It’s a hard thing to define what modern art should do. Some competent critics, including Samuel R. Delany, have argued that contemporary form of reputedly « popular » art might well be among the most fertile trends of art today. Coming from Delany himself, the notion is rather convincing, none the least because he proved it as much as a writer can.
For some reason, Dhalgren ended up becoming one of the most widely-read SF books ever published, which proves, once again, that there are no simplistic truths and that linking success to quality one way or another is a waste of time. People have called the novel « Joycean »; I won’t, since I have never read Joyce, but I suspect that there is more in that novel that an ending that loops back to the beginning like a Moebius strip. It’s a story about desolation, anarchy and rebirth of a society on its own ashes. It’s also the story of a man who is made of words woven around dark holes. The first few pages talk about light, dispersed, reflected and concentrated through prisms, mirrors, and lenses ; and at some points, that metaphor becomes remarkable, because Delany manages to treat words the way prisms, mirrors and lenses treat light.
This is where the line should be drawn. It’s probably fairly easy, for a contemporary writer with an academic education, to come up with such metaphors as prisms, mirrors and lenses to define the workings of a text. It’s not much harder to ask such intelligent questions as, Why even believe that this is real? Why give in to the illusion of the narrative? What, on the other hand, makes me any realer than the characters of this book? Even the answers, one may suspect, are not that hard to find, especially if the writer is to decide that questions are more important than answers and that they will only give some hints, some possible directions to explore. Give any reasonably competent student in literature a couple of hours and they will come up with reasonings that may even be more profound than that. Yet some would say that concepts are what must move art, and that techniques are limited to what shocking ways the artist can use to drive the concepts home.
Art much speak to the viewer ; that much most people agree on. And if the viewer has stopped believing that a given work of art can accurately represent reality, or that beauty for beauty’s sake is enough, it is likely that the artists will have to provide some more food for thought. Very well. But after reading such a novel as Dhalgren, a question comes to mind : what is technique could take the concepts much, so much further than mere provocation could? What if discarding the complexities of character, décor, and plot; colour and form; chords and measure; was not only a useless pose, but an act of cowardice?
Show Don’t Tell. That’s what any how-to book will tell the aspirant writer. I wonder sometimes if some extreme forms of modern art, abstract expression, wordy post-modernism, are not simply ignoring that rule because it sounds intellectual to do so. And before anyone starts throwing rotten tomatoes: I know the average high school student has got snotty at least once in their life and said that they could paint just as well as Rothko, but this is not what I’m saying. Well, not exactly. Technique is also a question of knowing when to blurt out a full stanza and when to shut your mouth. And everyone has heard of how Picasso once drew a perfect picture of a bull, and then erased one line, then the other, and finally showed that the picture was just as perfect with just one or two lines remaining. But by doing that, Picasso exposed himself to criticism concerning the choice of his perfect lines, of course ; and the problem becomes even more obvious when art becomes not about finding the pefect line (a concern that was very new to the West, and very banal to, say, Chinese or Japanese artists), but about illustrating a concept through a dialogue between title and work, starting from and abstract, not a concrete, subject matter. Any method can be used to illustrate a concept. Assuming that it is necessarily better to use the more obscure and minimalistic form is just as false as assuming that realistic details are all that matter. In other words : it may be very pertinent to state in a novel that « Julien was afraid to go to sleep at night. » It is just that, in a great majority of cases, such a sentence could be rephrased with much more stylistic impact, even with such an unremarkable variant as « Every time his consciousness started to drift, scurrying steps made the silence ripple—just a little too loud to be innocent, just a little to low for him to be sure that it was not just all in his mind. » Those who choose the first version may have some very good literary reasons to do it; but they might also just have a bad case of Telling Not Showing.
This is one of the reasons why I believe that speculative fiction might contain even more artistic potential today than the mainstream. Spec fic has to show. What is a minor vice, and can even pass for minimalistic concision, in the mainstream, is a capital offense in science fiction. Without showing, it is not science fiction anymore, or it’s so appalingly bad that it’s likely that it will never be published. Just imagine a story starting like this : « In the future, genetic changes happened in mankind, due to the cultural prevalence of monogamy and the fact that most people had come to rely on machines. Physical differences between men and women dwindled to such an extend that it became impossible to tell them apart at first glance. To the modern reader, this is a fascinating state of affair, because it leads us to wonder how our physical appearance currently affect society, and whether changing our bodies would be enough to transform mankind at large. Such potentially affected areas would be : sex and marriage, the rearing of children, the construction of identity as individuals… »
Could that really be a story? At any rate I have never read anything like this, even in works with a reputation for being didactic. Delany’s novels, like Dhalgren or Neveryon, do indulge in long moments of reflexion on pretty much everything, but those moment are embedded in a very complex narrative architecture, and appear as ornaments, not as the bottomline. In speculative fiction, invention is mandatory. Therefore, if no amount of technique is used to make the invention stand out, the work fails. Writers must carefully think about the ideal balance between conceptual content and the virtuosity of execution. Even if the thoughts on how nart is an illusion and the real and fiction are blurred and the meaning of life generally sucks are very clever and new, they can’t have predominance over the narrative content. Which is why I’m convinced that there is as much hope for literature in clever works of spec fic as in the avenues opened by post-modernism. This is also why critics who state that Dhalgren « is not science fiction » just because it is literary do not only insult science fiction writers by implying that science fiction is defined by the fact that it is popular nonsense, but also commit an absurdity. It is precisely because Dhalgren is science fiction that it is able to display such amazing complexity on every possible level, from sheer invention to metaphor and abstract reflexion.