Miso Soup at Midnight
It’s night in the city of Writing. A librarian sits in the SF Café, looking out on the ghetto of Genre. The whole place has become a little chi-chi over the years, beatnik artists moving in above the brothels and the crack dens. Might almost forget it’s the ghetto, if that avant garde street theatre troupe out on Mass Market Square didn’t blend in with the hookers and hustlers, make it all look like just one big sensual experience for sale. And whenever she swings by the Bistro de Critique, friends shudder at where she hangs: that dive? The librarian takes this in her stride. There’s no point whining about your area being badmouthed when your next door neighbour runs a crack house and, well, you do like a bit of a puff on the old hash pipe now and then.
A status update scrolls across the lenses of her mayashades: epistemic modality detected — is not happening. Curious. This is meant to be non-fiction, she knows, reportage. She can suspend her disbelief, pretend an epistemic modality of is happening is at play here — just like she would with any fictive narrative in present tense — but it’s unsettling to realise she’s just a figurative device. But so it goes.
So it goes indeed. Fact is, Genre is a dirty and disreputable part of town but it’s that way for a reason, and at the end of the day, the librarian kinda likes it. This is a place where freaks and weirdos feel at home. The bars here are more fun. The rent is cheap. And Mass Market Square is infinitely more dynamic, exciting, and relevant than the uptown galleries full of middle-class bores clinking champagne glasses and droning on about how jejune the latest wunderkind is really, darling, just so trite, really, overhyped. There’s a trade-off between the social stigma and squalid trappings of the Genre ghetto and the freedom that it gives to work outside the tight-ass strictures of “proper literature” which generally also means the tight-ass strictures of contemporary realism.
Besides, a change is in the air.
She looks out at the Kipple Foodstuff Factory that dominates the skyline, but sees also, through her mayashades, hints of a future screamed of by a time-traveler in the Bistro de Critique — the fallen walls of the ghetto, gourmet guerrillas from the slums pouring out into the city. And beyond maybe.
As a traveler once, she remembers walking into a Japanese restaurant in a little town in North Carolina. Cool, she thought. Japanese: miso soup; tempura; ramen; noodles hot and spicy; tang-rich food to make your taste buds tingle. But no. No miso soup on the menu here. Swear to Cunt what you had was:
Beef in soy sauce with rice.
Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
Chicken in soy sauce with rice.
Beef & Chicken in soy sauce with rice.
Prawns & Beef in soy sauce with rice.
Chicken & Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
Or, hey, wow, the Special…
Beef & Chicken & Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
Here now, in a booth of the SF Café, she sips the miso soup she couldn’t get that day. The exact miso soup she couldn’t get that day. It’s a quirk, you see, a little rupture in the mimetic weft of her mundane narrative, the stream of stuff that she’s pretending is happening. This now… this is an event that could not be happening. Fuck the epistemic modality; this is alethic modality we’re talking now, not factuality but possibility.
She could be sitting in a booth, looking out a window, but to be sipping the actual miso soup she couldn’t get that day, here now at midnight in the SF Café… that’s an impossibility of level… what? She’s not sure if it’s known history, known science, the laws of nature, or the strictures of logic itself that have been ripped apart to drag that miso soup out from the nowhere to the here now.
Frankly, she doesn’t give a fuck what level impossibility it is though. She’s got miso soup at midnight and it’s fucking tasty.
On Adamantium Pinions
We imagine genres as delimited by formal constraints — like the sonnet’s fourteen lines and volta. This need not equate to formulation any more than Oulipo constraints do, but we can’t deny it does. As the librarian looks out on the Kipple Foodstuff Factory, she’s looking at the impact of mass-production in the 20th century, the pulp boom that was built on formulation. All of the genres boxed and shipped as category fiction did become codified with constraints of form by which more of the same could be churned out, schlockburgers made to recipe from Soylent Brown.
(Soylent Brown? It ain’t people, but it comes from them.)
Still, from the start there was an insatiable demand for ongoing detournement, soon even the bricolage of tropes stolen from Western, Noir, Romance, and who knows what else, the result a hydra-headed hybrid of formulae — the collage, homage, pastiche and parody cooked up by the likes of Farmer and Moorcock, yes? We imagine this to be what makes the menu in the SF Café so peachy keen: New Wave Chilli; Cyberpunk Pad Thai; New Weird Rogan Josh; New Space Opera Bolognaise. We imagine it’s the ceaseless recombination of recipes.
The librarian glances at the menu on the window that don’t have none of them fancy foreign words. All it says is:
1) SF Special Hamburger (However You Want It)
2) Fantasy Special Fried Chicken (Just How You Ask)
The librarian can’t remember if she ordered the miso soup she couldn’t get that day in North Carolina as a Number One or a Number Two. It doesn’t really matter to her, not half as much as the local rag’s food critic at the next booth over, who just described his Coq au Vin as “transcending the genre.”
Every time we use the phrase “transcends the genre,” she knows, we surrender to the corollary of positing genre on formal constraints — that our fiction essentially made to formulae must become other than itself to become good. We invite the literati of the Bistro de Critique to sneer, as if we were poets touting our sonnets as “genre poetry,” trite doggerel made to the fourteen lines and one volta formula unless — aha! — one sonnet throws off its shackles, transcends those constraints, becomes great. It is a vacuous valorisation of novelty over substance to imagine a missing line or an extra volta is what makes a sonnet great. It’s also wrong, an insult to the genre that fails to understand — to write a sonnet should be to eschew formulation anyway.
This is how genre becomes a dirty word, indeed, how it comes to carry the stench of puked up schlockburgers, overflowing the gutters, filthing the sidewalks, trodden underfoot and carried everywhere we walk. How can we bitch about the snootcockers of the Bistro de Critique when we ourselves laud our exemplary works as rising on adamantium pinions, unchained from the Augean mire we’ve made. Behold the dark horse, loosed from stables of writers shitting!
For the love of Cock, she thinks, we hail the works of Aeschylus and Euripedes as Greek Tragedy. We don’t extol them as transcending genre, as if to write a Greek Tragedy back in the day would obviously have been derivative hackwork.
The Secret Cuisine
To understand what’s actually going on in any idiom, any genre, we need to turn this model inside out. Forget the notion of genres as delimited by formal constraints. The constraints are techniques. With a volta this is obvious, but even the number of lines is not a limitation; it is a technique of economy and of structural patternings — two sevens, two sixes and a two, three fours and a two, four threes and a two. Those techniques are core components, conceits around which individual works develop an entirely original articulation, not boundaries on what that articulation can be.
You can make anything with the core components used in the SF Café — those quirks. They are no more than a breach of the ongoing possibility of the narrative, after all, the injection of an alethic modality of could not happen. That is the technique at play in the SF Café’s cooking, the secret ingredient that could be anything that could not be — by history, science, laws of nature, rules of logic.
No, there are no constraints on what you can do with the alethic quirk, only tribes of taste — look, see them now, as the librarian turns her head — raging for burgers only in the booths, fried chicken only at the tables, tribes of taste raging for proper burgers, proper fried chicken, tribes of taste raging against each other and against the chefs, with the insufferable petulance of the entitled. We do have our favourite recipes and the right, we think, to expunge all else from our café. We are a plethora of follies, not least in the fervour with which we howl injustice that the sating of our demands for “more of the same” should lead to derision.
Still, as the turf wars of the clans carry on, the librarian wouldn’t give it up for the world. She has the miso soup she couldn’t get that day. She might wonder why the chef doesn’t head uptown to the district of Literature, but she asked him fifteen minutes ago and he simply smiled.
— The secret cuisine, he said.
So she’d ordered a Number One or a Number Two. It doesn’t really matter because she didn’t even specify how she wanted it, just gave a shrug: surprise me. And so, five minutes ago, he came out with the miso soup.
Truth is, the ghetto of Genre, every dive bar and greasy spoon in the neighourhood itself, is a substrate that nurtures truly refusenik writers too. Sure there are those who sneer at miso soup. What the fuck, they say, is miso anyway? Some kind of animal? But they do buy a lot of burgers. So publishers piggy-back off the sales of formula fare to support the secret cuisine that is the true heart of every genre. They know the demand for works which treat a technique as core component, as mere conceit around which the articulation is developed, prized precisely for its originality.
To deny this is simply ignorance of the historical reality and of the underlying mechanisms by which literature evolves. It’s an ignorance born of blind desire among the tribes of taste. Among the literati it’s born of the fact that when they do come slumming in the ghetto and end up in the SF Café, they see a menu of hamburger and fried chicken, and a host of culinary clansmen fighting over it, wordspittle flying at how the enemy’s recipes are all schlock. And maybe while they’re there, they’ll turn to see the chef bring out a bowl of miso soup to the woman sat looking out the window at the Kipple Foodstuff Factory, and a plate of Coq au Vin to the man with the notebook at the table.
— This transcends the genre, they’ll hear him say.
This is why the cuisine is secret.
That menu promising SF Special Hamburger (However You Want It) doesn’t help. Miso soup is not hamburger whether it’s served in a fancy uptown Japanese restaurant or in the SF Café. It’s not Hamburger, Hamburger/Frankfurter, New Grill, Burgerpunk, Hamfurter or Flipgrease. It’s fucking miso soup. And the literati slumming it in the SF Café, watching the librarian sip her miso soup, they’ve seen it served as miso soup in that fancy new Japanese joint, Pomo, in the uptown district of Literature. They know it ain’t a fucking burger. Must be a little quality cuisine slipped in, or some sly sleight-of-hand disguising of the dreck. They speak of miso soup served by some uptown chef, food critics raving of Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO. Which definitely isn’t burger, they say a little too loud.
The atmosphere in SF Café flips in an instant. It irks that they deny this is a burger. It irks that Ishiguro must have tasted the miso soup here, reconstructed the recipe. It irks that he failed to properly follow the formal constraints. It irks that Ishiguro gets kudos where our chefs don’t. It irks that he didn’t come from the ghetto of Genre, didn’t sprout from the cracks in the literary sidewalk, struggle up out of gutters thick with filth. It irks that he didn’t learn his craft in Mass Market Square, hasn’t paid his dues. And now he’s out there making miso soup just like our boys, denying that it’s hamburger and getting lauded by the critics. How come he gets the kudos and our chefs don’t?
The simple answer: because he didn’t call it fucking hamburger.
The complex answer: this is not about burgers and recipes, constraints and kudos, struggles and dues; or it is in a way, but at the heart of it, where it matters, it’s really about the secret cuisine, about the quirks that you can do anything with, that anyone, anywhere, anywhen can do anything with.
The Great Eggs Benedict Scandal
The librarian remembers the Great Eggs Benedict Scandal which made this clear to her — Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 versus Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD. Back while the New Wave writers were learning to read, never mind write, Bradbury was chef at the SF Café, serving up his own secret cuisine while the place was still as greasy spoon as they come. So one day a customer comes in and takes a seat at one of the tables. She’s in her usual booth, not far away, can’t help but hear when he asks for a burger… maybe sort of like that eggs-over-easy malarkey but… not quite… something different. Surprise me, he says.
So out comes Bradbury with Eggs Benedict to put the fancy bistros uptown to shame, beats Huxley’s hands-down, everyone agrees, as they all come to try it over the next few weeks. But does he get kudos for it in the Writing City Journal’s food column? Does the SF Café get kudos for this dazzling dish of dystopia? Or do those bastards at the Bistro de Critique just ignore this instant classic, keep blathering on about Huxley, even denying that when he does Burger a la Eggs Benedict, it’s actually burger. In the Temple of Academia, rituals are enacted in celebration of Saint Huxley, but Bradbury…?
The architect Francois Truffaut just built a motherfucking monument to his dish, the librarian remembers reading in the paper one day, as she sat in the SF Café, listening to the kvetching. A skyscraper in midtown.
Still, around her the culinary clansmen raged of the literati’s unjust hatred of all burgers… and raged of the literati’s love for this Huxley’s burger. They raged that the twisted literati turned a blind eye to the bacon and relish of Huxley’s burger, had no idea of the greater glory of the bacon and relish in Bradbury’s.
One slumming literati frowned, perplexed. Bradbury’s dish is great, for sure, but it’s Eggs Benedict, not burger. Burgers have ground beef in them.
The clansmen howled! The bistro bastard was insisting it’s all formulation. Every clansman knew you could have eggburger! Couldn’t he see the bacon and relish that prove there’s more to burger than mere formulae! See?! See the Hollandaise relish?!
But the librarian, she knew. This Burger a la Eggs Benedict, this dystopic dish, it wasn’t ground beef. It was eggs, and not just any old eggs — the eggs of a cockatrice from the next century. Like Huxley’s were the eggs of a harpy from a next century two steps to the right. And it was that special ingredient that really mattered, the thing that could not be, not here and now.
And should not be, she realised.
She looked down at the Eggs Benedict on her plate. Her mayashades scrolled instant analyses, coded in glyphs of light, across the lenses: negative boulomaic modality (translation: desireability) detected — should not be; negative deontic modality (translation: duty) detected — should not be; positive alethic modality (translation: possibility) detected — would be if; impossibility + contingency > possibility.
This is dystopia, she realised, as the quirk of a monstrous egg that could not be unpacked to contingencies that meant it could be if, if, if… not here and now, but one day. Wireframe edge detection traced the substructure of narrative logic, the dynamics blossoming from a single conceit. No recipe, no formulae, just… a core component around which articulation unfolded by the deep drive of narrative itself, in an articulation original and unconstrained.
She saw the quirk at the heart of it, the egg wireframed to abstraction: flense specificity; abstract to base form. Neither cockatrice nor harpy egg, origin unknown, nature unknown, the ovoid collapsed to sphere, the sphere collapsed to singularity, a point of pure potential from which anything impossible could hatch. It hatched.
— You see the secret cuisine? said the chef at her side as the true form of the alethic quirk fillsed her vision — novum, erratum, chimera, sutura.
— Why the fuck do we call this burger? she said.
— Eggs Benedict?! some clansmen snarled. Who the fuck is called Benedict anyway? Faggot intellectuals, that’s who! Ben maybe, but fucking Benedict? That’s a name for traitors and Catholics. It’s just a fuckin hamburger.
— Ah, said the librarian.
The League of Fusion Fry-Cooks
The librarian gazes out the window. The shadow of the Kipple Foodstuff Factory still hangs over us, but at least we know it’s there. Truth is, the junk fiction is everywhere. The Mob makes every eatery in the city carry those KFF schlockburgers. Truth is, the Bistro de Critique carries them too. So it goes.
We call it all burger, wonder why it gets no respect, when even before the New Wave broke the “boundaries of genre,” chefs like Bradbury were cooking whatever the fuck they wanted to. Truth is, the Mob sends goons round every other day to strong arm our boys into hackwork. We’re just lucky some goons love them Eggs Benedict, shrug as we serve them up: guess we all like a little something different now and then; just… keep it on the QT, call it burger, don’t make out that you ain’t scum like us. Besides, the Boss Man hangs in the Bistro de Critique, and it’s important to him that he’s got “class.”
But the secret cuisine can’t hep but evolve. The more the tribes of taste try to impose their formulae, the more the result is simply dialectics — thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Change. So food fads come and go in the SF Café — New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Weird — the menu changing with the times, each new fry-cook doing brave new things with a million variants of burger and fried chicken, crafting bizarre creations of fusion cuisine, adding a signature dish wholly original, unique, exquisitely crafted from raw conceit. Detournement. Bricolage. Quirks.
At some time in the past — nobody knows when — a secret society was formed, a League of Fusion Fry-Cooks, dedicated to the art of fast food haute cuisine, sharing recipes and raw ingedients, tricks and techniques, their motto Miso Soup for the Soul. They have plans to storm the Bistro de Critique, it’s said, schemes the librarian knows will one day come to fruition… if the tales of a traveller in time are true. The project is graffitied across the ghetto of Genre, written in invisible ink right here, if you only read between the lines. Yes, they walk amongst us in the streets, meet in the back-alleys. They wear harlequin masks and dance to disguise themselves as street performers. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe I am.
Out on the streeets of the ghetto, a masked harlequin (maybe you, maybe me) walks by, in their hand a Molotov cocktail of mixed metaphors — fry-cooks and fusion cuisine, schlockburgers and cafés, ghosts and golems. This is the strategy of our strange fictions, quirk upon quirk, conceit upon conceit, extended and involuted till they all shear off from a simple coherent sense, the vehicle of metaphor unmoored from its tenor, defying reduction to mere allegory. This is how we see the world through our mayashades: a quirk with a cosmos of chaos inside, all that could not be.
The librarian takes another scan of her surroundings, orients herself from another angle of vision. She’s out on the street now. This could not be, but if you can sip the miso soup you couldn’t get that day in North Carolina, you can do anything.
The librarian taps a smoke off Kid Pulp, offers a light.
Kid Pulp is working the same corner as per usual, busking and hustling, offering wild songs and ten dollar blowjobs, dancing in a red leather miniskirt or denim cut-offs, selling limber feats as pole dance peep shows improvised with lampposts and blindfolds. The strumpet stripling slinks round a pimp, a bookstore buyer in fur coat and gold rings, diamonds in his grin bought with monies made by mining star dreck. Prissy passers-by who took a wrong turn from uptown gasp as punters splash out cash for the harlequin’s masque, a Pornographia dell’Arte that might well end in blood and tears instead of spunk these days.
This is the vision through the librarian’s mayashades, of course, filtered through the figurative, view skewed towards the sordid. It’s how society sees the sensational, painted lurid by the streetlight’s glow, painted lurid with boulomaic and deontic modalities, quirks of desire and duty. We seldom see what is, too busy projecting onto it what should be and what should not be.
Kid Pulp, fully paid-up member of the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks, will have none of that should not be. Kid Pulp was suckled at the paps of a harlot dam known as Romance, does not deny her. No defensive twitch when this harlot/hustler’s heritage is thrown back in Kid Pulp’s face by those brought up on the right side of the tracks. No shame, no sham of fierce certainty that Kid Pulp is not that kind of girl. No shoving that honest working girl into a closet, starving Momma to a skeleton. A whirl, a twirl, and the sparkly logo on Kid Pulp’s crop top comes clear, the brand name of SF.
Dressed in such gaudy duds of glossy packaging, Kid Pulp figures, why get your knickers in a twist when the literati sneer? The sideshow sells well when it’s painted pretty colours and comes cheap on the street-corners, so we shill ourselves as Sci-Fi, wear the label in a wild and willing deal with the devil. Through the single-setting mayashades that most don’t even know they’re wearing, it sure looks like we’re just following the family trade (rough trade, that is,) as we stand out there beneath the streetlight, touting cheap thrills to sad johns.
— Show you a good time, if ya want it, honey. A tasty treat. Fresh, juicy meat.
It all began, you know, with self-righteous prigs reviling whores and faggots, proles and primitives, as slave to base sensation. With Romance as an unmarried mother, whore with a bastard in her hysterical womb, kicked out, no mercy but the workhouse or the madhouse. (It would be nice if a less sexist figuration of Romance could be found here, but it would be a denial of the semiotics at play, which is sexist; the discourse of the sensational is inextricable from the discourse of the hysterical.) Her recent history is starvation and desparation, the brothel trucks and army whorehouses of the Culture Wars. Kid Pulp was born of the Joy Division of fiction, and I don’t mean the fucking band.
Kid Pulp is not a hooker/hustler because of some moral degeneracy, is not fallen, just a fall guy. Bastard offspring of Romance and Frankenstein’s monster, Kid Pulp grew up hustling that sweet ass, knows it’s hard to scrape a living any other way, knows other ways are more degrading in the end. The propriety of polite company finds quirks a little uncouth, see, the cocks and cunts of narrative. The sensational is the sexual, shockingly gauche. The secret cuisine is a naked lunch to the petit-bourgeoisie: genre fiction; pulp fiction; penny dreadfuls; dime novels; sensation novels; Gothic; Romance. The Pornographia dell’Arte is a pandering Grand Guignol of all emotions.
So Kid Pulp got real, faced the facts. You made your bed, says Kid Pulp, now you’ve got to spread your legs on it, bite the pillow and think of England. Kid Pulp is Babylon and Sodom, our Woman of the Ghetto, our Boy for Sale. Elsewhen, Kid Pulp would have been a faggot whore priestess prince black madonna in scarlet and purple drag, offering entry into sacred mysteries of flesh and spirit, eros and logos. Elsewhen, Kid Pulp would have been none of this, more than the idealised and demonised metaphors emergent from a history of abstraction and abjection. So those snooty literati see a slapper in these Bacchic revels? So fuck? Deal with it.
Kudos comes at a price, Kid Pulp knows: ditch the mini-skirt and cut-offs, move uptown; or join the fucking revolution.
The Idiom of the Ascetic
In the Bistro de Critique, Orwell and Huxley serve dystopia, a taster of the secret cuisine that remains unseen. They’re spared the sneers, suited up in pinstripes — no red leather miniskirts or denim cut-offs here. No turning tricks each night, sating sense-of-wonder-lust, ten dollars a pop. No formulae here for churning out potboilers by the pound. No pimps hawking hackwork product in Mass Market Square. They are members of the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks — they and others like them; but these chefs of the quirk were spared that whole grotesque and glittering scene, the garish spectacle of sensation that turned Sci-Fi into a slight.
Brooding in the ghetto for nigh on half a century, bitter at the literati, clansmen stalk the dark. Beware, the unwitting wanderer from uptown who says the wrong thing in the ghetto. The tribes of taste are seasoned warriors of the flame, and they know insult when they hear it.
They howl at midnight on the streets of Genre. The works they love are reviled while worthy (wearisome) “mainstream” fiction garners all accolades, as if the idiom of the ascetic were the only way to tell the truth. Worse, much of it is no longer “mainstream,” not mundane but strange, miso soup for the soul. Still, the literati laud Ishiguro’s dish by its supposed distinction from SF, constructing the root cause of failure ultimately, in any novel, as not eschewing the essential nature of one’s genre. As if to work in an idiom other than the ascetic could only mean to be bound by formal constraints. As if they are still working in the idiom of the ascetic simply by not being trite. The writers themselves speak in these terms. The secret cuisine is so secret even some of its greatest chefs don’t know they’re practising it, don’t know it exists, how it works. And so they buy into that same grand folly, abjuring the very idioms their best works are in. With this, they win the kudos of the literati, lose out on all the infamy and fun.
— No SF novel ever won the Booker, growls a prowling clansman on his way into the SF Café.
The librarian swings a shotgun from inside her longcoat, blasts the bullshit axiom from the air. Screw the Booker, she thinks. She’d rather have a hookah.
She stands in the doorway of the SF Café, past and future glimmering in her mayashades. She sees Kid Pulp working uptown in the theatres, other harlot/hustler harlequins crashing gallery openings and cocktail parties, noising up the regulars at the Bistro de Critique, hustling a little ass now and then to pay the rent, or dancing — prancing, entrancing maniacs blowing flutes instead of johns. For all the abjurations, every Ishiguro is another sleeper agent of the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks slipped in to open up the bistro’s back door, let the slumdogs in, slavering and savage.
But that’s tomorrow. She looks round, sees them here now, more and more by the day, her fellow agents, talking the Pornographia dell’Arte in the SF Café or on some corner of Mass Market Square. They talk of the kudos and cash success stories of 20th Century literature, the canon of writers that includes Joyce alongside Hemmingway, Faulkner alongside Steinbeck, writers such as Rushdie, Bulgakov, Carter, Calvino, Marquez, Pynchon, Vonnegut, and so on. They talk of modern classics that don’t sit any better in the contemporary realist’s tower block than in the SF flophouse. They talk of that scene, the flavours of the month, the lists and prizes, the slow assimilation of contemporary realism, its descent into formulation. They know formulation when they see it, living in the ghetto. They talk of a spotlight wearing thin for the idiom of the ascetic. Kelly Link was in Time Magazine a whiles back, they say, Top Five Books of the Year.
Change is in the air. There are always choices, chances.
The secret cuisine cannot be contained.
A Water Feature in the Gardens of Literature
The librarian heads out across Mass Market Square, towards the subway, checking in with the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks over her aether uplink, telling them all about the Bistro de Critique’s strange visitor from twenty years into tomorrow, how he told of a Dynamism sweeping in to overturn the tables. Her contact listens with great interest.
Here is a secret of the secret cuisine. The “mainstream” of literature is only what is in the main stream, and this is not the contemporary realism of the kitchen sink. That idiom had a brief boom in the 1960s, as angry young men roared for realism in the name of relevance, no frills, no nonsense. It was an egalitarian agenda, born in a backlash against elitist artifices of the modernists, eschewing the strange and sensationalist quirks, seeing deceit in all conceit — but in an honest and passionate dream of telling stories of the common man for the common man. They saw the unreal as irrelevant, the fantastic as mere fancy; they could not parse the strange to its meaning.
(Their attitude is not entirely unfamiliar. We have our own realists, our own rationalists, down in the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café, dug into their little corner, behind a barricade of tables, muttering darkly about the death of Science Fiction.)
It had a brief boom in the 1960s, this idiom of the ascetic, this genre, but it never made the mainstream, which is and always will be populist, commercial… Genre. The League of Fusion Fry-Cooks have more than a little sympathy for those angry young men, and a smart of sadness that they failed to see the Molotov cocktail in the quirk… more so that their battleground could only be lost to the bourgeois. Because they had walked away from the mainstream in the abrogation of quirks, diverted into the sidestream of “proper literature” where taste becomes a class marker, where appreciation serves to signify status, where that sidestream is therefore reduced to a water feature in the Gardens of Literature.
It was never about the mainstream, but about the manners of the Bistro de Critique, what was a la mode today, what was “proper.” Three hundred years ago or so, two oppositional aesthetics were well-matched in their struggle for legitimacy as they clashed head-to-head. Romantic and Realist genres were the tribes of taste among the middle-class and middle-brow, back in the day, constructing modernity in a dialectics not unlike that to be found today in the SF Café. Oh, but one aesthetic was that of the vulgar proles and of “women’s fiction.”
It was infantile, unsophisticated, this aesthetic of mere storytelling, fanciful as folklore and fable, primitive as the superstitions of the savages. It was then — and remains now — the mainstream that feeds the bulk of water fountains across the city of Writing, but this very fact was enough to damn it in the end. A true gentleman — not a vulgar prole, not a hysterical woman, not a child, not a savage — surely knew that these gushing fountains of quirk were… unseemly. Only in the Gardens of Literature might one find that shallow birdbath with a china cup from which to sip the refined liquidity of edifying art. Why, one could see just how refined it was, absent those quirks!
It was inevitable that the petit-bourgeois would latch on to the legitimacy of egalitarianism to justify what is really a scorn of the popular. Mass Market Square. The Pornographia dell’Arte. This is what they really hate, the impropriety of it all. The bourgeois were only too happy to co-opt contemporary realism, formulate and commercialise it with formal constraints on the acceptable use of quirks. Transform it to the faux reportage of the social observer, enlightened, educated, edified and edifying. So it became about the impropriety of the sensational, what art must not be if it was to be serious, worthy, intellectual. Some literati may be held accountable, but many were — and are — as much casualties of the Culture Wars as anyone; when one is raised within the rhetoric of abjection, it is often invisible, not least to those most privileged by it.
The abjection is unsustainable though; the impetus of art is always against propriety, and so the reactionaries will always be revealed, by their own words, as antagonists to art. They say the china cup is necessary, but every now and then a writer comes along to smash it with contempt, show it up for the genteel nonsense it is. And some literati nod appreciatively even as others slip a fresh cup back in place. They say the liquid in the birdbath must be pure, but every now and then a writer comes along to pour just a hint of quirk into it, maybe more than a hint. And after decades of art refined to bland banality, melodrama watered-down to mundane crises, trite epiphanies, some literati hail the tang of strange conceits even as others grumble at the taint. They say the flow of it all must be kept subtle, slow and delicate, never a spectacle. But writers who see how this is all in the name of etiquette and the status it affords will feel the heft of a sledgehammer in hand, and grin as they smash that decorative folly, let the fiction come fountaining forth in a great geyser. And if some literati flap their hands in outrage, others will dance barefoot in the mud.
And the League of Fusion Fry-Cooks will move among them, handing out hors-d’ouevres of pure quirk, peachy keen articulations conjured out of raw conceit, rich delicacies one cannot help acquire a taste for. Scotch eggs of a basilisk from a yesterday that never was. Whether they call it burger or fried chicken is irrelevant; it is the secret cuisine.
It may not remain secret for much longer.