(asked by Larry)
2. Okay, from high literature to something a bit more populist for my second question… How is science fiction regarded in France? Is it a respected genre or something that is dismissed as juvenile or trashy? I mean this in terms of both the bigger, popular series like Star Wars and Star Trek from the USA and Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 from Britain and also the more literate aspects of the genre. Are any of these enjoyed in France? I am on a few sites, both academic and fan-oriented, that deal with SF and none of them receive many French visitors…
I am interested since obviously Jules Verne is enormously respected in the English world as one of the founding fathers of the genre. It is hard to think of many more recent French writers that have come to our attention here, though, apart from Pierre Boulle (for Planet of the Apes) and Gérard Klein (known more to genre experts.) Is there much SF writing being produced in France?
Likewise, I can only think of a handful of French SF films: Godard’s Alphaville and La Jetée and the comic-inspired Fifth Element and Tykho Moon being the only examples that immediately spring to mind.
Do you think there is a large cultural difference between the reception of SF between France and the English speaking world?
Thanks in advance,
From my knowledge, Science-Fiction used to be regarded as trashy and juvenile back in the days, but it is more and more respected today. I’m not exactly sure why, When I was a kid, growing up in the 70′s-80′s I just loved science-fiction, but my friends and I were in the minority. Neither adults nor other kids our age loved or respected it. Nowadays, it really seems that it has broken through the mainstream. Science-Fiction films are as successful here as in the US.
I’d like to think that my generation were the precursors who allowed the next generation to bring it to the mainstream, but truth is that Science-Fiction has been around for a long time in France too, it didn’t wait for my friend and I.
Now, from a literary point of view, while quite popular in number of sales, it still is not a very respected genre, but truth is that most of science-fiction literature is unfortunately not very good literature. And when it is (I’m thinking Pierre Boulle or René Barjavel here for the French ones, we could add people like Ray Bradbury or Aldous Huxley), they’re not really considered as “science-fiction writers” but just as “writers”.
That being said, current big writers are not really mainstream and while I could mention a few English language ones (William Gibson instantly comes to mind) I really don’t know any current French science-fiction writer.
Interesting that those sites you’re mentioning don’t receive many French people, but it makes sense I guess. French academia is still very old school and I doubt that many French PhDs are being written nowadays about Science-Fiction. To give you an example, back in the late 90′s before moving to the US, I was thinking of a topic for my Master’s thesis (which I ended up not doing in France) and I was torn between treating about Star Wars literary and cinematographic origins (with a lot of Shakespeare and Kurosawa in it; ironically I bought my “thesis” in a bookstore a few years later) or something about Lord of the Rings, which was almost unknown in France before the film cam out. These topics were seen as almost revolutionary at the time. Oddly, more by my classmates than by my teachers. And as far as fan sites are concerned, there are a lot of them in French, so French fans maybe don’t bother populating the ones in other languages.
A few more random thoughts about some of the names you mention.
Jules Verne: Nowadays he is widely respected, but while he always was popular, I’m not too sure about how “respected” he was by his peers when he was alive. I’m sure there are studies about that.
Godard’s Alphaville: Every time I talk cinema with an English speaker, Godard’s name gets mentioned sooner or later (English majors in the US all seemed obsessed with him). Truth is in France, he’s more and more seen as a thing of the past. Most people that haven’t seen his films when there were in theaters (I’m talking his old Nouvelle Vague films) simply never saw them later, and even back then I’m not sure if he really was popular (with the general public). The sad truth is that while Nouvelle Vague still is somewhat “revolutionary” 60 years later in the English speaking world, in France it became mainstream to the point that anybody with a camera a few francs and a few friends started to make films because of it, and as very few of them had Godard’s or Truffaut’s talent, we ended up with a bunch of mediocre and boring films which have pretty became the norm in French cinema nowadays. Meanwhile Godard himself has become this angry annoying old man that nobody seems to be caring about anymore except for a few poseurs. Oh, I forgot to talk about Alphaville. Well, I haven’t seen it, and I guess that’s the thing, this film is much bigger abroad than it ever was in France I think.
La Jetée: I have to admit that I had never heard about La Jetée before 12 Monkeys. And nowadays most French people still haven’t heard about it, and to be honest even in the English speaking world, I’m pretty sure it’s unknown outside of some cinema buff circles.
The Fifth Element and Tykho Moon: The Fifth Element was very popular in France, it was back in the days when Luc Besson still had some credibility (here too, English speakers don’t seem to have gotten the memo, maybe they should read more his interview more as well as watching his recent films). Tykho Moon never was mainstream (I’m even surprised that it is somewhat known outside of France).
Those two films bring us to something interesting though (and almost another topic). Both films are heavily influenced by comic books, The Fifth Element strongly inspires itself from artists like Mézières and Jean “Moebius” Giraud (who were more or less involved in the production of the film, although Moebius and Jodorowsky sued Besson for plagiarism), we can mention Chris Tucker’s character who is a blatant rip off from Diavaloo in The Incal series.
Thyko Moon on the other hand was written and directed by Enki Bilal who is very famous in France (even my mom knows him and respects him!) and who primarily is a comic book artist.
And here we’re touching a very big cultural difference between France and the English world, as in France comic books are highly respected as a form of art (more on that another day maybe), they’re not sold as periodicals but as hardcover books and they form about 20% of books sold in France. Among them, science-fiction comic books are definitely not a minor niche as they maybe some of the biggest and most famous comic books for adults in France (of course not as famous as Astérix, but as I mentioned The Incal and Bilal’s works are almost considered as classics today).
I barely started scratching the surface, but I guess that’s a good start of an answer.
Thanks for tackling both of my questions, David, especially the very indepth answer to this one.
Just a few random thoughts that come to mind: France’s attitude to what I understand of Britain in the 1930s - people like Huxley, C. S. Lewis and Olaf Stapledon who wrote what later became recognised as SF, were seen as “philosophical writers” at that time. There was a big gulf between the works they were producing, all having hailed from academic careers, and the “pulp” stories produced in US magazines. It was only later that they all came to be seen as SF.
SF Studies is fairly big in academia here (Australia) these days, as post-structural academics have sought to break down the barriers between “high” and “low culture”. I did a lot of my own studies in this field but I left very disillusioned with uni in general - was fascinated to see another person asking about France/post-structuralism and academic trends on this site a while ago. That is a whole other story though…. In many ways, though, I agree with the sentiment that English-speaking academics are purportedly influenced by the French theorists but have taken their ideas to much further extremes than they were in the Gallic world from which they originated.
Yes, Godard is hugely regarded in Australia by academics and intellectuals and those with pretensions for being so. We are very lucky to have SBS, a television network that was established to cater to the needs of modern multi-ethnic Australia and, as a result, we have a lot of foreign films available on television and Godard has featured heavily in the past. DVDs of his work and those of the likes of Truffaut, Chabrol and so on are readily available here. Interesting that his reputation is in decline. Having said that, I find his later films tedious and I can understand what it would be like to see third-rate imitators out there with cameras producing derivative trash. Still, at least the Nouvelle Vague chaps created a distinct style - Australian cinema doesn’t even have a real artistic identity. Peter Weir came closest but there hasn’t been much else since his heyday.
Tykho Moon is another readily available in DVD shops here. Not sure why that particular title is so popular, unless it is due to the appearance of Julie Delpy who is probably better known to the general public than most French actresses. Her role in the film probably increased its marketability significantly.
I was reading an amusing anecdote about Besson recently. When he applied to join some prestigious French film-making academy, he was asked to list his favourite directors and he cited the names of the producers of various US blockbusters like Spielberg, etc, and they told him that he “really wouldn’t fit in there” and showed him the door. Anyway, I have only seen that one film by him but I didn’t like it. I prefer SF with depth and it is obvious, as that story illustrates, he was more influenced by the US school of spectacle, explosions and gun fights in films.
Interesting to read about the attitudes to comics. Yes, they are still regarded as childish by Australians in general but they have more popularity amongst younger adults now (the so-called Generation Y, around 18-23 years of age.) Americans have re-marketed comics using the term “graphic novel” to give them more respectability and I think that marketing strategy has been successful.
Yes, Asterix and Tintin (Belgian, I know) are famous here in Australia but, again, mainly read by children. No other French comic is widely-read here, so far as I am aware but slightly younger people would have better knowledge of this.
So finally, what about the likes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who and Blake’s 7? Were they widely watched in France or only by youth as well?
Cheers and a big thanks again for taking the time to write that response. It was extremely interesting and informative.
You’re very welcome Larry and sorry for being so long to respond (yeah, I’m that behind with my backlog of questions)…
Oh yeah, for having been part of both, I can confirm, English-speaking academia is so ahead of French academia in the field of humanities it’s scary. The worst part being when some French scholars are more known, studied and respected in English speaking countries than in France (Derrida being the obvious example).
Concerning Godard’s reputation in decline, he doesn’t have the “chance” that Truffaut had of dying young (yes, this is a terrible thing to say I admit). Truffaut’s reputation is intact and will always be, because he didn’t become a sour, angry and boring old fart. Whoops.
To tell you the truth, during the first 26 or so years of my life I hated Godard and couldn’t understand why he was so famous and important. Thing is I had never seen his movies, just this annoying guy constantly complaining about something when he’s on TV. Then, I watched his first films. And wow…
For some reason Chabrol kept his good reputation until the end, but I don’t think I could watch any of his films until the end (then again, I haven’t seen the first ones, maybe I should someday).
Oh yeah, I had forgotten that Julie Delpy was in Thyko Moon. That would explain why the film is available in the Anglo world (now that I think of it, I think that I even saw it in a Blockbuster rental store one day in the US). Why is Julie Delpy more famous abroad that she is in France is another mystery, but good for her.
Yeah, Besson has no culture, no class, and the talent he had a few years ago got wiped out by his ego that got bigger than him (and he got really big too in the past 20 years or so). As far as his movies are concerned, I’d say that Subway had no scenario but had something… Le Grand Bleu/The Big Blue is a really good movie, I have seen it a good dozen times and I’d watch it again with pleasure. Nikita is alright but is overrated in my opinion. Atlantis is a documentary I haven’t seen (I haven’t seen his first one, Le Dernier Combat, either). Léon/The Professional is good in my memory but I haven’t seen it since it was released I think. Jeanne d’Arc/The Messenger: for some reason I really love that movie, but apparently I’m the only one on Earth that does. Fifth Element was fun the first time I watched it but painful to watch the second time. Angel-A was one of the worst movie I have ever seen and I stopped watching any of his films after this one (and according to the word of the street, it just has gone downhill after that.
Agreed with comic books and yeah “graphic novels” is a rebranding that worked but it also created another type of comic in the English speaking world (I mean, writers and artists started working differently too) and those could be my favorite kind of comics nowadays.
And I don’t think French comics for (young and less young) adults are really known outside of the francophone, I know most of Jodorowsky’s works have been translated in English, but the only place I ever saw one was in an alternative comic book shop in Greenwich Village.
-Star Wars was a huge success in France too, and more or less every French person knows at least the name and a few faces.
-Star Trek: I watched the first series when I was a kid, but the following ones are not that famous in France. The movies are more famous.
-The original Dr. Who is basically unknown in France, the recent series has a “underground” following (I’d say geeky people in the 30′s).
-I have no idea what Blake’s 7 is.
Once again you’re very welcome, I’m glad you sticked around and could read my very late answer.
While extremely entertaining, mass-consumption literature has very little in common with value. SF, some of the policiers and almost all “soapy” novels are somehow in-between real literature and commerce. I think this fair distinction still function all over Europe, at least when judgement of value is expected - there is one thing to have a vivid imagintion and a certain “skill” in writing and a completely different one to be a real writer. Balzac is a real writer. Or Thomas Mann. Or Tolstoy. Personally,I love SF in the same way I sometimes have a hamburger- it is tasty and I love eating it but I would never equal it with real food.
I feel that I’ve had this discussion non stop for the past 15 years or so, just with different people.
While technically not untrue what you’re saying is quote biased and almost prejudiced.
Genre and quality are not linked.
Although the respect that a book or an author will get will very often depend on his genre.
And yes, very often, people will dismiss a book or an author because it’s “genre literature” and on the other hand respect a crappy author because he’s published by a respectable publisher.
Truth is science-fiction (and thrillers and I’m sure romance novels too) can be great literature, but the apparatchiks of literature: publishers, journalists and such, will simply dismiss them.
On the other hand, a crappy author that is well connected will be recognized as a great author. St-Germain-des-Prés is full of them.
Now, it’s true, that people reading genre literature are usually less regarding of quality and because of that, it’s easier to get published and to sell genre novels when you’re not friends with the right people that have their table at Lipp.
However, time is usually “the great equalizer” (with a caveat, see my comments in the previous post), and it’s interesting that you take Balzac as an example. In his youth, he was considered as crap genre literature by the establishment, and it’s not until he became the establishment that he became a respected author (I could name dozens like him).
I chose Balzac because I like his writing very much and he is my favorite French author. ( Thomas Mann being my favorite German one). I was 13 when I started reading Balzac and I just fell in love. I still love his work and I regularly re-read it because it makes me happy. And I am not trying to say SF is crap, because it is not. It can be well written and worthy to read it or it can be, it happens, 100 % crap. But it is not the same with real literature … it is less accomplished on an aesthetic and conceptual level, it is a bit lower class, and certainly it is not Shakespeare Like Mozart and Elvis Pesley do not play in the same ligue, no matter how a nice voice Elvis had and how much we are inclined to “post-modern” things. I am sure Elvis sells more and is somehow more accesible to a lot of people but ,at least for me, they will never compete. I also read a lot of SF and some it is good indeed, and entertaing . I guess this is my 2 cents on the subject!
Rosabell, you’re making a distinction that is not acceptable in term of literary study itself. You’re basing your view on the 20th century bourgeois canon, which has nothing to do with talent or style or anything, just with what the dominant class of a society likes.
Yes, you like Balzac and Balzac is a perfect example of that, it took a while before becoming part of the canon, and before that he was considered bad literature. Zola was even considered a pornographer by most of the dominant class of his time.
Same thing goes with Shakespeare (and what are plays like the Tempest or As You Like It (to name only two) if not the science-fiction of his time?). Note that Shakespeare too was the playwright of the people (the uneducated, illiterate people) and was not well respected during most of his life by the dominant intellectual class of his time.
Same story again and again.
In France comics have become a part of litterature . There has been a HUGE production since the seventies oriented towards a grown-up audience . The other nations can’t have an idea of it, because it doesn’t exist elsewhere . In the 60s-70s a Belgian-French connection started the stuff but from the seventies it became an 8th art by itself . You find all styles of litterature for adults in French comics, ( too complex for kids ) . There are some Japanese motion pictures that are for adults too to give you an idea . California in the hippies time had some comics for big boys too . Israel’s “Waltz with Bachir” about Lebanese war can give you another idea .
It seems the great French taste for Sci-fi has all gone into comics . Heroic Fantasy, sinister future ( mainly ), pure Science Fiction. and so on . I too adored that as a teen-ager but I chiefly read American books .
Star Wars was a hit in France, but not much Star Trek ( too boring ) . I enjoy Doctor Who, bit it’s not famous here . Never heard of the last one .
To catch an adult French audience science fiction has to include more than that . Political futurism is more thoughtful . But those among us who didn’t forget their child spirit still like sci-fi .
If I understand you right, you say that adult comic books don’t exist in the English speaking world. Oh yes they do. But they tend to be unknown in France. Just to name the main authors, you should check Grant Morrison (I think the Invisibles is one of the best thing I have ever read), Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman (the Sandman, another masterpiece of literature that happens to be a comic book), and more recently Robert Kirkman (the Walking Dead, that will soon become very famous in France, mark my words).
“To catch an adult French audience science fiction has to include more than that . Political futurism is more thoughtful.”
Sure, but keep in mind that “real” science fiction is political in nature, if it’s not, it’s not science-fiction, it’s fantasy, people tend to forget that a lot.
Thanks for all the comments, ladies and gents. To start with the last point, I absolutely agree with Frenchman that real science fiction is political in nature. “True” SF functions by looking at our own society through an estranging mechanism - hence aliens, parallel worlds and future utopias/dystopias are all ways of looking at our political system. Hence “War of the Worlds” was a commentary on British imperialism, “1984″ and “Brave New World” were commentaries on then-current politics, not a “prediction” of what the world would be like in the future.
A Jewish-Yugoslav academic named Darko Suvin has done a lot of work in this area if any of you want to explore this further: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darko_Suvin
As Frenchman says, distinguishing SF from fantasy is difficult, hence the “estranging” principle is one of the definitive aspects that separates the two. It leads to some interesting results in determining what is included as SF. For example, Star Wars, by this definition is really just fantasy in space. There is very little real reflection on our society by the glimpses it provides of alien cultures.
Rosabell, I have some sympathy for you. An SF writer was once asked why most SF was so bad and he said “90% of it is trash. Then again, 90% of every genre is trash.” To be honest, I think SF has a higher “fail” rate than most genres but perhaps it is very difficult to write effectively. A few years ago, a publishing house put out a series called “SF Masterworks”, reprints of supposedly greatest 100 SF books ever written. I tackled a number of these and most were disappointing. Supposed classics like Brian Aldiss’ “Non-Stop” and Keith Roberts’ “Pavane” simply fell very short by my own (high subjective) measure. Often writers have great ideas but poor execution (as in David Lindsay’s “Voyage to Arcturus”. Do we judge on one measure or the other or both? Arthur C. Clarke is another example many might be familiar with: great ideas and recognised as one of the best SF writers but, against other authors in the wider sphere of literature, his prose is often wooden and his characters are very poorly drawn. Again, what makes something “great” is a subjective value judgement and there are a whole lot of arguments about whether there should even be a canon of universally-recognised great texts in literature today.
By the way, just to illustrate further my point on the split between US and European SF, where US writing originated in the pulp magazines and the European writers came from more philosophical backgrounds, compare films like Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and “Stalker” or Kubrick/Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” against the SF that has come out of Hollywood in the last 50 years. There is a big difference in intellectual content and, again, very debatable if much from the US is actually even SF or just action/fantasy films with some technological trappings.
To change subject, I think Mademoiselle Delpy became well-known in the English-speaking world because of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” “Two Days in Paris” was also a big, recent hit. Apart from her, Emmanuelle Beart, Emmanuelle Seigner, Audrey Tatou and Juliette Binoche would probably be the most famous actresses for the general public (and obviously Deneuve and Bardot amongst the older generation.) I know many more because of my particular interest in European film but only those ones would be household names. Of that lot, Seigner would probably be the least known - I only list her because she was in “Frantic” and married Polanski.
Since most of you haven’t heard of “Blake’s 7″, I will quickly summarise it. It was a low budget BBC science fiction show made in the late 1970s with a very nihilistic ethos. Some people refer to it as the “anti-Star Trek.” Think of Star Trek with the Federation as a fascist military dictatorship and the crew of the Enterprise trying to incite a revolution (and failing repeatedly.) Another way to look at it is “Robin Hood in Space.” Blake (the Captain Kirk/Robin Hood equivalent) is an escaped political prisoner who steals a powerful alien space ship with a group of other (non-political) criminals (his “merry men”) and unites them to fight the evil empire.
The twist is that, half way through the series, Blake is written out as he goes missing in action. Hence, his non-political fellow outlaws find themselves fighting a revolution without their leader to unify them. Blake’s second-in-command, a convicted computer hacker named Avon (think Spock from Star Trek crossed with Napoleon Bonaparte) becomes leader but begins to become mentally unbalanced from the strain.
The main strength of the series isn’t the plot though but the characterisation, particularly the battle of wills early on between the idealistic (but increasingly fanatical Blake) and the ruthlessly pragmatic Avon.
As I said, the show is nihilistic and, ultimately, they fail in their attempt at revolution and are all killed but there are hints the evil empire is going to collapse anyway from its own corruption and decline. Hence everything they have done in their violent insurrection is futile and pointless.
Having given you that overview, for more info read this review of a book about the series: http://www.hermit.org/blakes7/Merchant/Books/Critical.html
Finally, didn’t realise Godard was such an old whinger. I understand he was a communist, so I guess the fact that the world didn’t quite work out the way he envisaged has a lot to do with it. I did enjoy “Breathless”, “Alphaville” and his anti-war film “Les Carabiniers”. Of the later works “Detective” has some good moments but it and especially “Passion” leave me cold overall. Someone once said of modern art that you have to be part-genius, part-fraud and I think Godard fits that bill.
Larry, just a quick note to say that while I hadn’t/haven’t have time to respond to everything, thanks a lot for your comments, they’re great and fascinating (almost makes me miss my time in the academia).
Just one thing (ok, when I start with “one thing”, I end up responding to everything, but really I don’t have time today): I can’t agree more with “90% of SF is crap because 90% of everything is crap”
To which I’d add: and also, SF readers don’t usually have high literary demands/culture, and they will consider crappy books as good because they don’t know any better, while on the other hand, some “regular literature crap” will be considered good by the establishment because the author is well connected (French bookstores are full of those every September).
By the way, the other interesting thing about Blake’s 7 is the ending. The final episode features the return of Blake, who is gunned down by a now-completely paranoid Avon, before government troops suddenly burst in and shoot all of our anti-heroes. Hence, they are total failures.
The interesting thing is the shock ending was screened during prime time on television, two days before Christmas, traumatising a generation of British and Aussie children. The man who wrote the final episode is the describes himself to this day as the “man who killed Christmas”
Besides being an interesting study of the failure of violent revolution, it also analyses the line between being a freedom fighter and a terrorist in public perception, so quite relevant for today. There has been talk of a sequel/remake for years but I can’t imagine that level of moral ambiguity going down well with our American cousins in the post-September 11 era.
By the way, remember I said above that Avon was broadly Napoleonic? The proposed sequel would apparently show him having survived the bloodbath and living as a prisoner on an Elba-like island (or planet) before leading a Waterloo-like final battle against the Federation.
I guess that, and the themes around violent revolution and the nihilistic/existentialist themes explored in some episodes may have some resonance for French people. Thoughts? Of course, it is also very “1970s British”, being made very cheaply, with embarrassing special effects, frequent overacting and an incredibly bleak and depressing worldview.
… or you could just watch this trailer for it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIHPCAGMCts
… or this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Q1KdNKwRK4
Anyway, having just returned from my lunchtime walk, I thought of a few more things in response to Rosabell’s post. Hope you find these interesting.
I guess, in terms of being considered “real writers”, the SF community have always been outsiders from the earliest days. HG Wells was active at the same time as the modernists but he was never part of this movement. He saw modernism in literature as a triumph of style over substance and there is a lot of correspondence between himself and Henry James regarding this. Other writers followed his lead and so SF has always been very conservative in terms of literary style, sticking to nineteenth century realism even well into the twentieth century. Hence, these writers have never been part of the literati. They are more concerned with ideas and social critique than form or wordplay.
To be fair to them, since they are trying to describe alternative worlds/alien cultures and so on, imagine how much more difficult it would be for the poor reader if they were also playing around with non-linear narrative structures and the like at the same time!
Having said that, SF has been at the forefront of post-modernism. Many post-modern texts that are considered early classics do have at least elements of SF. In some ways, this is due the rejection of a distinction between high and low literature in this movement and also because of their preoccupation with critiquing capitalism, which SF was doing with its estranged look at the world decades previously.
In fact, one of THE standard “texts” for learning about post-modernism in Australian unis is the film, “Blade Runner.” Partly this was because the US neo-Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson (who is extremely influential down here) enthused endlessly about it but, to be fair, it does exhbit most of the hallmarks of post-modernism:
1. A blending of established genres (in this case, SF and film noir/hardboiled detective)
2. A triumph of form over substance (let’s face it, the plot of the film is paper-thin)
3. A world ruled by corporations (the Japanese and American conglomerates seen to dominate the future)
4. Capitalism has run amok (the constant rain hints at an environmental disaster which may also be why most humans are moving off-world. More pertinently, even people [the replicants] are treated like disposable commodities by the corporations.)
5. Intrusive advertising that punctuates the text (those huge billboards)
6. The casting of celebrities who cannot act (this one is controversial and maybe a little offensive to fans but Harrison Ford was a big star at this time through Star Wars and Indiana Jones and we can’t really consider him the greatest of actors, can we? One attribute of the post-modern zeitgeist is the promotion of talentless celebrities; the fact that Madonna and Arnold Schwarzenegger have reached the pinnacles of their fields being a commonly-cited example.)
7. The paranoia about the nature of reality (not just about the unaccountable corporations ruling things but the fact that we, too, like Harrison, may in fact be replicants without even realising it.)
Post-modernity is also known for its celebration of superficialness. Hence, while you might not regard Blade Runner or other po-mo SF as great literature in terms of its depth of exploration of the human spirit, it does reflect the current fashion in high literature (where, perversely, the high sometimes celebrates the triumph of the low.)
Hope you find this an interesting response. Kind regards.
Well, unfortunately not only do I strongly dislike the whole post-modern thing, but relating what a neo-marxist guy has to say about literature is entirely out of the picture for me. I am familiar with the postmodern concepts ( even if I do not agree with postmodernism as a whole and I fail in finding any use of it ) . The thing is, when people start to talk about right and wrong when they discuss literature they stop discussing literature and start making ” art with a tendency”- a proletar thing that has absolutely nothing to do with art and value. Madonna, Schwartzie, corporatism, feminism, any given “-ism” have nothing to do with a book being good or bad. A book is good if it is well written. Period. Morality has nothing to do with art and literature. Oscar Wilde talked about that some time ago and he did it well. I don’t care what was the morality of the writer, I don’t care how politically correct his work is or not - if the book is well written, that the book is good, no matter what ideas are depicted there. When I say most of SF is crap , I say it because on an aesthetic level most of SF books are not accomplished (simplistic language, simplistic plot, focus on ideology ,etc). It is my only artistic criterion in any respect. When art has a social and political manisfesto it stops being art and it morphes in something which can be anything you might like ,but not art.
Thanks for that. Yes, I see you live in Romania so I can understand distrust of a neo-Marxist theorist, especially one who has never actually lived under a Marxist regime.
Yes you raise valid points. I have often had debates with a colleague at my place of work about whether or not “morality has nothing to do with art and literature.” Our discussions have never reached a definitive conclusion though.
In the past, there was a trend towards valuing literature on its morality and its universality in speaking of the human spirit. There has been a big move away from this as many academics feel there is no such thing as a universal human spirit and that most of the “great writers” of the past were privileged, educated white males, so they could not possibly understand the life of say, an impoverished dark-skinned woman in a society oppressed by colonialism. I won’t say one way or the other where I stand on that argument.
It is, of course, your right to appreciate a work entirely from an aesthetic viewpoint though and, as I said above, most SF does fall short in this area. Arthur C. Clarke is regarded as a very good writer in the limited scope of the SF genre but he falls well-short of any objective benchmarks regarding characterisation, etc, when we look at him from the overall context of world literature.
Just found an interesting interview with Darko Suvin from an old issue of Science Fiction Studies. Here is a relevant excerpt, regarding aesthetics, morality and ideology:
DS: I don’t believe there is aesthetics outside of ideology.
TT: This is just what has confused me very much in your system. Although you are dealing with writers like Lem, Dick, and Cordwainer Smith, who all seem to me quite aesthetic, your book itself excludes such writers, emphasizing the ideological tradition from More down to Capek.
DS: Well, the book had to stop sometime. It had become very long, so I stopped at the point of Wells and a couple of things after Wells.
TT: But, as a reader, I hope you would propose a total vision of the New Wave and after, because the New Wave served as the first aesthetic movement in SF.
TT: How, then, do you define the role of language in SF? Because Post-Structuralist poetics as well as Formalist methods seem quite useful to high light the linguistic aspect of the genre.
DS: I think much too little work has been done on that, partly because SF was usually very shoddily written on the level of sentence—which is the level of linguistic inquiry. SF became tolerable on the level of paragraph and very interesting on the level of chapter, but was usually very bad on the level of sentence. But with the advent of Lem, Delany, Le Guin, and so on, this is no longer true. Now we can begin seriously talking about the stylistics of SF, even that of Burroughs—if you wish, of course—who is a reasonably brisk writer on the level of sentence. But I think there are other problems connected with SF— e.g., neologisms; and in general, how does language form very different possible worlds? That should be a privileged theme of investigation, probably by other people.
TT: I quite agree with you. By emphasizing the poetics of SF, did you think it is possible to cognitively estrange your own history of SF itself? With this question, I’m asking you whether you can apply your definition of SF even to your own socio historical methodology.
DS: I think that is a very intelligent and very witty question. I have never thought about this. But I suppose that when the subject defines an object, she or he also auto defines her or himself.
Rosabell, I guess the obvious (and admittedly very heavy-handed) question I should ask is if there are limits to your belief that art should be appreciated purely in aesthetic terms with no reference to morality, if hypothetically, someone composed an extremely well-written and aesthetic pleasing work that praised the Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu? (I know that is a deliberately provocative question for someone from Romania but I am just keen to see where the extreme examples take us.)
I have to make a few specifications:
1.I see noting wrong in being a white educated male.
2.I have nothing against marxism. I have everything against making literally criticism through a marxist agenda. This being said, it also goes for making literary criticism through any ideological agenda(liberal,conservative etc). This is pure propaganda, and not literary criticism.
3.My point of view has nothing to do with being from an ex-comunist country and a lot to do with my in-family and in-school education. I have always voted for the social-democrats, which is left wing in Europe and although Roman-Catholic I am extremely anti-clerical in thinking and every day life. But in Eastern Europe intelectuals value inteligence, talent and cultural capability and never link these to equity,social standards, politics, being white, male, educated or not. When we apreciate something, we do it because we consider that high artistic standards have been emobodied and we never care who created it ( unless,of course we talk the pure anecdotical level) . We are taught from very young to keep to this value thing and reject any other aproach.
4.Arthur C. Clarke is extermely boring… The movies made after his books, even more boring.
Anyway,it was interesting talking to you on the subject. I hope David doesn’t mind I “invaded” his blog with all my writing!.
Well, Larry, I don’t think we understand each other at all … An essay praising ANY political leader( and I don’t care who the leader is, Sarko, Ceausescu, Obama, Bush, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, whatever) is hardly a “literary” thing, but a propagandistic action.It may be written better than average or worse than average but it is not a literary thing … This has nothing to do with SF,of course.
My question would be: how do you define “well-written”? I mean, there are more or less objective ways to define talent in a certain field (it’s heavily influenced by the current canon though), but it definitely can’t be (and thankfully is not) the only criteria to talk about art (that would be sad otherwise).
Also, you contradict yourself a little bit here.
You say that art should be judged only according to aesthetic criteria, but then you say that art is not art (basically) under certain circumstances (for example if it praises a political leader).
I could find hundred of counter-examples here, but instead I’ll just say that you have a pretty restrictive vision of what art is, especially art based on language (but that could apply to all arts really, narrative ones happen to be my field).
Thing is, artists don’t live in bubbles, they live in a society, and an artist that has nothing to say about the society he lives in is a waste of talent in my opinion (and current French literature is full of them, current French comic books even more so), especially an artist that uses language as his main tool, as language happens to be the same tool we use to form critical thinking.
Also, I’m afraid that you misunderstand what Marxist theory is. It’s not Marxist propaganda, its studying a piece of art under the Marxist (as a philosophy, not a political thing, in other terms: struggle of the classes) prism. It doesn’t have to be related to Marx, it can even be anterior to him (parts of the Enlightenment is Marxist in nature for example, the French Revolution too), we just call it Marxist because he’s the one who theorized it first.
The problem is that the world “Marxist” has been used, abused and perverted by a lot of people that either exploited it to their own agenda (USSR) or misunderstood it (USA, to keep things simple) and nowadays it is very connoted and hard to use without being misunderstood.
Thanks Larry for the trailer.
Yeah I wish that I had seen it (one day maybe) and that France had more shows like that.
On a funny note: I had the spaceship as a toy when I was a kid, and I could never figure out what it was from. 30 years later, I know the answer thanks to you. Thanks.
Glad to be of service. Great that I was able to answer a thirty year old mystery for you. The ship is called the Liberator. Here is some information about it:
I love the story about the design being a Persian mosque tipped on its side.
Rosabell, you and I are approaching the issue from two different angles. I can understand your viewpoint but, as David notes, texts cannot really be read in a vacuum. Even a lot of Shakespeare was political propaganda and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone, even knowing this, who would eliminate his writings from canon because of this.
In more general terms, though, in the English-speaking world nowadays there is a great emphasis and, I feel, even an overemphasis on the political nature of all texts. This includes propagandistic pieces, such as Shakespeare but also includes texts with more subtle power-plays. An example commonly used for first year uni students in Jane Eyre. The “mad woman in the attic” is “marginalised” because she has no real voice to express her own viewpoint. A post-colonial writer named Jean Rhys wrote a book called “Wide Sargasso Sea” to tell things from the point of view of that character and shift the power balance.
Because of this emphasis on politics, that is why there are various schools of criticism such as feminist theory, “queer” theory (homosexuals), post-colonial theory and Marxist theory (looking at things from viewpoints of different classes.) The idea behind all of this is to re-read texts from the positions of those marginalised in society and see how texts function to reaffirm the dominance of certain groups.
As per my earlier reference, there is a lot of attacks on “dead white males” because it was thought that this particular group of people were over-represented in the traditional canon and not enough attention was being paid to women writers, colonial writers, etc.
All of this focus on power-plays and so-called marginalised people is largely due to the influence of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault was marginalised himself in the sense that he was a homosexual and lived through the period when this shifted from being regarded as a mental illness to being regarded as a valid orientation in society, so he was interested in how language was used to categorise things and the political implications of all of this, both overt and subconscious, in a society.
You might feel that this is all “political correctness gone mad” as we say in Australia and I have a lot of sympathy for this opinion. I do thing that there has been an overemphasis on studying power structures and that literature can have a more “spiritual” or “transcendent” quality that is too-often ignored these days and that the negativity towards the great male writers, because of the colour of their skin, has been taken to such an extreme that it is reverse-racism/misandry. However, by the same token, we should not and cannot ignore the implicit or explicit political aspect of any text. At the very least, an awareness of this makes us more alert to more insidious forms of political manipulation by the media and our leaders and lets us challenge our own cultural assumptions and makes us more critically aware of some of our own society’s hidden assumptions and prejudices.
Frenchman, I wasn’t exactly saying adult comic books didn’t exist in Anglo world . I meant in France it’s a huge world with no rivals anywhere . I was into it up to the end of the80s and from my son ( adult now ) I kept an eye on it . It became the 8th art here . Wonderful drawinds of all types, complex stories of all kind, sophisticated scenarii and angles,… If you’re not into it you can’t have an idea . As an adult I take the same pleasure from that as from a movie or a book .
And French science-fiction can only been found there . For real books of this family I read American ones and boy there are good ones . I love Norman Spinrad .
If you have good recent French comic books to introduce me to, please feel free. I know there are some, I’m just having a hard time finding them (especially compared with Anglo “graphic novels”)
I’ve been living in France for almost two years and I’ve seen a lot of British ad American Sci-Fi series on TV (dubbed in French): Dr Who, Torchwood, Eureka, Heroes, Survivors, etc. There’s even a SyFy network on cable, so I’m guessing it’s popular enough here.
Plus the SciFi section in bookstores is as big as that in American bookstores, but it’s mostly American and British writers (I’m struggling through Patrick Rothfuss’s Le Nom du Vent right now).
Thanks for the answer, CBR.
«The Lord of the Rings» unknown in France before the movie? Balderdash! it was quite famous before!
I agree with your diagnosis on French cinema, which seems to me to revolve mainly around the simple principle: bourgeois with sex problems, sitting around and talking about phoney philosophy!
No it was not “quite famous”. The only French people who knew about this book before the movie were geeks and role-playing gamers. The general population had never heard of it.
Whereas in the English speaking world, everybody knew at least the name and that it was about some sort of gnomes.
Frenchman, among people who were young adults in the 70s/80s The Lord of the Rings was pretty famous . A lot of my friends had loved the book, me included, years before the movie .
@alfa8my You probably only watch French movies of one kind, and the most advertised one .
There still are many new French “real” movies, which deal with social life for instance, or complete fantasy - if not science-fi -, but they are not well broadcasted, because French distribution is now trusted by two commercial monopolies .
Due to the public subvention system, they exist nevertheless . You need a city with ” Art et essai” cinemas, or watch them on intelligent channels like “Arte” and some satellite channels .
Concerning Lord of the Rings, I’m not sure we have the same definition of “famous.” Yes, it was very well known and popular among certain people (including my friends and I), but it was indeed unknown in the mainstream general population and culture. I mean what was the mainstream culture back then (and still today, although less and less): television.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Lord of the Rings had never been mention (or no more than a handful of times) on French TV between 1955 and 2000.
Concerning French films, I have to admit that even the ones in “Art & Essai” cinemas or on Arte bore me to death most of the time.
Science-fiction is pretty popular but the French public seems to prefer fantastic stories like the X Files. Star Trek was never as popular here.
You mean “fantasy” right?
Well, I won’t go into classification of genres right now (we tackled the topic a little bit in the comments, for more info, Todorov’s classification is the best there is in my opinion), but Star Trek is no more science-fiction than the X-Files is (I’d even say that X-Files is closer to science-fiction actually).