A “geoffrey” over at the ODD74 boards has this comment on the subject of Appendix N:
I think it takes about 200 years before a civilization can assuredly judge literature. During the century a book is written, it partakes of the nature of that century. The century after a book is written, the civilization is reacting against the assumptions of the books of the previous century. It is not until the century after that that men can look dispassionately upon the books written 200 years before.
I think, therefore, that the 20th century’s fantasy and science-fiction literature will not be finally sorted into either A) timeless or B) ephemeral until A. D. 2100. We will all be dead. At least most of our children will be dead. But many of our grandchildren will live to see the proper classification of 20th-century fantasy and science fiction. Of course, most of them will not care, being too busy arguing about the merits of the literature of the 21st and 22nd centuries.
No, I don’t think any harm is intended here. And this is a very common attitude that I’m sure you’ve heard in other contexts.
I’ll tell you why this is a bogus argument, though. In the first place it disqualifies every contemporary critic from being able to have a dispassionate opinion. It proposes that a sufficient passage of time is a prerequisite for developing a judgement that is independent of your times. But think about it. Right now, do you think you can go find a dispassionate assessment of the American Revolution? The Protestant Reformation? Columbus’s discovery of America? The crusades? The development of Islam? The birth of Christ? What really happened with Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac way back long and long ago…?
Ah, yes I’m talking history and not literature here. But even in the past hundred years fashions in criticism of, say, Shakespeare have undergone any number of permutations. Are any of these competing voices inherently objective merely because of the age of the material they contend with…? I don’t think so.
Notice especially that this the sort of argument that does not require any familiarity with literature or history or anything else in order to make. Of course, anyone that had looked into the matter for themselves would have any number of reference points and facts to back up what they were saying. The fact that someone would even make this sort of claim is in fact an indicator that they don’t have any of that sort of thing to buttress their opinions.
So it’s an argument from ignorance asserting that ignorance is the natural order. That’s pretty astonishing, really. Assuming that someone existed that did in fact know what the heck they were talking about, how should they answer this claim? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can tell you that no amount of evidence or analysis would satisfy this sort of person.
But just because this type of argument is inherently spurious, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t acknowledge a very real problem. People do tend to be swept up into the ideological fashions of not just their century, but also their decade. If you agreed that you would really like to step out of that and move toward a viewpoint that was noticeably more objective and dispassionate, how would one go about that?
Well, I’m not the first person to notice this, but… reading and discussing works from other eras would be a good start.