11 January 2004

Innovative Fiction

Daniel Green has written a tough essay for Context titled "Empty Rhetoric: Innovative Fiction and the American Literary Magazine", which looks at how many mainstream literary journals say they want "fresh", "experimental", "innovative", and "original" work and hardly ever publish anything which fits those adjectives.

This is an interesting essay for SF readers to think about, because it shows some of the rifts within the world of mainstream, academically-accepted fiction. Context is published by the great Center for Book Culture, which includes the wondrous Dalkey Archive Press and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, both of which are devoted to publishing and thinking about innovative, experimental literature, so it's not surprising that Context would publish an article saying the current mainstream is dull and repetitive. What's surprising is how easy it is for the case to be made.

Green's essay is long and full of evidence, and I won't quote it here, because no short quotes give the full flavor of the argument. I had two responses after reading the piece, though.

First, I wondered if any of Green's criticisms could apply to the SF world. Could a similar essay be written which looked at the most frequently praised SF markets, the ones which end up in all the Best of the Year anthologies and on the awards ballots? To do so, we would have to change some definitions and expectations, because there are too many forces at play on those markets which are not forces affecting literary journals. The biggest difference between the two, I suppose, is that SF markets -- even the tiniest, edgiest ones -- tend to be read by everyday readers as well as writers and critics, whereas literary journals tend mostly to be read by writers and academics (though, in my experience, the writers don't really read them, they just skim through them and then note the editor's address so they can submit something).

It would be interesting to at least try to write such an article, and I was tempted to start myself, but I don't have the time to do the proper amount of reading, so, alas, it must wait.

My second thought was that Green gets himself into a bit of a corner by seeming to define innovation as innovation of form. He cites structuralist and post-structuralist literary criticism as a support for this, rejecting the idea of "content" as being capable of containing much innovation. To me, SF proves this wrong -- indeed, so much formal innovation has failed in SF over the past thirty years because it's difficult to contain the highly innovative content of some of the best SF within a form which is also innovative. Where most avant-garde mainstream lit has stuck to traditional content (whether psychologically-based on not -- even a content-phobic writer such as Gertrude Stein still chose titles indicating content which was, for all intents and purposes, what people had been writing about for at least 100 years), SF generally finds itself at its least interesting whenever its content becomes too familiar.

What Green fails to note is that not only are most of the well-respected literary journals dull, but so are most of the ones which truly are devoted to innovation. I subscribed to Fence magazine for a couple of years, and though overall I found it more interesting than many of the other journals I've subscribed to, the quality of work seemed comparable, by which I mean I can usually find a few works of interest in any literary magazine and a majority of works which seem repetitive, empty, pretentious, dull -- regardless of whether the magazine is trying to be innovative or trying to publish yet another Raymond Carver rip-off. Maybe that's me.

Perhaps the real truth lies in something said by Frederic Jameson, one of the better-known literary critics in the world, in a recent issue of the New Left Review (at the beginning of a review of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition):
[T]he representational apparatus of Science Fiction, having gone through innumerable generations of technological development and well-nigh viral mutation since the onset of that movement, is sending back more reliable information about the contemporary world than an exhausted realism (or an exhausted modernism either).
Where does that exhaustion come from? Perhaps from an inability of the form-firsters to reconcile with the content-firsters, and vice versa. While it would certainly be nice to see more formally innovative and language-centered SF, there are properties of speculative fiction which may prevent the best SF from ever suffering such exhaustion. Compare, for instance, Dangerous Visions to any collection of cutting-edge mainstream writing from the same time period -- while much of the former has lost its spark and charm over the years, a surprising amount has not, while every example of the latter which I've tried to read has been a torturous experience. (And I'm a guy who likes really experimental writing!)

None of which is to say that SF is any sort of superior literature to any other. Questions of the "importance" of any sort of writing often lead people to make wildly ridiculous claims which seek to raise their personal tastes to the status of scientific law. What's interesting to look at are trends and fads, and one reason I think Green's essay is valuable is that it points out some of those trends, criticizes a couple of fads, and, most importantly, exhorts writers, editors, and readers to expand their visions of what writing can achieve.