Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Disching it out
One of the hazards of hagiography is that it virtually begs for debunking. Pile the honors on too thick and too uncritically, and eventually someone’s going to come along and try to blast them off. (That’s why the word “hagiography” is seldom used these days except ironically. Good hagiography shouldn’t be too hagiographical.)
Consider the praise heaped upon Ray Bradbury after his recent death -- I provided a little of it myself -- or indeed, that heaped upon him during his life. Was there anyone who didn’t like Bradbury’s work? Turns out there was, as I find on dipping into the late Thomas M. Disch’s essay collection On SF.
Disch’s review is called “A Tableful of Twinkies,” and the title refers to the anthology The Stories of Ray Bradbury. “Twinkies,” needless to say, is not meant as praise. Disch cites a couple of unfortunate passages from Bradbury’s early short story “The Night” as evidence of his tendency toward “kitsch,” “baloney,” “schmaltz,” “vagueness and prolixity.” Of the denouement of Bradbury’s tale “The Black Ferris,” Disch writes that “any halfway bright eleven-year-old could do as well, given twenty years to practice.” His own piece reaches the following climax:
[Bradbury’s] sense of humor doesn’t operate on both sides of the generation gap; his horrors are redolent of Halloween costumery; his sentimentality cloys; his sermons are intrusive and schoolmarmish; he is uninformed and undisciplined. He is an artist only in the sense that he is not a hydraulic engineer.
Disch’s criticisms are by no means entirely unfair. Bradbury’s tendency toward sentimentality is well known, if usually forgiven. And as I noted myself in the post linked to above, he was certainly not a systematic thinker. Nor was Disch any slouch as a critic -- his book The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World is a terrific piece of pop culture criticism.
All the same, Disch’s nastiness is in this case excessive, and selective. The same volume contains an encomium to Isaac Asimov as “astonishing, astounding, and amazing.” (It’s an obituary, to be sure; but Asimov, like Bradbury, got obituary-style plaudits pretty steadily throughout his life. And, notoriously, often from himself.)
Now, I love Asimov’s work. But if you’re on the hunt for samples of clunky writing to use as cheap-shot evidence of an author’s basic worthlessness, I’d wager that you’ll find it more readily in an Asimov anthology than a Bradbury one. You might judge from a cringe-making line like “Sizzling Saturn, we’ve got a lunatic robot on our hands” that Asimov’s short story “Reason” isn’t worth reading. If so, you’d be dead wrong, because it’s a neat little study in epistemology. And it’s for that more cerebral sort of theme that you read Asimov.
But if you want insight into real human reactions to vividly delineated bizarre scenarios, you’re better advised to read something like Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope” or “The Long Rain.” (Having recently dipped into The Illustrated Man, I found that these stories I first came to love while a teenager still hold up pretty well.)
Yet Disch could turn a phrase, and sometimes he nails it in a single line. The title of his review of a book on science fiction art makes the review itself redundant: “Time, Space, the Limitlessness of the Imagination -- and Abs to Die for.” (Not that I dislike SF art -- far from it -- but I prefer the time and space of Frank R. Paul to the abs of Frank Frazetta.)