Cleverer and Cleverer as You Go Back in Time

Wednesday , 3, May 2017 24 Comments

There’s a fascinating comment over at Unz Review:

People are getting dumber. Whatever cultural genre you choose, no matter who it’s aimed get, it gets cleverer and cleverer as you go back in time.

Literature, magazine, news, tv, everything. Read a mass-market pulp fiction magazine from the 30s or watch one of the many 1950s tv shows on Youtube like What’s My Line if you don’t believe me. Not even talking about Victorian era mass market literature.

It’s not that they’re more correct, it’s that the ideas expressed are more complicated than what we’re used to. The audience was expected to follow along with longer trains of thought and keep more ideas in their minds simultaneously.

What happened?

This is absolutely correct. And the funny thing about it is that it’s not just difficult to explain how it happened. It’s actually challenging to convince most people that it happened at all!

The writing of authors such as Dunsany, Merritt, Lovecraft, Howard, and Moore…? It’s an order of magnitude richer and more literate than either the “Hard” science fiction of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke or the New Wave era works of Moorcock, Zelazny, and Vance. Fantasy and science fiction takes another devolutionary step in the eighties and it does so yet again twenty years later.

People reflexively sneer at pulp. It’s synonymous with bad writing. We all have this script programmed into our heads constantly whispering that the early 20th century was a dark age and that every decade since is getting better and better. But go back and read it.

You’ll be surprised at what you find there. And how good it is.

  • PCBushi says:

    I think this is generally true, and it’s distressing once you realize it.

    Still, I’m not sure I agree on all counts. Howard has become on of my favorite authors, but I don’t know that I’d call him richer or more literate than Vance. Howard had a poetic flow to his prose that I haven’t found a match to yet, true. But I find Vance’s writing entrancing in a different way. Maybe I’m just impressed with tons of big and made-up word.

    I also don’t find Howard particularly laborious to read in terms of a multitude of ideas or lengthy trains of thought. One of the reasons I enjoy the Conan and Kane stories so much is that they’re generally pretty straightforward. Sure, you may have a subplot or two going on, and you can pick out shards of social commentary. But a lot of the time you’ve just got a badass hero going up against weird evils, and cool fights ensue.

    Doesn’t have to be complex or pretentious to be good.

    • Alex says:

      Part of Vance’s strength is his ability to flawlessly channel Voltaire in a SFF setting.

    • deuce says:

      Vance also appears to have been influenced by Wodehouse. I just read some Rafael Sabatini short stories I didn’t even know about until yesterday. I’ve read Sabatini for years, but those short stories really struck me as resembling the work of Vance, who came later. Somewhat ornate, but very economical and fast-moving at the same time. Also, sympathetic rogues were a dominant feature.

      Sabatini wrote for pulp-type markets for 20yrs before exploding in the ’20s. To me, he compares to Vance the way Harold Lamb compares to Robert E. Howard.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    I don’t think dumb so much as the bigotry of no expectations. Characterized by the sneering and denigrating of western culture for the past 40 or so years.
    There’s simply no sense of being entertained it’s propangada all the time everytime

    • NARoberts says:

      Oh, I think there is definitely a tend towards writing getting worse and worse as time goes on. My guess is that the watershed is somewhere about the advent of TV. Most who lived most of their lives before the TV era are OK, but anyone who reached maturity after that is usually a very poor stylist: prose with no beauty or rhythm to it…a “cheapness” about it that has nothing to do with technical craft or talent.

      • B&N says:

        Once TV came around, books became the means to the end of a movie contract, rather than an end-in-themselves. Comic books, for instance, became storyboards rather than the art form they were before animated-motion-pictures.
        If your novel is really just a screenplay you’re waiting to be picked up, then you’re not going to waste your time learning great prose, because you’re hoping that once your book is picked up, you’ll never have to write another novel, but that all your future stories will start off as movies.

  • Tomas Diaz says:

    In reference to PCBushi’s comments, it’s a general trend, not a perfectly linear trend (though it’s close at times).

    I’m not sure how welcome this opinion will be, but this has been an argument of reactionaries for a long while – specifically regarding the memory-hole the Middle Ages were put in. Most philosophy and literature survey courses go from the Ancients to the renaissance and skip over that period. There’s something similar with the Pulps – lionize Shelley, Verne, and Wells, skip the pulps, then talk about Campbellian SF and New Wave – basically a SF “renaissance” (though I’ll steal from Chesterton, that missing dark age? That’s the needed and better naissance).

    Memory holing is a tried and true tactic of those wanting to rewrite reality. The Pulps kept the torch of reality alive and so had to be memory holed for the new order.

    • john silence says:

      Not at all unwelcome. You’ll find that quite a few folks here have already accepted the reality of institutionalized memory-holing.

    • PCBushi says:

      This is the majority view here.

    • caleb says:

      You could say that European Middle Ages being so misrepresented and distorted is as essential to the narrative of liberal Modernity as is this memory-holing of pulps is for our modern genre fiction.

      I tend to avoid flashy and potentially false correspondences, but this is indeed the case of this particular mentality displaying itself on different levels.

  • john silence says:

    I would’t put Vance in there. He had vast erudition and rich life experience, and that shows in his fiction. And he proudly wrote works in pulp vein, such as Planet of Adventure and Demon Princes novels.

    • Alex says:

      Vance was late era and largely post-pulp, but in a lot of ways was fighting the same sort of rear-guard action for the heart, soul and quality of the days of Old in the 50s and 60s, much in the same way that Brackett was by the late 40s and early 50s.

      It also didn’t hurt that he was an unapologetic shitlord.

      • icewater says:

        “It also didn’t hurt that he was an unapologetic shitlord.”
        Tru dat.

        “THE MURTH seems to be a condemnation of feminism. Is this a correct impression?

        No, not a condemnation, but simply a satire. I am strongly in favor of equal rights for women. They are entitled to have equality before the Law. What I don’t like is all those cantankerous crabby females! But that makes me laugh. Who was that woman? She was a writer… We were with the Herberts (Frank). Walking past her, I gave her a little pat on the buttocks with my banjo — I don’t remember what key it was tuned in — but that was all, no harm intended. Then her lip began to tremble, her eyes began to flame. She said (Jack takes a deep penetrating voice): “Don’t do that ever again, Jack!” I said OK! I don’t like it when people get too excited. But women have a right to make efforts to improve their condition. I was one day with a group in a public building. Everybody went out before me, and then came a woman who was not with our group, and I kept the door open for her. So she said to me: “Don’t keep the doors open for me!” So I stepped outside in front of her, but still kept the door open, otherwise it would have slammed right into her face. But she still refused to go through. She kept looking into my eyes, and her eyes were saying “You bastard!” She turned round and went back into the building!”

  • Andy says:

    I’ve often found that people today regard art the same way they regard technology. “My new cell phone is better than my last one, which was better than the one before that. Isn’t that how it works with everything?” The idea that art and entertainment might and actually does regress despite “evolution” is very threatening to them.

    • deuce says:

      Truth. All the way down.

    • PCBushi says:

      I’m sure there are plenty of fools out there, but…are the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel no longer considered masterworks?

      • Andy says:

        “Oh, those were good for their time but there are many artists today who are surely better. I’m not sure who those artists are, but I just know they’re out there…”

        I’m paraphrasing but that’s basically what someone once told me regarding this topic.

        • HP says:

          In regard to art, I’m always shocked by how many people equate adhering to the latest fashions to quality. The Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel aren’t as good because they don’t conform to the stylistic preferences of the moment!

    • deuce says:

      A large percentage of Americans wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about, especially the Sistine Chapel.

      “New” is the only form of “Progress”.

    • B&N says:

      “I’ve often found that people today regard religion the same way they regard technology. My new religion (Islam) is better than my old religion (Christianity), which was better than the one before that (Judaism). Isn’t that how it works with all cultures?”

      Unfortunately I think that’s how most people see it. The newest religion is the only one you have to respect and can’t criticize, or you’re an islamophobe–but you can still criticize all other previous religions cause they’re still close-minded.

  • Dean McSmith says:

    Just my opinion obviously, but I think the writers had a higher expectation of their core readerships intellect and education. They knew what they had been taught and been expected to read to be considered educated and projected that out to their readership. Now the narrative has gone the opposite way, the assumption is that the majority are under-educated and incapable of understanding anything deeper than a puddle. There isn’t even a desire to entertain the masses anymore, to be popular is anathema, instead, a place within the niche is aspired to.
    That being said, I could just be talking out my butt 🙂

    • B&N says:

      If there are a higher percentage of educated white people than black people, then writing for educated people is writing for white people, which is just plain racist.
      You need to write for the average person of the race with the lowest average education, so that a majority of all races have equal access to your art.

      • icewater says:

        Such is the rule of quantity. You always need to pursue the lowest common denominator.

      • TPC says:

        This is just misinformed. I even agree that writing quality is low in many genres and especially speculative fiction, but books for black Americans are pretty much their own parallel industry having little to do with the Big 5. It’s not always about black people, you know.

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