I just read a post over at The Mad Hatter Review about some kind of brouhaha on the Internetz re: steampunk's legitimacy. And so I thought, what a swell time to expostulate my theory of art!
I've always found it funny how basically every genre magazine today states in their guidelines that they want work of "literary" quality. Now, try taking any genre story (or nearly any, at least... Catherynne Valente's "Palimpsest" comes to mind as the sort of thing that might actually break through here, though since its conclusion is "literally fantastical" and not "magically realistic," I still doubt it) and showing it to someone who writes "literature" and ask them if it's "literary quality."
They might just fart on you!
But that's cool by me. I'm pretty sure that in six hundred years, the academics will be reading Harry Potter and shit, not the stuff that's "literary quality," because they're going to want to figure out what people actually enjoyed, not what the scholarly classes tried to convince them to enjoy. I'm not just talking about "literary quality" genre, but the school of "literature" itself - the stuff nobody reads and that gets subsidized by foundations and prizes, anyway. For me, writing should strive for qualities like "awesome," "wicked," and "totally un-put-downable." Literary? What the heck does that even mean?
I've always been repulsed by the idea of institutional art; actually, institutions, generally speaking, annoy me. And this steampunk debacle is just one example of it: genre-heads getting all up in other people's genre-faces.
The thing with steampunk is that people dig it. I'm reading Cherie Priest's "Dreadnought" right now, and I'm all like: Shit, yeah. But when people are into something, there are usually some snobby jerks (hey, kind of like me!) somewhere who think those folks ought to like something else.
Par exemple: a little while ago, I got into my first-ever Internet fisticuffs over some people complaining about political correctness "ruining" science fiction; the movie Avatar was offered as an example (and I agree: it was a politically correct movie that totally blew in no small measure because of its vapid political correctness). But even though I can understand the sentiment, it's an argument I still don't understand, because 1) I don't see it as being new, or pervasive, or being damaging to specifically SF, or (insert any other possible significance here), and 2) I'm pretty sure some people are just whining that their favourite genre or sub-genre is no longer as popular as they'd like (probably due to, y'know, the fact that history moves forward in time), and that their own moral values aren't reflected in the work they read; whereas I, personally, read tons of great SF.
So boo-hoo, baby. And if you shift my arguments around a little (like that puzzle game where you have to get the red car out of the congested city block), you can see how this applies directly to the steampunk fiasco, also (viz.: imagined problem arising from the fact that different people, in different times, have different value judgments).
People are going to read what they dig. Trying to come up with academic arguments as to why this or that shouldn't be popular is absurd. You can't predict those desires and you can't force them, either; and, for the sake of some good old fashioned polemic, you're a fascist if you try to!
Now, back to this totally awesome novel about trains and zeppelins and zombies.