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May 8, 2005

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  Choose Your Master: McSweeney's Revisited

One of the earliest editorials which I contributed to this webzine was a review of McSweeney'sMcSweeney's Thrilling Tales Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales.  A not very favourable review.  I did not like the stories found therein.  In fact, I still keep that anthology lying out in the middle of my bedroom floor just so I can give it a good swift kick when I'm feeling particularly pissed. 

But my main complaint wasn't with the stories, exactly.  To be sure, I hated them one and all, but I also recognize that many readers enjoy those sorts of stories and more power to them.  No, my complaint was with the simple fact that, for an anthology called "Thrilling Tales", NONE of the stories came CLOSE to being THRILLING!  If they had simply tried and failed, again I wouldn't have been so peeved.  But who's kidding who?   The authors clearly had listened impatiently to the guidelines, nodding every now and then, maybe throwing in the odd "I getcha, sure" -- and then they went home and wrote exactly the sort of Art House stuff they always write.  Some joke.  How they must have laughed.
Please understand, it wasn't just the promise held out by that Pulpish title (and cover!) that, encouraging so much, led to my disappointment.  Rather, it was the fact that the entire project was supposed to have been conceived as a grand experiment to recapture what short fiction -- specifically genre short fiction -- had lost starting some time around the 1950s. At least that was the claim of the editor, Michael Chabon, in his introduction.  And, unlike lowly dung beetles such as myself, when Michael Chabon says fiction has lost something, he is not so easily dismissed.

The Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Chabon is himself a purveyor of the kind of high-brow, intellectual fiction whose existence he was now lamenting.  Something, he felt, had been lost in the art of short story writing, and he was as guilty as anyone.   Where once Fiction was about plotted stories where exciting things happen and great deeds are done, Fiction today had become dominated by "quotidian, plotless, moment of truth revelatory" tales "sparkling with epiphantic dew".  An opinion with which I largely agree -- and I'll look up "epiphantic".  So, while I gave McSweeney's Thrilling Tales a disgusted thumbs down for the stories, I nonetheless said that it was worth buying simply to hear someone of Chabon's creds finally saying what we are all thinking. 

Is that so much to ask?  Apparently, yeah.

Flash forward.  While recently cruising the Net, I came upon an editorial at Science Fiction Weekly, the ezine belonging to the Science Fiction Channel.  There editor Scott Edelman demonstrated that even a heavy-weight like Michael Chabon could indeed be dismissed if he dared to speak the unspeakable.  Edelman's reaction to McSweeney's Thrilling Tales was the exact opposite of mine.  He loved the stories to bits, but was absolutely enraged by Chabon's introduction.  Wrote Edelman: "In his introduction, Chabon bemoans the supposed malaise into which fiction has fallen these days, and longs for the days when short stories didn't worry about epiphanies, but were just gosh-darn fun..."

You will note the phrase "gosh-darn fun".  I think I am safe in saying that Edelman is mocking the very stories which Chabon wishes to recapture.  Yes?  Why then does he go on to argue that those "gosh-darn fun" stories still make up the modern literary landscape, that Chabon is tilting at windmills -- or, more specifically, straw men.

What are these GENRES, (Edelman wants to know), that Chabon thinks have vanished?  Who are these modern AUTHORS who, (Edelman asks), aren't really enjoying the stories they are writing?  And, most importantly, who are these READERS, (Edelman furiously demands), who are "enduring fiction only as a kind of self-flagellating penance, as if reading today were like being forced to eat one's vegetables?"  To these questions, Edelman gives a resounding rejoinder:

"I don't recognize those writers or readers. They are straw men."

Straw men?  An odd example of willful blindness, yes?  After all, isn't Chabon himself an example of one of those dissatisfied reader/writers?  Or doesn't Chabon's opinion count?  Then I can add at least one other name to that list.  Or doesn't my opinion count either?

Reading Edelman's editorial, I find myself wondering if he literally doesn't understand what the question is.  One minute he is mocking the very notion of "thrilling tales", dismissing them as "gosh-darn fun"; the next he is just as vehemently insisting such tales are alive and well and living in a spin rack near you.   Well, which is it to be?  Does he even understand what it is to sit back and read a story for fun?

You can hardly surf anywhere on the Net without running into a webzine with a "mission statement" that reads something like: "I don't like the stuff that gets published nowadays, and I started this webzine to fill a void."  Each one of those editors thinks they are publishing something different from everyone else.  Yet, for my money, I confess I can't see the difference between them, or, for that matter, the difference between those editors and the mainstream editors they are rebelling against.  The more they profess to be different the more they just seem to be publishing precisely the sort of stories which Chabon was railing against -- "moment of truth", "plotless" stories "sparkling with epiphantic dew".  Or as I rather bitterly characterize them: "Art House stories".

What precisely do I mean by Art House stories?  For starters, there are stories which, once I reach the end, leave me baffled as to what the story was about or what happened -- literally.  Okay, in some cases I'm probably just not sharp enough, I admit that.  But I have read plenty of stories which left me baffled which, upon my reading a review by someone presumably smarter than myself, proved to be just as baffling to him/her.  The only difference between us being that the reviewer enjoyed being baffled, while I just got pissed off.  I do not like reaching the end of a story and going "D'wah?"  That's just the boy my mamma raised and I ain't about to change.

Then there are other Art House stories not so easily defined.  Stories which have flamboyant trappings, or which seem to fit into Pulpish genres, but which are anything but.  Which is precisely why Michael Chabon was able to publish an anthology called "Thrilling Tales", billed as a supposed revival of Pulp Fiction, and countless reviewers were suckered in, reviewing the stories as if they really were somehow Pulp adventures.  To use the example I used when I reviewed this anthology the first time: "Tedford and the Megalodon" sounds like it should be a rip roaring Pulpy adventure.  It's a story about a guy who goes hunting a giant prehistoric shark, called a Megalodon.  It has, therefore, the trappings of a thrilling tale, an exciting adventure.  Countless reviewers might compare it to Jaws.  They would see no difference between Benchley's novel and this short story.  Both feature big sharks?  Someone gets eaten?  Well, what more do you need?

Quite a bit actually.  "Tedford and the Megalodon" depicts a hunter, Tedford, spending the entire story sitting in his kayak waiting for the shark to show up until, suddenly, the shark does, and eats him.  End of story.  No conflict.  No action.  No adventure.  No problem solving.  No nuttin'.  He just gets EATEN!  This is not Jaws.  This is not "thrilling".  This just pisses me off.

But what gets me, and the reason I am writing this essay, is that I don't see why it should be so fecking difficult for someone like Chabon to say the simple obvious truth.  Nor, in doing so, why the wrath of God should be called down upon his head.  Because, to be sure, Scott Edelman wasn't the only one who took umbrage with Chabon's remarks.  Amongst Art House reviewers Chabon's words made like the fox in the hen house.  Feathers flew and the chickens were still attached.  I couldn't find anyone who came out on Chabon's side, who had the courage to say, yes, modern genre fiction is no longer about having fun.

But that is the bottom line, isn't it?  Fun?  Oh, I'm not saying there aren't plenty of readers out there who have fun reading modern genre fiction.  Of course there are.  But I do think an awful lot of readers are indeed reading those stories because they feel it's the thing to do -- "like being forced to eat one's vegetables".  And I think for every reader who sincerely enjoys what passes for modern genre fiction there are countless other sentient beings on this precious globe of ours who don't read at all because they don't enjoy what is being offered.  Don't their opinions count? 

As I have said before, I get the feeling, when reading modern fiction, that too often it is written with an eye to winning awards rather than pleasing readers.  And why not?  If a story sells well, that'll buy you respect for about fifteen minutes.  (Worse, in some circles "to sell well" is synonymous with "to sell out".)  But win a Hugo or a Nebula and it becomes part of who you are.  Sell well and you are an author, win an award and you are an "Award winning author".  Read authors' bios.  You'll never find: "Joe Blow once sold real well."  But if Joe Blow won a Nebula,  you better believe he'll include that in his bio -- til the day he dies. 

The problem is that the sort of stories that judges give awards to are rarely the sort of stories that most people like to read.  And I'm not saying that's wrong.  Truth is, if I were judging the Nebulas, I'd give the award to some complex psychological drama that I would never have waded through if I wasn't being asked to judge it.  Then I'd go home and crack open a copy of the latest Michael Crichton bestseller and read it all in one sitting.  Hypocrisy?  Maybe.  (Well, actually... yes.)  But those two markets are incompatible.  Either you write to win awards or you write to please the readers.  You must choose your master.

I know I have.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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