Notes on Squeecore

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On January 13 R.S. Benedict’s Rite Gud podcast published an episode titled A Guide to Squeecore which served as an addendum and exploration of some topics raised during the previous November 11, 2021 episode Puppy Play. The discussion in this later podcast episode was wide-ranging and loose but it broadly posited that there is a dominant movement within SFF, that the participants in this movement often operate as gatekeepers, that this gatekeeping has a broadly class-based dynamic and that this movement has characteristic stylistic and ideological markers.

This has caused considerable consternation.

Now, as this “Squeecore” concept dovetails quite nicely into my recent essay on Hopepunk and into my ongoing examination of the impact of capitalism and idealism on the style and ideology of genre fiction I found the podcast to be very interesting. It certainly was not perfect and I think Camestros Felapton’s rebuttal is on the money on many points. With that being said, a podcast is most certainly not an essay and cannot be treated as one. Even the most essay-like podcasts (looking at the absolutely delightful Horror Vanguard) must ultimately be discursive, conversational. Podcasts are not essays. And as such, I think that CF’s argument – that Squeecore was insufficiently defined and too loose to constitute a movement, that there were contradictions among the examples provided and in fact some internal contradictions within the definition offered, isn’t a fatal criticism. It was two people exploring a phenomenon, grappling with it. It was insufficient to provide a definition or a proof but it provided many very interesting threads to pull at. So let’s tug a bit.

But first let’s examine the idea of “movements” within art and what dominance entails. There are largely two different modes by which a movement is reified. The first is for a group of artists with shared ideologies and worldviews to release a manifesto (or more than one manifesto) and announce that they are to constitute a movement. Examples of these include Futurism, Dogme 95 and Hopepunk. Movements like these are easy. If you want to know what they do, what they stand for, and who is within them they are generally happy to tell you. Sometimes, as in the case of Hopepunk, these definitions may become unclear but this isn’t generally a matter of under-definition so much as over-definition and contradictory definition. However that isn’t always the case.

Take, for example, Fauvism. This early modernist art-style emerged largely out of a school but it had no manifesto and didn’t require strict adherence to some sort of ideology or even aesthetic beyond a fondness for a vibrancy of colour, a treatment of the use of colour as a predominant aesthetic concern of painting. And Fauvism did not name itself. Rather, scandalized critics who saw the output of the Fauvists at the Salon D’Automne of 1905 derided the paintings of these “wild beasts” who had thrown the careful accuracy of prior styles out the window in favour of their laser-sharp aesthetic concern with colour. Furthermore these Fauvist aesthetic concerns are not able to be narrowly confined to just one school; Tom Thomson‘s Algonquin paintings share many of the aesthetics of a painter like Maurice de Vlaminck and Thomson was contemporaneous with the Fauves but he was not an exhibitor at the Salon. A movement may be defined by clear memberships and clear goals but neither of these are necessary preconditions for one to manifest.

Turning to genre literature and something like the New Wave is more nebulous still. Although it is best situated as part of the broader new wave artistic movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s it is hardly like John Wyndam was writing essays on Nouvelle Vague and its applications in literature. And while Michael Moorcock eventually had quite a lot to say about the New Wave, I don’t think anything he produced could be treated as an exhaustive definition of the movement. Rather it was broad, nebulous and open-ended.

And the truth is that this is the case for the vast majority of literary movements. They are coextensive and permeable. When we look at authors like John Brunner or Philip K. Dick we might be looking at a New Wave author or as an early representative of Cyberpunk. The fact that the boundaries between Cyberpunk and New Wave blur and mesh doesn’t reduce the possibility that either movement could be considered dominant.

In fact precisely because movements are coextensive and permeable dominance must always be treated as contingent. What it means for a movement to be a dominant one will change as the historical terrain upon which it operates moves. Frankly, the Cyberpunk movement could never have expressed dominance in the same manner that a contemporary movement, whatever we choose to call it, could because the Cyberpunk movement didn’t have Twitter, Goodreads and AO3 at its disposal. Dominance is best recognized in retrospect – when a movement has unified with the socius of the literary scene, left its marks for future movements to follow, and we can observe how it has impacted those who are without it. Cyberpunk and New Wave can be called dominant movements not because they exercised any sort of gatekeeping power at journals, conventions, workshops or within artists social spaces but rather because, in retrospect, they shaped how those who followed engaged with the production of new literature and new movements.

So that brings us to two questions: is there a cohesive literary movement that could be seen as dominant within genre fiction right now and is it something recognizable within the Rite Gud parlance as Squeecore?

Let’s set aside the question of dominance for the moment and ask whether there is a literary movement that meets some or all of Rite Gud’s criteria. I’m not going to slavishly constrain myself here within the contradictions identified by Camestros Felapton since, as I said before, I don’t think A Guide to Squeecore provides a definition so much as a map. However there are a few aesthetic and ideological markers I think we need to look at:

  1. A screen-aesthetic
  2. An undue influence from the YA genre even outside of those works identified as YA
  3. A specifically self-aware form of deconstructive discourse
  4. An ideology derived from progressive bourgeois liberalism
  5. A triumphalism within that ideological frame

For the first point I think it would be good to examine one of the few named examples of a Squeecore author in Chuck Wendig. Now, I should note, that I previously defended Wendig when various Star Wars chuds attempted to review bomb Star Wars: Aftermath – a book which I liked far more than most tie-in fiction.

A few caveats: 2015 is not 2022 and I am decidedly not the same person I was seven years ago. With that being said, I was already starting to feel a dissatisfaction with fandom even then and my response toward a coordinated reactionary fan movement against a broadly progressive author was always going to favor the author over the fans. The main change in my thinking regarding fandom since then is a shift from identifying reactionary fandom as a problem to identifying fandom as being intrinsically reactionary. The main change in my thinking regarding Wendig was rather a souring with regard to his style. Certain elements that I enjoyed from him in 2015, notably a certain kineticism with regard to action, a flair for the visual and how these two qualities imbeds the narrative in a sort of flow from any given moment to the next, have become tedious and overplayed to me. I’ve seen far too much of this and begun to become frustrated not that there are screen-like books but that it seems like most of what is produced are screen-like.

Even the most internal of Wendig’s books, the Mookie Pearl duology, which I would happily characterize as the high-water mark of Wendig’s career, aren’t particularly internal. Although we are invited to understand something of how Mookie feels and why things matter to him, the book remains mostly a kinetic and screen-like action thing. If this duology, his best work, has such little in the way of internality beyond a gesture toward Mookie’s patriarchal regret then it’s reasonable to describe Wendig’s work as being composed mostly of surfaces across which action plays. Like a movie, or a TV show.

Wendig is, perhaps, the clearest example of a novelist who writes in a filmic style. Now I think it’s important to draw out how I talked previously a bit about how this was a characteristic of Hopepunk – the mediation of a literary canon via its filmic representation being something I called out within the Hopepunk manifestos – but this isn’t so much a matter of Wendig mediating literature via its depiction on screens as it is Wendig drawing the screen structure back into the book. The crafting of an image becomes the chief concern of the novel in Wendig’s hands. Action is in the moment and the dialog is kinetic precisely because Wendig is trying to show his audience a moving picture rather than tell them a story. In a way the lionization of show, don’t tell, almost inevitably leads to the logic of a filmic literature. After all, internality often involves telling the audience how somebody feels. As “Show, Don’t Tell” becomes a hard rule, it’s not hard to see how an audience of would-be authors with an insufficient grounding in literature but a lot of exposure to television will inevitably interpret that to turn the page into a kind of screen.

Let’s turn next to Scalzi, another person who was mentioned as part of the foundation of the Squeecore canon, to examine the second and third points. Now Camestros Felapton quite rightly points out that Scalzi’s protagonists are generally quite old. I mean it’s right there in the title: Old Man’s War. However this doesn’t mean that Scalzi’s work is without YA influence. It would be easy just to point to Zoe’s Tale as an example of a Young Adult novel, within his Old Man’s War series, that simultaneously attempts to be a work of adult fiction. However even in Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades the influence of Heinlein is too obvious to elide. Old Man’s War, especially, shares in a bildungsroman style wherein John undergoes a second adolescence and a subsequent initiation into adulthood via a process of moral development. It would obviously be reductive to call all contemporary bildungsromans young adult but it is likewise reductive to discard the influence of young adult fiction on an author simply because the protagonist was 75 before getting shunted into an unfamiliar, newly young, body. I think it’s clear that Scalzi’s Old Man’s series has influences from young adult while simultaneously being clearly a work of adult fiction. It is, to a very large extent, also heavily in discourse with Heinlein in a way that points toward the third point – a specifically self-aware form of deconstructive discourse.

Now here I want to pause on one of the points the Rite Gud podcast were clear on here that, within their Squeecore definition it was not sufficient that a work be discursive so much as that a work must insist that its discursive element be seen and I think this is where Redshirts becomes a valuable point of discussion. Absolutely nobody is suggesting that the idea of disposable, red-shirted, extras on Star Trek was somehow unexplored prior to 2012. However Redshirts did a lot to foreground this through its fourth-wall-breaking conclusion. Now me? I like a fourth-wall break when it’s well executed and I think it was well executed in Redshirts. This essay should not be seen as an attempt to bury John Scalzi. But regardless of where we stand on matters of taste regarding the literary device or where we stand on the quality of execution of the device in this case, it still holds that this execution, in this story, served to underline the discursive elements of Redshirts such that it insisted the audience engage with them. It wasn’t sufficient to construct a funhouse mirror reflection of the Gothic as Peake did in his Gormenghast books, nor to interrogate the cultural assumptions of a genre as Pratchett did with classic British fantasy in his early Discworld novels – both of these were deconstructive works but neither, especially not Peake, felt much need to insist that the audience acknowledge that a deconstruction was in progress. But Scalzi had his characters literally escape from their work of fiction to plead for consideration from their own fictive creators. This is not a subtle work of deconstruction.

So then we should grapple with whether these works, and others we might fold into this canon operate within a progressive liberal bourgeois ideological framework. And I mean let’s consider the end of The Last Colony to start, “In time every member of the Special Forces will be the same. It matters. It matters to who we are and for what we can become to the Colonial Union and to humanity.” This book was largely framing the revelation of a military secret to bring about a universal reification of the human. I mean. That’s pretty liberal. However we can’t discount how Scalzi’s progressivism puts him into dialog with Heinlein’s more fascist leanings, and how he suggests a progressive liberal solution to fascism through the revelation of truth. Marxists may have largely abandoned the idea of false consciousness after the work of Reich and Althusser, both of whom highlighted the Spinozist elements of Marx but this idea, that all that is needed to make conservatives see the light of progress is simply to lift the scales from their eyes is alive and well in liberalism.

Finally there’s the triumphalist pose. Certainly we can see this extratextually in the Hopepunk manifestos and I persist in insisting that we cannot explore the Rite Gud proposed Squeecore movement without considering it in relation to Hopepunk. However that same triumphalism arises in Wendig and Scalzi regularly, especially in Scalzi who cannot end a book but as a triumphalist clarion-call. Hints of this triumphalism also occur in the work of Hannu Rajaniemi whose Leflambeur trilogy concludes, “Inside one of the Prison’s many, many cells of glass a man sits reading a book or trying to,” this prisoner experiences a sudden moment of illumination, “There is a door, open, white and bright.
“He puts down the book, gets up and walks through it, whistling as he goes. He is surprised, but only a little. For in the end, there is always a way out.”

This same triumphalism occupies the conclusion of The Goblin Emperor which grants its righteous and just king the very liberal epithet of “bridge-builder.” And so what we can see is the beginning of a movement. This is built principally of 21st century literature although, notably, these examples are quite deliberately selected from among decade-old books. This is in part a recognition that much of the literature that Rite Gud was grappling with was from this period at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and the beginning of the second. But it’s also because movements don’t happen overnight and their dominance is, as I said before, best recognized after the fact. With that being said, it would be foolish to under-count the significant influence of Wendig, Scalzi, Rajaniemi and Addison on the last decade of speculative fiction. Between Wendig’s filmic treatment of text, Scalzi’s triumphal progressivism, Addison’s liberalism and even Rajaniemi’s more metaphysical liberalism (grounded in a kind of positivist and pluralist concern with an order / chaos dialectic) there is a common thread which is at least as unifying as that one which ties together Brunner and Gibson or Wyndham and Herbert. Or Dick and all four of the former. There is, ultimately, a movement and we can see its dominance in the worm-trace it leaves in its wake.

The dominance posited by Rite Gud was one that occupied two principal axes: a social control on the bounds of acceptable discourse that was grounded in a specifically bourgeois frame and a financial control of access to careers via class-gated activities such as writers’ workshops. These are rather nebulous but we can certainly look at the success that figures like Scalzi and Wendig enjoyed in their activities against the Sad Puppies as indicative of the former. Much of the complaint, especially against the Sad Puppies (less so for the more openly far-right Rabid Puppies) was that they’d violated an unspoken set of social norms with regard to comportment around awards conversations. They were thus frozen out of discourse, rendered invisible. As Benedict pointed out this sort of indirectness and this focus on unspoken and assumed norms are both characteristics of a Bourgeois reflection of culture. But, of course, per Deleuze and Guattari there is only one class: the Bourgeois in that the neoliberal period has driven all other class constructions out of consideration. Everyone is Bourgeois, just some of us are financially embarrassed members of the monolithic class. A direct, “hey fuck you buddy,” form of engagement is often interpreted as threatening or dangerous within this monolithic class formation as it is inappropriate comportment for a member of the Bourgeoisie – which to the Bourgeoisie is taken to mean everyone.

And that brings us to how workshops and conventions play into the networking necessary for SFF careerism. Frankly this is patently obvious. Notwithstanding limited scholarships (which create the myth of meritocracy) workshops, especially, are the domain of the idle rich. Six weeks and five thousand dollars can scarcely be obtained by anyone who has to work for a living although it’s a trivial barrier for a member of the propertied class. A five hundred dollar scholarship to entice a monied person who has experienced some intersectional form of marginalization in a non-class domain does very little to democratize access to these rarified events. What these workshops are very effective at doing is further financializing the arts as each author with the success of a few novels or a brace of short stories behind their name then becomes a workshop facilitator in some greater or lesser capacity as a side hustle, to make a career of their art. The workshops are, as such, a principal tool of recuperating art into a neoliberal ideological paradigm. Conventions are a bit less expensive and give networking opportunities to the labour aristocracy and petit bourgeois who have sufficient wealth and free time for a $1000 hotel stay for a week if not for the full workshop experience. But even within conventions it’s widely known that financial barriers distort attendance and create barriers to access for economically marginalized people including workers in the imperial core and people from the global south. It is worth remarking how these authors engaged in both workshop facilitation, the selling of writing manuals and curricula and in convention culture across their careers. A Clarion attendance can make a career as can being at the right place at the right time at a convention. If we discount how these become tools of dominance it is at our peril. And so we see here what dominance looks like: it is a group of largely monied, largely liberal major authors all of whom are sufficiently advanced in their career to have had a sizeable influence on the genre, and all of whom have a series of interlocking aesthetic and ideological concerns.

As I said previously, movements are coextensive and permeable. It’s not surprising that the movement that Rite Gud are gesturing toward in their podcast is nebulous. Most are. Futurists and Dogme 95 are the exception, not the rule when it comes to artistic movements and an attempt to deny a movement exists because it doesn’t have a manifesto that everyone within it has signed onto is just an act of self-delusion. And honestly a lot of this constructed movement fits very well with the Hopepunk manifestos anyway. Frankly it requires an act of willful blindness to ignore how screen-representation has impacted narrative style across the last two decades or how significant authors like Wendig have been influential as trend-setters in this regard. Likewise it is an act of willful blindness to ignore the triumphalism of Addison and Scalzi in the lionization of liberal progressivism – as I mentioned Rajaniemi goes so far as to imbed this in his metaphysics. The dominance this movement encompasses is diffuse but aligns with the class position of these authors such that a very bourgeois moral order is allowed to reproduce within literary culture. The alternative proposed by the sad and rabid puppies: varying from a conservative retreat into the past to outright fascism was roundly banished to the margins by this dominant group and that’s well and good. They should be told to fuck off. But a half-decade on we’ve seen very little to unseat these asethetic indicators or, especially, these ideological ones and this includes the adoption of liberal blind-spots like a failure of science fiction authors to recognize a Raytheon logo or understand why that is bad. This isn’t to propose an all-encompassing dominance. What is being sketched as a dominant movement isn’t like Sherwin Williams covering the world in paint but the contingent dominance it enjoys is visible and will remain present until some opposing force unseats it.

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