What, in the end, would it mean to determine the voice in its self-identity? Could the voice, in its unsullied ‘pure speech’, stripped of obstacles and contaminations, ever be located? And could the voice of a genre, for instance science fiction, ever be isolated in its purity? Since, for a certain strand of philosophical inquiry, the voice is the locus of identity, essence, pure auto-affection, and since genre definitions seek to delineate the purest expressions of its rules, there would seem to be a structural similarity in these projects. It is a case, then, of isolating the voice in its proximity to itself; in genre terms, of scanning the ‘noise’ of communications traffic, before finally tuning in to that voice, which, alone, is speaking science fiction.
Almost immediately, though, problems surface in this aim. The ‘inward speech’ of the pure voice, speaking and listening intimately to itself, cannot be heard without being in some way ‘translated’: indeed, if it is to make sense, even to itself, it must partake of general language and thus be part of a signifying system which it could never, singly, own. The impurity of a general language, the unbelonging in its system, are in fact the conditions on which claims to purity, ‘pure speech’, are founded. That is why such claims are always so anxious. The voice is always already self-divided.
It is the dream of purity and the fact of impurity that makes speaking (about) science fiction, for example within the context of a conference entitled ‘Speaking Science Fiction’, such a fraught and contentious exercise. For as this body of texts, this ‘subjugated knowledge’, emerges onto academic stages, something like the ‘prudence organizations’ of Philip Dick's Ubik, those protectors from contamination, come into operation. Who has the right to speak (of/with/for) science fiction? Who holds the authentic, self-proximate voice of the genre? Is it the writers themselves? Or is it the phalanx of fans who surround the writers? One which is otherwise degraded, rendered impure, by the secondary, inauthentic speech of academia? Despite its academic locale, manoeuvres to proclaim authenticity recur, angry fans remarking on the re-functioning of the genre for academia, academics proclaiming dual citizenship, as it were, with fandom, and thus denouncing other academics for their limited or superficial knowledge of the genre.
The weird story is most commonly associated with American pulp magazine fiction. In March 1923, Clark Henneberger published the first issue of Weird Tales: A Magazine of the Bizarre and Unusual in the standard pulp format of 128 untrimmed 7 x 10-inch cheap acidic pages with bright, lurid covers. It became closely associated with the work of H. P. Lovecraft, maestro of slimy ooze, tentacular horror and degenerate back-sliders in prose marked by a breathless pile-up of adjectival modifiers and exclamation marks. ‘The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God!’ reads one of Lovecraft's most celebrated tales.
Lovecraft wrote long tales, rarely dynamic in narrative but instead thick with accumulated descriptions of eerie landscapes and extreme psychological states of lone male figures. The shorter length was dictated mainly by pulp concerns (his editors often cut down and streamlined his sentences better to fit the rhythm of pulp style), but Lovecraft was also very committed to Edgar Allan Poe's insistence on a heightened ‘unity of impression’ that the short story could deliver. ‘Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction’, Lovecraft declared. Lovecraft and his circle, which included prolific short story writers Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Whitehead and Robert E. Howard, perfected the ‘weird menace’ story in the early 1930s, in tandem with the emergence of the ‘horror’ film. The film-board classification ‘H for Horrific’ appeared in 1932 alongside the Universal studio adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula, but these films were often called ‘weird’ by their first reviewers. The weird story is an elaboration of the eighteenth-century gothic romance, not quite the same as gothic but a strange and interstitial form on the way to somewhere else: modern horror.
‘Weird menace’ was a capacious pulp category that stretched from supernatural tales of the vengeful dead back from the grave via grim urban noir stories of sexual threat or actual torture to exotic jungle terrors of kidnap and cannibalism. These were the mass sensation fictions of the American culture industry, the so-called ‘shudder pulps’ seeking to register thrills in the physiology of the bodies of those suffering economic hardship.
In late 1971, an extraordinary publishing event was announced. After fifteen years as a recluse, communicating nothing to the outside world, the billionaire Howard Hughes, maverick aircraft and movie mogul, inventor, and designer of a cantilevered brassiere for Jane Russell, had decided to publish his autobiography. It would correct the rumours about his bizarre, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, the sealed world of his Las Vegas penthouse. ‘It would not suit me to die without having certain misconceptions cleared up and without having stated the truth about myself’, Hughes explained (Irving 2008, 5). The publishers McGraw-Hill paid a $750,000 advance to Hughes and his co-writer, the journalist and novelist Clifford Irving. Irving had been chosen by Hughes because of his recent biography of the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory called Fake! Irving first telephoned and then organised several clandestine meetings with Hughes in Mexico and Puerto Rico, where he recorded many hours of interviews.
Irving's editors read the transcripts amazed at the revelations. The authenticity of the details was confirmed by Noah Dietrich who had served as Hughes's assistant for years. At a certain point in the writing process it was agreed that the biographical interview would be lightly re-edited into a continuous first-person account with minimal interventions: it became a ghosted autobiography. This was scrupulously explained in Irving's introduction: ‘I have related my part of the tale in the interests of clearing up the mystery of how the autobiography came to be and dispelling the inevitable gossip concerning authenticity’ (Ibid., 24). Serialisation was internationally syndicated.
Immediately upon publication another extraordinary event took place: someone claiming to be long-silent and elusive Howard Hughes began to place phone calls to prominent journalists denouncing the book as a fraud. This person eventually persuaded a conference call of journalists that he was the real Hughes. Irving convincingly defended the book for weeks, since he had accumulated a vast archive of unpublished sources on the life of his subject. Quite quickly, however, a Swiss bank informed his publishers that the account of ‘H. R. Hughes’, opened to pay Hughes his advance, was being accessed by Irving's wife. The Irvings confessed to the fraud at the end of January 1972. Irving was sentenced to thirty months in jail; his wife received six months.
One of the standard denigrations of popular culture since the rise of its mass, industrial forms in the nineteenth century is that it debases appropriate public representations and discourse. Where we might hope for discernment, popular culture offers uncritical gorging and passive absorption. Where we might have had ambitions for informed and critical public opinion, we get instead sensation and emotional excess. The popular is something that cheapens public discourse, which mesmerises its mass audience with spectacle and threatens, as one panicked critic put it in the 1950s, ‘to engulf everything with its spreading ooze’, like something out of The Blob. This disdain is shared across the political spectrum. In the immediate post-1945 era, cultural conservatives like Evelyn Waugh saw an aristocratic cultural heritage being sacrificed for bloodless meritocracy, the world made safe ‘for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet hand-shake, his grinning dentures’. A liberal like Richard Hoggart, founding professor of Birmingham's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, worried that authentic traditions of English proletarian culture were being destroyed by American mass culture, ‘a myth-world compounded of a few simple elements’ that had been garnered from ‘crime, science fiction and sex novelettes’. On the left, the pessimism of the Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer led them to denounce the ‘culture industry’, as they witnessed it in exile in the 1940s in America, as a destruction of the critical capacities of serious art and its replacement by the mechanical repetition and indoctrinations of capitalist mass entertainment. Popular culture everywhere destroys any chance of a proper public culture.
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