Friday, March 12, 2010

Some good words for Ray Bradbury

It was my good fortune to happen upon a Ray Bradbury panel at the 2009 ComicCon in San Diego,where the Master himself was taking and answering questions from a large, adoring crowd. It was , of course, a love fest for one the pioneers of fantasy and speculative fiction, an appreciation for a writer many of us have a lifetime's relationship with this imagination. For all his work in pre-Code horror comics, pulp fiction magazines and paperback books, considered for years to the be the Red Light District of Literature, his oeuvre is one those rare productions that have proven to be something everyone else, from critics to mainstream media, have had to catch up with. The callowest of lit-crit 101 pronouncements are applied here: does the  work have legs, and do you marvel at the style and techniques the writer used to move you along with the narrative . A good writer  is able to overcome a reader's objection to fantastic tales; the writer who's work remains current is the rare breed who's tales transcend the genre from which they originally sprang. So one learns how to get  adult" about those pulpy fantasies that gave you pleasure when you were a teen, someone still learning about the world through the stories one heard.You have to say that you did a fair and accurate summary of Bradbury's career and a fair estimation of his work. If you’re a good genre writer and you stick around long enough, you have a very good chance of having a host of recently minted book critics and biographers elevating you the higher ranks of Faulkner or Twain.
It's happened a dozen or so times , particularly in the mystery/crime arena with the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Sometimes the shoe actually fits, given that Chandler and Hammett were both innovators of form who had their lyric flights and coolly compressed melodramas informed by a tangible and subtle played romanticism.

Others have been less believable, as in the case of Jim Thompson, who is genuinely creepy and entertaining, but lacks music and wit, or James Ellroy, who mistakes intensity and encroaching unreadability as requirements of writerly worth. Elmore Leonard resists the temptation to let critics and upper echelon authors seduce him with praise and a general invitation to take his work more seriously; he is the kind of professional you most admire, someone who continues the work, writing one brilliantly middlebrow entertainment after another.Would that a few of our "serious" authors adopted the work ethic and wasted fewer pages and less of our time with their reputations.Some writers literally beg to be taken seriously; they implore us to read their novels deeply and let the philosophical conflicts resonate long and loudly.Has there been a John LeCarre novel that hasn't been compared to the world weary speculations of Graham Green's ambivalent attaches and minor couriers wrestling with the issue of Good versus Evil under a shadow of a silent Catholic God? Has there been a discussion among fans of James Lee Burke that didn't slip into a tangent about the American Southern tradition, with Faulkner's and Flannery O'Conner's names repeatedly dropped like greasy coins? It's not such a bad thing, though. LeCarre and Burke are fine writers and do manage to provide a complex settings where the moral battles take place in their work. Their presence in the high rankings needn't make anyone squeamish.

Stephen King, try as he might, will not remain on the top shelf no matter who places him there. He is the master of premise, one great and magnificent idea after another, but then he goes soft in the head and rushes through his novels with flights of illogical that even excusing them as part of a horror novel's delirious nature cannot excuse the slip shod execution. Bradbury? He is very good, sometimes even brilliant in all his amazing convolutions, and I think it would do everyone a great favor to not burden him with the weight of "literary importance". There are issues and morals and philosophies galore slithering through the paragraphs of his stories and novels, but Bradbury above all else is fun to read. I think it's enough that he be admired as craftsman with a slight touch of the poet. Bradbury, however sage we might wish him to be, never shed the basic rule of all professional writers go by; you need to be read by an audience that wants to be entertained.


  1. You’ve raised some interesting points here, Ted. It makes me think that a lot (if not most) stratums of literature created by critics are totally artificial ones. Specifically, what it referred to as “genre fiction” is actually a division between low-, middle- and highbrow writing, based upon some fairly arbitrary criteria, some of which is based upon class rather than creativity. You mention the use of “fantastic” plot lines as a defining element of genre fiction, which is true enough by conventional critical standards. But haven’t literary icons like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pyncheon (among many others) engaged in pretty fantastic, reality-bending storytelling in their time? I would suggest that the most viable definition for genre fiction (science fiction, mysteries, Westerns, etc.) is that it is first and foremost plot-driven, often to the sacrifice of nuanced character development, idiosyncratic writing style and “experimental” innovations. It was once said of Rod McKuen that people read his poems for the same reason that people with headaches took aspirin: to achieve a specific effect. That may hold true for a lot of genre fiction readers as well; I suspect their favorite authors keep this in mind. Now, this is entirely honorable unless you think an author is suppose to challenge a reader, which is a pretty difficult thing to do as a full-time job these days. I find it interesting also to apply your comments about the objectionable behavior of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer in an earlier post to writers of genre fiction. Basically, I don’t think the readers of, say, Max Brand or Dick Francis really care if they misbehaved, because they don’t judge these writers as human beings the way that writers of “serious” fiction are. People who read Good Books seem to want their writers to be Good People, not just entertainers. It all seems a little arbitrary, don’t you think?

  2. I wouldn't argue against the idea that DeLillo , Pynchon (or William Gaddis, for that matter) construct fantastic worlds of their own in their novels no less than the genre writers--mystery, romance, detective, science fiction writers.The difference, it seems, is a grade of writer making in good faith according to the dictates of a genre's rules, and bending those rules only to improve the storyline , and those writers who are attempting to demonstrate the fallibility of those templates as a means of "knowing the world" or instilling moral instruction. Bradbury and others were romantics, in the sense that the story is primary and that there is a hero and a villain and that there is a greater good that's at stake. DeLillo is a poet of the General Malaise, the temperament of a population that's trying to convince itself that all is well with the technologies of the current day yet who cannot shake the feeling that something valuable is slipping away from them.

    Writers like Ginsberg, Mailer, Pound and the like each suffered with the obsession that they were going to clear away the nonsense that has afflicted the culture with a series of daring fictions and poetries that would fire the collective imagination and help the reader ascend to higher levels of nuanced perception. They , and many others one can name, managed to produce quizzically brilliant writings , but they were also supreme egotists with all the faults the term carries. It is rather hard to limit a discussion of them to their work as writers. The larger-than-life reputations dwarfs the respective bodies of work, and the critic’s task, failing perhaps, is to redirect the chat to the books. That’s the problem with celebrity. For Dick Francis, Max Brand, or Ray Bradbury, a fan is likely to think (I believe) when their name is mentioned…”Yeah, Bradbury, he wrote those books I loved…” The advantage of being a successful genre novelists is that your name is associated with the work you’ve actually finished, not the stunts you’ve performed in civilian life.

  3. Two points: I wonder if those writers who make the storyline supreme (using Bradbury as an example) are inherently any more idealistic/romantic in their outlook than those who do not. You indicate that a faith in the “templates” of fiction translates to a faith in the goodness (or at least orderliness) of human experience. I’m not so sure this is true. Wouldn’t H.G. Wells, Upton Sinclair or George Orwell (a borderline genre figure, I might argue) be examples of plot-centered authors with an often dystopian view of the world? Conversely, a writer like Thomas Wolfe – messy, sprawling, subjective – wasn’t criticizing society or promoting psychic revolution so much as singing a Song of Himself, which is a pretty romantic thing to do.

    As far as the antics of Ginsberg, Mailer, Pound, etc. go, do you think that the kid who picks up a copy of “Howl” at a college bookstore really knows much about AG’s public activities – or that the folks who lapped up The Executioner’s Song cared much about Mailer’s misadventures? Just asking.

  4. The point about having faith in the template, ie genre writers, is that operate on the general priniciple that good and evil exist and are manifest in the way we conduct ourselves. Optimistic or cynical, there is an awareness that the adventures of the protagonists are either fighting for a virtue or are in the process of betraying that virtue. It's a severe dualism, yes, but it is one that results in rich perspectives, if shaky premises on which to declare the Absolute Meaning of life.

    The repuations of Ginsberg and Mailer are firmly enough established in what there is of our reading culture that I'd be hard pressed to think most people aren't aware of their adventures prior to actually reading them.


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