Foundations

The year of 2017 was, by some measures, a difficult year for me. After the US presidential election of November 2016, I decided to focus all my financial resources on paying off my student loan debt, and that entailed the hard decision to let go of my last remaining projects within Fuzzy Hedgehog Press and shut the business down completely. This took a psychological toll on me that manifested in ways I didn’t expect: I struggled through drafts of novels that dead-ended (A Year in a Day and Commencement Day); I re-read Voyage Embarkation and grew so incensed at hearing my toxic writing group’s collective voice instead of my own, that I enacted a massive revision project on the novel’s first six chapters; I wrote new afterwords for my novels and section dividers for the short story collection Transmutations, but these all sound angry and hostile to my ears today, although nothing stood out about them at the time.

The year was not, on the contrary, a literary wasteland for me. Since I was shutting down the press, I decided to focus a large chunk of my effort on reading. That didn’t cost me much, if any, money, because I had already accumulated a good collection of books. A perusal of the first half of 2017 on my Goodreads reveals much of my interests at the time: Shelley, Wells, Lem, Dick, Ballard, and Bradbury.

But then in July 2017, everything changed. In late July, I finished a book called Masscult and Midcult by Dwight Macdonald, which I learned of from my friend Serdar Yegulalp. In the course of discussing it with him, he mentioned another book, The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. I don’t think he meant to recommend it to me, but when I looked it up, I was intrigued by both the book’s premise and the controversy surrounding it.

Written in 1987, the book became the flashpoint for a debate around whether or not “the Classics” (Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Cicero, Livy, etc.) should or should not be required reading for a liberal arts education. This quickly turned into an argument about diversity and inclusion, casting Bloom as the defender of inherited privilege and hater of those different from himself.

What I found when I read Closing was not a racist or sexist screed. Far from it. What I found was a passionate, rational argument for the Classics as critical to an individual’s intellectual development. To insist that they be replaced with the writings of another author because of that author’s skin color, sex, orientation, or anything else, was to miss the point completely. The Classics could not be replaced because they were uniquely capable of teaching a point of view with an inherent value, and that was because it was not just “another point of view.” The Classics are the stepping stone to critical thinking and multi-perspective consideration itself.

Paperback Classics were cheap, and I had plenty of time to spare. I decided to see for myself if Bloom’s thesis stood up to my own scrutiny.

During the second half of 2017 and throughout 2018, my reading activity changed completely. From August 2017 onward, my Goodreads contained Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Euripides, Aurelius, and Boethius, among others. A year after finishing Closing, my conclusion had been firmly established: Bloom had been correct.

Another peculiar thing happened, too. I have always drawn on what I have been reading as a touchpoint for conversations in my daily life. When a situation or topic reminds me of something I’ve read, I mention it. When my sources had been science fiction and fantasy, or even general literature, such social interactions had been unremarkable. However, once I started reading Classics, I made the mistake of brazenly dropping a Plato or a Homer or a Euripides into conversations. It didn’t take me long to notice how people were reacting differently to these. I formed the impression that these works were intellectually intimidating for others, and I soon grew much more careful of who I dropped these with. Despite that, I noticed that my ancient literary interests were also changing others’ perception of me, and not in a bad way, but also not in a way I felt I deserved. I was the guy who, rightly or not, had sabotaged his academic literature career by making a stink in his undergrad English program about how SF/F and new media weren’t taken seriously enough. I started reading the Classics at age thirty-four in order to prove out a theory and only continued doing so because I was pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it. Had I read them at eighteen like a normal Luddite? Pfft. At that age, I had been too busy telling my literature professors they needed more SF and video games in their curriculum.

The Classics, it seems to me, have become victims of their own success. A great many people who would probably enjoy them are put off by their own preconceptions about them—that the Classics will be “too boring,” “too difficult,” “too dense,” or whatnot. As a corollary, the conception of someone who has read them seems to be that of an intellectual powerhouse with tons of time and energy to devote to serious study and deep learning.

Let me be super clear about what I did in 2017 and 2018: I read the Classics by scanning my eyes over the words. I paid attention. I read at my usual pace. That was all. Plato and Herodotus are two of the most engaging storytellers I have ever read. Aristotle is a master of logic and one of the keenest observers of the world who has ever put pen (or probably a quill) to paper. Sophocles and Aeschylus still manage to wrench at heartstrings. Diogenes is kind of a raving lunatic, but he’s my kind of raving lunatic, and I have to admit he’s got a point. Apollodorus wrote what is essentially a fantasy novel (The Voyage of the Argo). There is so much here to love, and it’s all quite accessible. One does not need a degree, or a professor, or a tutor, or a program of study, or specialized qualifications, or anything like that in order to appreciate the richness available in these works. One only needs a desire to read and an open mind.

When I published The Shipwright and Other Stories last year, I wrote in the afterword that I find it unfortunate that SF/F writers and readers typically see themselves as “apart” from literature. Although the genre has seen mainstream acceptance, complaints continue about such and such an author saying something ignorant about the genres or such and such a publisher doing something exclusionary. I would challenge us. Instead of complaining ever louder about these things, let’s rather take a look at ourselves. Yes, scattered stupid attitudes still exist, but the walls are largely gone. Are we using the freedom generated by their removal to create a literature that is rich, complex, and integrated with numerous historical traditions, or are we perpetuating the ghetto by continuing to fight skirmishes along a border that is no longer relevant?

Categories: Literature Genre

Tags: Midcult and Masscult The Closing of the American Mind Classics