21 September 2011

Politics and Aesthetics, Part MCCCLV

My writing at this here blog has fallen off significantly since classes started, because I'm teaching six days a week (university classes during the week, a high school class in epistemology on Saturdays), and so my current schedule consists of prepping for classes, teaching classes, and then whatever errands, etc. I can fit into the occasional free minutes.

But still the internet provides interesting stuff, regardless of how much I am paying attention to it! Imagine that!

For instance, here's an advertisement from a 1968 issue of Galaxy that reveals which science fiction writers were in favor of the Vietnam War and which ones were not. I've seen the ad before (I have some Galaxy issues from 1968) but never paid much attention to it, really, until just now I noticed something odd.

On the list of writers who declared themselves in favor of remaining in Vietnam in 1968, there are very few whose writing I have much interest in -- R.A. Lafferty and Jack Vance are the only ones whose work I find especially compelling, though I like some of the writing of Leigh Brackett, Fredric Brown, Edmond Hamilton, and Robert Heinlein, and isolated stories by a couple of others.

On the list of writers who declared themselves opposing the continued presence of the U.S. military in Vietnam, I find names I would include on any list of favorite science fiction writers, certainly, and in many cases favorite writers of any sort -- Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Carol Emshwiller, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Joanna Russ -- as well as others who I have at least as much interest in as in nearly anyone on the other list. And among the names I recognize, at least, there are fewer I think of as just flat-out bad writers than among the names I recognize on the list of Vietnam war supporters.

Of course, aesthetics and politics have a complex relationship, and support for/opposition to the Vietnam war could include people of varying ideologies, but I'm still struck by the general aesthetic differences between the two lists. Since I am a bourgeois liberal with occasional pretensions of radicalism, my own ideological position may explain some of my preferences. (I'd be curious to see a similar list for other genres or non-genres -- didn't the New York Review of Books or the New York Times run something similar during the '60s?) But even someone who didn't find the differences between the two lists as striking as I do would have to admit that overall, and with a handful of exceptions, the two sides represent two different styles of writing. We could take the political labels off the advertisement and present the two lists to folks who have read stories and novels by many of those writers, and the groupings would still make sense overall. That could mean all sorts of things -- I would be wary of essentialist claims about how ideology affects writing, but it would be interesting to think about the ways various affinity groupings overlap. You could create Venn diagrams from those lists in which politics, friendships, publishers, etc. are categories, and the results would be interesting.