03 July 2007

Returning to Reflect

After I posted the rant about "the literary establishment", I was away from the internet for a few days, and then I returned to discover it had garnered quite a bit of comments, not just here, but elsewhere. Some of the comments, disagreements, agreements, and discussion interested me quite a bit, and I thank everyone who contributed. (Most people kept a more thoughtful and civil tone than I did in the post, which I'm also grateful for.)

I've spent some time thinking about why it is that I responded so vehemently to the article in NYRSF. A lot of discussion ended up focusing on The Road, but it wasn't really the statements about The Road that sparked my ire -- mostly, I think it was that Sanford's article hit multiple areas of sensitivity for me all at once. What I realized when reading all the commentary about what I and others had said was that there are a number of topics related to the perception of science fiction/fantasy outside of the active community of self-identified readers of SF that I enjoy seeing discussed with an awareness of all the different sorts of complexity involved. When that complexity seems to be ignored, I get annoyed, because what I really want is for somebody to answer questions I don't have answers to, because I lack the knowledge and experience to dig into them.

I don't intend to beat the discussion into the ground -- I've pretty much said what I have to say -- but I want to offer a couple points of clarification. My argument was mostly with the idea of a "literary establishment" and a "literary elite", but I didn't mean to somehow imply I think all books are treated equally by editors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, reviewers, teachers, and readers. That would be an idiotic argument, and though I am fully capable of making idiotic arguments, I hope I didn't make that one. It's the differences that really hold my fascination, in fact, which is why I think I got so testy with an article that I perceived to be simplifying things horribly.

I also think science-fiction-as-science-fiction is in an interesting moment, one where, yes, many topics primarily (but not exclusively) the province of SF over the past sixty or seventy years are often not being identified by writers, marketers, or readers as SF. (Books for teens should also be a part of this discussion.) In The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and, especially, Starboard Wine, Samuel Delany posited the idea that the basic difference between science fiction and other types of prose is a difference of subject/object relationship rather than of content -- that SF privileges the object, whereas other types of writing since the 19th century privilege the subject. If this was true, is it still? What are the different forces at play in the careers of such writers as George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link -- or, for that matter, Ursula LeGuin, Nalo Hopkinson, and Lucius Shepard? What are the systems and forces that came together to make such a general success of The Road ... or Harry Potter? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Those of us who feel obsessively drawn to these questions, perhaps against our better judgment, would do well to avoid generalizations and probe carefully into the contradictions, exceptions, surprises, histories, orthodoxies, and assumptions of the topic. That's a reminder as much for myself as for anybody else.


  1. I think I said this in an email, but I may as well post it here...

    One of the problems about talking about SF and mainstream literature is that the two communities seem to mean different things by the term "science fiction."

    Within the SF community we usually recognize "science fiction" by the tropes it uses. If it has spaceships, or time travel, or aliens, or talking squid, then it is SF.

    The literary community, on the other hand, appears to use the term "science fiction" to to denote a style of writing (and very much a genre style of writing with formulaic plot structures, stock characters and so on).

    A good analogy might be to look at romance fiction. Lots of literary fiction is about people falling in love, but you don't see a book described as "romance" unless it fits the classic romance fiction mold.

    Consequently, literary authors probably see no contradiction in appropriating the tropes of SF and yet claiming that what they are writing is not "science fiction".

    There are two obvious problems with this (aside from the ongoing plague of outraged blog posts whenever anyone makes a "not science fiction" comment). The first is that some literary critics have a tendency to assume that anything published by an SF imprint, or written by an SF author, must be formulaic genre fiction. We, on the other hand, might follow Farah Mendlesohn in claiming that one of the unique things about SF as a genre is that it doesn't have a formula.

    The other potential problem is that while just about anyone can write about falling in love (most of us have done so at least once), it isn't as easy to write well about science and technology. Consequently some of the mainstream writers who pick up SF tropes tend to use them rather badly when compared to authors who are steeped in SF traditions.

    All of which, I hope, managed to avoid generalizations...

  2. Thanks for adding that, Cheryl -- and thanks, too, for the email, which I haven't yet had a chance to respond to. (I'm at least a week behind on emails...)

    I love mentioning science fiction to people outside the community of science fiction readers, because the response is so unpredictable. Recently, a good friend of mine who is extremely well read in general fiction, but not SF, and who is brilliant and insightful about many things, tried to convince me that the movie Children of Men is not science fiction, because it has nothing to do with spaceships or that sort of thing. She really thought my categorizing it as SF was bizarre. (And when she first balked at my labelling it that, I thought she was joking.)

    And then on the other hand, some of the best conversations I had at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference some years ago were about vampire novels, and recently at the lit conference I went to in Kenya I had multiple and very well informed conversations about such writers as John Crowley, Samuel Delany, Paul DiFilippo, Pat Cadigan, and others.

    For that matter, some of the best conversations I've had about Faulkner, Henry James, and even Beckett have been at science fiction conventions or with SF fans and/or writers.