Sam Weller and Dana Gioia discuss the impact of Ray Bradbury in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Weller: Is there any way to measure Ray’s impact on popular culture?
Gioia: Let me offer one perspective. If you compiled a list in 1950 of the biggest grossing movies ever made, it would have contained no science fiction films and only one fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz. In Hollywood, science fiction films were low-budget stuff for kids. The mainstream market was, broadly speaking, “realistic” — romances, comedies, historical epics, dramas, war films, and adventure stories.
If you look at a similar list today, all but three of the top films — Titanic and two Fast and Furious sequels — are science fiction or fantasy. That is 94 percent of the hits. That means in a 70-year period, American popular culture (and to a great degree world popular culture) went from “realism” to fantasy and science fiction. The kids’ stuff became everybody’s stuff. How did that happen? There were many significant factors, but there is no doubt that Ray Bradbury was the most influential writer involved.
It’s interesting you say this because you don’t seem to be afraid — some critics don’t want to connect popular culture or mass culture with literature or with high intellectual arts. You seem to say that Bradbury is one of those people who brought these two things to the crossroads.
In my academic training, I was inculcated in the tradition of the psychological and social realist novel, the so-called “Great Tradition.” This was an extraordinary literary lineage — Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Conrad, James, Cather, Hemingway, not to mention Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky. The realist novel was one of the great achievements of Western literature. It provided a powerful means to articulate and understand personal and social relations of enormous complexity. Three cheers for realism! Maybe even four.
But there are different modes of storytelling. The most primitive is myth, where natural forces become personified in narratives. The next historical development was romance. In romantic narratives, we have the world not as it is but as we wish or fear it to be. This was the mode of medieval and Renaissance narratives. (Centuries later it also became the mode of science fiction, fantasy, horror, Gothic romance, and old-school mysteries.)
Realism is the mode that emerged last. Although the realist novel quickly became the dominant narrative form, its popularity only dates back about 400 years. The realist novel had a particular power that made it very attractive. The realist mode allowed one to see the world simultaneously from the inside and the outside. It compared — usually with a great deal of irony — the subjective experience of characters and the exterior world that surrounds them. Great novels mediate these two realities with tremendous finesse.
But realism is not the only way to tell a story, and the romantic mode never vanished. Even some of the realist masters, such as Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Balzac, found themselves exploring the mode of romance to represent certain human possibilities. Romance remained very strong in American literature with some of our most original writers — Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But it never became academically respectable. It smacked of popular or children’s literature. As a senior at Stanford, I had to ask permission to add Mary Shelley to my reading list! (Another student asked to read H. P. Lovecraft and got a stern lecture.)
What books are you thinking about here? What do you consider Bradbury’s best period?
Sam, you’ll probably disagree with me — but I think Bradbury’s best work was mostly done in a 10-year period in the early part of his career. In one remarkable decade he wrote: The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The October Country (1955), Dandelion Wine (1957), and A Medicine for the Melancholy (1959). The books came one right after the other, and he created a new mode of speculative fiction.
The culture immediately recognized his achievement. Suddenly, major mainstream journals published his fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV. Millions of readers, who would not have read pulp fiction, came to his work. He also became the first science fiction author to attract a large female readership. ...
For 10 years, he was Joe DiMaggio. Every time he went to bat, there was a good chance he would hit the ball, sometimes out of the park. It’s significant that Ray’s great hitting streak came in the 1950s, a period of national optimism. Despite the anxiety, darkness, and anger in his work, Bradbury always wrote in a spirit of hope and reconciliation. He never believed humanity was beyond redemption. Perhaps as America shifted into the late 1960s and beyond, he lost touch with the culture.