Speculative Fiction as “High Culture”

An Editorial By Derek Newman-Stille

First, I want to open this editorial with a quick note that I think that the notions of “high culture” and “pop culture” are ridiculous and serve no real purpose. The idea that there is a genuine and openly apparent “high culture” that is obvious to anyone is ludicrous and demeans the individual appreciation and experience of art. When I say “art” I do not suggest that only certain forms of creative expression are “art” where others are “crafts” or “popular works”. I define “art” as individual creative expression and everyone has their own interpretation about what makes great art. Art, in my perspective is a creative work that evokes some sort of feeling from the observer – a shared communication through an artistic medium and that can be anything from a painting that has been preserved by a deceased artist who was obscure in their own time but is famous now to a milk dispenser shaped like a cow.  Indeed, the fact that many of the artists that we consider “the greats” were obscure in their own time should be a lesson in the subjectivity of art, teaching us that art is variable and tastes change over time. There is no consistency in “greatness” – it is socially created and defined by structures of power (hegemonies), temporally contingent (i.e. at different points in history, different types of art and different works of art have been considered better than others and that shifts over time), and geographically manifest (i.e. from one place to the next, a different idea of what is great art may develop). What is “great” shifts from time to time, place to place, and group to group. What is important is that a work of art expresses something from the artist and makes the reader/viewer/experiencer FEEL something, think about something, experience something. “High Culture”, “Pop Culture”, “Art”, “Craft”; these are all labels without any meaning inherently held within them. They are socially created.

Even though “high culture” is subjective, it still has cultural currency – it is still taken as a “real” thing and certain cultural expressions are looked down upon while others are exalted as truly meaningful. This line is often drawn between “popular culture” (pop culture) and “high culture” and speculative fiction (science fiction, horror, and fantasy) is often cast as a lower form of culture – something popular and not intrinsically artistically worthy. In Canada, realist fiction is generally exalted as the best form of high culture “Can Lit”, while SF often has the “literature” title entirely ripped away from it and is viewed as a lesser cultural form and generally treated as an “import” product, not really speaking to anything intrinsically Canadian. This de-Canadianising of SF does a disservice to the history of mythical realities inherent in Canadian life. After all, Canada is a meeting place of different people, a mixing and blending of diverse cultures. The country was formed out of an adventure in going to a new place (and horribly dominating and displacing the aboriginal inhabitants of this place and re-naming the land). And it is a place where there is a mixing of folklores, a mixing of mythic ideas – where myths of this place coming from indigenous Canadians can inform and mix with ideas coming from English, French, Irish, Scottish, Ukrainian, etc. European locations (since these European groups were the dominant colonizers of the period).  Those mythologies have been added to by people from diverse parts of the world that have settled in Canada over the years. This blend makes it mythically interesting and allows for a blend of mythologies. We live in a mythic landscape, a landscape of blending, shifting, changing ideas. It is a place where we question identity, where we ask “Who are we?” and that makes it inherently speculative.

So, why isn’t Speculative Fiction THE Can Lit of choice? Part of this comes out of Canada’s post WWII search for identity and then the desire to establish Canada as an independent and different power in the 1960s. Canada wanted its own “Art” to distinguish itself, to express its independence while still remaining economically dependant on the US and UK. They wanted something that expressed life in Canada, so the forms of art preferred were those that portrayed Canadian realism and the ideas of Canada of the time: a place of vast natural wonders, a place of rustic life and the struggle against a forbidding environment, surviving in spite of oppressive forces. And, SF was considered too different from that reality, and due partially to the anti-American sentiment of American ex-pats who came to Canada in protest of the Vietnam War, and due to the popularity of SF in the American market, SF was viewed as something distinctly American and therefore not representative of the Canadian experience (which was trying to differ from the American economic and cultural powerhouse beside us). This is an over-simplification of the issue and there is a lot more complexity, but I want to keep this short.

SF was an alienated discourse and also considered too “pop culture”, and – dangerously at a time when Canada was trying to distinguish itself from the US – too AMERICAN pop culture. This cultural baggage has lingered and SF is consistently cast out of the (ambiguous and subjective) role of “high culture” into “pop culture”. I am hoping to play a bit here and look at SF as REPRESENTATIVE of high culture. I will use David Inglis’ Culture and Everyday Life (2005) and its definition of high culture to do this. Inglis gives a great definition of “high culture”, but again, there are more sources out there. I chose Inglis primarily because I was reading it and chuckling about how much his definition of “high culture” sounds like SF. Inglis notes that when “high culture” is defined, it is often differentiated from “pop culture” by its “artistic quality and intellectual stimulation” (54). But Speculative Fiction includes the word “speculative” it “speculates”, it asks questions, and it challenges things. It therefore invites the reader to ponder and think about things like where the future is going, what horrors exist in the world, what would it be like if things happened differently, what makes us human, what different morals would develop in a different place or with a different and alien culture.

Inglis, discussing Matthew Arnold’s (1995) notion of “high culture” points out the author’s belief that “high culture” should be one that evokes “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” (1995: 199). This is precisely what SF does – it does not represent stale, normal reality, but rather invites the reader to think about reality in a new way, to question it and look past the facade of reality to what makes our world the way it is, and why it is different from other visions of the world. SF shows us different ways of living, different worlds that are distant from our “stock notions and habits”. It opens the mind to new vistas of experience and expression and challenges us to question everything that exists in our world.

“Pop culture” is also often differentiated from “high culture” based on its alleged simplicity (Inglis, 2005: 54). What is simplistic about creating a whole new world full of people that are fundamentally different from us (while simultaneously like us and relatable to our experience)? With realist fiction, there is a ready-made world, full of stock experiences that the author can call on from their lived experience or the lived experience of others. Does that make realist fiction more simplistic? More “pop”? Inglis also notes that “high culture” is often defines by its ability to challenge people to “re-think our views and attitudes about the world” (ibid) and what does this more than proposing a different world, a world with different rules, roles, and attitudes? He points to the almost religious experience of being “cleansed by a ‘stream of fresh and free thought’” that makes our abilities to reflect and think stronger and has a beneficial effect on our imagining (2005: 54-55). What poses a better imaginative force than a world with different rules than our own, a speculative reality that differs from the ‘normal’ world? Most of all, he suggests that great works of “high culture” is so evocative that “viewers or listeners are mentally pulled out of their everyday existence… [and] it involves a transcendence of mundane and everyday concerns toward reflections upon the great questions of human life” (2005: 55)… I don’t think I even need to comment on the merits of SF in this respect….

If, as Inglis suggests “’high culture’ and everyday life are antithetically opposed to each other”, then where does SF fall on this spectrum? Ultimately speculative fiction should encourage us to speculate a world that is free of meaningless binaries like “high culture” and “pop culture”, but if “high culture” connoisseurs insist on talking about the relative values of “high culture” it is good to know that they really mean speculative fiction… even if they don’t know or believe that…

(I should point out that although Inglis talks about definitions of “High Culture” versus “Popular Culture”, he does complicate in his work and suggest, much like myself, that the category of “high culture” is nonsensical and subject to interpretation).

Different Way of Seeing

A review of Just Dance by Erika Holt (in Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, Edge, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Marie-Lunie is a girl who has one eye in one world and one in another. Erika Holt’s teen fiction steam-punky supernatural story Just Dance explores a girl who has discovered that her father has been keeping research secrets. Marie-Lunie has one natural eye and one artificial one, made of a crimson glass orb she found on her father’s desk. The eye allows her to see into the spiritual world and opening her spiritual eye allows her to travel into the Otherrealm.

Marie is an outsider, a social outcast from her school and escapes from the taunting of the other students into her own independent world. Her worldview is challenged when one of the popular girls comes to her house needing help finding her father and Marie has to lead her into a world of the supernatural in order to help a popular girl who treats her and her friends with disgust.

Holt takes a ride into the outsider realm, a place of the Otherrealm where things can be seen that are ignored by the ‘normal’ parts of society, the popular people. It is only through a girl who is born with one eye missing who lives on the fringes that is able to see through the fictions of the world, and question society’s popular assumptions.

Holt takes her readers on a quest through their own assumptions and their own limits, opening her teen readers to the idea that the popular and the unpopular aren’t really that different. When there are monsters in the world, are people really that different from each other? And, really, are the monsters so different after all? Holt’s Just Dance isn’t limited to a teen audience and any reader will enjoy her creative, comic exploration.

To read more about Erika Holt, go to http://www.inkpunks.com/about/erika-holt/ . You can explore this story and others in Tesseracts Fifteen, available from Edge and Tesseracts Books at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess15/t15-catalog.html.

Werewolf Wednesdays Throughout October 2012

Werewolf Wednesdays Throughout October

For the month of October, in celebration of the upcoming Halloween celebrations, I thought I would create an appropriate theme: Werewolf Wednesdays. For those of you who know me well, you will have heard (probably frequently) about my love of the werewolf. For a few years, my love of lycanthropy (werewolfism) even led me to teach a course at Trent University – Werewolves As Symbols of the Human Experience. The class was an incredible opportunity to work with some really interesting and unique students and it increased my love of the werewolf subject. I was even able to work some Canadian content into the course – the Canadian movie Ginger Snaps and a novel by Canadian author Kelley Armstrong, Bitten.

This month of Werewolf Wednesdays, look forward to discourses on the werewolf in Canada, and reviews of several werewolf stories. Enjoy this month of Lycanthropic Love.

When Death is Better Than Continuing Fear

Ian Rogers Author Photo, courtesy of the author.

A review of Ian Rogers’ Black Eyed Kids (Burning Effigy Press, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Featuring one of Ian Rogers’ creepiest monsters from the Black Lands yet, Black Eyed Kids is definitely a book to evoke lingering chills that won’t leave your spine alone. The creepy effect of this book is multifaceted. Rogers presents the most terrifying monster of all – fear itself. Intangible, inescapable, immaterial; fear is impossible to fight against. Rogers creates a set of monsters that inspire irresistible fear that is so strong that those exposed to it invite their own death as an escape from the eternal darkness – invite the object that inspires their terror into their homes and asks it to take them into the oblivion of death (the only escape). Worse, the monsters who evoke that fear just by their presence, through some metaphysical act, take the appearance of children… and their only defining feature of difference is their black eyes.

Good horror takes the familiar and makes it strange and embodies lingering fears, and this is certainly horror of the best kind. Rogers takes the image of innocence in our society, the child, and makes it something that evokes horror. He takes us into a realm of fear where even the most innocuous and normal thing can be an object of utter difference. And, he knows enough about fear to present his audience with the idea that sometimes people would rather die than live in continuing, ever-present fear. Fear of things is scary, but Fear itself is a terror that cannot be escaped from.

In a society that desires its own innocence, where adults are reading teen fiction as a voyage back into the realm of nostalgia to a perceived better time that predated the horrors of adulthood, Rogers complicates things by corrupting that image of youth, by inverting it and projecting it as an embodiment innocence despoiled.

The third book in the Felix Renn series, this one is perhaps the most terrifying of all, and one in which the author reveals that the true monster… is the author himself. He is the object that inspires our terror. I was able to get this book signed by Mr. Rogers and he added an extra level of terror by signing it with the words “Watch out for the BEKs”, making sure that I didn’t sleep for a week after reading it and paid attention to the eyes of any little people around me.

To read more about Ian Rogers and explore his works, visit his website at http://www.ian-rogers.com/ . For more about Ian Rogers’ Felix Renn Series, visit http://theblacklands.com/ . This November, several of Ian Rogers’ Felix Renn tales are being gathered into the volume SuperNOIRtural Tales by Burning Effigy Press – check it out and pre-order at http://www.burningeffigy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=101:coming-nov-2012-ian-rogers-supernoirtural-tales&catid=1:latest-news

Titanic and Terrible

A review of Saving the Dead, or The Diary of an Undertaker’s Apprentice by Jennifer Greylyn (in Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, Edge, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and Jennifer Greylyn explores the Titanic from a supernatural perspective in her Saving the Dead, or The Diary of an Undertaker’s Apprentice. The dead of the Titanic call out to the teenaged undertaker Jamie. He feels a compulsion to help, and the call of the dead is more prevalent than his duty to his family. Jamie is torn between obligations, trying to find himself in the space between familial duty and his duty to the dead, which is also a form of familial duty born out of his ancient banshee bloodline.

Greylyn drops her audience in the horror of dying in the freezing waters of the ocean, and the further horror of floating in death, unburied, and unattached to anything, waiting for burial. She complicates the issues involved in the preferential treatment of the wealthy dead and the danger that occurs when capitalism overrides duty.

Editorial – Is There Actually Something Canadian About Canadian SF?

By Derek Newman-Stille

One of the things that is gradually being more and more ignored in analyses of Canadian SF is the regional aspect. So many people focus on the need to see Canadian literature as international, rather than also looking at its regional qualities. Yes, Canadian literature is international, but really all literature is international – creative processes are international ones, fed from the influences of all of the reading that the author has done. But, their regional experiences also influence their writing – it is a conversation between the international and the local.

Authors like Nalo Hopkinson have discussed their experience of coming to Canada and learning about the Canadian experience by reading Canadian SF, getting a sense of this alien environment by reading about the aliens and social others that are produced through the Canadian imagination (Final Thoughts in Tesseracts Nine).

I understand why so many authors want to focus on the “international” quality of their work. Ultimately, they want it to be read outside of their country of origin – they want to have a larger readership. But, this is often only the case for people from countries that have less established histories of SF. The American and UK markets are quite comfortable with calling their work distinctly American or English, setting the story in their own country and flavouring it with local dialect and setting. Canadians are less inclined to do this because they know that overwhelmingly the market is dominated by Anglo-American SF works and they are often told by publishers that their work won’t sell in the United States because Americans won’t read about places other than the United States. I think this is highly unrealistic and assumes an unadventurous quality in a group of people (SF fans) who are obviously quite adventurous – they are willing to imaginatively explore other worlds, new environments, and new and diverse cultures in their literature, certainly they would not be adverse to reading about a country next door.

Yes, literature should be international, but what is often meant by this is not actually international, but, rather, marketable in the larger Anglo and American markets.

Canadian identity is a complicated issue, so many people feel that rather than try to think about the Canadianness of their work, it is far easier to assume that Canada is a cultural blank slate that does not have a cultural imprint on the things that occur within it. This does a disservice to Canadian literature, and also ignores the experience of new Canadians (people who have immigrated to Canada), who are often told that Canada is an easy place to adapt to and therefore that they shouldn’t have any difficulty fitting in. When they inevitably do experience difficulties such as racism, exclusion, and even culture shock, they often internalise this experience and, rather than criticising Canada’s lack of inclusivity, will criticise themselves for not fitting in.

It is important to be aware that we do have a regional culture – a culture that is not monolithic, that is changeable, that is often based on questioning itself and asking itself what it is.

Canadian culture is Speculative. We don’t believe we have a culture, so we always ask ourselves what it is. The great part about this is that’s what Speculative Fiction is all about – asking ourselves about ourselves. It is in the mirrored gaze of the alien’s eye or the monster’s saliva that we see the image of ourselves. We create our aliens and our monsters from our own imaginations and they embody our fears, our desires, our thoughts about our place in the world – they tell us about ourselves.

The best thing that we can say about Canadian culture is “it’s complicated” and it is always going to be about living the question, speculating. – and that is okay, in fact, it makes it interesting. As SF fans, we should be okay with living with ‘the question’. We do it every time we read our favorite books.