Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Faith and Fiction

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. on why people look down on science fiction and fantasy:

The problem isn't that of a "literary" establishment, but the fact that any culture is composed almost universally of individuals whose thought processes and preconceptions are tethered to the present reality in which they live. That present reality is the basis of their preconceptions. Some can speculate slightly beyond the here and now. An even smaller number is comfortable in reading farther beyond the "now." But... the farther one goes from the comfortable here and now, the fewer individuals there are who will make that leap, and even fewer who are comfortable with it. Even in the theoretically more open society of the United States, there are tens of millions of people who cannot conceive of, let alone accept, any sort of domestic arrangement besides a two-partner paternalistic, heterosexual union sanctioned by a religious body. There are possibly more than a hundred million who have no understanding of any theological system except those derived from European Christianity. Effectively, the vast majority of individuals from such backgrounds are self-alienated from science fiction and to a lesser degree from fantasy.

(No permalink, but see here, entry for 6/25/2007.) My thought processes seem a little too tethered to the present reality to follow the leap into that last sentence. But it is refreshing to find religious people criticized for being too reality-based. John C. Wright, the science fiction author, has some sarcastic comments in response. (HT: Claw)


Modesitt responds:

First, please note that I did not say that any and all heterosexuals were close-minded; I said that the majority of those who could not conceive of and accept a wider view of marriage were -- despite the fact that history and culture have consistently demonstrated far more arrangements than the heterosexual model. Second, given that the United States has roughly three hundred million people, tens of millions do not represent a majority, although the polls I've seen indicate that people who reject all forms of marriage except the western heterosexual model indicate well over a hundred million in the USA. Third, I'd like to point out that I did not say that all of the individuals from such backgrounds were self-alienated; I said that a majority were. In that, the numbers don't lie, because, compared to any segment of the population, F&SF readers comprise a very small percentage. Therefore, my point about the majority of individuals from such backgrounds being self-alienated from the field stands.

Since the point doesn't follow from anything he stated, it really doesn't. The "numbers don't lie" bit doesn't advance the argument, as far as I can see; on the same grounds you could claim self-alienation from just about anything: courtroom dramas, speculative theology, weblogs, romance novels, Jane Austen, etc., etc. So if taken seriously it simply reduces the whole long paragraph to the claim that the reason lots of people don't read science fiction is that lots of people don't have much temperamental inclination to it; and this is true (largely) regardless of background. The implicature, however, was that the background was an explanatory factor in the self-alienation from F&SF, and that the lack of imagination noted was a species in the same genus as the lack of imagination for appreciating F&SF; otherwise it would have been irrelevant to bring it up. Thus it is also irrelevant that he hedged only by claiming a "vast majority" rather than everyone, because what he wrote sugggests a causal link between the background and the self-alienation and that was what stirred the hornets' nest.

(For a much more reasonably stated argument for the explanation of why people don't read SF than anything Modesitt has given, see here. The sides of the brain part is a bit silly, but other than that it makes some excellent points. As Pinchefsky points out, things are not so simple as we tend to assume, since there are arguably lots of factors.)

Modesitt goes on to say:

You can also misread what I wrote and tell others. That also happens, more than I or any other writer would like, but it's part of being an author.

What bothers me about all of this is simple. I'm an author. I love words and strive to use them clearly and effectively, and so does every other author I know. Usually we succeed. Sometimes, we don't, but not for lack of trying.

Is it really too much to ask someone to read what we wrote, rather than what they thought we wrote?

This strikes me as simply irresponsible; a writer who is going to use this as a defense should not try to obscure what his original words implicated (even if only unintentionally), as Modesitt does. (Particularly when he goes on immediately to say something that shows that he does not give the Pope the courtesy he demands for himself. The Pope didn't say that Catholicism was the only 'true' Christianity; which would be contrary to Catholic doctrine, as anyone with the slightest familiarity with it knows. The document stated that Christianity subsists in the Catholic Church, where 'subsists' indicates an enduring historical structure in which all the elements of Christianity come together in their proper fullness; these elements can genuinely exist outside that historical structure. It weakens the force of the complaint somewhat when one goes on immediately to do what you were complaining about.)

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