It's always funny to see what does and does not gain traction online. When I posted my review of the October/November issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I expected that responses to it would revolve mostly around the general negativity of my reaction to the issue. Instead, it was my response to the magazine's nonfiction content, and specifically to Lucius Shepard's review of Iron Man, that's got some folks talking. Early yesterday someone on the Night Shade Books bulletin board, where Shepard is a participant, posted a link to the review, sparking a discussion which has, in turn, led to a, shall we say energetic, post by Shepard on The Inferior 4, the LJ he shares with Elizabeth Hand, Paul Witcover, and Paul Di Fillippo.
I seem to have raised Shepard's ire firstly by calling the Iron Man review mean-spirited, which he has taken as a personal insult. I'm frankly puzzled as to how the trip from point A to point B was achieved, but obviously I'm sorry to have given offense. (It's interesting, however, that both Shepard and the person who initially drew his attention to my F&SF piece have fixated on what was actually an ancillary point rather than on my main complaint against the review, which is that it is dated, tired, and contributes nothing new or substantial to the conversation. If I had a time machine I'd go back and delete that sentence, just to see whether, though such an alteration would change very little about the post in general or my criticism of Shepard's review in particular, the current tempest would still have erupted.) Secondly, Shepard is irate because "People who try to intellectualize their opinions about pop culture piss me off. The truth is, pop culture is shite and the most effective way to undermine it is to lampoon it viciously."
The belief that there is something wrong or at the very least wasteful about taking pop culture seriously is hardly unique to Lucius Shepard (hell, it often seems to characterize every professional television critic out there), but it is somewhat perplexing to hear it stated so baldly by someone who has just recently published several thousand words on a pop culture phenomenon. That Shepard's Iron Man review is as insubstantial as it is, I must therefore conclude, is entirely intentional, and in fact if I take his meaning correctly it is only permissible to write about Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Deep Space Nine or any other pop culture artifact if one isn't trying to engage seriously with it.
"if we want to see more good movies, then we ought get nasty with criticism." Shepard says in the comments to his Inferior 4 post. "Nasty and cheap and down in the dirt just like Hollywood's gotten with us. That's been my agenda since day one...not that I'll effect much, but maybe somebody with a more populist voice will dig something I say and run with it, and maybe a good movie will result." I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of this statement. Pop culture reviews should get nasty. The mainstream press has been letting Hollywood get away with ever more stinky piles of manure, and serious reviewers should call creators and producers to task for this, but I don't care for Shepard's variety of nastiness, which is dismissive, thoughtless and shallow. To my mind, it is no more constructive than the kind of review that gives films like Iron Man a pass because they're just populist entertainment. Both approaches assume that popular culture isn't worth getting invested in. I've written nasty, indignant, and irate pieces about pop culture before, but in each one of them I've tried to engage with the work in question. In each case, the reason for my anger was that I truly believed, and still do, that there is no excuse for such failures, that pop culture can and should and will be better.
The idea that the kind of vicious lampooning Shepard champions could ever lead to an improvement in what's coming out of Hollywood strikes me as absurd (please note, I am saying that the attitude is absurd, not the man himself). Sure, it would be nice to think that one day Aaron Sorkin or Ronald D. Moore will read my blog, fall to their knees crying "she's right! She's right!" and fly me to LA or Vancouver or wherever they make the magic happen to act as their personal arbitrator of quality. In the real world, however, the only people I'm ever going to reach are consumers of pop culture, and the only thing that the kind of reviews Shepard calls for can possibly achieve within that group is to maybe get some of them to turn away from pop culture. And where will that lead us? If smart, thoughtful people stop watching TV or going to blockbuster movies, the stupid or inattentive viewers will simply become a larger majority, and Hollywood will have an even greater motivation to cater to their degraded tastes. Refusing to engage--either by turning away or by obviating any chance of a meaningful conversation--will never change anything.
I write seriously about popular culture because... well, because I love popular culture, and writing about it makes me happy, and this is my blog and I'll post whatever I want on it, and there's a whole internet's worth of other options to choose from if that's not something you care for. But on a more intellectual level, I write seriously about popular culture because I hope that my thoughts can persuade other people to take popular culture seriously and to expect and demand more from it. I truly believe that studio-produced films and network television have the potential to be good and even great--that there are, in fact, many examples of good and great films and television shows out there--and the only way that I can see to encourage quality and intelligence in these media is to encourage the perception that quality and intelligence are possible, to take pop culture seriously in the hopes that some of its creators will begin to do the same.
This, I imagine, makes me the enemy, as far as Lucius Shepard is concerned, but of the two of us he's the one who's drawn a paycheck for deliberately substandard work on a subject he feels nothing but contempt for. If you think pop culture isn't worth writing seriously about, then don't write about it. But if you choose to put pen to paper about a certain subject, then have the decency to write to the fullest extent of your abilities. Your readers deserve nothing less.
UPDATE: Shepard responds.