Monday, June 6, 2016

R. A. Lafferty and the New Wave


Laffcon 1 was held in the Mercer County Library in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, on Saturday. Something like forty people attended, almost all of them exceptionally knowledgable on the subject of the life and works of R. A. Lafferty.

It's hard to say what was the best part of the day.  Possibly the presentation (by Gregorio Montejo, I think; my notes are a mess) on "Lafferty and the Visual Arts," which, on the strength of a single closet door, all that survives of Lafferty's collage art, made the case for Lafferty as an outsider artist. (Albeit not your usual outsider artist.) Or maybe Andrew Mass's early selection from the documentary movie he's making about Lafferty. It was heartening to see how much was being done to preserve the memory of the man and his works, and how high the quality of the work was.

The chief item I was on was a panel on "Lafferty and the New Wave." We didn't settle the question of exactly what Ray's relationship with the New Wave was then. But on reflection, I decided that it was relatively -- for Lafferty, anyway -- straightforward.

Ray definitely didn't identify himself with the New Wave and disliked most of the work published under that heading. But most of his readership did identify him with it. So how did an extremely religious autodidact and self-characterized grumpy old man (I should mention that everybody who met him thought he was very sweet) find himself in that position?

Context is all. The New Wave coincided roughly with what we like to call "the Sixties," a period which, confusingly enough, began midway through the decade and extended well into the Seventies. There was, among the young, a widespread rejection of old values, old ideas, and old ways of doing things. People were looking for new ideas, new ways of seeing things, new ways of doing things. A lot of what the New Wave writers were up to was trying to provide exactly those. And also new ways of telling stories.

Well, it turns out that new ideas and new ways of telling stories are pretty rare. But Lafferty had both. So the seekers found him. And even after he carefully and repeatedly explained that not only was he not a member of the Counterculture (as it was then called) but thought its very existence was evil, they continued to revere him.

Because he was the real thing. We were all looking for visions and he was a visionary. That was, and is, far more important than whether he had the same politics as his readers.



Kevin Cheek said...

Beautiful summation! The only thing I can add is to comment on what a joy it was to see you and Darrell Schweitzer speaking so eloquently and eruditely about his place (out of) the new wave, and on what great pride it gives me to belong to a group that would have you as a member.

Unknown said...

Intriguingly, Lafferty even appealed to people who didn't like the New Wave. I seem to recall that anti-New Wave crusader J.J. Pierce had favorable things to say about Lafferty, whom he regarded to be quite apart from all that. A fair assessment, I think. Lafferty was off by himself, never deliberately part of any movement, for all that during the Wave Wars he was embraced by both sides.

AlextheKay said...

I think Lafferty was the acid test of whether you wanted to read damn fine stories or really just wanted to read wave or not. Lafferty was always sui generis and fits no genre. He was a fantasist, but much of his writing isn't "fantasy" per se. Still, it is always fantastic, and always reads like a folk-tale. During the new wave battles, much like today's foolishness over SJWs/Sad Puppies, people were too busy worrying about categories to sit down and accept work on its intrinsic merits. Pamela Zoline wasn't a science fiction writer, but her "Heat Death of the Universe" remains a high point of the new wave. Brunner was a science fiction writer--and "Stand on Zanzibar" likewise is a high point. Lafferty fit no definition, and his whole career is a high point. Who cares if it was new wave or not?

Trent Walters said...

Lafferty's style was quite like Donald Barthelme's, so it doesn't surprise me that Lafferty was associated with the New Wave. I seem to recall Barthelme may have written genre work early on, but I am not certain. While Lafferty may not have considered himself New Wave, isn't it possible that the movement helped paved the way for unusual work like his own?

HWW said...

What a great gathering it was! Glad to have been there, and to have learned about the Door!


Unknown said...

I wish I could have been there -- my six month old son said 'no.'

Are there any write-ups or videos from the event?

Michael Swanwick said...

Pretty sure no videos. We can hope for write-ups.