Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Andrew Over-Thinks A Joke: Part 94



Someone drew my attention to this cartoon. 

I hadn't seen it before, although I am familiar with Tom Gauld's cartoons in the Guardian. 

It troubles me. 

It troubles me in the way Jonathan Pie troubles me. 

At first glane, I thought it was saying "The kinds of people who read serious literature are inclined to look down on the kinds of people who read science fiction: and this is silly, because the people who read science fiction are having a good time." Since I am one of the people who read science fiction this made me smile. 

But then I stopped smiling because I am also one of the people who reads serious literature, so I thought that perhaps it was me who was being made fun of. 

Overthinking cartoons is probably a bad idea. It is probably the sort of stuffy thing that the kinds of people who read serious books would do. Probably I am only doing it because I am jealous of your red nose and your floppy shoes. 

But the artist must have thought about the cartoon before drawing it. At least I suppose he did.

A.A Milne said that he thought of putting a little comment before each of his children's poems explaining who was speaking the words: the author, Christopher Robin, or hoo. 

I think that is my question about this cartoon. Who is saying it: the cartoonist, Christopher Robin, or hoo? 

Are we being told what the science fiction reader really thinks about the serious literature readers? Or are we being shown what the serious fiction readers think that science fiction readers think about them? Or are we being told what the cartoonist thinks that the science fiction reader thinks that the serious fiction readers think that he is thinking? 

And who are we supposed to agree with? Do we read the science fiction reader's think bubble and say "Ha-ha, he's so right, they are only jealous of him." 

Or do we read it and think "Ha-ha, he's so wrong, imagining that they are jealous of him". 

The artist draws simple, iconic figures -- hardly more than stick men. The Proper Literature readers each have a single feature: one man is bald and wears glasses, the other man has a pipe and the woman has her hair in a bun. They are unattractive, fusty, old fashioned, spinsterish, studious -- in a word, uncool. This is the stereotype that people who don't like books have always applied to people who do. 

The science fiction character is also a cartoon, but he's more realistic: a combination of 1970s NASA spacesuits and 1930s Buck Rogers comics with a heavy overlay of steampunk imagery. The spacesuit seems to have been made out of tin cans. 

The idea of the jet-pack comes off a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, and is sufficiently old that it may have provided some of the inspiration for Superman ten years later. Jetpacks were rendered pretty obsolete by the rise of superheroes who could fly under their own steam. They weren't a feature of most space-opera after the so-called golden age: they aren't part of the Lensmen books, Star Trek, Star Wars, Blakes 7 or Battlestar Galactica. They'd look pretty retro in the Expanse or Firefly. 

So: does the artist think that readers of serious literature really are old fashioned and stuffy; and that science fiction readers really are still reading century old pulps? Or is he saying that readers of serious literature foolishly and wrongly think that science fiction is still just Buck Rogers? Or that the science fiction fan thinks that literature fans think that he only reads space opera comics? Or that the literature fans think that he thinks that they think that sci-fi is only Buck Rogers. Or that he thinks that they think that he thinks.... 

Again: are we supposed to accept the premise that there is a category called "proper literature" and a category called "science fiction" and that never the twain shall meet? And if so, are we supposed to think that this is a bad thing, and they should both have a look at each other's books: or is the science fiction fan right in thinking that proper literature is joyless? 

Obviously cartoons have to deal in symbols. A cartoon in which someone in ordinary clothes said to someone else in ordinary clothes "Oh, yes, I also enjoy Elana Ferrante, why don't you have a look at Gene Wolfe one of these days" wouldn't be particularly funny. 

I notice from some of Gauld's other cartoons that this two-pronged approach is a fairly consistent feature of his humour. Darned if I do and darned if I don't. One cartoon depicts a simple labyrinth puzzle, with the instruction "guide the metropolitan intellectual back to his ivory tower without encountering his countrymen". "Liberal metropolitan elite" is a right wing trope: Eton educated Boris Johnson and commodities trader Nigel Farage were both presented by the far-right press as Men of the People, in contrast to Liberal Metropolitan Elitists like Jeremy Corbyn. It isn't clear from the cartoon whether Gauld is saying "Intellectuals really do live lives of isolated luxury, without contact with ordinary people: this is bad"; or "Silly, small minded Tories falsely imagine that intellectuals are remote from ordinary life: it is bad that they imagine this." Another cartoon has a fairy godmother providing Cinderella with a bank account and a fulfilling career rather than a coach and glass slippers, and saying that she only has to get married if she wants to. Again, it isn't clear whether he is saying "traditional fairy tales are sexist, and this is bad" or "feminists spoil fairy tales, and this is bad." Certainly "the left want to impose politically correct fairy tales on us" is a trope of the far-right; but in the context of the cartoon the artist might well be saying "the idea that anyone would write a fairy tale in this way is absurd; PC gone mad is a false fear." 

Laughter often occurs when the same text can be read in two different ways ("there were two fish in a tank"). So it might be that this ambiguity is precisely what the cartoonist is aiming at. He draws both for the New Scientist and for the Guardian literary section, so he himself may have a camp in the "Buck Rogers" and "joyless literature" camps. 

The accusation that the science fiction fan is making -- or that the the literature fans think that he is making or that he thinks they think he is making -- is that readers of literary fiction are insincere. They would rather be reading sci-fi; their disapproval of the genre is a mask for their jealousy. They are literary puritans, haunted by the fact that someone somewhere might be having more fun than they are. 

It is very tempting to say that Mary Whitehouse was an anti-smut campaigner because she longed to read dirty books or that Richard Dawkins hates Muslims because he secretly knows that there is a God, but it's highly unlikely to be true. I am not even sure that "if you were confident in your own sexuality you would not be so homophobic" is either fair or helpful, although it is very funny. But this kind of thinking underlies too much of our current political discourse. To call someone a virtue signaller, woke, PC or an SJW is ultimately to call them a hypocrite. They don't really believe in reducing global warming or promoting human rights: they are justing pretending to do so because they want to look good, feel superior, toe the party line, and ultimately destroy western civilisation. We have talked before about the stance known as "Bulverism", where the knee jerk reaction to any opposing position is to say "You only think that because..." 

You don't really think that serious literature is better than genre literature; you are just pretending that you think so in order to conceal the fact that you'd rather be reading Buck Rogers than Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Then again, there are still rather a lot of people who think that they have heard quite enough from experts. I am mildly concerned with how full my in-box seems to be with memes about English professors who are filling kids minds with some silly idea about how Edgar Allen Poe's Raven might have some element of symbolism to it (when the kids can all see that it is, you know, just a bird.) A perfectly sensible little parable about how the perfect can be the enemy of the good seemed to morph into a complaint about theory and theoreticians. It is very possible that in the 1830s the people of Denmark needed to be told that emperors were sometimes naked. But right now, I think people ought to consider the possibility that if ninety nine knowledgable folk think that the emperor is wearing his imperial robes and you are convinced he's starkers, then possibly you are the one who should have gone to specsavers.

I think that people who read serious literature read serious literature because they like serious literature because serious literature can tell them things about the world and human beings and life. I think that people who read science fiction read science fiction because they are interested in ideas and speculation and science and the future and philosophy and technology. I think that the some of the people who read serious literature believe, correctly, that some science fiction is poorly written and badly characterised and that some of the people who read science fiction believe, correctly, that some serious literature is dull and difficult. I think that very large numbers of readers of serious literature also read genre fiction and very large number of readers of genre fiction also read serious literature. Probably its a bad idea to only read one kind of thing. I don't think anyone is jealous of anyone. 

Spacesuits and jetpacks -- the whole ethos of Buck Rogers and Hugo Gernsback -- is not so much retro as an historical curiosity, with the same relevance to contemporary science fiction that Lonnie Donnegan does to Dizee Rascal. But we are only a few years on from the awards named after Gernsback being hijacked by reactionary science fiction fans who said -- very explicitly -- that retro, ray-gun and jet pack science fiction was the only real kind; that the intrusion of characterisation and and psychology and new-fangled good-writing into science fiction was the thin end of a communist wedge. They very much drew a line between science fiction and "proper literature". They said that science fiction was a purely masculine form; that the infiltration of "literary" ideas into science fiction was part of a feminist plot and that the girls should damn well get out of their treehouse. 

I don't for one moment think that the cartoonist believes this. And the fact that a trope can we weaponised by neo-nazis does not invalidate the original point. But the false dichotomy between Buck Rogers and stuck-up-librarians-with-hair-buns troubles me. 

Some reviewers and and university departments are quite snobby towards science fiction readers, and I wish they weren't.




4 comments:

Andrew Ducker said...

I think that there is a situation whereby people look down on a genre, and the people who like that genre then get defensive about it and come up with silly reasons why they might be being looked down on rather than admitting that sometimes the objections are valid, and that a sufficiently silly reason might make people who are frustrated by both sides stop taking the whole thing seriously for a moment and instead giggle to themselves.

Pete Ashton said...

I enjoyed this, but a bit of context you're missing is Tom's literature cartoons are often more about the book trade than about the books or their readers. The selling of books is a fantastic clusterfark of high ideals and base commerce and it produces the most wonderful dissonance which Tom exploits often. As a library person and not a bookshop person you might not have experienced this as much. (I'm a Waterstone's veteran myself.)

More generally, I'm of the opinion that a work of art (as distinct from a well crafted work, though it can be both) can be judged on how it encourages the audience to think and process, often coming to radically different interpretations than that which the artist intended. This can be frustrating for the artist, if they were aiming for an effective piece of craft, but getting the brain-cogs turning should always be a good thing. I'd say he's succeeded here.

sananab said...

At my college, every undergrad was forced to take a couple English courses. One was on technical writing and one only seemed to exist to rub a certain professor's ego. We all had to buy his wearisome, symbol-rich novel and do several assignments about it and then do a final test about it.

The lectures had little to do with the book, and mostly consisted of him going on and on about how everything popular is worse than Shakespeare and whatever humourless James Joyce impersonators were popular that nanosecond. He gave his take on every new movie and TV show, 100% of which he dutifully watched and hated. They were, he assured us, a sign that society was intellectually collapsing. I think very few of the science/engineering/math people in his course had seen any of the things he was talking about because we were all starving students and very busy also doing first-year math prereqs. He was, by far, the most pompous person I have ever met.

Nearly twenty years later, I still can't believe that not only did I have to pay for that course and that book, and pay interest on a loan to have done so, but I had to spend months of my life being obsequious to such a small and petty person. Other electives tried to be interesting and enlightening but the English department seemed to have no problem openly grifting students from other departments.

Although sci-fi also has it's obnoxious snobs, I can't imagine math or biology students ever being forced to spend months listening to a failed science fiction writer go on and on about having read Asimov and having hating Ocean's 12.

SK said...

Is this like how politicians liked Yes, Minister because they thought it was making fun of civil servants, and civil servants liked it because they thought it was making fun of politicians?

(I'm pretty sure the two writers didn't agree on what they were making fun of, either).