Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Kinkade and Saintcrow: Peas in a Pod

I recently found this literary blog called OF Blog of the Fallen that deals with speculative fiction – i.e. sci-fi, horror, fantasy and all their many subgenres. I haven't read much of it yet, but so far it's pretty neat. I've been wanting to expand my reading selection and over the past few days I've learned quite a bit from this blog and others. Needless to say, however, my lack of familiarity with speculative fiction has limited my ability to comment on OF, since I don't really have anything to add to the conversation. But yesterday's post really had me thinking.

In my Harriet Klausner rant, I mentioned that the "woman" (provided she is a real person, and not a marketing gimmick invented by a publishing company) seems to read nothing but romance novels and the contemporary equivalent of pulp fiction. Specifically, "urban fantasy," a genre described by Wikipedia as "a subset of contemporary fantasy, consisting of magical novels and stories set in contemporary, real-world, urban settings - as opposed to 'traditional' fantasy set in wholly imaginary landscapes, even ones containing imaginary cities, or having most of their action take place in them." Or, as I put it, books with "sexy half-naked pseudo-Goths on the covers." Again, probably no different from the cheap pulp fiction magazines my grandmother's generation was fond of. And not that there's anything wrong with that per se. Not everything you read has to be the Great American Novel, and there's fine line between being discernible and being an insufferable, narrow-minded snob.

Larry, one of OF's several contributors, had written a response to this article by urban fantasy author Lilith Saintcrow which can be summed up by the following paragraph:
Paranormal romance is considered lowbrow and trashy because it's female. Despite the fact that it's a multibillion-dollar business (and every dollar a woman shells out for it costs more because let's face it, we earn a lot less), it's still that pink-jacketed crap for bored housewives. Tom Clancy is supposed to be Real and Hard-Hitting, even if his "novels" are thinly-veiled technical manuals. Nora Roberts is supposedly less Real because she writes about feeeeeeelings. While we could debate the relative merits of Clancy vs. La Nora all day--and not agree, mind you, because Roberts is just plain the better writer--the fact remains that Clancy has a better shot at being considered "serious" because his is MAN'S FICTION.

Smell that testosterone, baby.

I'm not going to rehash everything Larry said in response to Saintcrow's protests, but I will point out that her assertion that no ass-kicking women existed until Anita Blake came along is just astonishing. Female warriors, real and fictional, have existed in multiple cultures for literally thousands of years – just look at this very long list. You've got everyone from Mulan to Calamity Jane to Lady Hangaku Gozen, the Trung Sisters, Joan of Arch, Boudica, Scandinavian Shieldmaidens, and many, many more. I'm in total agreement with Larry when he criticizes Saintcrow's "bold, sweeping" claims that completely dismiss other genres of fiction – and not to mention anything outside Western pop culture.

Now I didn't mention this in any of my comments (and I wish I did), but this whole controversy puts me in mind of an article I found (purely by accident, of course) on the Christianity Today magazine website about Thomas Kinkade, who claims to be reviled by the art world solely because he is a Christian who dares to produce paintings that reflect his conservative evangelical values.
Kinkade's populist sentiments mirror that of evangelicalism more generally. One of the hallmarks of evangelicalism, especially in America, is its disdain for pretension and high culture, its ability to speak the idiom of popular culture, be it the colloquial hymns of the 19th century, the folksy cadences of Billy Graham, or the food courts of suburban megachurches. Evangelicals like Kinkade care little for the approbation of the cultural elite.
"The critics may not endorse me," Kinkade says defiantly, "but I own the hearts of the people."
Never mind that one of the core definitions of kitsch is that it is often sappy, syrupy, schmaltzy, and whatever else the thesaurus says. Kinkade, natch, counters by asserting that humans are inherently sentimental and that his works simply reflect that. But it all really goes back to the anti-intellectualism that has historically pervaded American culture, especially its home-grown Protestant movements, beginning with the Second Great Awakening. I have contended that this is not intrinsically such a bad thing – populism is certainly preferable to any form of "walled-garden" elitism that denies ordinary people a legitimate social, political, or artistic voice. Kinkade characterizes the (Post)Modernist art world as an "inbred, closed culture" and I'm inclined to agree. But what he fails to recognize (at least publicly) is precisely what the original Modernists were reacting to. By the late nineteenth century, the European universities who controlled "high art" were churning out maudlin schlock featuring nothing but angels, cherubs, Venuses, modest nudes, and various Classical themes. Academic art had gone stale, and it is not the slightest bit surprising that the inevitable rebellion was so audacious. As the Modernists' beloved Freud has said: the greater the repression, the greater the certain release.

The masses (for lack of a more neutral term) need their – our – massed-produced culture. As Europe's experience with academic art has proven, a closed-off, inbred monopoly on taste is ultimately unsustainable. Individual innovation is ground-up, not top-down, and this is as true in tech and business as it is in the arts, including literature. (Thomas L. Friedman discusses this in detail in his book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.) All this has led, inevitably, to a scholarly re-evaluation of the value of the "low-brow." In my class on American Moderns back in college, for example, we read one of Daishell Hammett's Sam Spade novels, as well as John Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, alongside works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Eliot.

Interestingly, Saintcrow insists that it is from Daishell that urban fantasy's gritty noir is directly descended. There is also, of course, the noticeable influence of Gothic literature, which originated in the eighteenth century and has been unnerving readers with its creepy ambiance, crumbling estates, dark secrets, and enigmatic Byronic heroes ever since. But considering that hardboiled detective noir was largely dominated by male authors, while both men and women have gone the Gothic route, I question (as does Larry) Saintcrow's assertion that urban fantasy is innately female and therefore, for that specific reason, often dismissed. While I'm not personally familiar with the genre, both Larry and Saintcrow name male writers working in it. Saintcrow promises to address their presence, but never does (something else Larry calls her out on).

But for all their many, many differences, Lilith Saintcrow and Thomas Kinkade are nevertheless united in their perception of themselves, and others like them, as persecuted by the guardians of high culture (male-dominated, in Saintcrow's case). I will go out on a limb here and say that, in a society as democratic as the United States, the people are every bit as powerful as the intellectual elite, even if this is rarely acknowledged. Consequently, a creator who is dismissed as low-brow in their own time has the opportunity to nevertheless persist in the cultural imagination and eventually make their way into the canon. Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca is a good example of this, as is F. Scott Fitzgerald; the pop art of Andy Warhol, meanwhile, represents the true vagueness of the terms "high" and "low." Therefore, I think arguments against one's current status as "low-brow" are, at the end of the day, simply self-indulgent. I mean, Saintcrow sounds like a combo of whiny emo kid ("You don't understand me!") and the proverbial "feminazi." Kinkade, for his part, is downright disturbing in his obliviousness and delusions of grandeur. Apparently, positioning himself as the Messiah of Traditional Art by selling millions of phosphorescent paintings is going to bring about some kind of revolution. Don't psychiatrists have a name for this type of narcissism?

One more point: I recently got into a debate with a Twihard friend of mine in a Facebook album that consisted entirely of pictures of her going to see the Twilight movie. Yes, Stephenie Meyer SHOULD be taught at collegiate level, she insisted, going on to proclaim that:
I believe that young adult fiction is discredited BECAUSE it tells a good story. I know plenty of so-called "classics" that are taught because the writing is technically "good," but these books entirely lack a good storyline. The people who say that good storytelling doesn't constitute a good book hold a biased opinion which only values half of the art of writing. Consider writers like John Keats and Ian Flemming. They were both considered extremely lowbrow, but they are now the subjects serious academic discussion. Young adult fiction is the natural progression of the fantasy genre which Tolkien argues is constantly building on itself. Someday Twilight and other books in the young adult genre will be taught alongside great books such as Gulliver's Travels and the Faerie Queen (I'll even lend you my essay comparing the antagonist in Clive Barker's Abarat to such literary giants as Frankenstein's monster). Works of young adult fiction characterize our generation.
But I also think that Meyer will be taught at the collegiate level, just not as actual Great Literature (because, quite frankly, the Twilight series is ridiculous in the sheer badness of its writing). There are classes and academic disciplines that specialize in the history of pop culture and certain strands of artistic/intellectual thought. For instance, I read Edward Bellamy's 1888 socialist utopian novella Looking Backward – HUGELY popular in its own day – in a course called American Thought Since 1865.

And so, in summation: quit complaining folks! If your work is as good as you think it is, it will stand the test of time and force your high-falutin' critics to reconsider their evaluation of you. Just keep creating, and let the product speak for itself.

Just to be fair: Saintcrow's response to the responses. And this just in: Larry's response to Saintcrow's response to the responses!


Mrs. C said...

I've linked this post to my site with an admonition that my students hie on over here to read--great stuff, sweet. There is much I would like to say in response, but I do not want to influence my babes' thinking in any particular direction. Suffice to say, I enjoy the heck outta this piece.

E. L. Fay said...

Thanks! I wrote it in a hurry (while the controversy was still raging all over the sci-fi/fantasy blogosphere - just do Google Blogsearch for "saintcrow") and I was actually worried this piece was completely incoherent. Plus, I feel that the writing is really choppy but I'm glad you liked it!

Harriet Klausner is really something too. Who the hell has read over 17,000 cheap novels and posts really bad reviews of every single one of them on Amazon?

Mrs. C said...

On the Klausner thing--I thought exactly the same thing when I read it last year; she is not for real.

Coherence: this piece may very well not match your "head" version, but it addresses your subject powerfully and passionately, and so speaks so clearly to me.

My word this round: 'holoy'--the congregation of ordered housed within the vatican at any given time.

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