Thursday, February 28, 2013

For the Honor of Grayskull

Last week I went to a fascinating lecture given by a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend (of-a-friend? Facebook connections, you know, weird and tenuous) in San Marino, on the grounds of the Huntington Library. I could talk about the Huntington for hundreds of words; it was so beautiful and interesting that I took Matt back the very next day and became a member to boot. But I want to talk about the lecture, instead. It regarded women writers in early pulp magazines, and the project this gentleman, Patrick B. Sharp of CSULA, is doing to preserve these early pulps (pre-1945). From where I live to the Huntington is about 45 minutes' drive with no traffic (and boy, is San Marino a completely different universe than the part of L.A. where I reside), but I decided I had to go anyway because, after all, I've just finished writing a book that has a female hero and no small connection to pulp.

Although women had a somewhat hard time getting published in genre fiction (then as now), there were a nonzero number of them writing, and Dr. Sharp discussed some of the stories they'd published. A few howlers appeared, including a weirdly constructed penis-vagina creature that kind of subsumed an astronaut who had to be saved by another, stronger dude. Stuff like that. In all I found it terrifically interesting context for what went on in sci-fi movies of the 50s and what still goes on in genre magazines and anthologies today.

Backstage at Clarkesworld

The key thing of interest I took away is this group of scholars' dedication to preserving the pulps intact, taking an archival rather than anthologizing approach. A professor I know informs me that this is standard practice for archivists, but it was new to me in terms of collecting writing of days gone by. Generally, I've found, old writing is republished by culling the best stories from whatever magazine from whatever set of years, but these guys are saving it all. This means that they're hanging on to the letters page - which apparently helped shape these magazines, in some cases! - and advertisements, and of course illustrations, and even the terrible stories that appeared. In this way the pulps are preserved as a whole, in all their often-awful glory. This allows clarity for the cultural studies aspect that makes media like pulp fiction so important - in my opinion - rather than the nominal purpose of preservation of writing: the canon/literary studies aspect that makes this same media so derided.

Although The Hothouse World surely compares to Don Quixote

I have believed for a long time something that was beautifully stated by Reginald Hudlin, one of the producers of Django Unchained, in Ebony back in January:
Sometimes the most relevant expressions of pop culture are in mediums or genres that are dismissed by the mainstream, but they end up having a bigger long-term cultural impact. 
Academics in particular will tend to dismiss pulpy, badly executed shit, but I believe it's so important to preserve and to study that shit in order to understand how we live now. And to fully understand what we'll consume over the course of the next generation, what will be created by kids who are (still) being raised on pulpy, badly executed shit. Just like I was raised on She-Ra and Rainbow Brite, neither of which will ever win a Peabody.

I find I like art best when it creates a quality product out of cultural flotsam and sensational, over-the-top stylistic tropes. Naturally that is right where Tarantino lives, and it's where I wish I were smart enough to live, too. (I'd like to argue that it's where David Foster Wallace lives, but he leans strongly toward the academic.) That's art that my aesthetic, educated side can appreciate while my just-entertain-me side rollicks in glee. And it's art that draws in key aspects of minute-to-minute existence for so many of the people who live and die in this country at this time. More people have seen The Terminator than are ever likely to see The Master. Is The Master more culturally significant? No, I don't think so. More artistically significant? Well, maybe, but The Terminator has certainly been influential within its genre, for good or ill.

Except Cameron doesn't have women issues like this

You can live an art museum/NPR/New York Times Book Review existence, insulated from the coarseness of common culture, if you want to. In this way you can appreciate an elevated version of life in the 21st century. But you will be missing out on what thrills and influences the lives of many millions more than the intelligentsia slice of the population pie. Hopefully a full cultural picture of our time will take in everything, will record all of what made us us. And I think that's what this pulps project is about: archive all influences. For good or ill.

At least, I hope that's what it's about. Otherwise this whole post is a gross mischaracterization.

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