Monday, 1 October 2012

I I I (Isn't It Ironic)

Reiterated 'I's. I've been thinking about the things Paul Di Filippo (three 'i's there, you see) says in his, very generous but sadly (from my point of view) perceptive locusonline article.  I think the nub is this: I write novels that try to achieve a number of things.  Many of my novels, I think (and especially my more recent novels) do achieve those things.  SF doesn't think much of my novels.

There may be a number of reasons why this is the case.  It might be because my novels are shit.  I don't say so flippantly, because the last person well-placed to judge the aesthetic merit of a novel is the person who wrote it.  But obviously I hope that's not the reason, and (that twang noise you can hear is hope springing) I'll consider some other explanations.  A couple are aired by Di Filippo at the other end of the link above.  Here are two more possibles.

One takes its cue from Martin Lewis, a fan and critic whose judgement I respect a great deal, not despite but because he doesn't rate my writing particularly (he was, for instance, part of the Clarke panel that judged By Light Alone a shittier novel than either The End Specialist or The Waters Rising).  I was, therefore, very struck, not to say startled, when he tweeted this:
Increasingly starting to think that By Light Alone is going to become one of the most referenced texts of the next decade of SF.
His reasoning was along these lines: 'I suspect we will see an increase in what you might call Resource SF and that two obvious reference points will emerge. One pole is The Wind-Up Girl, which is complicit with genre SF. The other is By Light Alone, which isn't.' I can't speak to the likelihood of his assessment coming true, of course; but I'd say that his characterisation is spot-on as far as BLA goes.  It is indeed a book that worked to resist complicity with the tropes of genre.  Not to reject them wholesale, of course.  I love SF; I would hardly write it otherwise.  But, as the estimable Paul Kincaid recently noted, the challenge any writer of SF faces today is addressing a state of affairs in which 'the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion'.  In such a state, resistance is surely the proper business of new writing.

Following on from that, and related to that, is the question of irony.  This is another reason why I love SF so much: because it is the ironic mode of art par excellence -- its the closest I'm prepared to come to a definition of my beloved mode to say that its relationship with reality is ironic rather than mimetic.  Irony fascinates me, both in its 'serious' and in its laughable modes, and irony informs everything I write.  And whilst I'm aware of the danger of projecting my own individual crotchets onto the world at large, I also tend to think that irony in the broadest sense is one of the great achievements of the best 20th- and 21st-century fiction.  James Wood, a critic of no small insight, howsoever blinkered his larger perspective, says something along these lines in The Irresponsible Self, although his nomenclature doesn't precisely map onto mine: 'the comedy of what I want to call "irresponsibility" or unreliability is a kind of subset of the comedy of forgiveness; and although it has its roots in Shakespearian comedy (especially the soliloquy) it seems to me the wonderful creation of the late 19th and early 20th-century novel. This comedy, or tragi-comedy, of the modern novel replaces the knowable with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability' [8]. A little later he says 'this kind of comedy seems to me the creation of modern fiction because it exchanges typology for the examination of the individual, and the religious dream of complete knowledge or stable knowledge for the uncertainty of incomplete knowledge' [14].  But many scientists and engineers are closely attached to ideas of typology and complete certainty of knowledge (typology underlies algebra and Linnean categorising, I'd say); and many of them like their SF to cleave closely to the typological and a kind of rectitude of knowing.  This isn't the SF I write, any more than it was the SF Lem, or Dick, wrote.

Or so it seems to me: Kincaid called me not an ironist but rather a satirist (a Menippean satirist, no less) and he may be right; and Maureen Kincaid Speller once wrote a fascinating post in which she argued that my writing is an 'anatomy'.  More flattering to my personal sensibilities, although not without his own bite, was Rich Puchalsky's sense that I write 'experimental novels' ('they would be avant-garde if there was now any literary garde to be in the avant of'.)  And there's the rub: irony is not in.  Indeed I'm not sure I'd realised, in my general myopia and self-absorption, how actively hostile many people are to irony today, a reaction, perhaps, to the dog-days of Postmodernism, now decades behind us.

A couple of things have, recently, reminded me of this: one was the recent and, by all accounts, very successful China MiĆ©ville conference in London. I couldn't get to it, but I followed proceedings on Twitter and was very interested by MiĆ©ville's comments in his plenary to the effect that he disliked irony, or as he put it 'whimsy', in art.  Personally I'd see 'irony' and a very different quality to whimsy, but I don't doubt it's a connection, and an animadversion, shared by lots of people.

Then the other day I was reading Nick Mamatas livejournal as I do regularly.  Now Mamatas himself strikes me, from the stuff of his I've read (such as the excellent Move Under Ground, which uses intertextual mash-up to brilliantly destabilising effect without diluting its emotional punch) to be exactly the sort of writer Kincaid was calling for in his LARB piece.  That is to say, somebody setting out energetically to resist complicity with the conventions of genre, somebody interested in making it new.  But it wasn't Mamatas's own work that caught my eye on this occasion, it was his account of the new David Foster Wallace biography.  Like all right-thinking 21st-century writers I admire Wallace's work a lot. I haven't seen D T Max's Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story yet; not sure it's even available this side of the Atlantic yet.  But Mamatas is characteristically snappy and entertaining in his demolition-job upon it.  And this is the bit that resulted in a medium-sized 'oh!' moment for me:
What is missing is a sense of contradiction. [DFW] wrote pomo but didn't like irony is about as much as we get. That he was the nice guy who flew into rages and seriously planned to kill someone, that his two gifts were the magazine feature and the epic novel, that he quite transparently craved fame as well as being suspicious of it hardly comes up at all. Of course, if Max examined Wallace's contradictions, we might conclude that nobody can escape irony, and as Wallace was an anti-ironist and Max his Biggest Fan EVAR, well...we just can't have that.
'He didn't like irony' is, when you think about it, evident in everything Foster Wallace wrote.  He craved authenticity, especially emotional authenticity, with an almost painful intensity.  But Mamatas is of course right: there's no outside to irony, no place from where we can stand with a perfect Embassytown-style access to true, genuine, authentic, winsomeness-purged Real Thing.  There are real things, and they matter very much; but the Real Thing is both Coca Cola and being present at the birth of your children, and the two things can no longer be neatly separated out from one another.

This is straying into special pleading, I suppose; and I will wind-up this ramble now.  But I'll just say this: one of the reasons irony and whimsy aren't the same thing is that irony is more than just a mode for saying serious things, its, actually, the only mode left to use nowadays.  One of my personal gods of writing is Nabokov, an ironist to his marrow whose attachment to 'bliss' was both genuine and playful at the same time (because of course those two things are not opposites).  The end of Lolita is extraordinarily moving -- I don't mean Lolita herself dying, sad though that is, so much as the scene in which Humbert's realises belatedly that he has fallen properly in love with her at exactly the moment he understands both how much he has damaged her and that he will never see her again -- it's moving because the preceding 300 pages are so complexly ironic in their unmimetic European-poetic intensity of apprehension of 1950s America.  It wouldn't work otherwise.  Its the real thing, emotionally, that is also complexly compromised.  There may still be people (I certainly knew a few people like this when I was younger) who treat On The Road as a kind of developing-artist-young-person holy writ, taking it all very seriously and very literally; but a better way of taking the novel is through a mash-up with Lovecraft, not because the Lovecraftian horror dissolves away the earnestness of Kerouac's Beat odyssey but because it, ironically enough, intensifies it. Some people will prefer to read the Bible literally; I find it makes a larger and, I would argue, nobler claim to truth when read ironically. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are greater philosophers than Kant and Hegel.  Jane Austen is a better writer of love stories than Stephanie Myers.  Earnestness is a greater danger to art than whimsy.


nostalgebraist said...

This is a fascinating post. (Indeed, it almost seems like a post engineered to fascinate me -- Nabokov and Wallace are my two favorite authors, and I like your fiction and am interested in the issue of its reception.)

I agree with everything you say about irony in the last paragraph, but I'm wary of the idea that the reading public these days is hostile to irony. I think the current popularity (for a rather limited value of "popularity," but you know what I mean) of Wallace at the present moment actually demonstrates this, when looked at properly. "He wrote pomo but he didn't like irony" has become the standard line about Wallace since his death, largely on the evidence of his stated goals for The Pale King and some of his more openly unironic work like the commencement speech. But it's worth remembering that his reputation before his death was (I think?) quite different -- as the sort of cold, ultra-self-conscious pomo writer mostly read by stoners and grad students. And the truth is some sort of synthesis of the two views, isn't it? It's very difficult for me to imagine a reader who has trouble with the irony in your work being comfortable with Infinite Jest, or the stories collected in Oblivion. There's a frustration with irony evident in those works, yes, but it's coming from the starting point of a extremely ironic literary tradition. (Remember that Infinite Jest basically ends with a fuck-you to the reader . . . ) The fact that Wallace is a celebrated figure these days indicates either that people are celebrating him without having read his work, or that they're more comfortable with irony than you might think.

About your own work -- this is a really obvious suggestion, but couldn't a lot of it just be your relationship to plot? I like both of the book of yours I've read (Swiftly and By Light Alone), but both of them set up plot elements without taking them in the direction one might expect them to go, and are rather oddly paced by normal SF standards. (Then again, this runs up against my point in the last paragraph, since Wallace is much more hostile to conventional plotting than you are.)

Archie_V said...

I'm a bit puzzled by the DFW thing. Infinite Jest is many, many things - there's so much of it, it'd be a waste if it wasn't - but one of them is being the most ironic book that I've read since The Crying of Lot 49. What is the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment if not the radio station KCUF thirty-odd years down the line?

Or am I "not getting" (note ironic scare quotes) the irony under discussion?

As for whimsy as a subset of irony, I sense it's making a comeback: Richard Brautigan is undergoing a long-overdue reappraisal.

Jonathan M said...

I detest irony in a genre context. I think that the reduction of all of human culture to a toy box filled with whizzbangshiny ideas has drained the life from genre and given it literally nowhere to go when people say 'who the fuck are you to write about my culture?'

I think that genre writers have used irony as an excuse for refusing to engage with the world in anything approaching a meaningful manner and this refusal to engage with the world feeds right back into Paul Kincaid's stuff about exhaustion.

I hate irony and yet, I do not hate your writing. The reason for that is that while you are detached and ironic from the texts you draw on, you are not even remotely ironic about irony itself. You are really very serious and very earnest about your engagement with genre history and as such I think you're more of a postmodernist than an ironist.

Adam Roberts said...

nostalgebraist: you're right, of course. And towards the end of his life Wallace immersed himself in the US tax code, researching Pale King and claimed that he found it, actually, straightforwardly and unironically, fascinating reading. But that's a particular sort of irony, isn't it: valorising the boring and utilitarian as a means of cutting across the currents of contemporary hipster poseurishness.

I'm interested, too, by what you say about my own novels. I do try to fuck around with conventional plot structures, up to a point; because plot has become so calcified and predictable. But only up to a point, I think. That may put people off. There's another thing you don't mention (and which I don't mention in the post) that may be relevant: I'm not cool. I'm a million miles from being cool. One of the reasons I was drawn to SF as a kid -- and I'm certainly not alone in this -- was precisely because I wasn't part of the 'in' crowd at school; because I was a bit nerdy and weird and an outsider. But 'cool' retains enormous cachet, not only outside genre where you might expect it, but inside it to. Mieville is a very good writer, but he's also cool, and lots of SF Fans are drawn to that. DFW was cool, in his combination of cleverness, insight and psychological distress.

Do people even say 'cool' anymore? That's how uncool I am! I can't even get the lingo right!

Adam Roberts said...

Archie V. I see what you mean, of course. But IJ is so capacious it's hard to make generalisations about it, at all. A lot of the 'Year of the Whopper' stuff is pretty straightforward satire, isn't it? But it's also shot through with a yearning, and even pity, for a corroded authenticity. The stuff about how monsters are no longer vampires, the real monsters are liars where you can't tell they're lying; the riff at the end on Linda McCartney (I quote it in this review, here).

Adam Roberts said...

Jonathan: the forcefulness of your animadversion is in itself interesting. It's what I was suggesting in the post, that many people see 'irony' as a kind of superciliousness, or Pilate hand-washing, or, indeed, whimsy. Of course art must engage with the world, and of course it needs to have the courage of its convictions. And I think saying that I'm not ironic about irony itself is well put: and irony is one of those words that has a distractingly dissipated semantic field. But, at the risk of sounding pretentious (like that's ever stopped me before!) I'll say that not only don't I see irony as superciliousness, I see it as precisely the remedy for superciliousness. It's the Kierkegaard absolute negativity of Socratic irony, thing: the only way of being serious in the modern age. Or another way of putting it might be to invoke Brecht's verfremdungskeit. Contemporary SF needs more verfremdungskeit, not less.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I apparently don't seem to read By Light Alone as many other people do. The reviews I've seen have focussed on the reducio ad absurdum incompetence of the idle rich, the "when food is the ultimate status object, people will watch TV of the vomitorium" kind of thing. Supplemented in some cases by comments that the poor people in the book are not exactly valorized either. To me the book seems to be an inversion of a common anxiety-fantasy, the father's rescue of a daughter.

There was an Arnold S movie with this plot, right? Commando, I think. Daughter kidnapped, father rescues her. Of course in this case the father is a commando. By Light Alone pretty much starts at the point, what would one of us do if something happened to our families? How competent would we actually be as rescuers? Not as tremendously bad as the characters in the book, of course, but would the difference between bad and tremendously bad really matter to the outcome?

I have trouble seeing it as a primarily ironic work. It's a book in which (oh, spoiler alert, I guess) not one but two young girls are unrelentingly sexually abused, against a backdrop of the abuse of just about everyone female in the poor part of the society. These girls are in turn failed by every rescuer or rescue-surrogate available: their parents, the police, private detectives, doctors, governments, revolutionaries. And most of all by science-fictional science, the whole invention of photosynthetic hair that is supposed to free the poor and ends up ironically making them worse off.

But the book ends with a kind of desperate optimism in that the girls save themselves. It doesn't matter that all of these horrible things have happened. They're untraumatized and basically ready to handle crises on their own since everyone else is unable to. The parent who wonders how they're doing, how they will do in the crisis, always has to fall back on this as their last hope.

So, yes, important book. But I read it as earnest under a veneer of "look how incompetent the rich are in my Swiftian satire", "look at this ironically dysfunctional SF novum". I don't think that irony or whimsy or whatever is the problem. I think that people sense that there's something going on in the book and just don't know how to process it.

But I'm not sure how to present this apparently idiosyncratic reading so that it's of use to anyone.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Not for the first time, Rich, I'm struck by a piece of criticism from you that's as perceptive as it is thought-provoking. I mean the second sense genuinely: it has made me think, and rethink. Maybe you're right that 'irony' isn't such a feature of what I do: except -- as I said in reply to Jonathan above -- that I appear to be taking 'irony' as something rather different to the way many other people take it. Still: 'I think that people sense that there's something going on in the book and just don't know how to process it' is a very striking phrase, at once rather flattering (to me) and liable to make me despair of writing SF novels altogether ...

Unknown said...

I think the thing about DFW—and I could be wrong here—but I think the thing is that all of his work after Girl with Curious Hair can be understood as a reaction to irony within contemporary literature. I finishd the Max biography with the sense that he really wanted to use post-modern conventions but twist them to escape their typical conclusions and instead convey very deep, very sentimental ideas about being human. Hence his obsession with Dostoevsky and disregard of his own earlier work.

I'd go so far as to say that I think all of the fiction he set his sights on, starting with Infinite Jest and moving forward, is represented by the progression of his story Good Old Neon.

I think without understanding what he was doing in that story, you can't understand what he was doing as an artist.

Echoing what Rich said (and I haven't read By Light Alone so be extra-skeptical here) I'd argue that any kind of ironic set-up which still leads the reader to a conclusion that is genuine, that surpasses the cynicism irony demands, is performing a bit of this DFW twist in some way.

Aside from all that, this was a really fantastic post, Adam. Kicking ass as usual. Enjoyed your engagement with Kincaid and McCalmont and what you added to the discussion.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Casey, thank you!

I'm very persuaded by your reading of DFW, I must say.

Unknown said...

I'm glad to hear that! I'm still in my infancy of reading DFW as I've yet to tackle a novel of his but after working through some of his short fiction, his nonfiction, and the biography (plus who knows how many interviews / other tidbits) I feel like I have a pretty good grip on where he is as an artist. He's a big inspiration for me.

I'm really looking forward to your fiction Adam. I've been on a sci fi fast while I've been working on this novel for the past few years (!) (fear of influence, etc. etc.) so I've had to remain at one level of remove from these conversations, but now that it's about to be published, I can't wait to dive back into the genre full force. I have the feeling I'll be starting with By Light Alone.

nostalgebraist said...


If you end up reading Infinite Jest (which I highly recommend, by the way), I'd be interested to hear whether it changes your view of DFW. When I read the Max bio, I was confused by Max's view that Wallace was an "ironic" writer in Girl and had become an "unironic" one by IJ. Certainly there's a noticeable change in how Wallace conceived of himself there -- Max quotes a lot of material from Wallace's letters that testifies to that -- but it's hard for me to reconcile that with the work itself. If anything, I think the big change wasn't so much a loss of irony as an increase in ambition -- a desire (as you say) to write big serious Dostoyevsky-type novels, rather than fun weird gimmicky stuff.