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a sense of joy and then a panic
a sense of joy and then a panic
escapism as a luxury 
04.07.10
leather
I've been off conducting research in the field for my job - we investigate "needs improvement" schools - and one of the places I visited was a school on a reservation.  This is rural Nebraska, so things are isolated enough as it is, but it felt even more so that way at this school.  Most of their teachers are white and live across from the school building in a little row, friends only with each other, without access to ambulances or police departments (except for the FBI, if it's an emergency).  They have massive amounts of administrative turn-over - one principal walked into the school after he was hired and walked right back out.

The teachers are frustrated that they can't do much to get students out of abusive home environments.  Most of the family set-ups are always in flux - cousins moving in and out, grandparents taking over for parents, students moving from house to house.  Alcohol and meth abuse is a huge factor - some students start using in 3rd grade.  A 2nd-grader recently committed suicide.  Students are often out of school because of funerals in the community (the road you take to get to the school is a dangerous bendy road with lots of crosses on either side).  Teachers say students don't see the point in doing well.

Students at this school much prefer non-fiction to fiction.  And the genre they dislike most of all?  Science fiction and fantasy.  A couple reasons were offered for this (who knows what the real reason is):
  • Those are not "their" stories.  Lack of relevance.
  • They don't want to escape into fantasy, they want a better reality.  Like there is a certain stress point at which real life difficulties make fictional escapism totally irrelevant.
Of course, there is escapism going on - into alcohol and meth.  Part of what these answers show is what the staff thinks science fiction and fantasy (fiction in general?) are "supposed to do."  But I found it interesting that sf/f was the genre singled out as the least appealing.
Comments 
04.08.10 (UTC)
:-(

Yeah, if second graders are committing suicide, maybe fictional escapism does seem irrelevant...
04.08.10 (UTC)
When you grow up fast and hard, kiddie bullshit feels like just that, especially when someone is trying to "help" you by making you read it.
04.08.10 (UTC)
This doesn't really surprise me, although I think I'd sound lame trying to explain why. Some of my students here are actually similar. I guess stories are like what people who have the luxury to think about things not immediately relevant to their lives do, not what people who are never going get anywhere by thinking about it do. Sci-fi especially (and fantasy?) seem so much to be about grand causes or human advances, the sort of human striving that forgets the people on the low end unless it uses them as fodder. I think students here haven't historically taken a liking to sci-fi, either. Dunno if anyone's tried fantasy. But they're always thinking in terms of business/politics, if they're thinking at all and not more concerned about lunch or being one of the guys or buying new shoes or whatever. It's like being in public school again, with the constant question of, "But why do I need to know this?" every other lesson. And why do accountants need literature? Why do translators need philosophy? Yeah.
04.08.10 (UTC)
'course, it probably also doesn't help that sci-fi/fantasy are sort of stereotyped as the nerdy white kids' genres. and to some extent the stereotype is true.
04.08.10 (UTC)
There's probably something here about how it's the ones who really like to spend most of their time thinking and not doing who dream up the stories of great heroes, epic battles, other worlds, imagined futures and alternate pasts...
04.08.10 (UTC)
oh, it is.
04.08.10 (UTC)
Sure, but it's true just like the stereotype of 'white people study philosophy' or 'white people have money' or 'white people like indie rock' or whatever is true.
04.08.10 (UTC)
in the sense that most of the people for whom those things are true are white, yes. of course it's not a rule, and part of it is that people who aren't white for whom those things are true are invisible for whatever reason or not seen as representative.
04.08.10 (UTC)
Yes. That is what I was saying. Hence "and to some extent the stereotype is true." Also "part of it is that people who aren't white for whom those things are true are invisible for whatever reason or not seen as representative" is pretty much the definition of a stereotype.
04.08.10 (UTC)
Go me defining something without knowing it!
04.08.10 (UTC)
lol. it's how i think of stereotypes, anyway.
04.08.10 (UTC)
I responded that way because I wasn't sure why you would say "oh, it is" as if you were maintaining that it's true that all sci-fi nerds are white people or something. And I was like, what.
04.08.10 (UTC)
I was just being flippant. Sometimes I think people (not you, more sf commentators) forget the perceived relationship between race and the genre/fandom (esp. in school?), and if you try to bring it up they're like, "zuhwha?" or get defensive or whatever. I think I was more agreeing with your comment than anything else, lol.
04.08.10 (UTC)
I'm...really good at talking past people sometimes.
04.08.10 (UTC)
Note: the sort of story they do like is the kind they don't have to read--TV or movies. and the preferred kind are ones with cliche Hollywood endings, partly b/c that's almost all they know (and it's American and cool), and partly b/c they are, as DFW put it (though about fiction): "very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way -- essentially television on the page -- that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way."

Btw, the full quote is:

If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you're writing for other writers, so you don't worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you're communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way -- essentially television on the page -- that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

What's weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature's current marginalization is the reader's fault. The project that's worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it's also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.
04.08.10 (UTC)
I haven't read enough DFW to tell (just the Tracy Austin thing), but I think some people would find his criticism of the avant-garde pitfall ironic. I agree with his point, but I'm just sayin'.
04.08.10 (UTC)
Well, to be fair, he does say he intentionally wrote for intellectuals.
04.08.10 (UTC)
I do, however, think it's at least relevant...

What were you intending to do when you started this book?

I wanted to do something sad. I'd done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I'd never done anything sad. And I wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it's like to live in America around the millennium.

And what is that like?

There's something particularly sad about it, something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know.
04.08.10 (UTC) - just to show where i'm getting all this from...
Not much of the press about "Infinite Jest" addresses the role that Alcoholics Anonymous plays in the story. How does that connect with your overall theme?

The sadness that the book is about, and that I was going through, was a real American type of sadness. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of them were deeply into drugs, others were unbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night. You could see it played out in 20 different ways, but it's the same thing.

Some of my friends got into AA. I didn't start out wanting to write a lot of AA stuff, but I knew I wanted to do drug addicts and I knew I wanted to have a halfway house. I went to a couple of meetings with these guys and thought that it was tremendously powerful. That part of the book is supposed to be living enough to be realistic, but it's also supposed to stand for a response to lostness and what you do when the things you thought were going to make you OK, don't. The bottoming out with drugs and the AA response to that was the starkest thing that I could find to talk about that.

I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. Probably the AA model isn't the only way to do it, but it seems to me to be one of the more vigorous.

The characters have to struggle with the fact that the AA system is teaching them fairly deep things through these seemingly simplistic clichés.

It's hard for the ones with some education, which, to be mercenary, is who this book is targeted at. I mean this is caviar for the general literary fiction reader. For me there was a real repulsion at the beginning. "One Day at a Time," right? I'm thinking 1977, Norman Lear, starring Bonnie Franklin. Show me the needlepointed sampler this is written on. But apparently part of addiction is that you need the substance so bad that when they take it away from you, you want to die. And it's so awful that the only way to deal with it is to build a wall at midnight and not look over it. Something as banal and reductive as "One Day at a Time" enabled these people to walk through hell, which from what I could see the first six months of detox is. That struck me.

It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation. All the things that my parents said to me, like "It's really important not to lie." OK, check, got it. I nod at that but I really don't feel it. Until I get to be about 30 and I realize that if I lie to you, I also can't trust you. I feel that I'm in pain, I'm nervous, I'm lonely and I can't figure out why. Then I realize, "Oh, perhaps the way to deal with this is really not to lie." The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel.
04.08.10 (UTC) - Re: just to show where i'm getting all this from...
On the other hand, I feel like DFW and I have a number of significant differences. I mean, it took me years to get over a sort of categorical imperative not to lie. And more years to really recognize this sort of conflict between the values I believed in when I was younger and how they play out in the world, and think about which I have to choose, I mean, really recognize the weight of that choice and not just see it as a rule. Sorry, I'm not thinking straight anymore. Deteriorating. I have to get on a bus in 7 hours to go to class, and I want to grade papers first...
04.08.10 (UTC)
Yeah, they preferred news articles. Don't know what kind, but presumably something more relevant.

Sci-fi especially (and fantasy?) seem so much to be about grand causes or human advances, the sort of human striving that forgets the people on the low end unless it uses them as fodder.

I think this is really true.
04.08.10 (UTC)
and it's great when people are determined to remain fodder.
04.08.10 (UTC)
(not that i'm buying into the idea that there is equal opportunity for all--far from it, don't read into my statements--only that it goes both ways sometimes)
04.08.10 (UTC)
As if I, of all people, would claim that...but I hate the sort of identity politics that says something is bad because it's white or good because it's not-white. I mean, c'mon.
04.08.10 (UTC)
oh, I know. I doubt they'd call it "determination to remain fodder," but there are certainly self-fulfilling negative prophecies at work. Like the kid who threw away his Gates Millennium Scholarship because he didn't want to deal with the pressure/effort/being the only one in college, basically.
04.08.10 (UTC)

When you're talkin natives, you're talkin about a buncha people who been put in a box that was built for them by white folk who say, "you don't like the nice box we made fer ye? here - we'll cut off yer arms and legs to make you more square-shaped to help you fit inna the box better." then when that don't work, the white folks take to filling the box with more and more stuff to try and make the box liveable and, when it still ain't, say: "oh, here's some nifty stories by white folk that'll help ya take yer mind offa the box and all the bad shit we put in there with ya."

Kinda like forcing people to subsist on McDonald's food and, when they ask for a change, giving them Alpo.
04.08.10 (UTC)
It worked in the Philippines! Oh wait.
04.08.10 (UTC)

It did! It did too cuz we jes kept buildin them boxes smaller and smaller until the kids started bein born without arms and legs and comin out square-shaped and fittin inta the boxes no problem, and eventually the moms started giving birth to kids who came out already boxed up. oh yeah.
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