The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter I

And we’re on to the first chapter of Stableford’s work.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

In Chapter I, “Approaches to the Sociology of Literature”, Stableford starts by quoting sociologist Leo Lowenthal. Like so many others, Lowenthal emphasizes works of fiction as a product of a creative process and is not interested in the readers of that fiction. This type of sociological examination is interested in why the author chose the subject and method of presentation he did. Psychologists of literature followed Freud’s interest in the psychology of creation. For Freud, literature was an expression of neurotic tendencies.

Most of these approaches ignore literature as a means of expression. Madame de Staël was interested, so she said, in literature’s effect on religion, custom, and law, but she didn’t actually write much about that. Like her contemporaries, Hegel and Herder, she mainly saw literature as expressing a spirit of the age. In this view, all a writer can do is express that spirit, well or badly.

But this, argues Stableford, is hardly a scientific notion. It can’t be falsified. Twentieth century sociologists Georg Lukas and Lucien Goldmann were no better. The latter saw literature as expressing a “world vision”, the “whole complex of ideas, aspirations and feelings” of a class. Goldmann’s ideas led him to ignore large swathes of literature as “accidental” and not expressing this world vision. These theories don’t explain how aesthetically satisfying works are never created accidentally.

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The Sociology of Science Fiction: Intro

Where was I . . .

Stableford, yes, Brian Stableford before the whole tediousness of moving on short notice to another state for another job, the culmination of an eight month project.

And so I have. But not much reading got done and even less blogging and that was further disrupted by books being packed away and some books not making the journey at all.

Since I was reading works by Stableford and translated by him, I decided to cover another of his critical works. People seem to like those entries. And, even if they didn’t, I’d still do them.

This is Stableford’s doctoral thesis, begun in 1972 and completed in 1978 and published by Borgo Press in 1987.

I’m going to do a post on each chapter. I think the work has value for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a new way of looking at some disputes in the field. (Though, looking at the last issue of Locus, I’m reminded that I am in no way au courant with the genre.) Second, I’m hoping the framework Stableford provides will provide a scaffold to view works and trends in the field in the 43 years since it was written.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian M. Stableford, 1987.

While working on this thesis, Stableford was supporting himself by writing science fiction novels and was fascinated by the question as to why people chose to read what they did and the effects their reading had on them. Those questions were generally met with hostility on the part of readers and some writers. (And, of course, there is, he notes, a more basic question: why do people chose to read anything rather than nothing?)

Writers and literary critics don’t like the suggestion that what writers produce “is to some extent explicable in terms of their social situation and of various social pressures to which they are subject”.

The resistance to those questions can be explained.

First, there is the notion that what people chose to read says something about themselves. This generates the well-known tendency to lie if one likes to read “low prestige” genre fiction. Thus, an explanation of their reading habits may be suspected to be unflattering to these readers.

Second, writers and critics don’t like the question because literature is a sacred cause for them. It is to be discussed in terms of aesthetics and value judgements. To cite influences outside the author is, by this group’s lights, devaluing the authors’ work. The writer is God over a private cosmos of their creation. Suggesting otherwise is blasphemy.

Stableford says his intent is not to threaten readers, writers, and critics of sf or be subversive.  However, good sociology, he says, should shatter illusions, and Stableford worries his thesis is not annoying enough. He wryly says he hopes followers of sf will be reluctant to recognize themselves and react in “pure paranoid horror”.

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“The Warder of Knowledge”

This week’s weird fiction tale being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Warder of Knowledge”, Richard F. Searight, 1992.

Cover by Gahan Wilson

This story has a plus and a minus.

The minus is that it falls in the trap of telling us the experience of its protagonist, Gordon Whitney with no real way, just from his writings, for the narrator, a friend of Whiteny’s, to know these details. Even H. P. Lovecraft’s “Dagon”, with its narrator hurriedly writing his experiences down as the monsters close in, doesn’t go this far.

On the plus side, Whitney emotionally acts like an amateur undertaking a dangerous occult experiment. 

Robert M. Price’s introduction to Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos notes that, though this story was first published in that book, Lovecraft saw the story when Searight sent it to him. Lovecraft liked it and noted Searight’s use of the Eltdown Shards as different than Lovecraft’s own in the round-robin story Lovecraft had participated in, “The Challenge from Beyond”. Lovecraft optimistically noted that Searight’s use would end up being better known than that story. Of course, things worked out completely the opposite. 

The story opens in a standard Lovecraftian vein. 

We hear about how the “neatly typed manuscript” found in Whitney’s desk drawer caused his academic comrades to regard it as the delusions of a mentally unbalanced organic chemist who dabbled in the occult. The writer says that impression would have been heightened if they had his personal journal. Searight throws a bit of novelty in by briefly mentioning the psychic impressions perceived by Professor Turkoff, a psychologist, in Whitney’s bedroom. 

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