Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy

By Gary Wastfahl; George Slusser | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Seven Types of Chopped Liver:
My Adventures in the Genre Wars

Frank McConnell

It's an often-told tale, but it bears—or demands—repeating. When Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton, one of his political cronies asked him why academic politics was so byzantine, vicious, and brutal. “Ah,” replied Wilson. “You must realize: there's so little at stake.” I have long thought that that should be engraved upon a plaque to be displayed prominently in every department of literature throughout the Western world. (And, by the way, just wait and see if some politically correct dwortz with a complete set of Baudrillard in translation doesn't, sooner or later, observe that my reference to the “Western world” disqualifies me as hopelessly Eurocentric. We are living, brothers and sisters, in the Season of the Silly.)

Emmis : there is so little at stake. But, my God, how much it costs us to admit that. The underside of Wilson's joke is not ironic but gigantically sad. As a former Chicagoan who now lives in, of all places, Lompoc, California, I can attest to the painful truth: the smaller the prize, the more bitter the contest. (Ask the awards jury of the National Book Critics' Circle—or Tonya Harding, whoever's sitting nearer at the bar.) If, as the axiom runs, work expands to fill the time allotted for it, then, contrariwise, anxiety grows in inverse proportion to the real importance of its object. Years ago, at Northwestern, a senior colleague of mine told me, “Look, just publish your book, attend department meetings, and then, when you get tenure, you can do whatever you want. Look at me: I grew a beard.” Geez.

And that's, I guess, where I want to begin: with the simple, ineluctable, and crushing truth that most of what we academics, we teachers, we critics do is in any realistic taking of accounts trivial. We quarrel about the curriculum; we worry about the “canon” of our subject, whether it be science fiction or lesbian-Chicano postmodernism (and shouldn't that be lesbian-Chicana postmodernism?); and we gather, as often as we can, at scholarly conferences to draw from one another warmth and the reassurance that we are not as alone as we, most of the time, feel. It's an AA kind of thing: hands trembling around my coffee cup, cigarette precarious in the corner of my mouth, I say, “Hi, my name is Frank and I'm a

-25-

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