‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The Fix-Up



I'm interested in the place the ‘fix-up’ has in the larger history of science fiction. Of course you know what I mean by fix-up. The story goes something like this: the dominant markets for SF writers in the 1930s and 1940s were pulp magazines, so writers wrote a lot of short stories, and that meant the short became the dominant mode for the genre at this important period in the genre's development. For some people, I suppose, ‘the short story’ remains the Platonic form of SF: a focused, idea-centred narrative, some sketched-in characters, a snapshot of future-extrapolation, room for one neat twist, bish-bash-bosh. But actually SF as a genre changed, and one of the reasons for this was that the markets its writers were writing for changed. The magazine market shrank sharply through the 1950s and 1960s (for several reasons: home TV, wider and cheaper access to movies, more people buying comics and fewer buying mags), and is now pretty much dead. So in the 1950s SF writers addressed themselves to a new market, one created by SF book clubs and civic libraries: hardback books. This in turn created one of the distinctive textual forms of sf, the ‘fix-up’. Assorted Asimovs, Bradburies and Vans Vogt reworked their older stories into longer books. Wikipedia dedicates a whole entry to the phenomenon. ‘Algis Budrys in 1965,’ it seems, ‘described fix-ups as a consequence of the lack of good supply during the “bad years for quality” of the mid-1950s, although he cites The Martian Chronicles and Clifford D. Simak's City as exceptions.’ Asimov's Foundation (1951) is a bunch of disparate 1940s short-stories glued together with paragraphs of linking exposition, and many consider it one of SF's classic novels.

Since then the market has shifted again several times, away from hardbacks to cheap paperbacks, and thence to ebooks and audiobooks, not to mention jumping mode to TV, film and video games. But my suggestion, which, come the Greek kalends, I’ll write up into a proper academic paper, is this: the ‘fix-up’ has had a much larger, perhaps even a shaping, effect on the entire later development of SF than is realised. I don't just mean those occasional SF novels today that are made up of discrete elements tessellated: Simmons’s Hyperion say, or Jennifer Egan’s Visit From the Goon Squad—it's also in the way TV shows like Doctor Who or Star Trek assemble mega-texts out of lots of short-story-ish discrete elements, something (as per the MCU) increasingly mimicked by cinema. Only die-hard fans read new SF short stories today, but the form of the short story feeds directly into contemporary SF in several key ways. Speaking for myself, I find these formal possibilities really interesting: the jolting dislocation of it, the quasi-modernist experimentation; textual tessellation but in a pulp, populist idiom. That's entirely my bag.

Perhaps that last point, my personal angle, means that this is merely a personal crotchet. The thing is, I write novels like this. The Thing Itself is an example: not actually a fix-up, but a novel written deliberately to imitate the form. As it happens I've written a new novel, to be called The This (if I can persuade my publishers to wear the title, which they may not: it'll be published, most likely, late in 2020 or perhaps early in 2021) and here I've again, consciously and with particular aesthetic ends in mind, written it as a kind of faux fix-up. Most contemporary SF writers aren't playing these kinds of games, of course; and for good reason. I'm perfectly well aware that the bulk of readers don't relish reading a text so mosaic.

I sometimes wonder if the reason folk don't really read short stories nowadays is that starting a read is seen as an effort by many people, a hump to climb over, inertia to be overcome, where continuing to read a story (once you're familiar with the set-up, have invested in the characters and want to find out what happens next) is easy and pleasurable. A 1000-page novel gives you a little of the former and lots of the latter, but a collection of short stories means constantly having to restart and climb over the initial hump, over and over. I'm cutting my own throat, really. Few people, and fewer regular sf fans and readers, are as aesthetically and psychologically interested in dislocation as I am, I know.

Still: the more I think about all this, the more intrigued I find myself. The idea starts to assume Casaubonic, key-to-all-mythologies prominence in my mind. What is Postmodernism but the cultural apotheosis of the fix-up? And what is more postmodern than science fiction? (Blade Runner, video Games, Janelle Monáe etc). What is the originary myth of science fiction, if not a scientist called Frankenstein literally fixing-up a new life-form out of disparate component parts? Could it be that the aesthetic logic of SF drives towards a kind of originary dialysis?

Here's a hypothesis. Let's say that the difference between Fantasy and SF is that the former extends beyond mimesis through novums predicated on magic, where the latter does so through novums predicated on science, or pseudo-science. In my Palgrave History I argued that this distinction was connected with the European cultural revolution of the Reformation, in which Catholicism insisted on the durability of its magical worldview where Protestantism took a step away from the whole transubstantiation/holy-relics/pilgrimages/miracles-and-saints side of things into a more austere, less enchanted form of faith. Now: this disenchantment has been experienced by many as a painful thing (my friend Alan Jacobs has taught and written fascinatingly on this topic) such that a form of literature that offers to restore enchantment, as much Fantasy does, will always find an appreciative audience. It's not that SF has turned its back on enchantment, of course: it's just that the characteristic SFnal mode of it, ‘sense of wonder’, in essence a high-tech, galactic-scale revisioning of the old Burkean or Kantian sublime, tends to be future-oriented, materialist and individualist, where High Fantasy, influenced heavily by that great Catholic writer Tolkien, tends to be past-oriented, quasi-religious and communitarian (or at least mediated). I don't want to unpack all of that here; I mention it to situate a thought I've lately had. Might it be that Fantasy, as a mode, tends formally to long, unified narratives (what even are the great Fantasy short stories? are there any?) because magic is a fundamentally unifying category? There might be competing magic systems, of course, and duelling magicians and all that: but really ‘magic’ is my thumbnail here for the animating principle of faith (magic in a sacred, profound sense) and the Judaic/Christian context considers such magic a fortiori a singular, unifying force, because it emanates from and returns to a singular, unified God.

Science, though, is different. Attempts both energetic and laborious to find a single ‘Theory of Everything’ have struggled for a century and a half and come up blank. Perhaps such a theory is just around the corner, but then again, perhaps not. Perhaps the reason science cannot seem to frame such a theory is that reality is not a unified everything in the first place. Perhaps reality itself is ‘fixed-up’ from a number of smaller and radically disparate elements. Perhaps the SF fix-up is, on a formal level, the truest mode of mimesis there could be.

Fanciful. But there you go.

17 comments:

  1. Over on Twitter, and on the subject of Fantasy short-stories, Jeff Sparrow offered as contenders: Lovercraft, Moorcock and Robert E Howard's Conan stories, this last one a particularly good counter-example to my too-sweeping assertion in this blog. It probably is the case that I'm working with too limiting and Tolkienian a sense of "Fantasy" here. Although, that said: it stretches things a bit to call Lovecraft 'Fantasy', and I wonder how influential Moorcock's shorts have been. But I daresay I'm nitpicking to say so.

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  2. Ghost stories and supernatural horror stories could also be considered forms of fantasy, and they work well as short stories (so I gather, being too much of a scaredy-cat to read many of them).

    And that got me thinking of 'The Lamia and Lord Cromis' and its relationship to The Pastel City and that novel's relationship to the Viriconium text. Inter very much alia, M. John Harrison's work is all about subverting the fix-up, baby.

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    1. M John: ah yes, indeed.

      Ghosts stories are interesting, aren't they. They aim (like you, I'm not much of an aficionado where such things are concerned, but I assume) at a particular affect, don't they. Trailing tendrils of dread over the sensitive membrane of the imagination. That's very much a particular, local business: hard-to-impossible to sustain at novel length, maybe (impossible to write a 1000-page ghost story that's genuinely scary/creepy all the way through).

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  3. Is turning a blog post into "a proper academic paper" today's academic version of a fix-up?

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  4. Slightly more seriously, let me try out a quarter-baked counter-argument: If we think of the fix-up as a narrative strategy rather than a financial improvisation, isn't the Silmarillion just as much of a fix-up as the Foundation trilogy? And doesn’t it serve the same purpose, which is to gesture at History, a history so vast that it can't possibly be narrated straightforwardly? And doesn’t The Thing Itself share that gesturing towards what Bakhtin called "great time"?

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    1. Oh, good point, or quarter-point. Now I'm pondering The Silmarillion. Would it come across as merely evasive on my part if I were to say, "The Silmarillion as we have it was fixed-up by CT not JRRT and out of posthumous necessity; who knows how it might have been shaped had Tolkien himself actually written it" ...? Or what if I say: "but only the hardest and most core-y of hardcore Tolkien fans are prepared to give The Silmarillion the time of day, the vast crowd of Fantasy fans much prefer LotR" ...? Hmm.

      I suppose we could say The Silmarillion "gestures" at deep time, although it also straightforwardly dramatises plenty of events from deep time. But then again, it is about dissension amongst the elves, largely, so that's apropos. I shall ponder further.

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  5. 'What even are the great Fantasy short stories?' The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction would like to have a word with you. See also stories by: Avram Davidson, Thomas M. Disch, Jack Vance, Kelly Link, Margot Lanagan, George Sanders, Bernard Malamud, John Crowley, M. John Harrison, Angela Carter, Ursula Le Guin, Jorge Luis Borges, Lord Dunsany, Gene Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Jeffrey Ford, Andy Duncan, Fritz Leiber, Lucius Shephard, Kit Reed, James P. Blaylock, Lisa Goldstein, Harlan Ellison, Tanith Lee... Some are even working in High Fantasy mode.

    In The Atrocity Exhibition, with its fractured 'condensed novels' reflecting the shattered psyche of iterations of its protagonist, Ballard provided one formal solution to the fix-up problem you've outlined. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is perhaps another, as in Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad: complexly interlinked stories about memory, loss of innocence, perception. Goon Squad also plays with structure in interesting ways. Do interlinked stories (eg Updike's Maple stories, which have a definite arc) count as a novel or not? There's definitely some kind of relationship with the epistolatory form and the cut-up...

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    1. I take your point, Paul; although a little part of me wants to suggest: sure, lots of people have written Fantasy short stories, but that doesn't mean the short story is central to, or even a particularly important part of, Fantasy as a genre. Stop a man or woman on the street and ask them to name a really famous Fantasy short, what would they say? Where is Fantasy's "9 Billion Names of God" or "Nightfall"? And if that's so (you may not agree) I wonder why?

      I mention Egan in the post, and agree she is an extraordinary writer. Ballard et all: very interesting. Not sure what the answer to your question is.

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  6. I don't know anyone else who writes like Jennifer Egan. ...Goon Squad inspired me to write my first short story in several years; what set my mind racing was the way that the individual stories (and the narratives within them, and so on) are themselves fractured, broken-and-mended, fixed-up.

    Throughout my teenage years and a bit beyond I was a huge, huge fan of the sf short story as a genre; I would tell anyone who would listen that it was the highest form of literature. I spurned the fix-ups that crossed my path, picking up an unfamiliar volume by Brian Aldiss or Robert Silverberg in the hope that it would be a new or different selection of short stories and quickly putting it back on the wire rack when it turned out to be a... a... a novelisation! Short stories just seemed to be a different breed from novels, even from long short stories (all those 'novelettes' and 'novellas'). I had a particular thing for Larry Niven at one time, and I found my interest dropped off a cliff as soon as the page count got over about 30 - not because I didn't want to stick with it, just because what you got was the same amount of interesting stuff plus pages and pages of inconsequential stuff in between.

    There's an economy to a good sf short story; as well as the writers who just seemed to be doing things you couldn't do in any other genre (e.g. Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr, Ballard of course) I particularly admired writers who didn't seem to feel any compulsion to cover any particular number of pages (e.g Aldiss, Ballard again, Sladek). Very few sf authors working at novel length ever rang the same kind of bell for me, and even those who did (Priest, le Guin, Dick) were to my mind even better in the short form.

    So I agree that sf abounds in fix-ups, which at their best are mosaics rather than padded-out short stories - is Vermilion Sands a novel or an anthology? how about The Islanders? - but, perversely, I still value the individual short story highest of all; the mosaic tile, not the mosaic.

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    1. Speaking of faux fix-ups, has anyone written a faux novelization?

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    2. Phil: I'm fascinated to hear about your venture into fiction writing. Did you ever publish it?

      Phil and Paul: the idea of a faux novelisation is so wonderful I'm tempted to steal it. Would either of you sue if I wrote one? I mean, giving you all due credit in the acknowledgements etc etc?

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  7. I've not really given fix-ups much thought in the past, but I've always approached novel writing in this way. It just makes sense... but... is that because I am influenced by the SFnal mode? And does that actually explain my neutrality towards fantasy.

    There is also something here that might touch on the difference between the older Chinese SF style (pre-Cultural Revolution and possibly up to writers like Liu Cixin) that always searches for, or attempts at a unifying theory/theme, versus the current younger writers (Stanley Chen, Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, etc.) that don't.

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    1. This is very interesting, Yen. It may just be a personal thing (as I think it is for me), but you're right, it might represent larger determining forces. One thing that interests me is whether there isn't a Chinese tradition in assembling longer works of fiction out of shorter components: The Story of the Stone (let's say) is pretty long, but it's also dozens of main characters and scores of stories all woven together.

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  8. Your hypothesis has really struck true for me when I think of Beneath Ceaseless Sky, the current big name fantasy shorty-story imprint. For all that the myriad authors offering submissions have a grasp of prose that obscures this, in the majority of their publications the magic becomes very...technic in its mode of thought. I assumed this was just due to the relentless onslaught of "magic systems", but if the short story is the ideal form of Science Fiction...

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  9. Fantasy has its Fixups. Almost all of Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser novels are really assemblages of short stories he wrote over 20 or so years. Avram Davidson had his series/fixups: Dr Eszterhazy, Jack Limekiller and Redward Edward.

    And then there’s something like James Branch Cabell’s “Biography of the Life of Manuel” which is a fixup constructed from novels, in different registers, genres, and modes of reality, from fantasy to mundane, and including works of non-fiction - some of which deliberately contract or undermine preceding volumes.

    If crime fiction were more inclined to collect its short stories then it would have hundreds of fixups, given the crime magazines and their author’s propensity to continue the investigations of particular characters. But then again, does a collection of crime/mystery stories gesture at the kind of mosaic worldbuilding which a fixup entails? Or is it just a return to the same treadmill for money?

    “Last Exit to Brookyn” is undoubtedly a fixup and was Disch’s model for 334. Updike has his stories about the marriage of Richard and Joan Maples over the decades.

    I’m reading books from 1992/93 and I’m finding that a fair number of novels are really fix-ups - either collections of short stories collected from magazines, or else deliberately constructed as tessellation/linked short stories. Denis Johnson’s “Jesus Son”, Dale Peck’s “Fucking Martin”, Sherman Alexei’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”, “Tom Drury’s “The End of Vandalism”.

    - matthew davis

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