Ray Bradbury at 100

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From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

COMMEMORATING THE CENTENNIAL of the great Ray Bradbury, biographer Sam Weller sat down with former California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia for a wide-ranging conversation on Bradbury’s imprint on arts and culture.

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SAM WELLER: The first time I met you was at the White House ceremony for Ray Bradbury in November 2004. You were such a champion for Ray’s legacy — his advocate for both the National Medal of Arts and Pulitzer Prize. As we look at his 100th birthday, I want to ask: Why is Bradbury important in literary terms?

DANA GIOIA: Ray Bradbury is one of the most important American writers of the mid-20th century. He transformed science fiction’s position in American literature during the 1950s. There were other fine sci-fi writers, but Ray was the one who first engaged the mainstream audience. He had a huge impact on both American literature and popular culture. He was also one of the most significant California writers of the last century. When one talks about Bradbury, one needs to choose a perspective. His career looks different from each angle.

It’s interesting. You see him as a California writer. He moved to California from Illinois in April 1934. He was 13 years old and he’s often associated with the Midwest, the prairie, and its ideals. How do you separate those two things? Is he a Californian or Midwestern writer? Is he both? Or does the question ultimately not matter?

Regional identity matters more in American literature than many critics assume. We have a very mobile society, so today many writers are almost placeless. But Bradbury is a perfect example of a writer for whom regional identity was very important.

How do you decide where a writer comes from? There are two possible theories — both valid. The first theory looks at where a writer was born and spent his or her childhood. But I favor a different view. I believe a writer belongs to the place where he or she hits puberty. That’s the point where the child goes from a received family identity to an independent adult existence.

Once Bradbury came to Southern California, he never left. He lived in Los Angeles for 77 years. All of his books, all of his stories, novels, and screenplays were written here. The great imaginative enterprise of his life — bringing science fiction into the American mainstream — happened in California.

Is there any way to measure Ray’s impact on popular culture?

Let me offer one perspective. If you compiled a list in 1950 of the biggest grossing movies ever made, it would have contained no science fiction films and only one fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz. In Hollywood, science fiction films were low-budget stuff for kids. The mainstream market was, broadly speaking, “realistic” — romances, comedies, historical epics, dramas, war films, and adventure stories.

If you look at a similar list today, all but three of the top films — Titanic and two Fast and Furious sequels — are science fiction or fantasy. That is 94 percent of the hits. That means in a 70-year period, American popular culture (and to a great degree world popular culture) went from “realism” to fantasy and science fiction. The kids’ stuff became everybody’s stuff. How did that happen? There were many significant factors, but there is no doubt that Ray Bradbury was the most influential writer involved.

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How do you place Bradbury in this opposition of the realist and romantic traditions of storytelling?

Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original. He was not indoctrinated in the mainstream assumption of the superiority of the realist mode. He educated himself. He read the books that he wanted to — from masterpieces to junk. Then he began to write children’s literature, which is to say, pulp science fiction and fantasy. But he mixed in elements from the realist tradition.

Then something amazing happened. In a 10-year period, Bradbury wrote seven books that changed both American literature and popular culture. They were mostly collections of short stories. Only two were true novels. In these books, for the first time in American literature, an author brought the subtlety and psychological insight of literary fiction into science fiction without losing the genre’s imaginative zest. Bradbury also crafted a particular tone, a mix of bitterness and sweetness that the genre had never seen before. (There had been earlier novels, mostly British and Russian, in which serious writers employed the science fiction mode, but those works showed the difficulty of combining the different traditions of narration. The books always resolved in dystopian prophecy.) Bradbury, for whatever reasons, was able to manage this difficult balancing act — not once but repeatedly.

What books are you thinking about here? What do you consider Bradbury’s best period?

Sam, you’ll probably disagree with me — but I think Bradbury’s best work was mostly done in a 10-year period in the early part of his career. In one remarkable decade he wrote: The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The October Country (1955), Dandelion Wine (1957), and A Medicine for the Melancholy (1959). The books came one right after the other, and he created a new mode of speculative fiction.

The culture immediately recognized his achievement. Suddenly, major mainstream journals published his fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV. Millions of readers, who would not have read pulp fiction, came to his work. He also became the first science fiction author to attract a large female readership.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

5 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury at 100”

  1. I’ve never thought of myself as regional; more like a citizen of the world who happened to have been born in what then was ‘the good place.’

    But I was born in Glendale, lived in Mexico City from 7 to 19, went away to finish college at Seattle U., did grad school at U. Wisconsin-Madison, had my first job in Maryland (JHU-APL), and then spent 37 in years in New Jersey, and have ALWAYS felt I was trying to get back to California.

    And I might have, too, if Lockheed hadn’t been so secretive about what they wanted to hire me for at the same time Princeton welcomed me back to my field.

    But when it came to retirement, I put my foot down: I came home. Davis is very nice, and it is California, and I belong here.

    Does it affect my writing? I think so, and I think it always has. I grew up with daily sunshine and mostly days you could go outside without looking like the Michelin man, and that makes a difference.

    Now could we please get with the terraforming Earth – we need more rain.

    • In California?
      Sorry but that’s not happening.
      California terraformed away any near term hope of avoiding droughts and wildfires.

      If anything water shortages will be getting worse.
      Depending on your local conditions you may want to be looking into a cistern or a water tank (they can be as cheap as $100). Lots of warm places have learned to live with irregular water supplies and California needs to learn because draining the Colorado isn’t an option any more.
      Good news is Texas will be happy to sell California all the electricity the grid can handle. Not everywhere can say that.

      NIMBY always boomerangs.
      The missing reservoirs would come in handy right about now.

    • Having lived in Orange County for a few years and traveled to San Francisco a zillion times on business and having a daughter who lives with her family in the Central Valley, I can opine that, while there is a “California,” there are also a lot of different Californias.

      Los Angeles and San Francisco could be on different planets. Both have more than their share of crazies, but they tend to be crazy in different ways. As a matter of fact, Los Angeles (speaking of the geography hazily) could populate several different planets all by itself.

      Beverly Hills and Huntington Beach don’t speak the same language. You seldom hear English in East LA (which is geographically larger than Manhattan, but almost totally horizontal).

      In many medium-sized and small cities in the Central Valley, Anglos are the minority. Latinos include fourth-generation orange-ranchers who are quite wealthy and send their children to Stanford as well as very poor Latino illegal immigrants whose children learn more than five words in English for the first time in kindergarten.

  2. For me, the wonderful takeaway from Bradbury are his thoughts about “cinematic writing”:

    “All my stories are cinematic . . . every paragraph is a shot.” Or more fully:
    “All the paragraphs are shots. By the way the paragraph reads, you know whether it’s a close-up or a long shot…I may be the most cinematic novelist in the country today. All of my short stories can be shot right off the page. Each paragraph is a shot.”

    Words to live by as I tweak my style through successive novels.

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