25 June 2007

The Shibboleth of "The Literary Establishment"

I thought about waiting a week or so until I have time to write a considered and thoughtful and well-sourced and nuanced and all that post, but I've just spent the last hour yelling at all of the various moving boxes filling my apartment (about which, more here), and instead of continuing to scream at the boxes, I will try to get all the annoyance out of my system by writing it up here.

The cause of the annoyance is an article in the latest New York Review of Science Fiction, which arrived in the mail today. First, before I really start a-ranting, I should say I am quite fond of NYRSF and recommend that everyone on Earth should subscribe to it. It presents an admirably broad collection of voices every month, and the discussions it engenders and hosts are often valuable and fascinating. In fact, if I ever get to the point of moving my ideas beyond blind ranting, I might write them up as an essay in response to the one I'm about to yell about, and submit it there. For now, though, I'm just going to vent some spleen.

The article that has caused me so much annoyance is by Jason Sanford and titled "Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment's Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction". Even the title makes me want to scream.

If this article were anomalous, if it did not represent an argument that I have heard over and over again, it wouldn't bother me. Instead, it is simply a longer (and better written) version of what gets said again and again in book reviews in SF magazines, on the discussion boards for various SF groups, in conversations and panel discussions at SF conventions. And it is ignorant. Provincial, blind, idiotic, ridiculous, silly, simplistic. People making such an argument look like fools.

Sanford is upset that Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road is not recognized by book reviewers as part of the SF tradition of post-apocalyptic novels, particularly Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz. He blames "the U.S. literary establishment" and "elite reviewers". He attempts to define his terms, citing The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, and "many influential book publishers" in New York. He uses the word "literati". He cites A.O. Scott at the Times and the Times's list of the top novels of the past twenty-five years. (A list plenty of people objected to, laughed at, criticized, ignored.) He writes this utterly ignorant and self-evidently false paragraph:
While no one has done an in-depth analysis of the tastes of the country's top literary reviewers, the fact that Scott can publicly dismiss most speculative fiction out of hand without any public uproar or career repercussions suggests his views are not too different from the rest of the literary elite.
What is there, some sort of secret room where the "literary elite" goes and sucks on cigars and dismisses popular fiction? Scott's horrifying statement, the one Sanford thinks he should suffer for is this: "With a few exceptions, I've never much enjoyed detective or espionage novels, science fiction or fantasy, largely because I often find the writing in these kind of books to be clumsy and uninspired." Obviously, he should be fired for expressing such an opinion. It's a far more justifiable one than nearly any sentence in Sanford's essay.

The problem with any argument about "the literary establishment" and "the literary elite" is that those things don't really exist. It's especially silly to say that reviewers are this establishment, this elite -- newspapers are cutting review coverage right and left, fiction coverage is becoming nearly as endangered as poetry coverage, major publishers are trying to maximize profits and minimize the midlist, and -- well, just read Galleycat for a week.

Are there reviewers who don't like much SF? Sure. There are reviewers who don't like John Updike, reviewers who don't like cookbooks, reviewers who don't like Hillary Clinton -- even reviewers who don't like stuff I do! There are also people like Michael Dirda at the Washington Post, who has an informed and nuanced and even passionate knowledge of all sorts of different types of fiction. Don't like the Times? Read the Post.

Sanford then goes off on "the canon". This doesn't exist, either, and even if it does, it's not the creation of reviewers (there you're going to need to talk about academics, but that's an entirely different and more complex conversation). First, he says, "The literary establishment continues to dictate what books are in and out of the literary canon (which, for our purposes, are those books which form an integral part of Western civilization)." He then moves on to that same NY Times list of twenty-five books. Ahhh, the books that are an integral part of Western civilization -- as brought to you by the Times!

Okay, so the Times polled lots of writers and critics, and we could say that's "the literary establishment" if we really want to give a few employees at one newspaper the right to determine such a thing, but it doesn't follow then that this is "the literary canon". While it might be possible to speak of some writers like Shakespeare and Keats as "canonical", it makes no sense to use the term "literary canon" to talk about anything recent, because there is simply too much disagreement amongst everybody -- no-one could possibly write up a list of canonical works or writers of the past twenty-five years and come to much agreement. It's hard enough to get anybody to agree about older writings, and even then the concept of canons is up for lots of debate, because you always have to ask who it is who is mandating these canons, who has the authority to enforce their power, what cultural and social factors affect their production and promulgation, etc. (At the beginning of his essay, Sanford asserts that there are only 25,000 readers of litfic in the U.S. -- even if all these people agreed about all the books in "the canon", what would it matter?)

Sanford asks, "But why does the literary establishment love letting their writers mine the themes and tropes of speculative and other genre fiction while still rejecting it as a whole?" Okay, so there's this literary establishment -- let's call it Biff's -- and at Biff's, Biff is the guy in charge. Anybody who comes in, Biff sez to 'em, he sez, "You know those themes and tropes of speculative and other genre fiction? That's good stuff. Use it a lot here. We like it. I'll give you free beer if you use it. But don't let me see you doin' any of that sci-fi in here. We hate that shit."

Come on! Does Sanford really believe there is a monolithic creature called "the literary establishment" and it has the power to let writers do some things and not others? Like, what, the Mafia? Publishers and distributors certainly have power to put work in print, to promote it, etc., but what profit-loving publisher wouldn't want a writer to be Stephen King or Dan Brown rather than a writer who is thrilled if they can sell 5,000 copies? Sure, a review in the Times can help a novel sell, but the Times reviews so few books, and particularly so few books of fiction, that the vast majority of what is published is not reviewed there, including books marketed as literary fiction.

Sanford then talks about Michael Chabon and about various novels that are "literary fantasies". He says, "Unfortunately, the genres are not getting credit for their victories and, despite winning battles, may still lose the larger literary war."

Huh? What war is this? To the victor go the ... labels? "There is nothing wrong with literary writers like Cormac McCarthy dipping into the genres of speculative fiction." (I'm sure that Cormac McCarthy will be thrilled to know he has Jason Sanford's permission to write his books.) "If a writer can craft a masterpiece of fiction, then who cares what genre the masterpiece exists within?" (This assumes we can define such things as genre and masterpiece, and that they are stable.) "However, if the United States literary establishment allows their writers to embrace speculative fiction, then the literary establishment should likewise acknowledge the great writers of speculative fiction whose works preceded these current literary trends."

Ay yi yi! Again with the "literary establishment" allowing things! When Cormac McCarthy came up with the idea for The Road, did he have to get a contract signed in blood by Biff that would allow him to write the book? Or else he would ... what, not be published?

What Sanford wants is for Cormac McCarthy to come out and say, "Hey, I read this Walter M. Miller guy, and he's pretty damn good! All you weirdos who read sci-fi, you know where it's at!" But he's not going to. Because he's probably never read Walter M. Miller.

I'm sorry, but Miller is at best tangential to any discussion of McCarthy. It might make for an interesting compare-and-contrast paper for a bright high schooler, but other than that, Miller and McCarthy have as little to do with each other as Heinlein and Voltaire.

See, the thing is, most SF tropes and subject matter are not unique, and few are even limited to books. There are a gazillion end-of-the-world movies that McCarthy could have seen, movies that perhaps informed his imagination. Or maybe not. Maybe he just came up with the idea on his own. It's not like apocalypse is something people haven't imagined for, oh, I dunno, a few thousand years.

Readers like Sanford love to think that they're part of a special, marginalized club, but the marginalization comes as much from within their own martyr complexes as any real-world action. There is no "need-hate" relationship, because whatever "literary establishment" you choose to identify doesn't care enough to either need or hate SF. Get over it!

I'm sorry all you suffering science fiction readers don't get the respect you cherish from the elitists you scorn. Once my heart stops bleeding for Paris Hilton, maybe it will start bleeding for you.