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).

Derek Newman-Stille

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