Business Musings: Changing Tastes
Instead of going to Worldcon, I’ve spent the last week in my comfy chair with my cats, catching up (so to speak) on my reading. With a back and neck injury, there’s a lot I can’t do. I can’t even sit in my writing chair for a long time, although I’m getting more writing done than I thought I would after the injuries first occurred.
Part of my catch-up includes reading back issues of magazines lying around. It’s kind of fun reading months’ old magazines, because often my reaction to the various “horrid, horrid” crisises described inside is “Oh, yeah, that was a big deal in the spring. I forgot.”
Those magazines also include the inevitable early publicity for the upcoming big events. The articles I read came out in the spring, before the big mid-summer crush of fannish publicity and trailers and spoilerific journalism that is Comic-Con. So it’s a little like going a short distance backwards in the Wayback Machine. (And I don’t mean the internet archive, I mean Sherman and Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, for which the archive is named.)
Sometimes it’s fun to see the money spent on hopeful advertising for movies that tanked spectacularly, television shows that didn’t make it past the first two episodes, or horrifyingly negative reviews of what would become the most popular movie of the year.
This time, though, I stumbled on something that took me even farther back. The June, 2015, issue of Vanity Fair had a nice little puff piece on the upcoming Star Wars film (the June issue came out in May), The Force Awakens. Interviews with J.J. Abrams, discussions with Kathleen Kennedy, a few tidbits about the storyline and George Lucas’s (possible) reaction to it all.
Star Wars is and was a cultural phenomenon, and I would expect Vanity Fair to cover the new film in one way or another, just like it’s covered the Oscars and Downton Abbey and other things that the society is currently discussing.
But I didn’t expect the article’s focus. It was worried that somehow the Abrams film wouldn’t upset “persnickity” fans. Okay, I assumed, as I started reading, that this was an anti-fan article. Yeah, that stuff happens, especially in some of the more elitist magazines like Vanity Fair.
However, the deeper I got into the article, the more I realized that the tone wasn’t about “persnickity” fans. The author of the article, Bruce Handy, also seemed concerned that the film would upset people who loved the original three movies.
He ended with this paragraph:
…“wonderful preposterousness” isn’t a bad descriptor of the Star Wars ethos at its best. Reviewing another scene, with spaceships blasting away at each other with phasers or whatever, Abrams could briefly be heard making ray-gun noises, the way a kid lying on his bedroom floor and drawing his own spaceships might. That galaxy far, far away appeared to be in good hands.
The fact that a magazine like this one worried that the “galaxy far, far away” was in good hands damn near floored me. I have been knee-deep in the women in sf project, and that has taken me back to the big sf fights of my early career. One of those fights was against space opera and the Star Wars/Star Trek fans “taking over” sf. In fact, as recently as ten years ago, David Brin edited an entire book on that very issue, Star Wars on Trial. I had an essay in that book, defending the media properties, an essay that Asimov’s also reprinted.
The idea that elites and critics would worry about the upcoming Star Wars movie living up to the original…well, it makes my brain hurt.
Those fights back in the day were pretty ugly. The woman responsible for the tone of The Empire Strikes Back, screenwriter and sf writer, Leigh Brackett, had trouble being taken seriously be the sf establishment of the 1970s, partly because her style of sf was considered passé—even though she influenced almost everyone writing and editing sf back then.
The negativity was so severe that her husband, Edmond Hamilton, wrote this defensive paragraph in the introduction to her short story collection, The Best of Leigh Brackett:
Those were the days when we were all writing, in accordance with the latest guesses of astronomers and scientists, about a Mercury that kept one face always to the sun and the other to space and had a Twilight Belt between those extremes of savage heat and bitter cold, where there were alternate sunsets and sunrises due to the rocking of the planet, and where life might conceivably exist. Today those concepts have been shot down by better data from probes and more advanced scientific methods. But in those days they were valid….
He was writing about one of our best writers, whose work was “dated” and not really worth reading, according to the Powers That Be at the time. Leigh Brackett was and is a marvelous writer, and if you read her science fiction, you’ll understand why Lucas asked her to contribute to the original Star Wars trilogy. Essentially, Lucas’s entire universe wouldn’t exist without Leigh Brackett.
I had a few moments of panic because of Hamilton’s comments. I read them just before NASA’s New Horizons space probe changed everything we “knew” about Pluto. Fortunately, I never wrote about Pluto. But I wonder sometimes what we “know” about something, that I’ve written about as hard sf or even as contemporary fiction that will be debunked in the future.
I cringe at times, because I came of age when the arguments were loud, particularly in sf, about what was and wasn’t appropriate for the genre. Whether I agreed or not, those arguments went in.
It took me forever to write space opera, and it took some creative traditional editors to buy it. Nowadays, we can publish what we want, indie if traditional publishing doesn’t want what we’ve done, and public opinion shouldn’t make a difference.
But it does.
Writers still put themselves in boxes. You can see it in the comments section of my recent rebranding post, where some of the people commenting followed a link from other sites. A handful of the people following links didn’t read the post at all. They just looked at the rebranded covers, and schooled me in what paranormal romance readers expected.
Had they read the post, they would have realized that I know what the modern paranormal romance covers are saying to the readers, and that’s why we worked so hard on the redesign, since my Grayson novels—which were marketed as paranormal romance ten years ago—don’t fit much of the genre expectations at the moment.
That will change again in a few years. Genre expectations always do. That’s what Hamilton was fighting in his defense of Leigh Brackett. That’s what we looked at with the redesigned covers. That’s why people who were born after the original Star Wars trilogy have no real idea that, among the sf genre purists, those movies were reviled.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment, whatever that moment might be. Since I’m digging into thirty- and fifty- and seventy-year-old fiction right now, I’m finding a lot of things that aren’t acceptable to modern audiences. From smoking cigarettes on spaceships to stories causally using racist terms to terms that no longer mean what they meant sixty years ago, I occasionally get inundanted with then-versus-now.
And of course, on top of it, there’s the whole Go Set A Watchman controversy, also from a few months ago, when the world was shocked—shocked!—that Atticus Finch was a man of his time.
Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set A Watchman, was a courageous book to write in the late 1950s. She was taking on not just the entirety of Southern culture at the time, but she also had to contend with a subtler Northern bigotry.
In case you don’t know what I mean, here’s the short version. Harper Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman first, before writing To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee turnedWatchman in to her New York editor in 1957.
And here’s some history you’ll never get in a high school textbook. In the late 1950s, in the North, the civil rights movement as we know it didn’t exist yet—as far as white people were concerned. Yes, African-Americans were fighting for their rights, but this is before sit-ins and non-violent protests had become part of the national conversation.
Even when they did become part of the national conversation, the white-oriented mass media didn’t call the events the “civil rights movement.” That would imply agreement with those protesting. The phrase the national media used for the protests and the calls for equality was “The Negro Problem.”
Look at the difference in perspective. When is it a problem for someone to ask for equal rights? (Well, it’s been a problem throughout all of American history [as well as current times], but that’s a discussion for another day.)
The editor of Watchman, Tay Hohoff, was clearly uncomfortable with the point of view in Lee’s Watchman novel, the examination of current events from a perspective not usually seen in fiction of that day.
Hohoff asked Lee to revise, asking for a nostalgic and more comfortable narrative. Before you jump all over me, let me add here that To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most influential books in my personal canon. I’ve reread it many times. I think it deserves its classic status. But the narrative is only peripherally about the black community. Instead, it’s about whites discovering that injustices happen to blacks (among other things), a kind of coming-of-age novel not just for Scout, but for the entire culture.
Much easier to market in 1960, and much easier to contemplate than the complexities of modern Southern life at that time.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about this eloquently on Bookview Café’s website a few weeks ago. As the press coverage grew about Watchman, and the upset reaction of long-time readers of Mockingbird made the news (and before I saw Ursula’s piece), I had the same reaction Ursula had: I kept thinking that the writing experience of those two novels was what silenced Harper Lee, why we haven’t seen anything new from this once-driven writer in my lifetime.
Do I think someone took advantage of Lee to get this novel published? Not from what I’ve read. Even the state investigated Lee’s ability to enter into an agreement. I think she waited until her older sister Alice died—Alice, her lawyer, who handled all business matters and who was, in Harper Lee’s words, very similar to their father, the man who inspired Atticus Finch.
There is no longer any family to deal with the way that this more accurate portrait of a middle-aged 1950s white Southerner tarnished Finch’s knight-in-shining-armor image.
I think Lee always wanted Watchman to be in print. It’s a vindication, of sorts, almost sixty years later, of what must have been a terrible time for her. The book is finally in print, for good or for ill.
When she wrote that book, everyone would have understood the subtext. Now, she’s “ruined” Atticus Finch by portraying him as a bigot.
Here, I think Le Guin is spot-on. She writes,
So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman [Lee], and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much.
Times change. Opinions change. What is “true” changes as well.
And books still follow trends—or lead trends.
I’m not sure how Watchman would have been received had it been published in 1958 or 1959. It might’ve simply disappeared, and Harper Lee might’ve been a midlist author of good quality books for twenty or thirty years.
Instead, she wrote a second novel at the urging of an editor who liked the nostagic parts of Watchman better than its truths. Mockingbird echoed the national mood of 1960, as the white establishment learned that injustice existed, injustice that people of color had lived with for generations. Mockingbird is an important book, not just for the excellent story that it tells, but because it hit the zeitgeist and helped with the national conversation of its time.
Some books do that. So do some movies.
Vanity Fair covered the new Star Wars movie because Star Wars, along with Jaws, changed the way that movies were made, and what was “acceptable” in film. We wouldn’t have any of the Marvel films or any of the summer blockbusters without Star Wars. But going to the movies would have been a lot less enjoyable.
The Vanity Fair article said it more clearly than I could:
What people sometimes forget about the first Star Wars was that when it hit theaters, in 1977, it was startling not just for its revolutionary special effects but also for its unabashed sense of fun. After 10 years of haunted, pessimistic, even nihilistic hits such as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The French Connection, The Godfather, Chinatown, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Network, and Taxi Driver—films in which more often than not the heroes, such as they were, ended up compromised, defeated, or dead—there was something radical about a movie where the good guys win an unambiguous, bell-ringing victory, and receive medals in the final scene to boot. As Time put it in a big 1977 feature about Lucas and Star Wars, “It was a weird idea to make a movie whose only purpose was to give pleasure.”
Now that the world has indeed changed. A young filmmaker can make a nihilistic movie and post it on YouTube or crowdfund it, getting an audience, and a following. Or an established filmmaker can make a film of the heart in a few weeks in his house (like Joss Whedon did) without destroying his career.
Writers can do the same thing. We can write what we want.
The trade-off is that hitting the cultural zeitgeist is much harder. The world has gotten bigger. The days when a single book rests on the coffeetable of everyone who reads are long gone.
What we gain in freedom, we lose in attention.
And many writers do their best to build boxes around themselves, as you can see from those comments a few weeks ago. Even indie writers believe that there are Rules To Be Followed, and Tastemakers To Be Placated.
Weirdly enough, in this world where we can upload the book today we finished writing yesterday, we have to wait to get attention for it. Yes, we might get our usual readers to pick up a copy, but for the book to have “legs,” for it to make an impact, that takes time.
And sometimes that time might be years, not weeks. The book we published today might be part of a cultural trend ten years from now. It’s up to us to remain informed, to see the trends building, to change covers or point out that this book—which first saw print a decade ago—actually has a lot to say about what’s going on right now.
It’s a whole different way of thinking about things, a way we’re not yet used to.
I think it’s better than the old way. But I’m a prolific and stubborn writer who always rebelled against being told what to do. And I’ve butted my head against critics and “tastemakers” since I was in school. So the new world suits me.
It’s a harder place for those who want to write classics, who can’t wait decades for the culture to worry about whether or not the sequel to that “crappy little adventure film” lives up to the greatness of the original.
I almost typed “it’ll be interesting to watch how this all plays out,” but the tense in that sentence is wrong. It’s already interesting to watch. I suspect it will remain so for years to come.
I’m sorry I missed some of you at Worldcon. I had greatly hoped to go. See last week’s post as to why I didn’t.
But this new world allowed me to stay in touch anyway, and to let people know why I couldn’t make it. The now of what was once the future is a much better place than I ever imagined it would be.
I suspect that will remain the case going along. I hope anyway.
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“Business Musings: Changing Tastes,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.