of fire toward the highest ambition of literature.

It is also unfair to complain that science fiction is snubbed by the watchdogs of literature if we are talking about cases where it is not. By this, I mean, if we are talking about any book which becomes known to the general public either despite the watchdogs (overleaping the fences whose narrow door they guard) or welcomed by the watchdogs.

Specifically, I mean books  like NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by George Orwell, BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley, or even ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand. These books, whether praised or excoriated, are not now ignored by the watchdogs of literature nor by the general public. Indeed, the word “Orwellian” has passed into public use to describe the art of using impudent absurdities as propaganda weapons — and the word “Orwellian” did not become famous due to a reference to DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON or any other book written under the name Orwell, but only because of his science fiction novel.

For that matter, the complaint is unfair if it is anachronistic. When I was young, science fiction was written for boys, published in paperback, meant as cheap mass-market entertainment to be read once and forgotten, and spoke to such deep and lasting question of the human condition as were addressed by the average episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or the average superhero comic book — by which I do not mean they lacked all depth, merely that they touched on deep issues only in a glancing way, meant to produce a startled or jarring moment awe or irony or wonder, not to provoke lingering meditation on sublime truths.

This has changed in my lifetime. Science fiction is now so much part of the mainstream that opinion-makers, pundits, political leaders and others who speak on serious topics make references to STAR WARS or LORD OF THE RINGS without hesitation or blush or (more significantly) any fear of being misunderstood.

Part of this is demographics: the youth in the 1950’s did not surrender their comic-books and paperback space operas upon reaching old age in the 2000’s. Pundits make passing reference to popular stories, not because they are great stories (they may or may not be) but because they are popular.

Part of this is the result of the evolution (whether unintentional or as a byproduct of editorial crusades) within the genre itself: science fiction stories routinely tackle deeper issues in a deeper way than were seen in the early days. In other words, the watchdogs are less likely to scorn science fiction, first, because they grew up with it, and, second, because science fiction in the main is no longer as crude and juvenile as it once was.

I am assuming that any reader who is in sympathy with modern ideas , or, rather, postmodern anti-ideas reads the opening dozen paragraphs above with a growing sense of vague discomfort, or a stalking suspicion that he has strayed into a moral atmosphere alien to his particular mental outlook. ‘Who in the world…’ (our hypothetical postmodernist may well ask) ‘…dares talk about good taste these days, or truth, or beauty, or believes that art has an innate and natural role determined by objective rules of moral reasoning which impose an obligation on the artist to serve some greater good? Truth? What is truth?’

Good question, Pontius! Well, for one, I talk about truth because that is what honest men talk about. What good is served in talking lies?

To believe that truth is true is not due to daring, but due to humility: the honest man does not think he gets a veto over reality. A humble man says you don’t vote on laws of nature, you cannot create reality, and you did not father yourself out of nothing.

A postmodern man says truth is fluid and subjective. This both makes man less than an animal, for it says his brain is not suited for survival in reality because it does not give him true information about reality; and more than a god, for it says that, like a god, each man creates his own universe; and more than god, for not even a god can create himself of himself from himself. Pagan gods, who are not eternal, like Zeus, have to be born from Saturn or Uranus or Chaos, and so cannot be his own maker. The God of Abraham, who is eternal, cannot from his position of primal perfection evolve into something  more perfect, because to perfect perfection is a paradox.But the self-made reality-creating modern man somehow does what both pagan and Christian divinities cannot.

That this stance involves intolerable logical self-contradiction does not shame the postmodernist into rethinking the bumpersticker slogans of his position. As befits creatures both above gods and below beasts, they have no shame. Shame is a human characteristic, befitting humble men.

But let us return from this digression to the question at hand: what is entertainment? What is it for? (And, let us not forget to return to the larger question of why we honor those who successfully entertain us, rather than just pay them.)

The humble man of whom I just spoke will be shocked to learn that entertainment, at least as far as fiction is concerned, is untrue. Even from the beginning it was so. The events in the ILIAD did not happen literally as described, and even if there was such a war, Ares and Aphrodite were not wounded in it, nor did the heroes of Achaia utter their oratories, vaunts, and defiance in such perfect dactylic hexameters. Fiction by definition is untrue, but none save the most literal fool is fooled by this untruth, for it is not mean to fool.

What is it meant for? That answer is known to everyone who asks: Fiction is untruth that serves truth. Or, in other words, art is the magic by which the muses express truths that cannot be expressed as truthfully by mere literal words, nor as memorably, adroitly, or trenchantly.

In this there is a divine irony in all this, a heavenly cunning, for the muses use lies, which are the instruments of hell, against the hellish goal of magnifying ugliness and deadening our lives; but instead use lies to tell truths larger than literal words can carry, granting us richer life and deeper.

At this point, both any hypothetical honest man and the postmodern man reading these words must be blinking in puzzlement at that last sentence.

Perhaps their eyes drift from this essay to their nearby bookshelf, where they see a science fiction book about, for example, an immortal amnesiac with a double-brain using his superhuman mind-powers to teleport galaxies into collision or destroy and recreate timespace; or another book starring a half-clad yet fully buxom princess from the fourth dimension who is abducted by a lascivious sea-monster; or a book about a giant spaceship made of gold; or a book about a Texas gunslinger trying to fight off an invasion of space monsters.

Whereupon the honest man and the postmodern man no doubt (when done laughing) must say in unison: “No, sir, you go too far! Entertainment is not about some profound and cosmic truth of human nature. It is about beguiling an idle afternoon with adventure stories. Entertainment is the amusement of the imagination. Entertainment is diversion, divertissement, and distraction.”

Well said. But, hypothetical honest man and dishonest postmodern man, from what do they seek diversion? From what must they be distracted?

I am not sure how a postmodern man would answer. A modern man from the previous generation might say that the artist and the audience were slightly at odds, for the audience wanted to be diverted from the boredom which comes from bourgeoisie existence of oppressive racist wife-beating hypocrisy (or whatever), and the artist, as a loyal servant of the cause of ushering in socialist femmtopia  (or whatever) had the task of subverting the tastes and hence the loyalties and political sentiments of the audience, and winning their hearts over to the revolution. Other modernists were rebels without so clear cut a cause, or none at all, but wanted to express dissatisfaction with the world as it was, and draw attention to social problems that needed fixing; but their approach and basic psychology was the same as the revolutionaries, they were merely not so consistent and fixed in purpose.

But postmodernists are famed for their lack of belief in any socialists or Christian or spiritualist or utopian “narrative” which they regard, one and all, as malign attempts to seduce or subvert the natural loyalties of man. (And in their criticism of what I have here called the modernist man, they are exactly right: what writers of the modernist school wrote was propaganda, not true art). Logically, this means the postmodernist is estopped from seducing or subverting the reader’s loyalties to a new scheme of life (if I may use a useful but obscure legal term — I mean they have lost the right to do that which they condemn in others).

Now, I am not going to disagree with the modernist, but will say instead they are not bold enough to tell the whole truth. Writing stories about beggars and orphans so as to raise public indignation as part of a program of social reform is diversion from the dangerous self-satisfaction that arises from living a too-comfortable life, but there is clearly something here beyond mere diversion. The artist is attempting to call forward the better angels of nature in the readers.

But I draw your attention to the fact, which you may look into your own hearts and see for yourself, that even allegedly shallow adventure stories, or romances, are more than mere diversion also. I know a man who, as a boy, read A PRINCESS OF MARS — of which a less realistic and more boyish adventure yarn cannot be imagined, nor one having less to do with conditions on Earth — but the lesson he took from it was to treat women chivalrously and with honor, to be objects of love more akin to worship than to the sordid mutual exploitation or animal attraction which modernists denigrate love to be. Again, I know a man who, as a boy, so loved STAR WARS, that he decided to live his life as should a Jedi-Knight, putting right and truth above all things, even if he lacked the Way Cool mind-powers and buzzing glow-swords. Chivalry and righteousness are not unimportant things. They are not the most important things, of course, but that are more important than life, and worth dying for.

So what do simple tales of adventure and romance, such as those penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and deeper tales that provoke the conscience, such as those penned by Charles Dickens, have in common? What is the diversion?

I suggest if we look at the very greatest of literature we will see the answer. The ODYSSEY of Homer has enough monsters and derring-do to satisfy if the most demanding of childish tastes, but it is poem that even millennia of study have not exhausted. The war in heaven occupying the middle books of Milton’s PARADISE LOST, or the battle scenes in Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE also do not exhaust the examination of those words and the profound points the authors address. The same is true for the love story between Odysseus and Penelope, Adam and Eve, Natasha and Pierre.  Nor is the pity felt for Oliver Twist or Little Nell and their troubles any less than felt for Odysseus or Andrei or Adam, because the act of waking the conscience to support, say, compassion for the poor, is not different than, except that it is smaller in scope, waking the conscience to the issues of loss and love and war and peace and justifying the ways of God to man.

If we divide books into the lowbrow the middlebrow and the highbrow, running from shallow and popular books concerned with parochial things, to sober books concerned with deeper things, to books that earn eternal fame and plumb the deepest, we will see that a common current runs through all the branches of the great river called literature, the shallow currents as well as the deep. They all run to an ocean.

The great books are great because they are better than the good books and much better than the crappy guilty-pleasure books in the one regard of how well they treat with the great ideas of Western literature.

For those of you unfamiliar with these great ideas, Mortimer Adler was kind enough to compile them into a handy list: Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, and Love, Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny and Despotism, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World.

What makes a simple adventure yarn or love story simple is that it treats with these profound matters in a simplisitic, unoriginal, and unexceptional way. John Carter dies and comes to life again on Mars cuts and carves his way across the face of the bloody planet of the wargod to win the hand of his true love, the princess Deja Thoris. The book does deal with issues of life and death and love and honor. But it does so in an utterly unexceptional way–I say this as an avid fan and partisan of the book–because it does not say anything about life and death and love and honor a schoolboy does not already know, nor does it correct any false ideas a schoolboy might have.  John Carter neither pauses to wonder about the widows and orphans of the men he’s killed, nor is the romance between man and martian shown to be an act of will, a divine grace, something to sustain the couple through everything from domestic squabbles to disease and death. What Dickens or Milton has to say about death and love is deeper and therefore, at least to mature tastes, more interesting, but it is still on the same topic.

At this point we can answer an earlier question adroitly. Why are we science fiction buffs offended if the watchdogs of public taste treat us lightly? We are not (I hope) offended because someone says SYNTHETIC MEN OF MARS is inferior to THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. In such a case we have no claim, and any feeling of offense would be mere partisan emotion or fannish loyalty.  But we are (I hope) deeply offended because someone says Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS is inferior to Sartre’s NO EXIT on the grounds that Tolkien’s work involves fairy-tale creatures like Sauron, Gandalf and Saruman, angelic powers (fallen and unfallen) who walked the earth, who do not really exist, whereas Sartre’s masterpiece of existentialist drama concerns Garcin, Inès, and Estelle, three ghosts in hell (all fallen), who do exist.

An honest observer will note that there is no great idea addressed by NO EXIT, or, for that matter, the ODYSSEY, which is not equal in scope to the great ideas addressed in LORD OF THE RINGS.

The reason why  to this day (albeit, thankfully, less than had been) the watchdogs of literature scorn Professor Tolkien’s work is twofold: one is the matter of setting. Tolkien’s work is set in a make-believe past roughly as historically accurate as Robert Howard’s Hyborian Age. It is set in Elfland, where foxes talk and so do trees, and magic is real. This is a setting that the Sons of Dickens and servants of Marx, each one eager to be more relevant and more realistic than the last, consigned to the children’s nursery.

But many an opera or work of epic poetry, from DAS RHEINGOLD to Dante’s INFERNO is set in places beyond the fields we mortals know, sometimes far beyond: the sheer unfairness of ignoring a great work for the shallow and trivial detail of its setting justly offends our sense of right and wrong. Would anyone dismiss MOBY DICK as a famous work of American letters because the setting was a whaling ship? This would be like dismissing Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS as a mere childish adventure tale on the grounds that it takes place in the same continent as TARZAN OF THE APES.

The second is more sinister: Tolkien’s work is deeply anti-modernist. It is not the friend of progressive ideas at any point, but portrays life on Middle-Earth with a typically Catholic melancholy, as if history is one long ebbing tide of sorrow and loss that will only be amended at the Last Judgement.

Now the nihilists among the Watchdogs like the idea that life is melancholy, but they do not want any hint of final joy: Frodo should have gotten seasick on the last boat to Elfland out of the Gray Havens, and fallen overboard, and been eaten by angry krill. That would have satisfied their taste.

And the modernists among the Watchdogs don’t like any problems which are not caused by and cured by Man. Social injustices can be perhaps cured by a renovation of laws and customs, but innate existential sorrow caused by the nature of mortal life — that, they will hear no part of, unless of course there is a human solution to it, such as being kind to your neighbors, telling stories, staying in school, and other such mind-explodingly stupid trivialities. Of course I am using the examples taken from the ending, such as it is, of Phillip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS, a book which the watchdogs heaped with praises and glory utterly disproportionate to the trilogy’s modest craftsmanship.

Pullman’s book took place just as far beyond the fields we know as Tolkien’s but Mr Pullman expressed ideas and attitudes that were all safely politically correct and hence craven and parochial and trite. The watchdogs were not challenged about any of their ideas about god and man any more than the schoolboy in my example above is challenged to think deeply about love and chivalry, honor and death by reading about a clean-limbed fighting man from Virginia swordfighting Martians.

Here the injustice is galling precisely because of the unfairness, the partisanship, of the watchdogs. It is not the craftsmanship of the author, nor the beauty and depth of his inspiration, nor again the elevation of his theme, nor the profundity of the great ideas being addressed, nor the adroitness of his execution, nor the re-readability, power, and relevance of the art. No. One man writes a shallow book which echoes the conformist ideas of the watchdogs, and so they celebrate him; another man, using the same materials, write a profound book whose ideas rear a shocking challenge to the comfortable untruths the watchdogs would prefer to believe, and they are dismissive.

And puh-lease let no one intimate to me that writing an atheist book is brave but writing a Catholic book is conformist. I have been both an atheist and a Catholic, and written both kinds of books. The only time I have ever been savaged ( a situation I assume conformists would find trying on their reserves of courage) was when I wrote things along the second line, not the first. You may have your own opinion: here I speak from experience.

I do not say Mr Pullman is a coward and Professor Tolkien is a hero. I know nothing of the men personally, and I have neither the skill nor the right to judge men’s hearts. But I do say that Mr Pullman wrote a cowardly book, and Professor Tolkien wrote a heroic one, since the first book repeated in the stale quest-trilogy formula all the pious and trite platitudes of the modern day (“be kind to people! Stay in school! Have lotsa great sex!) and the second was a book that challenged all the conventional wisdom and the conventions of literature, and met, and overthrew them.

So the answer about what is the nature of the indignation when a book is slandered when it merits praise can be easily seen: when a profound book is called shallow, or visa versa, something more burns in the indignant heart than the emotion for which is might at first be mistaken.

If we are indignant because another man’s taste in some trivial thing differs from our own, if, for example, he actually likes Kyle Raynor more then Hal Jordon, our indignation has no right to exist. We are just playing around.

Again, if we are indignant out of partisanship or party loyalty, like fans of a ball team who root for their hometown, that is merely parochial loyalty, and is not the same emotion. If the rival team wins, they are not enemies. No injustice has been done us.

In this case, we are indignant at the injustice. Each man who has read deeply in great literature knows well that there are great books simply not to his taste: but if he is fairminded, he can see the real merits that attract the candid judgment of his fellow men, whose taste are just as refined as his own. An injustice is not a lapse of judgment but an offense against it, when some lesser thing, such as party politics, is placed above the highest thing, which is right judgment. A literate man would be just as offended by a Catholic who despised Milton’s work on the grounds that Milton was a Puritan as he would be by a Puritan who despised Dante’s: and he would not consult his own sentiments in the matter of religion rather than his judgment about what makes great literature great.

In my case, I rightfully acknowledge Flannery O’Conner as a profound and great writer, worthy a public honors. But I hate her work. It is not to my taste.

What duty do authors owe literature? That we can now answer in a word. Authors serve the truth. Nor the truth as they see it, not their truth or my truth or your truth. They serve truth. There are those who betray that service. This makes them traitors, but does not make them discoverers of a new truth.

What duty do authors owe society?

Lowbrow authors — and this includes the vast majority of genre writing — are supposed to entertain, that is, divert their audience from the dullness and horror of life and show them how things ought to be, more romantic, more heroic.They are escapist, and are meant to show the imagination that a world higher and finer than this valley of tears in which we are exiled should exist or does.

Middlebrow authors, dealing with an audience slightly more mature, deals with an audience in no danger of dullness, but it may confront a danger of smallmindedness. Novels by Jane Austin and Charles Dickens have the advantage of being written with some human insight, so that we can be distract and diverted from our own egotistical selves, and learn to see the world as if other people are real and their sorrows worthy of balm. They are not escapist but immersive, and offer escape from our own selfishness.

Middlebrow books, if well done, allow us to meet the saints and sinners we would not meet in real life, and refresh our souls to deal with our fellow man with clearer insight. It is still entertainment, as refreshing as a dip in the pool, but this does not mean a little dirt does not get washed out of our eyes and off our souls.

Highbrow authors, dealing with the most mature audience, speaking to generation after generation, deal with an audience in no great danger of lacking human understanding, but in very great danger of lacking a proper emotional response to the highest things. Intellectual tend to lack intellectual structure, to be ignorant of philosophy, or to treat it like a game.

Books that treat the great ideas in the deepest way are both escapist and immersive, since they offer escape from our own worldview, and into a larger one.

All these authors, from least to greatest, from the most idle of idle entertainments to the most profound of life-changing works of great literature, are all created by one great secret. It is ironic that some of them do not know the secret, or would react with disquiet or disgust to hear of it.

The secret is that we are exiles here on Earth. This is not our home. We do not belong here.

If the readers and authors did not feel that way, if we did belong on Earth, and if we loved mortal life and mortal suffering, and if we desired nothing more, we would read newspapers for the news and engineering reports for discoveries of useful tools, and gossip about real people and histories of real events, and we would never, ever, ever desire something more. We would never dream of adventures on Mars or read about the lives of make believe people in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars or about a poet descending through the core of the Earth and climbing a mountain in the southern hemisphere to ascent the seven spheres of heaven to see Our Lady and Our Lord. We would not care about Longjohn Silver or Scarlet O’Hara or Ebeneezer Scrooge, and the fate of Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir to the fallen kingdom of Numenor would be meaningless.

If we were just beasts like other beasts, we would never raise our eyes from the troughs of temporary pleasure, and crane back our heads, and stare at the stars, and wonder, and imagine, and seek to feed not just our bellies but also our imaginations.

If we were happy here in our world, we would not dream of other worlds, and if we are not happy here, then this is not our home.

The role of the poet, aside from recalling with glory the deeds of our ancestors, or telling us to love what is lovely and hate what is hateful, to keep alive that spark of haunting recollection.

This is done in two ways: one is the tragic mode, where the poet with lamentation pricks open the wounds once more of all the evils that this exile imposes on us, and makes us ill-at-ease and discontented with this world and its vanities.

The other is the comedic mode, where the poet tell us of the other world, the world as we all know it should be, the one where beauty triumphs rather than strength.

You can see why I rejoice that Gene Wolfe is now recognized as a grandmaster, I hope. If not, look at Alder’s list of great ideas, and pick up a copy of Wolfe’s novels or short stories and see how many of these themes he touches on.

And he is a member of that secret Catholic conspiracy. If you find some of the melancholy of JRR Tolkien in his works or the grotesquerie of Flannery O’Conner, that may be why. So I was afraid that our own smaller pack of Watchdogs of good taste guarding science fiction, would snub a man whose worldview is alien to their own, and superior. But then, good artists, as I mentioned above, are subversive, and can lure an audience into a larger world before they notice it.

What duty do authors owe the truth? Why, everything! We serve beauty. Beauty is truth.

Those who believe otherwise write crappy books.