In his essay “Dusk in the Robot Museums: The Rebirth of Imagination” from 1980, Ray Bradbury writes about the transition he saw in how science fiction was viewed during his lifetime. This essay, along with many other gems, is collected in Zen in the Art of Writing. It’s one of the best writing books I’ve found, never strays far from my desk.
Bradbury notes: “If you went into the average library as you motored across America in 1932, 1945, or 1953 you would have found no Edgar Rice Burroughs, no L. Frank Baum and no Oz. In 1958 or 1962 you would have found no Asimov, no Heinlein, no Van Vogt, and, er, no Bradbury.” He credits the introduction of books by these authors not only to libraries, but to the curriculum of many schools, with a bottoms up approach. Kids demanded it. Teachers and librarians saw that not only were kids willing to read these books, they devoured them. Why? The books are about something.
The kids grew up and took their pitchforks to art museums and galleries, similarly demanding that art be relevant. While Bradbury doesn’t call it as much, he essentially highlights a postmodernist reaction to modernism:
They have walked through the halls and dozed off at the modern scene as represented by sixty-odd years of abstration super-abstracting itself until it vanished up its own backside. Empty canvases. Empty minds. No concepts. Sometimes no color. No ideas that would interest a performing flea at a dog circus.
Bradbury goes to great pains to say that science fiction first began with cave paintings. Such art doesn’t show some middle-aged guy sitting in a corner ruminating on his existence. It shows fantasy. And action. The hunt is idealized with tiny hunters and enormous prey. First the problem is understood: we need some meat. Then speculative fiction theorizes how it might be solved. Bradbury claims this is essential in creating art that resonates, while also cautioning about having it all get ahead of itself:
I hope we will not get too serious here, for seriousness is the Red Death if we let it move too freely amongst us. Its freedom is our prison and our defeat and death. A good idea should worry us like a dog. We should not, in turn, worry it into the grave, smother it with intellect, pontificate it into snoozing, kill it with a death of a thousand analytical slices.
This lesson seems far more relevant with the state of publishing today than when it was first penned thirty years ago. Please, no more lamentations that there are no readers. There are plenty of them, and they are buying and reading and celebrating books of all shades and colors. They just might not be gobbling up that which those who tend to think that only “good” books written by “good” authors are worthy of anyone’s time.
Interestingly, The New Yorker went to some lengths to claim that the authors they selected for their 20 under 40 list do indeed write books with plots. There is hope. Yes sir. Plots are good enough once again for The New Yorker.