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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


One side-benefit to my having read Ashley's STUDY OF POPULAR FICTION was that one of the essays therein made reference to "Frank Cioffi's concept of the anomaly"-- which sounded intriguing enough that I sought out the work cited, a book titled FORMULA FICTION?: AN ANATOMY OF AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION, 1930-1940 (published by Greenwood Press in 1982). I had read the book long ago and didn't remember much about it, but due to my current concern with defining the concept of the "metaphenomal" (see last essay), Cioffi's use of the word "anomaly" for a narrative element that disrupts the status quo of a narrative situation sounded applicable to my system. I'll probably end up using the term in future, but serendipitously, I also see Cioffi's work as exemplifying some of the critical trends I'm writing against here, particularly in my "Myths of Sociology."

(Incidentally, Cioffi's approach to his topic-- early pulp-era SF-- is closer to structuralism than to post-structuralism according to Ashley's definitions, but Cioffi is just as overinvested in sociological mythology as any post-structuralist. So much for Ashley's definitions.)

Cioffi's thesis is that science fiction is a wide-ranging genre with "aesthetic potentialities" all its own despite its cross-pollination from other genres, and that the genre can be broadly divided into three categories: "status quo SF," "subversive SF," and "other world SF." I don't propose to address his categories as such here, but only the methodology by which he divides them: that of separating certain works according to what might be called their "sociologically redeeming value." From my modest knowledge of trends in SF criticism I would say Cioffi's theory didn't find many if any adherents, for all that his preference for "subversive" forms of fiction strongly situates him alongside the many Marxist SF-critics whose dialectic proved popular in both the 70s and 80s. Cioffi should certainly be seen as separate from the more elitist SF-critics: he notes that "Stanislaw Lem and Darko Suvin... hold that 95 percent of all science fiction is unworthy of criticial attention," and then gives his reasons for choosing to be less "parochial" in analyzing "the literature that has been passed over." That sort of statement certainly endears his work to my pluralist heart, as does his overview of the pulp magazines in which American science fiction took shape as a recognizeable genre.

There is, to be sure, some degree of elitism in Cioffi's theory, too, given his clear preference for the subversive forms, but unlike the more blinkered critics he at least recognizes many of the connections between different forms and modes, as in the passage where he leads into defining the concept of the anomaly:

"I divide the large amount of SF that appeared in the [30s] decade according to its treatment of the relation between these two major components: a picture of 1930s social reality and some scientifically explicable change in that reality. Some of this interaction between a given world and an altered world mimics that found in other popular forms. For example, other genres often show characters in relatively stable situations disrupted by an adventure, a crime or a love affair in much the same way that the initially stable social reality of an SF story is jarred by some chance intervention of a wonder drug, an invasion from another planet, or a miraculous invention."

Cioffi then asserts that the early SF-genre came into being in the pulps with a great deal of influence from other genres (for instance, "western stories" being recapitulated as "space westerns"). However, he argues that early SF possessed "aesthetic potentialities" that went beyond "the usual focus of popular fiction-- the fate of individual characters." In tried-and-true Marxist manner, he finds that the social values that supposedly attracted the readers of other genres-- "the family, the love ethic, manly heroism, the American Way, and the like"-- failed to have much effect upon the more "skeptical, disenchanted" audience that began to rally around the SF-banner.

Cioffi says very little about the other two major metaphenomenal genres, horror and fantasy, except to put them aside as irrelevant to the SF-genre insofar as their metaphenomal aspects are not explained in terms of scientific plausibility ("The creation of a monster in a laboratory, as in FRANKENSTEIN, is science fictional, while the unexplained existence of monsters in, say, BEOWULF is not.") Though I myself see this as a major deficit in Cioffi's theory, one need not bring in these content-related genres to see flaws in his contrast between science fiction and other generic forms. A little before the period Cioffi covers, Dashiel Hammett began writing his "Continental Op" detective stories, of which I've read several, and I see no reason to think that they are inferior in subversive content than any of the SF stories Cioffi champions.

I won't touch here on Cioffi's particular interpretations of the SF-stories he uses to make his case for his categories, except to say that he obviously read widely in his chosen area of expertise, and many of his examples are well-chosen to fit his sociological theme, which one would expect to find in greater concentration in SF than in other genres. But even as I applaud the pluralism of this approach, I have to find him guilty of subscribing a little too quickly to a different sort of "status quo:" that of the representations used by literary elitists to justify their works over others. In summing up the differences between serious and popular literature, he writes:

"'Mainstream,' or 'serious,' literature generally resists imitation and replication; the subtle tones, moods, nuances, and multifaceted characters it employs are difficult to describe and define, and even more difficult to imitate."

This is certainly a good summation of how literary elitists like to view their chosen 5% of good stuff, but in truth imitation in literary circles is a little more prevalent than Cioffi claims here. For instance, a close reading of West's DAY OF THE LOCUST will disclose a fair number of tropes lifted from one of West's favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald. And although West may be considered to have grown beyond simply imitating Fitzgerald, one could equally say the same of any number of popular authors whose influences are clearly discernable, be it Raymond Chandler doing his take on Hammett or Robert Bloch on Lovecraft.

Moreover, FORMULA FICTION seems to promote this view as a means of riding the coattails of "serious literture," implying that of all the genres that Cioffi considers, only science fiction comes close to the highbrow heights, though the author never comes right and says so. Thus it's impossible to rate Cioffi's work as showing any thoughtful appreciation for the nature of formula fiction itself. But then, given the querlous question mark following the title, perhaps such appreciation was never really part of Cioffi's outlook from the start.

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