11 February 2005

Ecstasy, Catalepsy, and Metafiction

Doug Lain's new story ("A Coffee Cup/ Alien Invasion Story") has gotten some criticism at the Strange Horizons forums for being odd and untraditional. Doug has patiently and thoughtfully responded to some of the criticisms at his own site, saying, among other things:
First of all I don't consider this story to be "experimental". By that I mean I don't think it's doing anything new or innovative. I would say instead that the story is metafictional, but people have been writing metafiction for a long time. Maybe thirty or forty years ago a few people could pretend that metafiction was new and innovative, but I don't figure it's particularly daring now.
I recently read Michael Moorcock's retrospective New Worlds anthology, and though only a few of the pieces within it seemed to have survived well the passage of time, I think the book itself is vital and valuable because it shows that not only are certain types of "experiments" not new, but they aren't new to science fiction or fantasy, either. The New Worlds anthology actually made me sad, because I thought that it demonstrated truly experimental writing (writing that is frequently interesting but seldom fully successful, writing that opens up new paths that later writing could follow), but most of the experiments were not followed up on, were not encouraged by the SF field in general, and so a tremendous amount of possibilities were lost. (This is, of course, a broad generalization.)

I don't think most SF readers, or most readers of any sort, are as inherently conservative in their taste as they often make themselves out to be. There will always be people on the fringes, people who say the only good books are ones written by Robert Heinlein, and other people who say no story that has a linear plot can possibly be of value, but I'm betting most of us fall somewhere in between those positions, and that most of us are open to new ideas and techniques if we can find a way to reconcile them with our current knowledge and desires. This is why what Doug is doing is so valuable -- he's taking the time to explain where he's coming from, and showing that his intentions are not at all self-indulgent, but that, rather, he saw no other way to write the story than the one he chose. And that the way he's writing is nothing new. Through these efforts, he's helping to bridge a gap between those of us who are very much interested in the sort of thing he and writers like him are doing, and readers who find such work alienating at first. Perhaps some of those readers will be convinced to give the work a second chance, and will then discover its wonders.

After reading what Doug had to say, I thought of the opening of a film review by James Agee, a review of two movies by Jean Vigo published in 1947 in The Nation and reprinted in Agee on Film. Put Doug Lain's name and the title of the story in place of Vigo's and the names of his films, and this becomes a generally accurate description of what you'll get if you head over to Strange Horizons:
If you regard all experiment as affectation and all that bewilders you as a calculated personal affront, and if you ask of art chiefly that it be easy to take, you are advised not to waste your time seeing Jean Vigo's Zero de Conduit and L'Atalante; go back to sleep, lucky Pierre, between the baker's wife and the well-digger's daughter, if you can squeeze in among the reviewers who have written so contemptuously of Vigo's work. If you regard all experiment as ducky, and all bewilderment as an opportunity to sneer at those who confess their bewilderment, and if you ask of art only that it be outre, I can't silence your shrill hermetic cries, or prevent your rush to the Fifth Avenue Playhouse; I can only hope to God I don't meet you there. If, on the other hand, you are not automatically sent either into ecstasy or catalepsy by the mere mention of avant-gardism, if your eye is already sufficiently open so that you don't fiercely resent an artist who tries to open it somewhat wider, I very much hope that you will see these films. I can't at all guarantee that you will like them, far less that you will enjoy and admire them as much as I do, for they are far too specialized. I can only be reasonably sure that you will find them worth seeing.
I don't think "A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story" is as engrossing or rich as Doug's story from last year, "Music Lessons", but it's certainly worth reading, and if you let yourself feel the connections between the different strands and fragments, the ending can be quite effective.

Metafiction can be annoying for people not accustomed to it, because much of the time we take the techniques of writing for granted, and so a writer who makes a point of highlighting exactly what they are up to can feel like a magician who reveals every trick. Done well, though, metafictional techniques can strengthen, broaden, and enrich a story, allowing both the original pleasures of illusion along with pleasures of thought, analysis, and peculiar estrangement. (For more on the subject, see Dan Green's introduction to American metafiction at his weblog, and John Barth's consideration of the parallels between two of the 20th century's great metafictionists-who-were-more-than-metafictionists, Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino.)

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