Welcome to the Club

It’s hard to know how to either quantify or qualify universalism, because so many communities make a claim to at least a cultural universalism that obscures interconnections with other communities. Truth (although the word “truth” is rarely used) becomes the cornerstone for an enclosure for–to put it in vernacular–a fandom. This also includes the fandom of a professional or semiprofessional activity, a fandom of making: books, games, short films, whatever.

The truth claim is a limitless resource (endless fields of possibility–newness and surprise and innovation).

The time/attention paid to a given subject of a fandom/subculture is a limited resource (the sorter’s dilemma, particularly in the early 21st century). There is only so much one can get to.

These two work in a push-pull to mark differences between different truth claims. And in the realm of personal attention, there are of course winners and losers.

In the business world, they call it “siloing”. Vertical structures of knowledge–which then lead to control and access toward certain lexicons about that knowledge. Which in itself can be gatekeeping.

Of course the difference between apprenticeship and overspecialization needs to be emphasized. The former, a knowledge and practice of a craft; the latter, a way to control a larger narrative as to what’s important and thus cultivate barriers.

Trying to move between subcultures can create a situation where your credit is only good at the company store of a certain genre or field of expertise. And I do think that social media can exacerbate this issue; where people have a larger quantity of information to sift through, time becomes an even more precious resource. This might be slightly tautological but I think it has the possibility to accelerate overspecialization as a way of “standing out.”

Here’s a few examples of what the hell I’m talking about.

Pro tip: You see this in poetry a lot, since poetry has little else except cultural capital to traffic in, so various poetry communities create exotic mechanisms of exchange, much like a variance swap in finance.

This is more of an inverted example but when Jeff “I Assassin Down the Avenue” Tweedy or Billy Corgan or whatever semi-famous musician wants to publish a book of poetry, there is no apprenticeship to speak of. This is an example of a press using famousness as a way to garner any type of attention for a book buyer (both on the level of a reader and a bookstore). And, well, fair enough–one can understand now-defunct Zoo Press trying to grab the brass ring with Tweedy (this is the press, you’ll remember, that didn’t pick a winner for a contest but kept all the money). Even Faber and Faber (re: Corgan) needs to gain any advantage they can. This however requires the world pretending that Jeff Tweedy is a poet. I mean, yes, in a technical sense, sure. But in terms of the hundreds of other poets out there hunched over laptops, churning away at a vocation and life-calling. None of this is to disparage Tweedy’s talent as a musician and songwriter, by the way. But cutting to the front of the line happens all the time because it’s easy, and most people don’t care–because of readers’ overspecialization in things that are Not Poetry.

With fiction, you see this push and pull on a macro scale with the endless “genre vs. mainstream” discussions that still go on. (Still.) There are still some arenas (like the Minnesota Book Awards!) that treat realism as normative, yet at the same time show attention to literary works that use genre tropes. Actual SF/F genre stories can still create bewilderment. This is why you will find, say, an MFA program that will kinda accept work and writers that traffick in “weird” fiction, but only of a certain type, ones that accept and not question the truth claims of the subculture and that does not contain spaceships therein. It has to be weird in the right ways; i.e., in ways that reflect the tastes of “realism subcultures” of the literary world. (You will find this in different reading strategies: to grossly generalize, a person in the genre and an AWP goer can read the same science fiction story in very very different ways.) Conversely, the SF/F field can sometimes (although not always) be reluctant to embrace interesting work that, while clearly SF’nal or fantastic, doesn’t push the correct buttons (scientific, mythopoetic, or otherwise). A complaint you might hear is: “this literary writer didn’t know how to world build!” Which might not have been what the writer was interested in; but again, we are dealing with a game of expectations when there is limited time to parse through differing writing strategies. And it goes beyond mere tropes–it is ultimately about world-view, or even an ideology as to what the purpose of writing is in the first place.

Before this devolves into yet another session of “Hey, why aren’t there more things written that I like?“, it’s important to ask: Why does this matter anyway? For me, two things come to mind. it First, frustration when I see different subcultures reinventing each other’s wheels. From a post on a somewhat different issue, Emily Short here talks about contemporary game designers from the persepctive of the interactive fiction community:

I see the value of our past. At GDC I heard more than one talk that presented as new information observations about choice, consequence, narrative, and puzzle structure that have been well-discussed here for nearly two decades. There is a great deal of experience and craft knowledge about IF that deserves to be carried forward from this community, not lost, even if the community itself is changed beyond recognition.

This is a great example of “apprenticeship” (the care taken in craft, accreted through many different people as a form of collective knowledge) as mentioned before. Taking the time to go into the “archives” of another culture does take time, but it can be immensely rewarding (and humbling).

Secondly, it sucks to be ignored. It sucks to be ignored when you think you have something to say. It sucks having to prove yourself and to jump through hoops that have little to do with the cultural endeavor at hand. Again, this isn’t about not learning the ropes and one’s craft–that does take time, and patience. I think it’s more about opportunity to begin that journey in the first place, and recognition that people who are “outsiders” have their own skills and talents to offer. And that it’s important to encourage younger writers not to overspecialize, to be able to wander, to not have an action plan and an “official website” and a chipper yet PR-focused Twitter account right out of the gate. In fact it’s okay not to have any plan at all–aside from doing exactly what you love, which might not be one single thing at all.

So in the midst of this, what would an actual universalism look like? Is that even possible? How do we make this subcultures more porous? And how do we innovate in our writing without having to rely on a (modernist) paradigm of avant-garde rupture, or a postmodern paradigm of denying that there are truth claims in literature, however provisional they may be?

LATE EDIT: I know I have to unpack more what I mean by “universalism”, or a “truth process” for that matter. Bear with me.

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