I must admit I’ve done a terrible thing.
That got your attention, didn’t it? (That wasn’t the terrible thing. That was just a systems test.)
As I was saying, in a recent post I committed a disingenuity. In Did I Miss Brave New World’s Anti-Gravity Boots, I positioned Mary Shelley, George Orwell, and other stellar sci-fi creators against psychologists’ claims that science fiction is a genre of the delusional. My error? I am guilty of cherry-picking. Specifically, I drew examples only from the so-called “literary” side of the sci-fi family.
After I hit “publish,” I felt uneasy. Over a few hours it evolved into outright guilt. As I re-read my words, I realized I had fallen into an easy trap. I had avoided the so-called “trashy” side of the sci-fi family, feeling it would play in the psychologists’ favor.
Many commentators have covered the complicated relationship of literature and science fiction. For a great discussion, check out JD Byrne’s post “Another Literary Writer Discovers Speculative Fiction.” Rather than reiterate what has already been well said, today I want to highlight a much less sophisticated topic.
Here’s a crucial question. Why did I instinctively avoid the pulpier side of sci-fi when making the case that science fiction powerfully (and positively) shapes society?
What is it about the critical label “trashy” that has the power to condemn an entire genre by association – so that we rush to rescue select works from it, carefully Sharpie-ing “Literature – Not Trash” across their covers and pages?
What, exactly, is so wrong with trash?
Merriam Webster defines trash as “something worth little or nothing,” synonymous with “junk, rubbish.” It is “inferior or worthless writing or artistic matter (such as a television show.)”
I love trash.
Most of what I write is trash.
It’s not limited to writing, either. I’m multi-talented. Most of what I think and say is also, objectively, trash. It’s worth nothing, at least from an economic perspective. When it comes out of my head, it’s unfinished, mostly unoriginal, and, frankly, not brilliant. And I love it when I create trash. I know that the best way to make something that isn’t trash is to produce as much trash as I possibly can, each and every day, no excuses and no breaks. When I’m not making trash I’m reading, uh, a lot of things, some of which are … trash1.
Here’s an apparent non sequitur: art is the playground of the sciences. Here’s another non sequitur: my mother is an artist, and when acquaintances snub “modern art” she insists modern art is essential because it means artists are no longer “a slave to what is in front of them.”
Here’s a logical leap. Trash and trashy genres2 free writers from enslavement to “good writing.” It’s possible that 99.999% of the trash produced is actually trashy. The remaining 0.001% is an infusion of life – a seepage of completely original ideas that could only arise from playing around in a trash heap, where everything mixes regardless of origin or value. The bookshelf might look like a Superfund site, but sometimes brilliance emerges.
Of course, devotees of not-trash may still reach for the Lysol. But the most enjoyable response to overly hygienic criticism is found in the words of Chilean-born multihyphenate3 Alejandro Jodorowsky, regarding his controversial film El Topo: “If you are great, El Topo is a great picture. If you are limited, El Topo is limited.”
If you limit yourself to good writing, you’re limited. (Not even to good writing – just limited.) If you spend a lot of time letting yourself write trash, eventually you won’t write trash. You’ll write something great. The one redeeming value of trash is that it makes great soil. All the nutrients from really bad ideas, unfortunate metaphors, bland characters and scrapped sub-plots eventually recycle into rich and valuable experience. You can plant anything in it and watch it grow.
Given that, I propose we re-label trash. Instead, it now exists as its own new genre: Compost.
Oh, and if anyone has recommendations for a good dumpster company or cleaning service – let me know in the comments. Thanks.
1 Newspaper comics, for example. They are probably trash (or at least recyclable) – but there are strips from Calvin & Hobbes, Foxtrot, Non Sequitur, Mutts, and Lio which have taken up permanent residence in my mental catalog. The characters and plots – even the colors and visual style – shape reactions and decisions I make to this day. There are plenty of “good” books about which I cannot say that.
2 I know, this started out with science fiction, but trash is bigger than that. It’s a conglomerate of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and sometimes romance.
3 Alright, he’s mostly a filmmaker. But he’s also a lot of other things, including a writer, “psychomagical realist,” spiritual guru, and sometimes bit of a nut case. I highly recommend this documentary of his never-released film version of Dune.