As a culture, we are coasting on the tag-ends of our assumptions about a lot of things (including the difference between fiction and "propaganda.") ...Outside of commercial genres--which can remain petrified and profitable almost indefinitely--how many more incarnations of the Bitch Goddess can anybody stand? How many more shoot-'em-ups on Main Street? How many more young men with identity problems?
The lack of workable myths in literature, of acceptable dramatization of what our experience means, harms much more than art itself. We do not only choose or reject works of art on the basis of those myths; we interpret our own experience in terms of them. Worse still, we actually perceive what happens to us in the mythic terms our culture provides.
The problem of "outsider" artists is the whole problem of what to do with unlabeled, disallowed, disavowed, not even-consciously perceived experience, experience which cannot be spoken about because it has no embodiment in existing art. Is one to create new forms wholesale--which is practically impossible? Or turn to old ones?...Or "trivial," trashy genres?...
Make something unspeakable and you make it unthinkable.
...Outsiders' writing is always in critical jeopardy. Insiders know perfectly well that art ought to match their ideas of it...
But outsiders' problems are real enough, and we will all be facing them quite soon, as the nature of human experience on this planet changes radically--unless, of course, we all end up in the Second Paleolithic, in which case we will have to set about re-creating the myths of the First Paleolithic.
...Darko Suvin of the University of Montreal has suggested that science fiction patterns often resemble those of medieval literature. I think the resemblance lies in that medieval literature so often dramatizes not peoples' social roles but the life of the soul; hence we find the following patterns in both science fiction and medieval tales:
I find myself in a new world, not knowing who I am or where I came from. I must find these out, and also find out the rules of the world I inhabit (the journey of the soul from birth to death).
Society needs something. I/we must find it (the quest).
We are miserable because our life is out of whack. We must find out what is wrong and change it (the drama of sin and salvation)
Science fiction, political fiction, parable, allegory, exemplum--all carry a heavier intellectual freight (and self-consciously so) than we are used to. All are didactic. All imply that human problems are collective, perceptive, or cognitive--not the fictionally sex-linked problems of success, competition, "castration," education, love, or even personal identity, with which we are all so very familiar. I would even go farther and say that science fiction, political fiction (when successful), and the modes (if not the content) of much medieval fiction all provide myths for dealing with the kinds of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having.
...Our current fictional myths leave vast areas of human experience unexplored: work for one, genuine religious experience for another, and above all the lives of the traditionally voiceless, the majority of whom are women. (When I speak of the "traditionally voiceless" I am not pleading for descriptions of their lives--we have had plenty of that by very vocal writers--what I am talking about are fictional myths growing out of their lives and told by themselves for themselves).
Forty years ago those Americans who read books at all read a good deal of fiction. Nowadays such persons read popularized anthropology, psychology, history, and philosophy. Perhaps current fictional myths no longer tell the truth about any of us.
When things are changing, those who know least about them--in the usual terms--may make the best job of them. There is so much to be written about, and here we are with nothing but the rags and tatters of what used to mean something. One thing I think we must know--that our traditional gender roles will not be part of the future, as long as the future is not a second Stone Age. Our traditions, our books, our morals, our manners, our films, our speech, our economic organization, everything we will have inherited, tell us that to be a Man one must bend Nature to one's will--or other men. This means ecological catastrophe in the first instance and war in the second. To be a Woman, one must be first and foremost a mother and after that a server of Men; this means overpopulation and the perpetuation of the first two disasters. The roles are deadly. The myths that serve them are fatal.
Women cannot write--using the old myths.
But using new ones--?
--Joanna Russ, "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write," 1971, as anthologized in To Write Like a Woman
I had several reasons for choosing this quote today, some of which are not quite as coherent as others--yet.