Ceci n’est pas un Geek

I promised in an earlier installment to talk at some point about why I hide behind a pseudonym, even though I’ve not really done enough with it to warrant the anonymity. The real reason is relatively straightforward. In the UK, it’s still not though exactly proper to take genre fiction seriously.

Our definition of “genre” is probably a little different than the American equivalent: it doesn’t include historical novels, or superior thrillers, which is why David Mamet’s description of Le Carré or O’Brian as a genius of the “humble genre novel” rings so strange over here. High fantasy of the more austere kind probably gets a pass, too (Peake, Le Guin), as does the sort of hard near-future fiction written by Orwell and Atwood.

Buy anything involving spaceships or time travel? That’s for teenagers, or literature courses at the less élite universities. You can get by commenting on it if you employ a certain irony, if you use it for a certain purpose, but only for a certain audience, and it’s a tricky discipline to get quite right. The consensus in polite society is that Star Wars – the original 1977 movie – is the only really worthwhile piece. Apart from that, the genre’s really rather déclassé.

So, the nom de guerre is a sort of social camouflage. Does that make me a social terrorist?

This prejudice that I’m trying to sidestep is doubly odd, because erotic fiction doesn’t really carry the same stigma. Senior, respected figures in politics and broadsheet journalism started out writing porn. I can’t really see that on the CV of Rahm Emmanuel or a leader writer for the Washington Post. Our leading literary magazine has an annual Bad Sex Award for the worst smut in a serious novel, a prize that’s considered strangely prestigious. I doubt the Pulitzer committee will ever create a comparable category.

And me? Well, I think I lack the relevant prejudices when it comes to the literature, the comics and the movies, though with some esoteric exceptions. But I’d know better than to risk declaring an interest with someone I didn’t trust, and I’ve never felt comfortable with those labels that tend to be attached in a self-affirmative way to genre fandom, names like “geek” and “nerd”. I don’t really buy into that lifestyle.

Why not? Well, that’s an interesting question. I suppose it’s something to do with the whole concept of a subculture, a counterculture – the apotheosis of the teenage quest for an independent identity. Geekdom, fandom, call it what you like (and I’ll confess that I simply don’t “get” the finer points of the distinctions between the various forms of genredom), it takes the artefacts of a popular subculture and imbues them with a meaning and structure, creating a new sort of social code, a language for interaction within the tribe. It’s a strategy that’s fascinated people from Jung to the Wachowskis via Italo Calvino.

But I don’t buy into the underlying, unspoken and perhaps unconscious idea that defines genredom: the idea that everything is ultimately meaningless, unless we want it to be, and that the creation of an identity out of trading cards and old comic books is ultimately as valid as Vanbrugh and the Rokeby Venus – or even more valid, because it’s knowing, self-referential, liberal and modern.

But I’m only rejecting the lifestyle choice here. Old comic books frankly fascinate me (what John Jackson Miller does with them is one of my favourite things on the internet, and at this point I’m having to reluctantly censor a digression about Kavalier & Clay and the American sense of identity). I just don’t think that there should be a separate cultural frame of reference.

I feel like that would cede the central position to the opposition, surrendering high culture to the worst of the chattering classes and the country club types, tacitly deferring to a package of snobberies that probably seem less noticeable, less absurd than mine because they’re rather more socially conventional. It is, as the Yuuzhan Vong say, “throwing the egg out with the afterbirth”.

So, that’s why I’m not a “geek”. I’m fascinated by pop culture, though, and I’m happy to use it as another form of social camouflage, mind you. That’s what being Paul Urquhart is all about.

I have a large-scale Lego reconstruction of the Battle of Hoth on display, but it’s on a shelf in my library, in between the art history, the literary criticism, and the DVDs of decades-old films with subtitles.

So, I guess the conclusion of this line of thought is an ironic one: I use a pseudonym to create a sort of wry mirror to hold up to “real life”, to compare one form of social positioning with another… while hopefully, avoiding both?


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