So, at Wison I was on a panel called "Reading with a Squint" about the role gender bias might play in editorial choices. It's a subject I think about from time to time, and thought more intently about in the days leading up to Wiscon. Some of this--it's in parts, because it turned out so freaking long--is stuff I said on the panel (only shorter). Some of it is directly a result of the panel itself and my thoughts about it. Some of it I've been thinking about anyway.
So. Part 1.
I Taste is Culturally Constructed
When I first heard about the infamous 4'33" I was in high school. The piece was described to me as "four and a half minutes of silence." Another phrase that featured in the description was "total bullshit."
Which as it happens is also a pretty accurate way to describe calling 4'33" "silence." Because that's absolutely not what it is. But if you haven't heard any of the conversation the piece is part of, don't have any of the context, that's certainly the way it seems.
4'33" is (among other things) part of John Cage's contribution to an ongoing discussion, a conversation that began with the question, "What is music?" It's a question that seems incredibly simple and obvious when you first ask it, but then when you think about it your obvious answer falls apart. Music has this and that and the other characteristics--this other thing has those but you don't call it music. Why not? Well, then, music also has....but this other thing also has, or this thing you say is obviously music doesn't have something you just said was necessary...
As part of that conversation, one that's been going on for longer than any of us has been alive, Cage plunked 4'33" down on the table and said, "I say this is music. Tell me why it isn't."*
But if you're not in on that conversation--maybe you don't even know it's happening and why should you? There's no reason you shouldn't just turn on the radio and groove to what you like and not worry about theory or history or any of that--it's kind of hard not to scoff in disbelief when you hear about John Cage's most famous piece.
So this is one of the things I came out of college with--a personal definition of "music" that was completely exploded, opened wide. Or maybe I'd say a non-definition. Like science fiction, it's whatever I'm pointing at when I say, "That's music." And I can point to a freaking lot of stuff and say "that's music." But damned if I can say very much about what makes it music. I think, just personally, I'd settle with Cage's answer. "I put a frame around it, therefore it is art. That art is made of sound--therefore it is music.
So, then, I had kids. My daughter got all kinds of presents just for being born! And several of them were the sort of thing where Baby flails around (like babies do) and if she hits a button Something Happens. Lights flash, colors change...music plays. It seemed like every one of those toys used the same three or four songs. Which is fine, because you can't get tired of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," am I right?**
Now, all these songs were very simple. Short phrases, nothing in the way of accidentals, no venturing into other keys, no syncopation or oddly subdivided rhythms. No harmony, usually. Just short, uncomplicated melody. Hmm, I think, that's interesting. I never thought about it before, but really, we start training kids really, really early to understand and appreciate a particular kind of music, don't we.
Then one day I was watching Barney. Well, my daughter was watching Barney. Barney, of course, is a big purple pretend dinosaur who teaches kids things like how nice it is to share, how wonderful it is to be friends, that sort of thing. But this episode, the kids pipe up and ask, "Barney, what is music?"
I was fucking floored. Yesterday they sang some songs about the colors of the rainbow and how popcorn was really neat, and talked about how it was sad if your friend moved away but you could still write her! Today it's what is fucking music? What's tomorrow? Barney, is there a God? Barney, what is the meaning of life?
So of course I can't wait to hear Barney's answer. Which is something along the lines of "Music sounds nice and has rhythm and a melody, and let's all sing about popcorn!" (Yeah, that damn popcorn song is indelibly etched onto my brain. Actually I'm pretty sure the song wasn't that one.) And I think to myself, Wow, Barney has just completely erased a whole shitload of music.
That moment was revelatory for me. You know those people who hear something that's really, obviously music--it depends what sort, sometimes it's hip-hop or metal, sometimes it's 4'33" or Schonberg or free improv--and say, with contempt, "That's not music"? Those people had always sort of confused me. I mean, any of those, I get not liking them, but they're all pretty obviously music. (Well, okay, the Cage isn't terribly obvious to a lot of folks. Still.)
But I realized then, that in fact not only have we all been very carefully trained to value a certain kind of music, we've also been told that one particular, very narrow sort is "music." Not "tonal music" not "popular music" not "rock" or "parlor songs" or any of a number of other very specific types of music, but just plain "music." That's the default, it's what "music" essentially is.
Imagine that from infancy every time someone said "fruit" they showed you an apple. And every time you asked for fruit you got..yes, an apple. Say "fruit" and everyone knows you mean apple, apple is fruit and fruit is apple.
One day someone hands you an orange. "Ugh," you say, "this isn't fruit!" By which you mean, not an apple. And another time, you get a pear. Which, pears are very poor imitations of apples, aren't they. "This," you might say, "is very inferior fruit. I'd rather have real fruit."
Of course, that pear might be the most amazing pear ever, but it's going to taste like a really bad attempt at an apple, if that's what you're always comparing it to. Which, since apple is the default fruit, means your pear is shoddy fruit.
People get--from very early on--a very fixed idea of the default state of something. Music. Visual art. Movies. Written stories. And because of the way we talk about those things, we obscure the fact that we're really talking about subcategories of the bigger thing. We really mean a very specific kind of music, or visual art, or whatever. But the way we use the language--the way we've been taught to use the language--hides that from us, and it's almost impossible to see unless we actually sit down and ask why apples are fruit but not oranges, and whether pears might actually be their own thing.
Most of us in SFF have experienced this on the other end, of course. When I was younger I had adults tell me that SF could never be Capital L Literature, that as proof no great writers had ever written it***--and given reasons why SFF could never be great that made it clear the speaker had no freaking idea what SFF was, or could do, or had already done. What they read was Good Literature. SFF differed, and was a poor imitation of the Real Thing.
But we still do it, ourselves. Some portions of the eternal "what's really science fiction" debate seem focused on excluding pears and oranges from our basket on the grounds that they're not really fruit. Except no definition that excludes oranges and pears will also include every sort of apple.
I don't mind "what is SF really" as a theoretical debate, or as a way to find new aspects of SF to question or play with. Drawing dotted lines to see what patterns they make can be fun.
I do very much mind "what is SF really" as a way to exclude. To narrow SF down to a "pure" default, a single thing, when really it's a wide, wide category with zillions of sub-categories, and that's part of what makes it so fun, why I was hooked by it in elementary school and still am today, decades later.
*If this seems nonsensical to you, consider whether or not what one would ordinarily call "silence" is actually silent.
**Yes, in fact, my daughter does play violin. You can get very, very tired of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Fortunately those days are long behind me.
***Right, the ones that did weren't really writing science fiction. You know the drill.
Part 2 tomorrow.
Part 2 Slush
Part 3 Ann Likes Red
Part 4 Bias Is Inherent in the System
Part 5 Women Write Different Stories From Men?
Part 6 Fight for Your Right to Party
Part 7 Ending on Felicitous Seven
- Wiscon-Related Thoughts pt 1