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Speculative Fiction, Intersectional Feminism, and Dirty Jokes
Being the sort of low-class individual without an advanced degree in The Arts ™ but who occasionally reads Good Books ™ because I find them interesting (and who has some exposure to the literary academic culture through my much-better-educated wife) this piece about David Foster Wallace’s legacy* by Laura Miller speaks more to my knowledge of other pieces in outlets like The New Yorker than to my personal, lived experience. Her description of “litchat,” though, is very intimately connected with fannish culture.
Still, much of a writer’s rep emerges informally, in the conversations that writers, readers, and critics have amongst themselves. Whether another writer is spoken of respectfully, whether you get the impression that “everyone” is reading his or her new book enthusiastically, or how well people think he or she comes across in interviews—these and a dozen other imponderable factors constitute a reputation during a writer’s lifetime, particularly in the early part of a career.
This stuff—let’s call it litchat—may be ephemeral, but it absolutely shapes the formal reception of a writer’s work. If everyone in your M.F.A. workshop or the last book party you went to mentions an established author’s name with reverence, you’ll be that much more likely to lay it on thick should you ever be asked to review her new book. Or, conversely, if you decide to prove your independence of mind and go contrarian on her, you’ll be aware of the inertia of all that acclaim and feel the imperative to push back with corresponding force. Reviewers don’t like to admit that they’re influenced by such factors, but unless they live cut off from other readers, writers, and critics entirely, they can’t really help it.
Porting away from the circles of academic writing and towards something more prosaic and dirty like Doctor Who fandom, this is nothing more than our old friend Received Fan Wisdom. Approaching the show, especially the Classic Series, as a new fan is often to be indoctrinated into the overarching narratives about the show as it is to be involved in the show itself. Because every fan knows that Hartnell’s Doctor was ornery and the actor was horribly racist, that Troughton’s Doctor was always impish and fun, that Mel screeched a lot and Colin Baker was worthless except for a spiky bit at the end of The Mysterious Planet and Tom Baker was clearly The Best Evah and and and….
…and it’s all fine, really, because ultimately knowledge about a thing (even a silly British TV show) can’t really be divorced from the process of gaining that knowledge, and all the informational resources about the text (official and unofficial) provide a very useful gloss on the text itself. You probably can’t really understand K-9 without understanding Hinchcliffe and Mary Whitehouse, although there I go exposing my anti-New Criticism bias again. The commentary on the text is with any long-running media property an almost essential starting point for understanding the text itself.
However, I think much of the point of the Oi! Spaceman podcast is specifically to look at the stories without that lens as much as possible, to question the unstated assumptions of the Doctor Who fandom and effectively uncover the nasty organic growth underneath some of those rotting logs of misogyny, racism, et cetera that so plague dominant-white-male nerd culture. (While I would not place our silly podcast anywhere near in the same realm, Phil Sandifer has done enormously important strides in this over on his blog — for all of my differences of opinion with Sandifer he’s done some really phenomenal work.) Of course we do this imperfectly, partly because when we started we didn’t realize the degree to which that’s what we’ve always done in private, and partly because much of the time it’s more enjoyable for us to just sit and chat about the silliness of the plot and/or the production design. So it goes.
My personal takeaway from the “litchat” piece quoted above? That online fannish writing and Serious Literary Criticism ™ probably aren’t quite as far apart as the Official Arbiters of Literature ™ would like to pretend they are, and that while I’m sure I could speak much more eloquently and with a sharper critical edge were I to immerse myself in the literary world, even the voice of a silly low-class outsider might have something interesting to say. If you’re reading this, I hope you agree. As always, I’m open to corrections, commentary, and criticism.
* Personally, I have read a bit of the late Wallace’s work, including some of his short fiction and Infinite Jest, but my personal favorite writing of his is “Host,” his analysis of right-wing radio host John Zeigler and, by extension, the whole right-wing propaganda machine. This probably speaks to my own bias towards pieces analyzing the insanities of the American right wing.