Archive for August, 2011

My problems with science fiction

I’m not sure why it is that I’ve never been attracted to science fiction. It’s not because of its element of fantasy: I am more than happy to read ghost stories, say, or Gothic horror. But science fiction films (most of which, aficionados tell me, isn’t science fiction at all) hold little attraction for me, and science fiction books I have generally given a wide berth. I really do not know why: some quirk in my personality, no doubt. This is the point when aficionados tell me that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is science fiction, as is Huxley’s Brave New World. As, indeed, is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or even Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Trying my best not to get drawn into an argument about matters on which I know nothing, I usually nod away politely, and utter a non-committal “perhaps”, or even a “yes, I might try some out some day”, knowing full well that I won’t: with so much out there to read (and indeed to re-read), and with only one inadequate lifetime at one’s disposal, reading books I don’t for whatever reason really fancy does seem a bit pointless.

I do admit also that I often get put off by some of the claims made for the genre by its aficionados – claims that aren’t made for other genres such as, say, horror, or westerns. Some of the finest literature of the last hundred years, I’m told, has been science fiction, and the only reason this isn’t accepted by mainstream literati is snobbery. Once again, I do not know enough about science fiction writing to comment on this, but I don’t think authors such as, say, Philip K. Dick or Arthur Clarke or Ursula le Guin or Isaac Asimov have been sidelined: these are all respected writers. Their books are all widely available, widely read, and widely admired. That I, personally, am not particularly interested, says nothing.

But recently, I have indeed been reading a science fiction book, on the exhortation of a good friend – although how much longer he’ll remain a friend given my reaction to this book remains, perhaps, to be seen. But let us not anticipate.

The book is Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. How representative it is of science fiction in general, I cannot tell: I am happy to accept that science fiction is too wide-ranging for any single book to be representative of the whole. But that this book is widely admired, and considered a classic of the genre, cannot be denied. On the cover is a quote by Arthur C. Clarke: “Probably the most powerful work of the imagination ever written.” Phew! Given the extraordinary list of towering works of the imagination written across the centuries, this one must be special indeed to be given such praise! “It is magnificent. Almost unbearable”, write Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove. Aldiss also contributes an introduction to my edition, and cites “Dante and the author of Paradise Lost” amongst writers who “helped form Stapledon’s characteristic utterance”. And praise has come from other sources as well: admirers of this book have included Virginia Woolf (“it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly”, she writes in a letter to the author); Jorge Luis Borges (“Stapledon’s literary imagination was almost boundless” … “A prodigious novel”); and Doris Lessing. Even if no single book can represent the whole of science fiction, it seems to me not unreasonable to assume that this book is representative at least of the literary heights to which science fiction, as a literary genre, may reach.

The novel starts with the narrator somehow being whisked away from earth. The narrator is not characterised. He leaves behind his wife and family, and he tells us at one point that he misses them. But they are not characterised either. We are told of the narrator’s longing for home and for his family, but no attempt is made to communicate any of these emotions to the reader.

The narrator then travels through time and through space, through a variety of galaxies in different stages of formation, and makes contact with and observes a wide variety of life forms and of living species. At his first stop, he picks up a companion for his travels. His name is Bvalltu. He is not characterised either. No-one is characterised. When other life-forms are observed, there is never any attempt even to introduce any single individual figure: all life-forms encountered are reported on en masse. There is no room here for character, for individuality, for relationships, or, indeed, for anything that I, for one, recognise as human.

Each life-form is described dispassionately. We are given precise reasons as to why they developed the way they did; why evolution on their planet took the course that it did; and so on. Everything has a clear and rational explanation. All life forms are as they are because, given the conditions, they could not have evolved otherwise.

All this is written in the sort of prose one might expect in a textbook – clear, precise, unenlivened at any point by wit or by humour, unrelieved by lyricism or by poetry. I gather that this book has a reputation of being poetic, and of containing a vision of the universe that is wondrous and awe-inspiring. I appreciate that I still have some 50 or so pages to go, but I’d be grateful if anyone could point out to me passages that are poetic, or which inspire a sense of awe, because, so far, I have missed them. I can’t really see how any sense of mystery or awe can be evoked when every phenomenon observed is given a precise and rational reason.

William Blake famously wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, but Stapledon does it the other way round: he looks at the entire universe and finds only a grain. Far from finding any sense of awe, I find merely a somewhat disdainful look at humanity, denying it any significance at all. Here, for instance, is Stapledon’s potted view of humanity:

We saw Man on his little Earth blunder through many alternating phases of dullness and lucidity, and again abject dullness. From epoch to epoch his bodily shape changed as a cloud changes. We watched him in his desperate struggle with Martian invaders; and then, after a moment that included further ages of darkness and of light, we saw him driven, by dread of the moon’s downfall, away to inhospitable Venus. Later still, after an aeon that was a mere sigh in the lifetime of the cosmos, he fled before the exploding sun to Neptune, there to sink back into mere animality for further aeons again. But then he climbed once more and reached his finest intelligence, only to be burnt like a moth in a flame by an irresistible catastrophe.

There you go, mate – that’s yer lot.

I think I get the picture. Mankind is insignificant. We are all insignificant. There are and have been and will be many other life forms, some primitive, some equivalent to humanity, some far more advanced scientifically, spiritually, and morally, but none of that matters because they’re all insignificant and can be wiped out in a trice. Now, some may think this a profound vision, but I must admit I don’t: after trawling through 250 pages of such plodding prose (in which the poetic imagination does not rise further than such lazy clichés as comparing the extinction of mankind to the burning of a moth in the flame), I do feel entitled to a bit more than this.

I do wish, if only for the sake of friendship, that I could find something positive to say about my experience so far of this book. Maybe it’ll all turn round in the last 50 pages. Near the end, in Chapter 15, I gather, the narrator will come into contact with the great Star Maker himself (that’s God to most of us). Aldiss in the introduction writes of this chapter:

Where does one look in all English prose for a parallel with the magnificent Chapter 15?

Well, there is, of course, that passage in the Book of Job in which God speaks from the whirlwind: it reads rather impressively in the King James Version. Or there’s the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna reveals His divine power to Arjuna: there are several English translations of this which are magnificent. But if none of them can parallel what Stapledon achieves in his Chapter 15, then that Chapter 15 must be remarkable indeed. But after the 200 pages of utter tedium I have ploughed through so far, I can’t say I am holding my breath.

Well, let’s leave it there. Tempting though it is, I really should not judge the entire genre of science fiction from this single book. But for all that, the extravagant praise heaped upon this work inevitably makes me sceptical when I read similarly extravagant praise heaped on other science fiction books.

I am obviously missing something here. Maybe I want novels – or, for that matter, plays, poems, short stories – to have a human presence. Human beings are, after all, endlessly varied and fascinating, and I want writers to reveal to me something of that endlessly varied fascination. Maybe the vision of humanity as small and utterly insignificant really is a profound vision, and that it is I who am too dull to see it as such. Maybe the prose that I find merely plodding really is beautiful and poetic to the eye that can behold it as such. Maybe I come to literature with certain expectations that are unwarranted, and thus have no right to feel disappointed when these unwarranted expectations are not met. Well, yes, yes, and yes to all of that: I am happy to accept that the fault is with me, and not with the writer. But wherever the fault lies, I am no way inclined to give the genre of science fiction another go. Life is not long enough.

Reading plays

Plays, I keep being told, are intended to be seen, not read. Which perturbs me, as I rather enjoy reading plays.

Of course, we can accept that plays were intended to be seen, but where exactly is the evidence that they were not also intended to be read? As far as I know, playwrights are, and were, happy to have their works published. Ibsen, apparently, spent much time preparing his texts for publication. Shaw put various witticisms into what were nominally the stage directions, thus making them available only to the reader, not the viewer. In addition, he wrote long, prefatory essays to all his plays. Would he really have gone to such trouble if he did not expect his plays to be read? And even Shakespeare, I think, intended his plays to be read: a number of his plays were published in good editions within his own lifetime (the “Good Quartos”, as they are known), and it seems very unlikely that these texts could have been published without, at the very least, Shakespeare’s approval.

But even if evidence were to be produced that, on the whole, dramatists did not wish their plays to be read – the question remains: “So what?” Ibsen had written Brand and Peer Gynt specifically to be read rather than to be performed (which is why both plays are far too long for a single evening’s performance); does this make it wrong for us to perform shortened versions of these works on stage? Surely the pragmatic answer is that if it works on stage, then, regardless of what the author may or may not have intended, stage it. And this principle seems to me to work the other way round as well: even if a play intended solely for the stage, if it works when read, then, by all means, read it. Speaking from personal experience, a great many plays can and do work very well when read rather than seen. Of course, one does need a bit of practice: one needs to be able to visualise the setting, and one needs to be able to imagine how the lines are to be delivered. But there’s no obstacle here that a bit of imagination on the reader’s part cannot overcome.

I think the main reason for reading plays is that if one doesn’t, one misses out on some very important and rewarding chunks of literature. Not everyone lives within easy reach of theatres, and, even if one did, playgoing is such an expensive treat these days, not too many could afford to go regularly. Also, there are many plays of the finest quality that are rarely, if ever, performed. And, of course, even if they are performed, there’s no guarantee that the production will be good enough to do justice to the original material. If one’s knowledge of drama were to be restricted only to what one sees in the theatre, then that knowledge is bound to be very restricted.

But most importantly, perhaps, how much of the substance of a difficult play can one take in at a single viewing? There are, after all, many novels and poems and short stories that require repeated readings: plays are not different, I think, in this respect. If a single reading of a difficult Henry James novel, say, is not adequate to take in its many subtleties, then why should a single viewing of a difficult Henrik Ibsen play be considered sufficient?

This seems to me particularly true of what is generally agreed to be the finest body of dramatic work in the English language. Shakespeare’s language is difficult: there is no getting round that. And it is not to denigrate the experience of watching a good performance of a Shakespeare play to say that one really comes to grips with the language when pondered upon  in one’s study at one’s leisure, rather than heard in the theatre at the speed of sound.

I have been fortunate in having seen many fine productions of some very great plays, but even so, I think I can only really get to know a play properly by reading and re-reading. I have, for instance, seen some wonderful performances of Ibsen’s The Master Builder: over the years, I have seen this role played by Brian Cox, Timothy West, Alan Bates, and Patrick Stewart. And yes, all of them shed new light upon this difficult and elusive work. On the other hand, in all these years, I don’t think I have seen a single production of Macbeth in the theatre that I have been entirely happy with. Either way, the only way really to get to grips with works such as Macbeth or The Master Builder is to read them. Good productions will give you good interpretations, and bad productions will give you bad ones – but only when one reads a play for one’s own self does one get the opportunity to put together one’s own interpretation. Indeed, some of the most satisfying interpretations I have experienced have been from performances going on in my own head as I have been reading.

(My recent production of Antony and Cleopatra, by the way, was a cracker – it brought the house down!)

On escapism

What is it that makes me feel so uncomfortable to see the act of reading described as “escapism”?

The most obvious answer is that serious literature isn’t escapism. Serious literature is about real life, or it’s about nothing at all. Indeed, it can sometimes be quite the opposite of “escapism”: it can force the reader to face and to engage with matters they may prefer not to. The term “escapism” in this context seems to me not merely inadequate, but grossly misleading

But what about reading that isn’t serious?  Here again, I’m not sure that “escapism” is the right word. No-one will claim, I think, that the Sherlock Holmes stories or the novels of P. G. Wodehouse count as serious literature, and, yes, I find it an unmitigated delight to enter into these marvellous fictional worlds. But do I do so because I want to escape from my real life? No, I really don’t think so.

On literature and soaps

What should I blog about now, I wonder? Should I blog about the recent London riots? Of course, I have my views and opinions – strong ones at that – but since I have no particular knowledge to offer of their causes, nor any particular insight into wider political or sociological significance, let me not add to the cacophony. Let me continue instead to muse on how we talk about books.

All too frequently, when discussing books, we fall back on set formulae, to set words and expressions, without giving sufficient thought to what we mean by them. So we describe certain writing as, say, “sentimental”, or as “melodramatic”, without thinking clearly about what precisely these terms mean, what we take them to mean, how the reader may be expected to interpret them, and why such qualities should be Good or Bad Things. I am not, incidentally, excluding myself from criticism on this point: I am as guilty as anyone of using expressions  indequately defined, and passing judgement merely on such inadequate basis. But my purpose in focusing on this issue here is not to point an accusing finger at anyone, but to come to a better understanding of how we read books, how we talk about books, and how we judge books.

One expression often used when talking about books is, I find, “soap opera”. I have seen works even of the quality of Hamlet or Anna Karenina described as “soap operas” – sometimes approvingly, sometimes not. When the BBC dramatised Bleak House a few years ago, they presented it in the format of a soap opera (twice weekly episodes of thirty minutes each occupying the slot normally reserved for Eastenders), they all seemed to fall over themselves to tell us at every possible opportunity that Bleak House really was the soap opera of its day. And yet, predictably, there is never the slightest effort to articulate just what it is about these works that makes them resemble soap operas.

To address this question adequately, one needs first of all to analyse soap operas, and identify their distinguishing marks. And here, I find myself at a disadvantage, since I do not watch soaps, and nor have the slightest interest in doing so, even for the purpose of research. I gather that there is a considerable variety within soaps: there are those whose opinions I trust who tell me that Coronation Street, for instance, is often very well-written. I do not doubt them, although it’s worth remarking tangentially that “well-written”, like its sister expression “badly written”, is yet another of those expressions we often use when talking about books that communicate precisely nothing. But “well-written” though some soaps may be, soap opera is just not a genre that interests me, and, given how hard-pressed I am to find time even to keep up with what I like, I am not in any great rush to spend time with something the very thought of which leaves me, at best, indifferent, and, at worst … well, let’s not go into that here: being myself an aficionado of Hammer horror films, I am in no position to look down my nose at tastes I do not share.

Furthermore, soaps come in different colours: there are those soaps that present sensational events – armed sieges, kidnappings, murder, long-lost relatives turning up, etc. There are others that focus, some would say doggedly, on the everyday. How can such a variety be comfortably accommodated within a single category?

But there is one salient element common to all soap operas that is apparent even to non-viewers such as myself: soaps – at least, the ones shown on British television – are not conceived or written with any end in sight. The series is intended to continue for as long as there are sufficient numbers of people watching, and the plug will only be pulled (as was notoriously the case with Eldorado back in the early 90s) when viewing figures are judged to be irreparably low. Once again, I am at a disadvantage here for not watching soaps, but I would guess that while skilful writers may be able to give a sense of dramatic structure to individual episodes, I cannot see how, given the lack of an end towards which the drama is moving, any shape or structure can be applied across wider spans.This in itself makes soap unlike any work of literature: a play or a novel, no matter how long, no matter how far the end may be from the start, is, nonetheless, a discrete unity, and can, therefore, even across long spans, be structured; I’d be happy to be corrected by those who know soaps better than I do, but I cannot see how long term structure can be possible within a drama that is intended to continue indefinitely. War and Peace or Bleak House, long though they are, are carefully paced and structured over their considerable lengths in a way that, given their formats, is not possible with Eastenders or with Coronation Street.

But leaving aside the issue of structure (vitally important though the issue is, since all art requires structure), what is usually meant when certain works are compared to soaps is, I suspect, that these said works deal with themes that are commonly thought to be the provenance of soaps – everyday things, such as births, marriages and deaths; falling in and out of love;  friendships and enmities, adulteries and divorce, misunderstandings and reconciliations – all those things that make up the sum total of our humdrum lives. Of course, as noted, there are certain soaps that go out of their way to present the sensational, but nonetheless, it is these unexciting, everyday matters that still seem commonly to be the stuff of soaps; and when novels or plays are compared to soaps, the comparison is usually made, more often than not, on the basis of this shared content. But is shared content in itself sufficient to claim a parallel?  Ever since 19th century novelists turned their backs on Romanticism they have dealt with the quotidian, striving to find significance in the apparent trivia of our day-to-day lives; but merely comparing something such as, say, Madame Bovary to a soap opera purely on this basis doesn’t really tell us much. Indeed, it tells us nothing at all.

I do not mean to be dogmatic on this issue: if comparison of a novel to soap opera is at all appropriate, then by all means, let us make the comparison: but let us state clearly why we are making the comparison, on what basis a parallel is being drawn. Otherwise, to describe Bleak House or Anna Karenina merely as “the soap operas of their times” may be classed as another of those pieces of criticism that tell us absolutely nothing about what is being criticised, or why.

On melodrama

Like the term “sentimentality”, the term melodrama is frequently used in criticism in a pejorative sense, but is rarely defined. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us the following:

melodrama in early 19th-cent use, a stage play (usually romantic and sensational in plot and incident) in which songs and music were interspersed. In later use the musical element gradually ceased to be an essential feature, and the name now denotes a dramatic piece characterised by sensational incident and violent appeals to the emotions, but with a happy ending.

Sensational events, violent emotions, happy ending … do these characteristics justify us seeing melodrama as necessarily a Bad Thing? If so, we must be censorious even of such peaks of human achievement as The Oresteia, or The Winter’s Tale. But leaving aside dictionary definitions, the term “melodrama” is usually applied to works in which, regardless of whether or not it all works out happily at the end, emotions appear overblown and dramatic situations over the top. Definition along such lines, however, doesn’t really help us, as there is no point that we may all agree upon beyond which an emotion is necessarily “overblown”, or drama necessarily “over the top”. Furthermore, writers are surely entitled to depict extreme emotions, or frenzied states of mind: are such depictions necessarily meoldrama? And if so, are such depictions to be deplored? If that were the case, should we not deplore even works of the stature of Dostoyevsky’s Demons or Ibsen‘s Hedda Gabler? Or King Lear, or Oedipus, or The Mayor of Casterbridge, or…

As with the term “sentimentality”, it seems impossible to define “melodrama” in a way that makes clear at some objective level what constitutes melodrama, and what doesn’t. For that reason, we should, I think, be careful how we use this term in literary criticism. I think the reason we tend to object to that which we perceive as melodramatic is similar to the reason we object to that which we perceive as sentimental: if we find fault with the sentimental because certain important emotions are accessed in too facile a manner, then we find fault with the melodramatic because conflict, which is the basis of all drama, has been accessed with a comparable glibness. In dramas of sophistication, conflicts can be subtle in nature: sometimes, they are implied rather than openly stated; often, they can be internal as well as external, with complexities and contradictions made apparent even within a given side. None of this applies to melodrama: here, conflict is invariably overt, with unambiguous good pitched squarely against unambiguous evil, with no nuance or subtlety admitted that might compromise the clear-cut dichotomy. The result, as with sentimentality, can give an impression of lack of depth, a lack of substance, and even, perhaps, of simple-mindedness.

But we must be careful: is melodrama, even if it is as characterised above, necessarily a bad thing? If it is, then is it somehow indicative of bad taste on my part to find myself enjoying without the sligtest sense of embarrassment such works as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, or Puccini’s Tosca? I’m afraid I do not know. But it does make me think twice before criticising anything for being “melodramatic”.

On sentimentality

It is generally agreed that sentimentality, whether in novels, films, plays or whatever, is a Bad Thing, but there seems little agreement on what precisely constitutes sentimentality. When we try to define it, when we try to state clearly the criteria that differentiate that which is mere sentiment from that which is genuine emotion, we flounder. We sometimes try to take our lead from the word “genuine” and define sentimentality as “false emotion”, but that really won’t do, as real emotion, and even perhaps profound emotion, can easily appear sentimental when vitiated by indequate expression. Neither is there any agreement on what works are sentimental, and what aren’t: for instance, I find the closing chapters of Great Expectations almost unbearably moving, although I know there are those who dismiss it as mere sentimentality; on the other hand, what I perceive as toe-curling sentimentality in so many of the classic Disney films is perceived by many others as charming. There are even cases where I find myself enjoying that which I can acknowledge is, indeed, sentimental – like, say, the operas La Bohème or Madama Butterfly: these are unashamed tear-jerkers, but I can, without any embarrassment at all, have a good cry while listening to them, and feel all the better for it afterwards. But why I should enjoy the sentimentality of Puccini but deplore that of Disney, I do not know: is it possible that there are such things as “good sentimentality” and “bad sentimentality”? If so, what criteria differentiate between the two? Or is it merely the case that it is all entirely subjective, and that sentimentality is merely sentiment of which one does not personally approve?

In a book I wrote about recently on this blog, the author Mark Dietz, in a digression from his principal themes (the passage in question appearing only in a footnote), defends sentimentality:

Now, according to a rather curious definition, sentimentality is false emotion; however, if we  take a closer look at sentimental emotions what bothers us is not their falseness, but a tendency to represent emotions that are too large, too close to the surface, too awkward, too cloying, too freely expressive. In none of this is falsehood really at blame; were falsehood present, we would have another complaint altogether – chicanery, deceit, subterfuge – all of which suggest a second level to the emotion, a something underneath the surface, an irony, perhaps. Sentimentality is thus, to my mind, if it is true sentimentality, to be valued as sentimentality (and frankly, I do think we ought to learn how to value sentimentality, for without it the world is missing a rather common and surprisingly varied ingredient), an emotion that resides on the surface of life –untempered, unalloyed, unprofound – large, voluble, broad, impersonal, awkward, and vast.

“Too large, too close to the surface, too close to the surface … too freely expressive … untempered, unalloyed, unprofound …” All of this takes us close, I think, to the heart of the matter, but the heart of this matter is worthy, perhaps, of even closer examination. “An emotion that resides on the surface of life”: ay, there’s the rub. It lies on the surface, or, at least, too close to the surface: one need not dig too deep to access it. It is too easily accessed, too easily found without being earned. And that, I think, is why we so often think it to be a Bad Thing: certain emotions do, we feel, need to be earned. But only certain emotions: we do not feel this way about the emotion of mirth, for instance. A man slipping on a banana-skin may be considered a cheap laugh because the emotion of mirth has been too easily accessed, but we would not describe this as “sentimental”. No, we reserve the term “sentimental” only for those types of emotion we think worthless unless they are hard-earned – and these are the feelings of grief, and of sweetness. It’s almost as if the lachrymose and the sweet are qualities so valuable that they must be hard-earned, and that if they were too easily accessed, if they were too close to the surface of life, then these valuable emotions are necessarily cheapened. It is for this reason that a cheap laugh can be more easily forgiven than a cheap tear.

But none of this gives us objective criteria to determine what is sentimental, and what isn’t; and neither does it explain why La Bohème and Madama Butterly move me, while Pinocchio and Bambi merely irritate. I find this particularly troubling, as, when I survey those works that mean most to me, I can see that I respond strongly to direct expressions of powerful emotion. The emotional upheavals in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, the heartbreak of the final scene of Chaplin’s City Lights, the despair of Othello when he knows that he has thrown away a pearl richer than all his tribe, the emotional turmoil of Lady Dedlock when she realises her daughter is still alive, the interlocking passions and the pity of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the final bars of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony in which the throbbing phrases disappear into silence … this is the kind of thing I find myself responding to keenly. Are all these examples sentimental? Are only some of them sentimental, but not others? If so, what are the criteria to determine which ones are sentimental, and which ones aren’t? And if we can’t tell, are we entitled to use this word at all in a pejorative sense?

I have to end this post with these unanswered questions because, even after years of pondering them, I haven’t come across answers I find satisfactory. But nonetheless, these questions remain important for me because I find myself valuing deeply works that project powerful emotion, and which some, at least, may consider “sentimental”; and, conversely, I often find myself unengaged by works in which human emotions are kept at a decorous distance, despite recognising artistic merit in many such works. In the immortal words of Boney M, “show me emotion, tra-la-la-la-la”.

What title would you give to your autobiography?

In the first place, I wouldn’t think of penning an autobiography: it would either be dishonest or embarrassing, and, either way, tedious, both for myself and for any prospective reader. But if I were to be so egotistical as to imagine that complete strangers may take an interest in my life, what would I call it? Well, given that I arrived in Britain from India as a 5 year-old, and given that I quickly became typecast as the Second Wise Man in school nativity plays, I think I may well title my hypothetical autobiography Westward Leading, Still Proceeding.

Now, over to you.