Science Fiction in the Real World
Book by Norman Spinrad;
Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
For a period in the early 1970s, I was a film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press. Among the films I reviewed was Stanley Kubrick A Clockwork Orange, and I said in a rather long and detailed piece that the film struck me, as had just about everything of Kubrick's since Dr. Strangelove, as a technically brilliant but essentially soulless and mechanical exercise--that is, that A Clockwork Orange was a clockwork orange. A week or two after the review was published, I got a late-night long-distance phone call from Warren Beatty, who was in New York at the time. He had read the review and had gone to the not inconsiderable trouble of ferreting out my Los Angeles phone number because he had to tell me that, in his opinion, my review of A Clockwork Orange had gotten to the essence of Stanley Kubrick's strengths and weaknesses as a film maker as had nothing else he had previously read. Well, there aren't many better conversational ice-breakers than that, and we had a rather long and interesting talk about the film, Kubrick, and film in general, during which it became clear that Beatty knew only my film criticism, indeed perhaps only this one review, and had no idea that I had published half a dozen novels.
But toward the end of the conversation, Beatty paused, then said to me in a strange, guarded voice, "You don't write criticism for a living, do you? I mean, you're a creative artist of some kind yourself, aren't you?" "Well yeah, I write novels. How did you know that?" "Because," Beatty said with no little vehemence, "someone who is not a creative artist himself couldn't have written the kind of criticism you did. All these guys who write criticism without ever having practiced an art themselves are just a bunch of jerk-offs." Well, Warren Beatty has had his problems with the critics, and maybe he was moved to overstate the case, but that part of the conversation stuck with me. How could it not? Beatty had made his point by guessing the truth about me blind. I had never been a film maker, but Beatty, an artist in that form, had read from my criticism alone that I must be a creative artist of some kind, even though he had no idea what art I practiced. Which is not to say I necessarily agree with him that critics who have never been anything else are jerking themselves off, for the evidence is quite persuasive that a good deal of excellent criticism has been written by people who have never been primary creative artists. And a great deal of crap has been written by fiction writers convinced that anyone who could write fiction successfully must certainly be able to successfully write mere criticism of same.
But I think that Warren Beatty's central point was quite correct, and it has stuck with me for a long time, and it may have been in a way the genesis of this very book, for--while not everyone who can write good fiction can write cogent criticism and while much good criticism has been written by people who were never working artists--there is a kind of criticism that can be written only by a critic who is. What sort of criticism is that? What was it that Beatty had seen in my criticism that told him I was a working artist? In one sense, I am hardly the one to attempt that level of convoluted self-criticism, though on the other hand, I have the feeling that no one reading Science Fiction in the Real World would need to know the name of the author or see a list of his credits to know that it was written by someone who practiced the art he was analyzing. On an obvious level, I know personally many of the authors I'm writing about, and when personal knowledge is relevant, I make no bones about including it. I even, upon occasion, bring my own fiction into the discussion. I have been a part of some of the literary phenomena I am writing about, and if that may limit my objectivity, it certainly has also enhanced my intimate knowledge of some of the topics in question. No one who didn't know Ted Sturgeon personally could have had a prayer of explaining why the text of Godbody is what it is, no matter how brilliant a critic they were. Anyone could see how I screwed up the closure of The Solarians, but only I can explain why.
Ah, but the Norman Spinrad whom Beatty recognized as a working artist from the reading of a single film review certainly had never been a film maker and had never even met Stanley Kubrick! So on a not-so-obvious level, it would seem there is something that a working artist brings to criticism that he may generalize to an art form that is not necessarily his own, something that another working artist may recognize immediately from what he is reading even though he is not primarily a writer. How do we working artists recognize each other's spoor? Why did Beatty consider critics who weren't working artists jerk-offs? What's the dead giveaway? For one thing, all working artists know damn well that all working artists have to pay the rent. And that there are likely to be times when the landlord is pounding angrily at the door or worse. And the film is way over budget. And you have to stretch your own canvas. And your publisher has just been taken over by I.G. Farben. And the only offer you get is a bit part in a toilet-paper commercial. And you're only halfway through the tank-town tour of the universe. All working artists who write criticism are constrained to be marxists of a certain kind, for every working artist must admit in his heart of hearts that more artistic decisions are economically determined than are dreamt of in the genteel groves of academe or than he would really care to think about.
Then too, all working artists recognize that almost no work of art is ever perfect, that compromise, or--more bluntly--fudging, is often an artistic as well as a commercial necessity. The painter must sometimes force perspective for design purposes, the song writer must slur a rhyme or squeeze a beat to make a line work, the general fiction writer must at times resort to coincidence to make a story point or stretch a point of logic for characterization's sake, and the science fiction writer is practicing an art form that requires playing fast and loose with the scientific facts in order to exist at all. In a sense, when you do it yourself, you know it's all done with mirrors, with compromises and fudges and technique, and so you cannot help but be attuned to these things in the work of all other artists, let alone your own partners in crime.
And that's one reason why I've called this book Science Fiction in the Real World. That is my critical angle of attack, and that is probably what Warren Beatty recognized in my review of A Clockwork Orange.