We’re not here to entertain you

I admire writing as a profession more and more everyday. In a letter to Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany has a brief rant about SF writers who try to be entertaining. He believes that this is a mistake on behalf of the writer because writing that tries to numbly entertain the masses is making a big sacrifice in meaning. Additionally, he thinks that the work of a writer should instead be sought out by the few for whom it is deeply relevant, creating a strong bond between the writer and reader (Delany to Russ, October 26, 1971).

I assume this is a constant struggle working in the humanities, but I feel a similar way about being in the human sciences. The general public often approaches these fields with the hope of learning something novel about the human condition. This can be frustrating because they often don’t see the value in all the hard work we’re putting into the “minutia”. Research in the human sciences is a slow and abstract process, much like that of the “hard” sciences (with which, for some reason, people have a higher tolerance for being boring). I think much of what I study in linguistics would be considered esoteric or useless by the general population. The thing is, however, that we’re not trying to give people some “cute” topic of idle chit-chat for their next brunch parties. We’re trying to push human understanding of these topics forward, and this requires just as much time and patience as it does for any of the other sciences.

Letters from Samuel Delany to Joanna Russ, Coll. 261, Box 3, Folder 1. University of Oregon Archives.

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2 responses to “We’re not here to entertain you

  • kmcveety

    I definitely agree! I see parallels of what you described in anthropology, as well as genetics. The majority of people don’t care about this little mutation, in this thing that regulates a gene, can change the way a protein is built. The relationship we have created between science and the public (and indeed, literature and the public) is one of dumbed-down soundbytes. I have friends who think this keeps the public from being overwhelmed by irrelevant information, what do you think?

  • cstabile

    These issues are very much on my mind these days, as various media outlets mourn the demise of the humanities and humanistic inquiry (see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/education/as-interest-fades-in-the-humanities-colleges-worry.html?_r=0). I think it’s worth having a conversation about the curious intercourse between science and fiction that some of you have written about this quarter. Maybe during our final class this quarter?

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