AL: I would like to locate your ideological position in literary theory. I suppose that you feel close to Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson (even Slavoj Žižek). Moreover, I suppose that you disagree with aesthetic purism (Harold Bloom) or certain relativisms (Stanley Fish and his interpretative communities, poststructuralism and deconstruction). I would like to know your reflections on current literary theory—for instance what about the New
Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt?
DS: I remember a splendid note of Lenin’s in his Philosophical Notebooks, where he says that to an intelligent materialist critic an intelligent idealist critic is nearer than a stupid materialist one. So allow me to begin by doubting, not the existence or importance of, but the exclusive nature of ideological kinships. For example, I’ve followed step by step almost the whole of Jameson’s opus, especially since we collaborated in the journal Science-
Fiction Studies and other venues, while I have used Eagleton’s Theory of Literature as the best introductory survey in my graduate teaching at some point but otherwise not learned too much from him. On the contrary, I’ve been deeply influenced by and am still writing in the wake of his teacher, my friend Raymond Williams.
I loved some of Bloom’s early works, say on Romanticism, but when he became an ideologue pure and simple, that stopped. This is the problem with most postmodernists: while declaiming against absolutisms, their supposed relativism is more absolute than that of most modernists. I do make an exception for some so-called deconstructionists such as most Guattari and the later Derrida (after the Marx book). My criterion is simple: what can I learn and build upon from any critic? A little from Greenblatt, almost nothing from
Fish, a lot from the materialist feminists, how to charm people by bringing together philosophy and pop culture from Žižek (and of course how to fight against the prohibition against talking about communism).
AL: Metamorphoses of Science Fiction is a masterpiece. I think that the first world edition was in 1977. We have lived through a lot of events since then: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Dayton agreement, September 11 attacks, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, financial and economic crises, Wikileaks’ revelations, and so on. Also literary theory has changed: the rise of feminism (Nancy Armstrong, Elaine Showalter, etc.), the rise of gay, lesbian and queer theory (Judith Butler), and so forth. What would you change of your book in order to update it? Or perhaps you would prefer not to add or modify anything (I see there is a Croatian version in 2010, maybe that is the answer to my question).
DS: It was published in 1979 but written in the preceding ten years. I don’t think the book can be updated: it should remain as it is, branded (as Brecht said, like calves on the ranch) by its historical date: the epoch of hopeful High Modernism. What must and therefore can be updated are some of my views— though NOT my values. I dislike renegades. I have done this, as concerns both my epistemological approach and, in particular, some aspects of the Fantasy genre, in numerous articles of the last fifteen years, the longest of which is the “Afterword” to the Festschrift for me edited by Patrick Parrinder, Learning from Other Worlds (Liverpool University Press 2000). It also has a checklist of my publications where interested readers can follow the post-1979 developments.
AL: What do you think about “theory of fictional worlds”? For instance: Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds by Lubomir Dolezel, or Fictional Worlds by Thomas Pavel, even Postmodernist Fiction by Brian McHale. I ask you this because there is a strong connection between fictional worlds and science fiction as a genre; I think that sociologists of literature should study how society creates different fictional worlds (that is, connections between types of societies and ontological properties in fiction stories).
DS: You’re quite right about the kinship. If you had looked at my work after 1979, say the four other books on SF, you’d have found me using a variant of Possible Worlds’ theory. I knew both Dolezel and Pavel, I had my students read them, not quite casually: we were all immigrants to Canada, with experience of different worlds… McHale is too postmodernist for me, in panic flight from orientation: he refuses ontology (that there is a real world out there) in favour of hermetic epistemology (that we can only live in imaginary worlds, so to speak). And my methodologically most advanced book on SF, Victorian SF in the U.K. 1848–1900, is an attempt at a Williamsian “social history of literature,” indeed within a certain class spread in authors and readers.
AL: In your opinion, what will be your legacy? How to follow your enterprise from a Marxist perspective (or post-Marxist, as you prefer) in a world ruled by late capitalism and the end of history (Fukuyama)?
DS: I think Fukuyama has been proved totally wrong, don’t you? The present crisis of senile capitalism is proof that history goes on, as murderous class conflict at that. Our alternative is socialism or barbarism (for the bland “socialism” maybe we better substitute a “communist direct democracy”). In that perspective, my legacy is of secondary importance. In one case it will be forgotten as an aberration, in another maybe cherished as a far-off precursor who didn’t quite have all the tools but at least identified a field and
a stance toward it.
AL: I know that you are not a novelist, you are an accurate thinker. Anyway, I really enjoyed your book as a really good novel. By the way, could you tell us three or four books, fiction or non-fiction, that you consider compulsory to read?
DS: You are not quite right, I’ve published four books of poetry and some short prose. This should be as accurate as any scholarship, only less exclusively notional.
My four books: Marx, Das Kapital; Brecht, Saint Joan of the Stockyards; Saramago, The Cavern; Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina (but I could name 40 others, only fanatics can exist on less than that, the One Final Book).
AL: Any conclusion?
DS: Early on, I wrote an essay in praise of open endings.
AL: Thanks so much.
This interview originally appeared online at http://www.sociodicea.es/?p=7 .