The June, 2015, issue of Vanity Fair had a nice little puff piece on the upcoming Star Wars film (the June issue came out in May), The Force Awakens. Interviews with J.J. Abrams, discussions with Kathleen Kennedy, a few tidbits about the storyline and George Lucas’s (possible) reaction to it all.
Star Wars is and was a cultural phenomenon, and I would expect Vanity Fair to cover the new film in one way or another, just like it’s covered the Oscars and Downton Abbey and other things that the society is currently discussing.
But I didn’t expect the article’s focus. It was worried that somehow the Abrams film wouldn’t upset “persnickity” fans. Okay, I assumed, as I started reading, that this was an anti-fan article. Yeah, that stuff happens, especially in some of the more elitist magazines like Vanity Fair.
However, the deeper I got into the article, the more I realized that the tone wasn’t about “persnickity” fans. The author of the article, Bruce Handy, also seemed concerned that the film would upset people who loved the original three movies.
He ended with this paragraph:
…“wonderful preposterousness” isn’t a bad descriptor of the Star Wars ethos at its best. Reviewing another scene, with spaceships blasting away at each other with phasers or whatever, Abrams could briefly be heard making ray-gun noises, the way a kid lying on his bedroom floor and drawing his own spaceships might. That galaxy far, far away appeared to be in good hands.
The fact that a magazine like this one worried that the “galaxy far, far away” was in good hands damn near floored me. I have been knee-deep in the women in sf project, and that has taken me back to the big sf fights of my early career. One of those fights was against space opera and the Star Wars/Star Trek fans “taking over” sf. In fact, as recently as ten years ago, David Brin edited an entire book on that very issue, Star Wars on Trial. I had an essay in that book, defending the media properties, an essay that Asimov’s also reprinted.
The idea that elites and critics would worry about the upcoming Star Wars movie living up to the original…well, it makes my brain hurt.
Those fights back in the day were pretty ugly. The woman responsible for the tone of The Empire Strikes Back, screenwriter and sf writer, Leigh Brackett, had trouble being taken seriously be the sf establishment of the 1970s, partly because her style of sf was considered passé—even though she influenced almost everyone writing and editing sf back then.
. . . .
Leigh Brackett was and is a marvelous writer, and if you read her science fiction, you’ll understand why Lucas asked her to contribute to the original Star Wars trilogy. Essentially, Lucas’s entire universe wouldn’t exist without Leigh Brackett.
I had a few moments of panic because of Hamilton’s comments. I read them just before NASA’s New Horizons space probe changed everything we “knew” about Pluto. Fortunately, I never wrote about Pluto. But I wonder sometimes what we “know” about something, that I’ve written about as hard sf or even as contemporary fiction that will be debunked in the future.
I cringe at times, because I came of age when the arguments were loud, particularly in sf, about what was and wasn’t appropriate for the genre. Whether I agreed or not, those arguments went in.
It took me forever to write space opera, and it took some creative traditional editors to buy it. Nowadays, we can publish what we want, indie if traditional publishing doesn’t want what we’ve done, and public opinion shouldn’t make a difference.
But it does.
Writers still put themselves in boxes. You can see it in the comments section of my recent rebranding post, where some of the people commenting followed a link from other sites. A handful of the people following links didn’t read the post at all. They just looked at the rebranded covers, and schooled me in what paranormal romance readers expected.
. . . .
[M]y Grayson novels—which were marketed as paranormal romance ten years ago—don’t fit much of the genre expectations at the moment.
That will change again in a few years. Genre expectations always do. That’s what Hamilton was fighting in his defense of Leigh Brackett. That’s what we looked at with the redesigned covers. That’s why people who were born after the original Star Wars trilogy have no real idea that, among the sf genre purists, those movies were reviled.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment, whatever that moment might be. Since I’m digging into thirty- and fifty- and seventy-year-old fiction right now, I’m finding a lot of things that aren’t acceptable to modern audiences. From smoking cigarettes on spaceships to stories causally using racist terms to terms that no longer mean what they meant sixty years ago, I occasionally get inundated with then-versus-now.
. . . .
I think Lee always wanted Watchman to be in print. It’s a vindication, of sorts, almost sixty years later, of what must have been a terrible time for her. The book is finally in print, for good or for ill.
When she wrote that book, everyone would have understood the subtext. Now, she’s “ruined” Atticus Finch by portraying him as a bigot.
Here, I think Le Guin is spot-on. She writes,
So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman [Lee], and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much.
Times change. Opinions change. What is “true” changes as well.
And books still follow trends—or lead trends.
I’m not sure how Watchman would have been received had it been published in 1958 or 1959. It might’ve simply disappeared, and Harper Lee might’ve been a midlist author of good quality books for twenty or thirty years.
Instead, she wrote a second novel at the urging of an editor who liked the nostagic parts ofWatchman better than its truths. Mockingbird echoed the national mood of 1960, as the white establishment learned that injustice existed, injustice that people of color had lived with for generations. Mockingbird is an important book, not just for the excellent story that it tells, but because it hit the zeitgeist and helped with the national conversation of its time.
Some books do that. So do some movies.
Vanity Fair covered the new Star Wars movie because Star Wars, along with Jaws, changed the way that movies were made, and what was “acceptable” in film. We wouldn’t have any of the Marvel films or any of the summer blockbusters without Star Wars. But going to the movies would have been a lot less enjoyable.
. . . .
We can write what we want.
The trade-off is that hitting the cultural zeitgeist is much harder. The world has gotten bigger. The days when a single book rests on the coffeetable of everyone who reads are long gone.
What we gain in freedom, we lose in attention.
And many writers do their best to build boxes around themselves, as you can see from those comments a few weeks ago. Even indie writers believe that there are Rules To Be Followed, and Tastemakers To Be Placated.
Weirdly enough, in this world where we can upload the book today we finished writing yesterday, we have to wait to get attention for it. Yes, we might get our usual readers to pick up a copy, but for the book to have “legs,” for it to make an impact, that takes time.
And sometimes that time might be years, not weeks. The book we published today might be part of a cultural trend ten years from now. It’s up to us to remain informed, to see the trends building, to change covers or point out that this book—which first saw print a decade ago—actually has a lot to say about what’s going on right now.
It’s a whole different way of thinking about things, a way we’re not yet used to.