15 June 2005

Something More

In a quick post the other day, I mentioned the Dark Cabal and a particular criticism made about "the new generation" of writers in the SF field: that they should push themselves toward "something more" (beyond what the original post calls "literary-lite").

The more I think about it, the more I disagree with the particulars, while also finding it an interesting criticism. (I've commented in the past on most of the publications mentioned -- if you're curious: here, here, here.)

First off, everybody should remember that the writers discussed have been publishing for a pretty short amount of time. It's a rare writer whose earliest stories are the best, though they often give a glimpse of things to come. Nick Mamatas has written at least a couple of stories that are more significant and substantial than the one praised, and other writers such as Barth Anderson, Chris Barzak, and Alan DeNiro (to pick three Ratbastards from the beginning of the alphabet) have done some fine and substantial work recently. Kelly Link gets praised (deservedly), but she's not the only "next generation" writer out there who is doing unique, rich, innovative work -- Vandana Singh comes immediately to mind for me, because every story of hers I've read explores the implications of its material with a depth and sensitivity rare amongst even the better short story writers, never mind SF short story writers. Or M. Rickert -- as a work of fiction, her "Cold Fires" was vastly better than anything I read by any of the "big names" in the SF field last year.

The criticism is necessary, though, because it makes those of us who are particularly interested in "the next generation" or the territory between the definitions of science fiction, fantasy, and other genres point to what we value and why. The comments thread on the post has already delved into some of the topics with a kind of depth that is helpful for people who feel one way or another to begin to see how other people view things, and to see where they find value and pleasure.

It's interesting that the writer of the post is surprised that a lot of the small press publications are fantasy stories (the so-called "slipstream" stories of most of the writers are also fantasy, though somewhat less overt in their approach than, say, a David Eddings novel. But at this point contemporary fantasy is essentially indistinguishable from a lot of things being published in the literary mainstream, except that contemporary fantasy is what is published in magazines and books marketed as fantasy while fiction and literature are what is published in magazines and books marketed as fiction and literature -- the categories as arbiters of content have become meaningless, but remain powerful for marketing). The reasons seem perfectly clear to me, but I may be naive -- there are quite a few markets for core science fiction stories: Analog specializes in it, Asimov's tends to prefer it, SciFiction and F&SF are happy to publish it, and I know even the supposedly slipstreamy fiction editors at Strange Horizons would love to receive more pure science fiction submissions of good quality. Plus various other small magazines and e-zines, and a bunch of anthologies. If you write science fiction, you've got a pretty diverse group of markets to submit to. If, however, you're more interested in using fantasy as an element in stories rather than as the central conceit ... well, that's a somewhat different situation. There's long been a place for such writing within the SF world, but for a while there were, it seemed, more writers and stories than markets. (It's also worth noting that the Ratbastards were happy to publish the first five of David Moles's "Irrational Histories", which were structurally odd enough to, I assume, prevent publication in a major market, but he's just as capable of publishing a story like "The Third Party" in Asimov's and getting it into a Best of the Year collection.)

Here's another criticism that deserves a bit of response, though I expect it will cause me to use the phrase "on the other hand" a lot:
There are stories about the need for self-actualization, affirmations of the things we all believe. Most of these stories play at being strange, but underneath, a lot of them aren't very strange at all. Somehow they end up falling between literary and genre rather than, well, slipstreaming. They often felt like literary-lite. They had lovely images, competent writing.
First off, there is nothing that "we all believe". (Who do you mean "we" Dark Cabal Man?) I doubt the writer actually thinks there are things "we all believe", but it was a convenient generalization, the way that "we" often is, even though it's a ridiculous fiction when you begin to think about it (but "you" is, too). On the other hand, I know exactly what's meant here, and I agree in the abstract: I could probably live happily ever after if another serious story about somebody having an epiphany that makes them more content with their life was never published. Some great ones have been written, but it's time to move on and declare life a bit more complex. And even if life isn't that complex, fiction should be, because it's more interesting when it is. So there. But to call it "literary-lite" is unfair, because it's judging average fiction by the standards of great fiction, when really what you should do is compare anything you consider to be L-L to any issue of, say, TriQuarterly. Most of that stuff doesn't compare very well to Chekhov or Joyce, either. Or even to Alice Munro, who would be my nominee for best living short story writer in English (if such a category had any meaning or usefulness).

"Most of these stories play at being strange, but underneath, a lot of them aren't very strange at all." That's a strange statement. It can't stand on its own without some exploration, though -- I would love to see the writer, in a later post, really dig into a story and show how it appears strange but isn't, because I'm not entirely sure how that is possible, though I'm open to the idea. Or maybe that could even be the point of a story -- couldn't you say, for instance, that one of the powerful elements of the best SF writing is that it makes the strange ordinary? That it presents the impossible, the weird, the ridiculous, the dreamed, the wished-for, the imagined through techniques of realism? (The opposite is Shklovsky's idea of estrangement [or enstrangement], but that's another topic altogether...) Why is "playing" at being strange an invalid technique? Does it have more to do with assumptions the reader holds onto while reading than it does with anything actually on the page? On the other hand, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's finished a story, thought about it, and realized it was less substantial than it initially seemed. (But then, I feel this way about The Great Gatsby.)

"Somehow they end up falling between literary and genre rather than, well, slipstreaming." This is judging stories for being something they're not, and is a perfect example of the perils of labeling. It's taking Bruce Sterling's definition of "slipstream" and applying it to stories that may or may not have been intended by their authors to fit into that definition. It could be argued that the author's intentions don't matter, but to do so in this case is to say that Sterling's definition deserves to be applied as an evaluative tool against the stories, because if a story doesn't fit the goals of genre science fiction or fantasy, then the only thing it can be trying to do is what Sterling says slipstream does. This is taxonomy at its most reductive -- about as useful as saying if a farm animal doesn't give milk or lay eggs, it must be a sheep. To my knowledge, nobody at the Ratbastards, nobody at Flytrap, nobody at Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet said their goal was to publish "slipstream". Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw at Flytrap, for instance, say their 'zine is "like a wunderkammer", a "wonder cabinet" -- a collection of oddities and things that are interesting to look at.

I'm probably giving too much scrutiny to a post that was not designed to be looked at so closely. I'm glad the writer raised these ideas, even if I think they display some unsupportable assumptions. At the very least, it's good to see somebody paying some attention to small press writing and not just saying, "I like it, it's nice" after summarizing the plot of every story.

5 comments:

  1. For what it’s worth, I didn’t market “Five Irrational Histories” anywhere before selling it to Tim and Heather. It, or the individual histories it comprises, might well have been able to sell somewhere else.

    I’m not entirely sure what Onyx is getting at with regard to stories that only “play at being strange”, but there is this thing the Turkey City Lexicon calls the “motherhood statement”:

    Motherhood statement: SF story which posits some profoundly unsettling threat to the human condition, explores the implications briefly, then hastily retreats to affirm the conventional social and humanistic pieties, i.e., apple pie and motherhood. Greg Egan once stated that the secret of truly effective SF was to deliberately “burn the motherhood statement.”

    I think Egan’s on to something, and it’s something that new writers in particular would be well advised to keep thinking about.

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  2. Like most SF people who make this or that claim about something being "literary" or "too literary", the context of the statement makes me believe that they haven't read any literary fiction (contemporary American realism anyway) since college.

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. That was my thought, Nick.

    JeffV

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  5. "literary-lite"

    Sounds like something Trent or Dave Truesdale would say.

    Why do they need pseuodonyms to say that?

    Ah. Yes.

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