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.

Double ouch.  

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.) 


  1. Surprised you would post about Disch without mentioning this work.

  2. Why?

    You wrote that Disch the reviewer sometimes nails it in a single line. gip most likely wanted it known that sometimes a reviewer nails Disch in a single line. (The reviewer says of 'this work' that it is "...short enough and amusing enough that its lack of focus doesn't have time to become a problem.")

  3. Prof. Feser's esoteric knowledge of SF and old comics never ceases to amaze me. What other philosopher is this cool? Only David Bentley Hart comes to mind.

  4. It's interesting to me that Asimov wrote a book in every major section of the Dewey decimal code EXCEPT for philosophy. Maybe that's why a mind even as speculative as his own was happy to remain in his callow naturalism. I like his joke books, too.

  5. It's interesting to me that Asimov wrote a book in every major section of the Dewey decimal code EXCEPT for philosophy. Maybe that's why a mind even as speculative as his own was happy to remain in his callow naturalism.

    He would have, you know, had not the aisle been cluttered with snickering Gnus.

    But I ought to be serious, so...

    He also never wrote a book on chess--though he did write about chess in several books. From I. Asimov: A Memoir,

    Failure at physical sports has never bothered me...What bothered me, though, was my failure at chess...

    My failure at chess was really distressing. It seemed completely at odds with my "smartness,"...

    I never thought of comparing myself to grand masters of chess. What bothered me was my inability to beat anyone! The conclusion that I finally came to (right or wrong) was that I was unwilling to study the chessboard and weigh the consequences of each possible move I might make. Even people who couldn't see complex patterns might at least penetrate two or three moves ahead, but not I. I moved entirely on impulse, if not at random, and could not make myself do anything else. That meant I would almost certainly lose.

    And again--why? To me, it seems obvious... I expected to see things at once and I refused to accept a situation in which that was not possible.

    Not to change the subject, but last night I was wondering why certain individuals from the prior blog were unwilling to take the bait laid out on a silver disch above.

    It just so happened (no, it did not) that one such individual explained, "Hey, clobber me once, shame on you; clobber me twice, shame on me."

    I thought that to be a bit too shallow, so said, "The truth runs slightly deeper than that, does it not?"

    He paused, then nodded his head, and surprisingly said, "Yes... The truth is, 'smart' as I am, I am unwilling to study, and weigh the consequences of my statements. I utter entirely on impulse, if not at random, and cannot make myself do anything else. This means I almost certainly get clobbered."

    "My friend," I said (no, I did not; but let's continue to pretend), "that is an honest self-assessment. And as long as you can keep a handle on it, it is not unlikely that there may be hope for you yet."

  6. @rank sophist:

    You might check out Roderick T. Long. When he's not writing about (anarchist) politics, he's usually talking about Doctor Who or Conan or Barsoom.

  7. Hi guys,
    I'm knew to all this, so excuse the ignorant, irrelevant questions that I will ask if I last long enough.
    I'm currently reading this blog from the start (I'm in 2009; whatever happened to J ? He was fun...) up until present day.
    I'm currently reading dr Vannila's (it's a 2009 joke about a 1980s haircut on a 1990s pop star) TLS, I'm on chapter 4 and just started natural law.
    I seen that over on 'unequally yoked' there is a discussion underway about natural law theory. It would be good to see some thoughts on it.
    Thanks and sorry for the random intrusion.
    Will hopefully catch up soon, both in blogs and intellectually.

  8. J got tired of posting I think. Ahahha he was just a troll talking shit to Ari and the Papists hhahahahhaha

  9. Pleeeeeeeaaaaaase.....
    Dr Feser,
    Go over to 'unequally yoked' (Leah Libresco) site and sort some of that mess about natural law out!
    You'll love it. There are some who have read TLS, there has to be, they are talking about squirrels eating toothpaste and everything.....you'll love it. :^)

  10. Gavetron, a lot of people there seem to be doing a capable job. In fact, I learned a thing or two. Natural law is pretty sweet.

  11. Brian,
    Your right.
    I'm easily excitable.
    Anyone here from Scotland? (this isn't a stand up routine)
    I know this isnt Facebook, but there only seems to be John haldane and myself who are interested in this stuff here.
    I promise I will not stray off the topic of the post again.
    Like I say, I'm easily excitable.

    Like��. Unlike��

  12. Disch was brilliant, nasty, depressed, and depressing by turns. He wrote some fine stories. "On Wings of Song" is a personal favorite. It's a satire on the red/blue, conservative/liberal, straight/gay cultural divide.

    Ray Bradbury is also a fine writer, but at times too sentimental.

  13. Anyone here read Gene Wolfe, by any chance?

  14. Gene Wolfe is awesome. He and Peter Ackroyd are my two favourite English language writers (well, living anyway).

  15. I've read Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series about five times since the first volume came out in 1981. I read it again recently because I didn't realize he was a Catholic convert and wanted to read it again through a Catholic lens just for kicks.

    I don't no why, but I really struggle when I try to read anything from him other than the New Sun series.

    1. The fact that Wolfe is Catholic gives his work another level of interest, in my opinion, although they are difficult to understand nonetheless. The New Sun series is probably his best, although the following books (Long Sun and Short Sun) are very good as well, if at the same time more "Catholic" and more cryptic. I'd also recommend his novella the Fifth Head of Cerberus, for people unfamiliar with Wolfe's work.

  16. (Same anonymous) Over the last six years I've probably read the entire New Sun series about three times, and every time I discover something new, even if it is a new question.