I’ve mentioned before that some of my very favourite works of art – the film The Matrix Revolutions, the TV shows Lost and Stargate Universe – were things that I dismissed or actively disliked, usually because I’d gone in with the wrong expectations, or had at some point misunderstood what the artists’ intent actually was. I’m extremely glad that at some point, either on my own or via input from other people, I managed to change my perspective, because my life would be much poorer without these things.
But sometimes I really do dislike something for a valid reason. And, especially at a time so full of weird cultural tensions, it’s very tempting to just completely dismiss an artist because they made one thing I didn’t like. (Parts of Twitter seem to exist primarily for the purpose of disavowing one artist after another as if it accomplished something, as if purging your personal bubble from everything that doesn’t fit will somehow fix the world’s problems.) In recent years I’ve stumbled across a couple of really excellent examples of why I shouldn’t be too hasty in doing that.
The first one is China Miéville and Perdido Street Station. You see, that book just made me angry. It’s hard to summarize why. I suppose I felt that while it was full of fantastic ideas, something about its tone struck me as misanthropic, revelling too much in ugliness and pain. I felt that its conception of art ultimately boils down to pretentiousness and nihilism, and that when it was trying to be “artistic” it became insufferable. Most of all, though, I was bothered by how the suffering, the injustice of this extremely capitalist society, was depicted but not questioned. So much effort spent on describing the awfulness of New Crobuzon, but so much of it simply taken for granted. It provoked a kind of restlessness in me as a reader, a desire to scream at the characters to get off their asses and do something. That made the book hard to enjoy.
What made me doubly mad was that there was real genius in the writing, so much so that it actually inspired me to do some worldbuilding of my own (for a role-playing game whose story you might get to see in some other form someday). Yes, New Crobuzon pissed me off enough that I felt the need to create a world of my own and do it properly.
At this point, I might’ve completely dismissed Miéville. He might technically be a socialist like myself, but there’s a lot that I disagree with him about, and his most famous novel turned out to be long, exhausting, and infuriating.
But if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have read Iron Council, and Iron Council is incredible.
I decided to read Iron Council because, from the summary, it seemed like its story was going to be less frustrating to me. Finally it was going to be about resistance, or even revolution! Not that every story has to be about that, mind you, but the setting itself created a kind of narrative pressure for me which made such a story profoundly necessary. Of course, good intentions don’t automatically mean the book is good, and revolution is a theme that is easy to mess up, to turn into something awful and reactionary. I was worried about that. I didn’t start reading with a ton of enthusiasm, and I had a couple of false starts, bouncing off the rather dense prose in the beginning. But then I got into the story, and the book turned out to be riveting and deeply, deeply moving.
I haven’t really changed my mind about Perdido Street Station, even if I generally feel more tolerant towards it now. I still think it’s very flawed. I think Iron Council has a certain painful honesty to it, a reflection of the real history of the Left, so full of struggle and loss, which makes it a far more believable, far more human work. It’s too busy dealing with the revolution to show off or to add bits of Serious Artistic Writing – and as such it feels much more like genuine, serious art.
In any case, I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I know that China Miéville is capable of writing such a book, because it means the world is a better place than I thought it was; a richer, more interesting place.
The other, more recent, example is Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. My beef with Mr. VanderMeer was quite simple: he wrote an introduction to Lost Worlds, a collection of Clark Ashton Smith short stories, which derided and misunderstood the qualities of Smith’s prose to such a maddening degree that one might easily conclude that Jeff VanderMeer simply doesn’t understand words.
Except, of course, that I just read all three Southern Reach books and they are nothing short of brilliant. So really, all that one introduction means is that Jeff VanderMeer doesn’t entirely get some of the qualities of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose. Big deal! How many good and valuable things have I misunderstood or dismissed in my lifetime? Probably too many to count.
These days, we are frequently encouraged to dismiss and anathematize everyone and everything diverging even a little from our belief systems, to build for ourselves an illusory world free of “harmful” ideas. And partially that’s understandable, even necessary, given the strange fruit produced by the intersection of global communications and increasingly atomized societies.
But when excommunication becomes a way of life, life inevitably becomes duller and poorer; and when we feel that there’s nothing of value in the world, we turn to nihilism and misanthropy. “Diversity” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, mostly in reference to tiresome neoliberal identity politics, but we do need diversity in our lives. A diversity of ideas and possibilities; a diversity that allows for people to be capable of more than one thing; and above all, a diversity that includes a diversity of tastes, flavours, preferences, likes, dislikes, and all the rich variety of human thought and expression.
A huge world in which we can be surprised is a much better world than a tiny one in which we know everything.