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.

26 comments:

  1. Matt: This subject has become sooo freakin tired I almost couldn't read your essay, which I thought was really good and totally agree with. Now, calm down and throw some sawdust under yourself.

    Jeff Ford

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  2. Well, that was fun to read. But you can do better than this:

    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.

    Any individual book or writer may be irrelevant; the fact that The Road has obvious kinship with other post-apocalyptic literature is emphatically not irrelevant. The book covers well-trod ground (and whether or not McCarthy has read Miller, if he didn't realise that he's a fool). That's why the best review of the book out there is Michael Chabon's, which takes the time to consider what the book appears to be and argues for what it actually is. But Chabon can't have that discussion without considering Miller, Wyndham, etc, because the vast majority of post-apocalyptic books were written as genre works.

    Sanford's essay isn't very well thought-out, I agree. It makes as much sense to talk about a "literary establishment" as it does to talk about, oh I don't know, "all you science fiction readers". Generalisations always fall down. But it's hardly unreasonable to be frustrated by the fact that reviews like this, filled with ignorant generalisations of their own -- "Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it" -- appear so regularly in high-profile critical venues, nor is it unreasonable to criticise said venues for publishing such nonsense.

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  3. Yes, I should have said "all you science fiction readers who make this argument", but was typing too fast. For now I'll let it stand as the feeling of the moment, and also because it's hinting toward a much larger argument that I need to spend some time working toward.

    As for reviews, I don't really agree, because those of us who do read quite a bit of SF tend to notice things far more than otherwise -- we're protective of our realm. There are stupid things said, definitely, in many different reviews all over the place every day. Sometimes those stupid things happen to be about SF.

    I continue to think Miller is tangential to McCarthy because their works are aimed at and produced for different audiences and different purposes. The similarities may be interesting, and make for a useful point in an essay, but the fact that they use similar settings doesn't seem to me to be something essential to a discussion of either book, particularly a post-apocalyptic setting, which is something that has been a part of human imagination for ages.

    I'm off to get me some sawdust now.

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  4. I wish I lived in your world.

    Alas, in the one I am familiar with, there is far too much homogeneous programming done in MFA programs and workshops across the land to completely dismiss the idea of hotly defended literary norms. I'll grant that most publishers have a different criteria ($), but I don't think it is unreasonable to talk about things which concern writers (and readers) beyond that.

    I don't know who is talking about firing anyone for expressing an opinion, but I do think that dilettantes who toss off a "speculative fiction" work with no familiarity of what has gone before are as open to criticism as anyone who attempts to enter any other marketspace without doing their research.

    It may not be a problem for a writer to write a work in a genre that he hasn't read, but it is very likely to be a problem for his well-read readers if he therefore fails to be original and interesting. If I want to write a nonfiction book about seashells, I open myself to ridicule if I don't first learn something of seashells and therefore produce a ahallow, uninformative work far outstripped by existing volumes (and I don't think fiction is so different in this regard).

    Ideally, only the marketing arms of publishers would concern themselves with labels, but in the world I inhabit, it is silly to suggest that writers, by and large, don't.

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  5. Hurrah!!

    >but the fact that they use similar settings doesn't seem to me to be something essential to a discussion of either book, particularly a post-apocalyptic setting, which is something that has been a part of human imagination for ages.<

    Hurrah, again!

    What, genre writers *own* all the post-apocalyptic stories? Please.

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  6. That was very enjoyable. Very enjoyable indeed. Thank you.

    I'd be very surprised if McCarthy had read Miller. There's certainly no sign of it in The Road.

    Justine

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  7. rushmc, what MFA programs and workshops in particular? I know plenty of people, many of them readers of this blog, who are in or have been in genre-friendly MFA programs. Also, MFA programs turn out many, many more graduates than they do professional writers, critics, and even writing teachers, and their influence on the print media critics Sanford has it in for is highly debatable.

    Your point about market entry is telling, but not in the way you mean it to be. McCarthy is not attempting to enter the SF "marketspace". He's quite happy in "literature and fiction" section of the bookstore, where his work seems to do quite well.

    I find your seashell example less than compelling. One reads a non-fiction book about seashells to learn something about seashells. One doesn't read an early-21st-century novel about an apocalypse to learn something about the history of the treatment of the apocalypse in American popular fiction, 1950-1990.

    In any case, even if your seashell book did prove to be a problem for "well-read" readers, it's completely irrelevant to any discussion of The Road, judging from the number of positive responses it's gotten from well-read genre readers.

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  8. >>I know plenty of people, many of them readers of this blog, who are in or have been in genre-friendly MFA programs.

    And are you suggesting that this is the norm? If not, it doesn't really address my point, though I'm gratified to hear that such literary broadmindedness does exist out there in some corners.

    >>McCarthy is not attempting to enter the SF "marketspace". He's quite happy in "literature and fiction" section of the bookstore, where his work seems to do quite well.

    You have a point here, I suppose. Perhaps I should have said "mindspace." An outsider perspective may produce an occasional novel insight or approach, but I think it much more commonly misses its target, as ignorance in any arena is more often a handicap than an asset.

    You seem to intentionally misread my example of the nonfiction work. Surely you don't think that one reads apocalyptic fiction by an sf author to "learn something about the history of the treatment of the apocalypse in American popular fiction, 1950-1990"? If not, then we shouldn't expect that to suddenly change for works by non-sf writers, so your comparison is something of a straw-man.

    It's a funny argument, really, that writers will do their best work writing in a vacuum. Should they forswear ALL reading post-Dr. Seuss in order to keep their slate clean and untainted? Would one really argue that someone who wants to focus on human nature in his writing should avoid reading Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Chekhov? That a science writer should ignore Asimov, Gould, Dawkins? How many poets can you think of who could spontaneously combust good poetry without having ever read a poem by another human being? Do you really think that most attempts to produce a work within another genre--say mystery or romance--would succeed if the writer had no familiarity with the tropes, the cliches, the shared assumptions (to be adopted or played against), the ground-already-trod (or long since trampled into dust)?

    Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting that good (or even great) work can't be created outside of the tradition or culture (of writers or readers) to which it might be objectively assigned, ex post facto. Nor am I suggesting that everyone should read sf (it currently comprises less than 20% of what I read myself)--even if they're going to write it. I do think, however, that there's often a certain inherent arrogance in those who, well-aware that such traditions and cultures do exist, choose to operate outside of them while disdaining to be associated with them. Trying to have your cake and eat it too rarely ends in a happy result.

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  9. Silly article, but who is silly for complaining about the contents of a tiny magazine?

    NYRSF is an internal bulletin for the hardcore of SF personalities (pros, superfans, aspirants); this sort of article is simply catechism.

    In other news, many Catholics are fond of The Pope.

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  10. As for reviews, I don't really agree, because those of us who do read quite a bit of SF tend to notice things far more than otherwise -- we're protective of our realm. There are stupid things said, definitely, in many different reviews all over the place every day. Sometimes those stupid things happen to be about SF.

    Well, yes. But I can't help pointing out that there's a bit of a difference in reach between someone saying something stupid about sf in Slate, or the New York Times, and someone complaining about said stupidity on their blog, or even in NYRSF. And really, if you have to be a hard-core sf fan to notice that there's something stupid about referring to all genre fiction as a decaying corpse, that's a whole other problem.

    David:

    One doesn't read an early-21st-century novel about an apocalypse to learn something about the history of the treatment of the apocalypse in American popular fiction, 1950-1990.

    Indeed, and I take the point you and Matt and others are making that humans have been writing about apocalypses for centuries -- and that that background is part of what went into The Road. But, having read the book, I don't think you can dissociate it from the treatment of the apocalypse in American popular fiction, 1950-1990, either, because the images it evokes are so familiar from those stories. (If it wasn't so obviously a nuclear apocalypse this would be less the case, I think.)

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  11. At least 80% of science fiction is crap. If I were a mainstream writer, or Biff, I wouldn't want to be associated with crap. I hate that some people don't read some really good stories because those stories are labeled science fiction (crap). So does one try to raise the public view of science fiction? Or does one try to get the good stuff un-labeled "science fiction"? Or does one just give up?

    I really don't care if someone makes the connection between The Road and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Don't care if the tropes and themes and whatever get stolen without attribution to the genre. I just care that the good literature in science fiction (as well as elsewhere) gets pushed, cause I like good literature in the genre. Partially because in many of my darker moments of the soul (woe!) I fear that one day all I'll find in the S.F.&F. section will be Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, George Martin, Anne McCaffrey, David Weber, and Tad Williams. And then I will have to hope that Cormac McCarthy decides to borrow those tropes if I want a good story with them in it. And that no one notices that those tropes are associated with crap. Cause then he'll not use them again and I'll never get to read good stories built with the tropes. (Replace McCarthy there with other various members of Biff.)

    Then again, maybe S.F. will eventually become so bad it's like romance. Anything remotely good isn't even thought of as romance, and still gets published and promoted.

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  12. The funny thing is a lot of so called literary novelists are adopting themes that have commonly been the domain of sf writers. This is probably due to the fact that what used to only interest a select few, i.e. cloning, the enviroment, the chances of everything going to hell, are now front page news and seen as very real possibilities. Writers will write about what interests and concerns them, it just so happens modern life is becoming more and more like Bladerunner every day.

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  13. Matt --

    Just to stir the pot a bit more, I've commented at length on my blog [lemdodesittjr.com]

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  14. Sorry about the typo; it's www.lemodesittjr.com.

    Having technical problems.

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  15. Sure, Matt, there is no "monolithic creature called the 'literary establishment.'" Yet if The Road had been written by, say, Jeffrey Ford and published by Tor, it would not have won the Pulitzer Prize or been on Oprah or received a glowing review in The New York Times. And about 98% of the people who think The Road by Cormac McCarthy is wonderful would never have read The Road by Jeffrey Ford because science fiction and fantasy is crap.

    Why is that?

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  16. >>At least 80% of science fiction is crap. If I were a mainstream writer, or Biff, I wouldn't want to be associated with crap.

    The only problem with that is that "at least 80%" of mainstream fiction is crap, too...

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  17. Aaron-
    Last time I checked, Jeff Ford won an Edgar award. Which is not an SF award. Oh noes! He won a non-SF award with a ghost story! He must be betraying us! Oh woe is me!

    And- and- the Girl in the Glass isn't even considered horror! And it has ghosts! That bad! BAD!

    Even taken out of this context- let's say Jeff Ford only wrote his short stories and his Physiognomy trilogy - it would not be the same. Since the book Jeff Ford would write (his The Road) would not be the same The Road the Cormac wrote.

    You ignoring the narrative tastes of each writer.

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  18. And you're ignoring my point. Sure, Ford wouldn't actually write the same book as McCarthy, because Ford is a better writer. But if the same book had been published with a genre writer's name on it, it would not have received the same results.

    Do you really believe that Ford's Edgar Award disproves the existence of any prejudice against SF/F/H genre authors?

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  19. Sure 80% of everything else is crap too. But "people" don't think of it as crap, which is why bookstores file S.F. in a different section. And why places like B&N move authors to the general fiction section.

    While logical, noting that 80% of everything else is crap too doesn't get people to look at S.F. You gotta get the perception of crap changed if you want people to pay attention to it.

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  20. I like the Strange Horizons essay about your books.

    Zoid

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  21. As you might know, I've been on the so-tired so-stupid side of this debate several times before. I haven't read this particular example of the genre, having let my NYRSF subscription lapse, but to defend my own so-tired so-stupid past: There was indeed a time when I tried to figure out what to read based on recommendations in the NYTBR and NYRB and Norton anthologies and so forth, and I was in fact astonished by the rich vein of literature that seemed so willfully ignored once I lucked into it.

    I agree with you that things are better now. But obviously there's some talking left to do, given that n+1's survey of short stories a couple of issues back seemed completely unaware that Kelly Link came from somewhere and there might be more where she came from.

    Where we might agree again is that the most practical place to bring this willful blindness up is in n+1 rather than in NYRSF.

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  22. Howdy,

    The only problem with that is that "at least 80%" of mainstream fiction is crap, too...

    I agree, although I would reach for a higher number, like 99%. 80 is too kind. Even that posing as 'literary' is this way.

    I also agree that The Road, if written by some sci-fi writer and published by Tor would have been ignored. The Lathe of Heaven is often dismissed as well, when one thinks of classic 'literary' dystopian novels.

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  23. Who is "the literati" or "the literary elite" and why should I care?

    Seems to me that we SF types should cross our arms, put nose in air, affect a haughty demeanor and say The Road is not SFnal enough for SF.

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  24. You ever notice how the arguments for preserving science fiction are exactly the same ones for preserving independent bookstores? "We're too busy patting ourselves on the back for setting up in obscure and unreachable places, we're blatantly hostile to newcomers who aren't 'part of our crowd', and we refuse to acknowledge that the reason why we're so marginal is because we've gone out of our way to make ourselves unprofitable and unresponsive to what potential customers might want. However, unless we're feted and worshipped as protectors of and heralds for civilization as we want it to be, we'll throw tantrums and cry in our rooms and shit on your car dashboards! Then, if we still don't get what we want, we'll blame you for our incompetence as we're evicted in favor of people who can pay their bills!" And people wonder why I have precious little patience for either these days.

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  25. >the most practical place to bring this willful blindness up is in n+1 rather than in NYRSF.

    I agree with this--it's much more annoying to read this kind of argument in NYRSF, where it has the air of an evangelical preacher getting the crowd all worked up.

    I think it's a little disingenuous to say there is no literary establishment. The literary establishment may be a tradition rather than a group of people--but there has to be some reason that so many serious readers won't take genre fiction (especially science fiction) seriously. I've been trying to talk a couple of my English-major, MFA-holding friends into just trying LeGuin for years, and they insist she's not worth their time because she's "just a science fiction writer."

    Both of these people are avid Harry Potter fans, by the way.

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  26. I read through the NYRSF piece last night, without having read your blog Matt, and also came away feeling very frustrated with the piece.

    What particularly bothered me was the idea of what constituted genre writing, with almost anything no matter WHEN it was written being considered genre if it contained certain elements that we NOW frequently find in genre writing. H. G. Wells was not genre writing--his writing was part of the lineage that led to the modern day genre of sf. More recently, Lord of the Rings was not genre writing although its imitators helped define a fantasy genre.

    There are some great post-apocalyptic books, some clearly informed by the SF genre, others not.

    I think a case could be made that McCarthy's The Road is more influenced by and plays off of the western genre than the sf genre.

    I think a case could be made that his novel is more influenced by plague literature...

    --Eric Schaller

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