COMMEMORATING THE CENTENNIAL of the great Ray Bradbury, biographer Sam Weller sat down with former California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia for a wide-ranging conversation on Bradbury’s imprint on arts and culture.
SAM WELLER: The first time I met you was at the White House ceremony for Ray Bradbury in November 2004. You were such a champion for Ray’s legacy — his advocate for both the National Medal of Arts and Pulitzer Prize. As we look at his 100th birthday, I want to ask: Why is Bradbury important in literary terms?
DANA GIOIA: Ray Bradbury is one of the most important American writers of the mid-20th century. He transformed science fiction’s position in American literature during the 1950s. There were other fine sci-fi writers, but Ray was the one who first engaged the mainstream audience. He had a huge impact on both American literature and popular culture. He was also one of the most significant California writers of the last century. When one talks about Bradbury, one needs to choose a perspective. His career looks different from each angle.
It’s interesting. You see him as a California writer. He moved to California from Illinois in April 1934. He was 13 years old and he’s often associated with the Midwest, the prairie, and its ideals. How do you separate those two things? Is he a Californian or Midwestern writer? Is he both? Or does the question ultimately not matter?
Regional identity matters more in American literature than many critics assume. We have a very mobile society, so today many writers are almost placeless. But Bradbury is a perfect example of a writer for whom regional identity was very important.
How do you decide where a writer comes from? There are two possible theories — both valid. The first theory looks at where a writer was born and spent his or her childhood. But I favor a different view. I believe a writer belongs to the place where he or she hits puberty. That’s the point where the child goes from a received family identity to an independent adult existence.
Once Bradbury came to Southern California, he never left. He lived in Los Angeles for 77 years. All of his books, all of his stories, novels, and screenplays were written here. The great imaginative enterprise of his life — bringing science fiction into the American mainstream — happened in California.
Is there any way to measure Ray’s impact on popular culture?
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.