in the club

Writing in the London Review of Books about reading comics as a child, Jonathan Lethem gives up trying to context his experience outside himself:

“I’m breaking down here. The royal we and the presumptive you aren’t going to cut it. This is a closed circuit, me and the comics I read and which read me. Stan Lee’s rhetoric of community was a weird, vibrant lie: every single true believer, every single member of the Make Mine Marvel society or whatever the fuck we were meant to be called, received the comics as a private communion with our own obscure and shameful yearnings, and it was miraculous and pornographic to so much as breathe of it to another boy, let alone be initiated by one more knowing. We and you don’t know a thing about what I felt back then, any more than I know a thing about what you felt.” [15.04.04. His italics.]

To an extent, this is how I feel about my New Wave experience between 1965 (when I first read the Moorcock New Worlds) and 1979. Mike had learned how to use club consciousness to raise the morale of the audience. This exercise extended naturally to the writers. It was, in that sense, a team building culture, always in tension with those “obscure and shameful yearnings”.

Lethem’s point is equally applicable to the broader experience of being a writer of sf. Sf has always celebrated itself as a communal effort, an “ongoing discussion” or conversation.

It’s also applicable to the concept of influence as defined by the genre, in which the myth of the communal sharply conflicts with ideas of precedence, provenance and intellectual property, a conflict which, once you’ve noticed it, is both illuminating and deconstructive.

But the broader, more interesting point is about the communality (and communicability) of experience itself. Signs of Life (1997), p192/3: Choe was always more articulate than me.

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6 responses to “in the club

  1. Veg clothing

    I know you’ve said that you’re never going to do a straight-ahead autobiography, but one of the things I’d have looked forward to in such a book would have been the story of how you became disenchanted with SF. More than anything I’d like to know about the initial enchantment. But you’ve said before that you didn’t only read SF. Your reading tastes were more omnivorous. So maybe your relationship with SF was never uncomplicated.
    I’ve got a feeling you and Choe are both genetically incapable of belonging to any club or “community”. As soon as things got too cosy I think you’d be creating trouble to get yourselves barred.

  2. uzwi

    Hi Veg clothing. One thing that’s interesting in this context is that while I moved smoothly from Dan Dare, through Journey Into Space, to Quatermass, & thence to the pleasures of The Golden Amazon, I never felt it as a communal thing. No one I knew read sf. Later on, no one I knew read Beckett either; so it was easy for me to give equal weight to trash sf & absurdism (for instance). If you’d asked me who my favourite writer was I’d have been hard pressed to decide between George O Smith & TS Eliot.

  3. Growing up semi-rural, there was also that small satisfaction, maybe, of being into something cool that nobody else had a clue about. On the one hand, you wanted to turn everybody on to Tolkien or all those obscure bands you loved. But another part of you wanted to keep those pleasures to yourself, too.

  4. And is nerdism an inevitable part of the communal appreciation of things? I suppose it depends whether you think experience is fundamentally incommunicable or not: if it is, then when you talk about a book, you’re always going to end up talking about something else than what you originally wanted to talk about. Then it becomes about being an initiate, part of a club, and nothing to do with – possibly the opposite of – what inspired you in the first place.

  5. Martin

    The English re-packaging of Marvel, as Action Comics in the ’60s, had exactly that closeted, familial air to it. And in that culture, every genre was was in a pocket of its own, without the Net to link you up to fellow users. The comics (and in time, Lovecraft or Bradbury ) became bits of private theatre, your own small part of the underground. Since all that’s evaporated, along with blurring between adult reading and kids’ stuff, I’m not sure how enclave pleasures develop nowadays.

    A basic critical faculty woke up and led me out of reading mostly sf when I opened “Dandelion Wine,” and thought: this is dreadful. Bradbury’s standing didn’t improve when I read his proposed new ending to “Rosemary’s Baby,” either. he suggested Rosemary carry the child to the nearest church altar and intone, “Father, take back thy son.” I realised then that some people just have no sense of humour.

  6. hello mr harrison. english is not my native language but i still can manage it reasonably well. i think british sf is great, but strangely enough it was required that a character of light, michael, gave me advice about you. shame on me. but i’m doing my homework and trying to catch up with your work at a frantic pace. michael is a facebook friend of stewart home, apparently, and that’s the link.
    i read a good deal of comics in my childhood myself. they mostly came from argentina, where the brilliant eternauta was very popular.

    “It’s also applicable to the concept of influence as defined by the genre, in which the myth of the communal sharply conflicts with ideas of precedence, provenance and intellectual property, a conflict which, once you’ve noticed it, is both illuminating and deconstructive.”

    that’s right. i think now speculative fiction is part of the wider postmodern writing. being a fan of stewart home and the tartu school, i have a very open approach to text. i’m co-writing a story of some lenght with a friend of mine, and i think my position is kind of difficult to him. i think we can’t escape the tropes and i prefer to laugh at them. so i plagiarize a lot of authors (you not yet) because i think stories, styles, authorship, etc. are all scripts and i think the only fun is in knowing that. i don’t want suspension of disbelief, i want the reader notes that s/he can’t do it, but must go along.
    i still find great joy when i get to know someone who has read the same comics than me.