Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Harry Warner Jr.'s All Our Yesterdays and the structure of fan criticism

       In reading for my chapter on Judith Merril, I came across Harry Warner, Jr.'s history of fandom in the 1940's, All Our Yesterdays.  The text was clearly created in response to the Sam Moskowitz's text on the same topic, The Immortal Storm.  That text infamously transformed the conflicts between fan groups into an overblown melodrama, which threatened to eclipse the importance of the Second World War.  In doing so, Moskowitz produced a text, clotted with purple prose that is extremely difficult to read.  Moskowitz's writings are typically fairly modest collections of biographies and descriptions of texts that are fairly enjoyable to read, but his work on fandom is quite bad.  Warner attempts to escape out the fevered and claustrophobic atmosphere created by Moskowitz through offering a far more modest narrative, focused on the important personae and organizations of the period, rather than its conflicts.  Effectively, he creates an informally structured encyclopedia, similar to Moskowitz's collections, Seekers of Tomorrow and Explorers of the Infinite, although better written.

       In the process of reading about the various collections and publications of fans, it struck me that there is a remarkable homology between the collecting practices of fans and the writing practices of early fans.  At a basic level, early fans worked to accumulate collections of science fictional texts, whether in the form of magazines, books, or mimeographed fanzines.  The writings of fans such as Warner and Moskowitz replicate this logic of accumulation within their writing, piling names, dates, and facts on one another.  Within the context of fan writing, this makes a lot of sense, and reading this sort of material after engaging with academic texts can actually be a bit of a breath of fresh air.  For the most part, fan criticism doesn't move beyond the sophistication of forming generic taxonomies.  If we move from the conversation around fan writing to academic criticism these tendencies are quite troubling.  The reception theory of Hans Robert Jauss and the genre criticism of Todorov amongst others have already showed the problems with reading texts in such an ahistorical manner.  Clearly, expecting fan critics of the period to engage with these trends in literary criticism is both anachronistic and overly taxing.  But recent academic scholarship seems to be reproducing this problematic logic, most notably the work of Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Farah Mendlesohn.

      I want to emphasize that both Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.'s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction are interesting texts, and the products of thoughtful and engaged critics.  But I feel that both have a tendency to slip into the same types of eclecticism and ahistoricism found in fan writing.  They implicitly critique the strong theoretical positions taken by Darko Suvin amongst others through a refusal to offer a singular definition of the genre.  But neither place themselves or their narrative of the genre into a strong historical perspective, unlike Suvin, who produces a strong historical analysis of the origins of the genre, as well as the critical turn that he is a part.  In ignoring these questions, the two tend to fall into the same problems originally diagnosed by Suvin.  I am not invested in fully defending Darko Suvin's analysis of the genre.  His polemical engagement with fantastic literature both ignores the cognitive possibilities contained with the genre (for more, read Todorov's The Fantastic) and ignores the intertwined histories of the genres.  But the refusal to concretely engage with Suvin has lead to far more mystification than clarity in the criticism of the genre.  I am beginning to believe that this is symptomatic of a larger problem within literary criticism, rather than one limited to science fiction studies.

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