19 February 2004

The Loneliness of the Idiosyncratic Writer

Over at the marvelous FutureTense, Alan Lattimore meditates on "Zen and the Art of Idiosyncratic Writing", positing that there are 2 paths for a writer to follow, that of writing what you want to write, how you want to write it, defying categories and what everyone else is doing, and that of doing basically what everyone else is doing, with some small differences of your own (essentially following the herd):
It seems that if you take the compromise path--to run with the herd--you might improve your short term chances of getting published. But where will you be in 10 years?

I can't guarantee the ideosyncratic path will change your life. But it just seems so much more interesting to be writing different stuff 10 years from now than the same old thing.
I thought immediately of Piers Anthony's latest newsletter, in which, among the many subjects he discusses (quite amusingly), he mentions some short stories he's written:
I regard myself as a natural story writer; the reason I have done more novels than stories, literally, is that I can sell my novels, while stories are iffy. Editors are choosy idiots, as every aspiring writer knows. So the notions pile up; my computer says my Idea file is over 57,000 words long. Normally they are fantasy ideas, and they find their way into fantasy novels, in due course. But some stories don't make it; the poor things languish. Why? Because they are mainstream notions. What use are they to a fantasy writer? Finally I have had enough of this unfairness, and I am writing those stories, to make up a story collection titled Relationships. ... I'll send it to my agent, and when it doesn't sell I'll see about small press publishing or self publishing it. You thought I was promoting small press and self publishing just for the benefit of aspiring writers? I use them myself. It's the way to get around the resistance of Parnassus to readable or provocative fiction.
Then I thought about the April 1976 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I just got at a used bookstore for $1, quite a deal for a particularly important issue of a magazine which has often been important to the field. Why is the April '76 issue so important? Because it contains an essay by Barry N. Malzberg titled "Rage, Pain, Alienation, and Other Aspects of the Writing of Science Fiction" in which he says that the story published after the essay, "Seeking Assistance", is his final SF story. At the back of the magazine is a long letter from Harlan Ellison, responding to a previous letter which seems to have suggested (I don't have the issue it was printed in) that there was something wrong with Ellison for wanting to be known as a "writer who writes some sf" rather than an SF writer.

Some illuminating passages, first from Malzberg:
[After a discussion of Richard Kostelanetz's book The End of Intelligent Writing, which, according to Malzberg, "claims that almost no American writer under forty has been able to achieve a wide audience for serious work much less critical acknowledgment"]: Kostelanetz's academic/literary nexus either does not know we [SF writers] exist or patronizes us as pulp hacks for escapist kids; in any case they leave us alone and enable us to be probably the only medium (but less so in years past) for dangerous, ambitious work. But if you win, you lose; my ambition had turned upon itself. I had beaten the [mainstream literary] system by getting out of the system, but the system wouldn't be beaten after all because it would not acknowledge that I existed and that made my work meaningless. Also I was getting knifed up pretty good inside s-f. Ambitious writers always do; historically the field has silenced or reduced to ineffectiveness its best writers. There is not a single American s-f writer over the age of forty-five whose work is the equal of what it was a decade ago, if it even exists.
And now Ellison:
But what about those of us who want to go our own way, who want to write whatever we choose without having to be pigeonholed? Is that some terrible sin against the wonderfulness of sf? In my case, I have a body of writing behind me that is as much non-sf as it is fantasy. ... Why should potential readers who might enjoy these books never get the chance to read them because Web of the City, a street gang novel, is dumped in with all the "we-have-been-visited-by-aliens-who-built-the-pyramids" books? ...

Why should a book like Deathbird Stories, clearly not sf, be reviewed with pure sf books in the New York Times and be found wanting on the basis of its having contained precious little sf material? And what the hell is so bloody holy about those two letters s and f? John Collier, H.G. Wells, Donald Barthelme, John Hersey, E.L. Doctorow, Vladimir Nabokov, Roald Dahl, David Lindsay, and Anna Kavan managed to write sensational, immortal fiction without being bothered that what they were setting down may possibly be called sf by some, and might be called other things by other people. They were writers, not sf writers, and they received universal attention because they weren't shuunted off into the giant ant and space opera ghetto.

Who's to blame, you ask? Well, publishers and distributors and readers and writers and fans like you who insist on the baby blue blanket security of your little labels. The blame is unequally shared by all those who wish to constrain writers in any way.
Final piece in the collage -- reading through Locus's Year in Review, I was amused by how many of the reviewers, noting their favorites works of the year and any trends they happened to spot, said 2003 was the year of slipstream, or the year of pushing genre boundaries, etc. (My favorite: Gary K. Wolfe: "...if there was a clear movement in the SF/fantasy world over the last year or so, it was a movement to have more movements." Metamucil, anyone?)

The only year in review article which got me particularly annoyed was Gardner Dozois's, which I assume will mostly be reprinted in his next Year's Best collection's "Summation". I owe a lot to Dozois -- my sense of the SF genre was molded by his annuals in the '80s, and Asimov's is the magazine I have subscribed to for the longest time. I think he's a treasure. Therefore, I was frustrated to read his review of the year, which -- and it may just be my reading -- seemed to have a tone of annoyance at writers who don't fit labels. Of Trampoline he seems downright hostile, saying, "this is much more of a classic 'slipstream' anthology, and ... a number of the stories strike me as not even slipstream or Magic Realism, but as mostly mainstream stories with occasional very faint fantastic -- or at least 'odd' -- touches; some of them don't even have the odd touches..." It's as if Dozois has spent so much time within the confines of the traditional SF world that he's afraid to look beyond it, afraid of books where the subject matter and style of writing can't be predicted from one story to another, afraid of having to take a story for what it has, itself, to offer, rather than how it fits into his perception of what is or isn't "science fiction", "fantasy", or "horror". Such an attitude is a cousin to the attitude of the critics who complain about the fantastic elements in Jonathan Lethem's novels.

Idiosyncratic writers are the writers who keep literature alive, but to do so they must be noticed by at least a few readers. Writers of the energy and egomania of Malzberg and Ellison have an easier time of it than quieter, less prolific writers. Even the best readers tend to fall back on what they know, what they recognize, what they can immediately comprehend. While sticking to her or his principles, writing only what is most personally compelling, may be the noble path of the idiosyncratic, it can be a bruising and humiliating path for anyone who wants to connect with readers. Nobody said it was supposed to be easy, though, and despite enmity from traditional fans and critics, despite the difficulties of selling and marketing idiosyncratic work, we are living in a time of much great and original writing from writers who are sticking to their principles. Our job as readers who appreciate this work, I think, is to let other people know about it, to coax them toward appreciation.

(And maybe it's time somebody created a Year's Best Idiosyncratic Fiction series, since the genre years' bests say if a story doesn't fit a label then it doesn't belong, and the non-genre years' bests don't tend to read outside mainstream publications, and often the editors don't know how to read something with fantastic elements.)