Yes, We Have Won the Culture War

Ron Hogan posted this video to YouTube during Worldcon and it has taken me a while to catch up with it, but I think it is still worth passing on. In it Lev Grossman explains how we have won the culture war, and expresses his gratitude to Susanna Clarke for making his book (The Magicians) possible.

2 thoughts on “Yes, We Have Won the Culture War

  1. I assume you read Grossman’s con report (which I linked here.

    The thing is, Grossman, with all due respect, isn’t familiar with the history of fandom; the culture war is never fully won, although we certainly have grown more and more and more accepted into much of the mainstream over the years.

    But we’ve always had signs of acceptance, ever since at least the early Fifties, when people like Kingsley Amis started promoting the virtues of sf.

    I was just reading Earl Kemp’s excerpts from preserved letters from 1962-3 in the run-up to his chairing of Chicon III in 1963, and his mention of receiving a letter from Margaret Mead, including this:

    And, miracle of miracles, a letter from Margaret Mead. And what a letter. It is most encouraging and non-committal. She doesn’t say no, but says, quote: “Thank you for your letter. I should very much enjoy attending the convention. It is a difficult date, however, and I can’t yet be certain” And she goes on to ask four important questions about the sf field in general and winds up by enclosing a copy of a book review she wrote of an sf book for The American Scholar. It is absolutely magnificent. It is not a book review, it is a plea for better understanding and better reception of sf. She said in part: “(science fiction)…should be an important part of literature today when our will to survive is at least as dependent upon the picture of the world we or our descendants will live in, as it is upon the contemplation of man’s great achievements in the past. But work in the category ‘science fiction’ has become isolated from the main stream of literature, and often dismissed as ‘not as interesting as a good murder,’ or with the avant garde comment, ‘Well, yes, of course I read Ray Bradbury.’”

    But while sf tropes have long been accepted enough in the mainstream of our culture that they’re everywhere, taken for granted in our commercials, our movies, our tv, our pop culture, by our President — and this is why we have both more people who identify as sf fans, but fewer people who mean the same thing by it, and fewer people who, meaning something by it, have much in common among them — there will still always be plenty of folks who “know” that science fiction/”sci-fi” is just trash/junk.

    It’s inherent in being a recognizable genre at all. Anything recognizable as separate will have detractors and those who feel a strong need to separate themselves with it, lest someone else confuse them as One Of Those People doing That Kind Of Work.

    The sf culture war can never be truly and completely won; not so long as there’s anything distinctly recognizable we can point to and say “that’s sf” compared to “that’s not,” no matter how much or little we may agree with each other, or how much or little we care. (Certainly not so long as we have an sf publishing genre, or movie genre, or tv genre.)

    Yes, respectability for sf, slipstream, etc., has vastly increased in academia, among many mainstream literary folk, and in general. But we’ll never fully be accepted, for better, for worse.

    Dave Langford will go on being able to publish “As They See Us” quotes forever, and someone will be able to after he’s dead, I betcha.

    Only if sf is completely absorbed into Literature could this fully change.

    And while I’ve never been one to agree with Dena Benatan (the onetime Dena Brown)’s famous “we need to get sf out of the classroom and back in the gutter where it belongs,” I can’t say that I want sf as a recognizable to completely disappear, myself.

    I remain of mixed feelings, between the positive aspects of greater respect from many in the world towards the feel, but also a lot of nostalgic preference for the time of sf of my youth, when it was still “a proud and lonely thing to be a fan,” and when you met a fan, you knew you had a ton in common, and shared knowledge of much of the same canon of work, and much of a shared outlook on life, and so on. Nowadays people can and do call themselves “sf fans” — or more likely, “sci-fi fans” and have no taste at all in common, or even mean the same thing by “sci-fi” or “sf.”

    That’s just not as much fun. And I have pretty broad tastes, too, and hardly want to chase away, say, manga fans, or LARPs-fans, or gamers, or furries, or anyone who wants to come to our cons, either. I just miss those days when fandom was small and intimate, in comparison to today, although, of course, we can never go back, save in memory, and those who try are generally acting in foolish ways.

    Sorry for running on; i get that way sometimes.

    My closing thought is that, having been so gafia in the last decade, I nbow know in person plenty of people who refuse to look at anything they think is “sci-fi” because they know it’s crap. Such people are, I think, still the majority of the population. Certainly “sci-fi” movies and tv haven’t done much to demonstrate that they can be intelligent and thought-provoking, as a rule, rather than on rare occasion.

    And the people Lev speaks of in the publishing and literary world, people who pay attention to, say, Susanna Clarke, and him, and Michael Chabon, and maybe Christopher Priest, and maybe Gene Wolfe, and Ursula Le Guin, or have read and enjoyed some “graphic novels,” and a smattering of other writers we mutually approve of — they’re still a small number of people compared to the general population and the general attitude about “sci-fi.”

    The “Sci-fi Channel” just changed their name because it so limited their audience. That’s not winning the culture war. It’s just another small battle won on a small battlefield.

  2. Gary:

    No, seriously, we have won. It will take the dinosaur a long time to die, but the victory is generational rather than aesthetic and all we have to do is wait.

    Of course there will always be those who try to emulate those poor Japanese soldiers who hid out on Pacific islands, convinced that WWII was still in progress 50 years after it had ended. It you define “us” narrowly enough then you can always make yourself out to be part of a persecuted minority. But that will be your choice, not something forced upon you.

    BTW, the “pro” bar that Grossman was referring to was the one in the Intercontinental. Had I had free evenings, I would have spent them there rather than in Elevator Hell. As it was I was way too busy for either most of the time.

Comments are closed.