|A Conversation With James Morrow|
|An interview with Nick Gevers|
| November 2000 |
You are widely regarded as the foremost satirist associated with the SF and Fantasy field. How do you personally define satire? What is the fundamental purpose of satire as a broad cultural phenomenon?
At base, the satirist is a moralist -- often an angry moralist. He doesn't know how to fix the world, but he knows that it's in a lot of trouble, and he's anxious to share his diagnosis. Just as the first step in treating a disease is coming up with a correct diagnosis, the satirist believes that the first step in ameliorating a social ill is naming it accurately. Animal Farm, Catch-22, and Cat's Cradle are great works of satire because they gave us a new vocabulary for talking about what has gone wrong.
I would distinguish true satire from such related idioms as parody and burlesque. Douglas Adams's Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett's various buffooneries offer their readers abundant joy, but I wouldn't call them satire. Adams is primarily out to delight us with his marvelous send-ups of genre tropes. But the satirist isn't terribly interested in delight, certainly not in delight for its own sake. Satire is a deadly serious business. It's funny only by default. We satirists use humor primarily to get the reader's attention. Humor is the wooden horse that lets you sneak your agenda inside the walls of Troy.
At a certain point, the Vonnegutian and the Morrovian sensibilities part company. In the long run I'm a humanist -- I'm impressed to pieces by much of what our species has accomplished over the centuries. Vonnegut is basically a nihilist, I'd say. The further you venture into his oeuvre, the clearer it becomes that for Vonnegut the human race is a grotesque mistake -- an unfunny joke that nobody gets. Let me hasten to add that, for all his facetiousness, Vonnegut's nihilism is not facile; it's agonized and well earned. But it's not my personal view.
But I've come to praise science fiction, not to bury it, because there's another side to the whole issue of stigmatization. Science fiction has given me a home, a community, a readership, several awards, and a rough approximation of a living wage. I would contrast this with the chronic anonymity -- the non-career -- that inevitably greets the man or woman who writes several mainstream novels that go nowhere.
The American publisher of This Is The Way The World Ends packaged it wholly as a mainstream novel. As such, it nabbed some blurbs from established literary figures, got some serious review attention... and died a dog's death in the bookstores. No mainstream paperback publisher wanted to reprint it. But then the SF world came to the book's rescue. World Ends got a Nebula nomination, the SF Book Club picked it up, and Susan Allison decided to do it in her Ace Books mass-market line. Today, World Ends is still in print as a trade paperback from Harcourt, and that wouldn't have happened if the SF infrastructure hadn't put it on the map.
What's frustrating about "the speculative genres" is that they are essentially marketing categories -- they tell librarians and bookstore employees where to shelve their inventory -- not formats for artistic expression, but the public doesn't see it that way. Say "science fiction" to a mob of readers who regard themselves as connoisseurs of serious contemporary literature, and an attitude kicks in that I can only call bigotry. I wish the world's snobs understood that quality is where you find it -- but if they knew that, not only would they have to work harder, they would lose their status as snobs.
This aesthetic carried over into my fiction. I hate composing the first draft of a scene, and I love reworking that same draft again and again -- the writer's equivalent of trimming frames. Of course, in fiction, "textual polish" doesn't lie only in omitting superfluities; it's also a matter of coming up with words and phrases that cut through the reader's complacency. Words are spooky objects. Nobody really knows how they work. As Walker Percy once observed, why in the world should "flesh is grass" be a truer and more effective observation than "flesh is mortal"?
It helps that I'm a slow reader. I think maybe I have a mild form of dyslexia. Because I have to negotiate every paragraph word by word, I tend to notice the particular ways that a master stylist -- John Updike, say, or Vladimir Nabokov -- uses rhythm, diction, and syntax to make the magic happen. Whatever one may think of The New Yorker type of story, it certainly scans, which is more than I can say for most genre fiction.
I have a 22-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son, and I'm happy to report that they've never faced the particular horrors that menace the children in The Continent of Lies, This Is The Way The World Ends, City of Truth, and The Eternal Footman. God knows, Kathy and Christopher have had their setbacks, but what you're encountering in my fiction is not any actual disaster in my children's lives but my bedrock fear of losing them -- the same primal parental nightmare that runs through John Irving's The World According to Garp.
I think this sort of salutary terror is what makes the world go round. There comes a point in the parenthood experience when you realize you would gladly give up your own life if that meant saving the child's. This is not a particularly noble or selfless impulse, I feel, because you don't seem to have much choice about it. I think it's wired into the universe. But it's there, it's palpable, and it's why I'm not a nihilist like Vonnegut.
Of course, there's certainly lots of low-level autobiography happening in my fiction. I'm constantly looting my children's lives for material. Some of the lines said by the fictional Holly in This Is The Way The World Ends were said by Kathy when she was three. And like Kevin Burkhart in The Eternal Footman, Christopher does magic tricks.
What makes a novel valuable, I feel, is not its immediate subject but its themes. In conventional literary fiction, at least, the way to the universal is always through the particular. When a reader today picks up a Jane Austen novel, a Shakespeare play, or The Divine Comedy, he automatically performs a weird mental operation that redeems the text of all temporal parochialism. The fact that Austen, Shakespeare, and Dante are not contemporary is not just irrelevant, it's less than irrelevant. I don't understand this operation -- it's actually rather mysterious -- but every author is grateful for it, especially the dead ones.
"Topicality" becomes a problem only when there's nothing else going on in a book. This Is The Way The World Ends is manifestly about the East-West nuclear standoff that obtained during the Reagan eighties, and as such it's a rather passé fulmination. Indeed, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have used so many specific dates in that book. World Ends explicitly asserts that humankind will extinguish itself in 1995, and the contemporary reader may become distracted by his recollection that this catastrophe did not occur.
But I like to think that at the thematic level, the level of universals, World Ends is still a pertinent story. The overarching ideas -- the primacy of parental love, the Devil's bargain that humans have struck with their own ingenuity -- still have currency. I have no objectivity here, of course, but I do know that many people enjoy Dr. Strangelove as much now as when it first came out, even though the doctrines it attacks became obsolete decades ago.
As for The Continent of Lies, it's actually acquired a strange sort of relevance of late, because now the reader can see it as a prediction of Virtual Reality -- though that was the last thing on my mind. I should mention in passing that some critics took Continent to be a qualified defense of censorship, which was also the last thing on my mind.
I often say that the measure of fiction is not its heroes but its villains. Manicheanism, I feel, is perhaps the single worst idea our species ever invented. The human race does not divide neatly into the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness, and endless misery has accrued to the supposition that it does. Aside from Frank Herbert's stylistic limitations, the thing that makes Dune a second-rate piece of literature is its unconsidered endorsement of the Manichean ethos. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner uses a similar anti-Manichean argument to criticize mainstream novels like The Grapes of Wrath.
I'll always be prepared to applaud curmudgeonly satire of the sort we associate with Jonathan Swift, Kurt Vonnegut, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh. But with satirists like Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, and even Voltaire, you find a genuine curiosity about the fools who wreak so much havoc on the world. The presentation of the evangelical in Only Begotten Daughter, the depiction of C.S. Lewis in Blameless in Abaddon, and the implied portrait of the off-stage functionaries in City of Truth were as sympathetic as I could make them without sacrificing my satiric edge.
But I'll be honest: my heart is in the novel form, not the short-story form. Most of my short pieces get written when an editor invites me into an anthology. When I'm finished, I'm usually glad I wrote the story in question, but it probably wouldn't have happened without an editor's prodding.
Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
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