25 July 2007

Texts and Contexts

Susanna Mandel offered a thoughtful column at Strange Horizons this week, "On SF and the Mainstream, or, Rapidly Changing Scenery", writing from the perspective of someone who hasn't had the chance to keep up with a lot of what's been going on in the science fiction/fantasy community over the last five or so years. I sympathized a lot, having started this blog, in fact, as someone in just about exactly that position. (I'm really interested, too, to see what she's going to discuss in her future columns, which she says will be about pre-1800 writings.)

Richard Larson was inspired by the column to ask for some discussion that moves beyond content to probe the differences between SF and other sorts of things:
I would love for someone to be engaging the SF/mainstream literature discussion with the goal of making formal distinctions, of ignoring content completely and trying to figure out how the experience of reading mainstream literature differs from that of reading genre fiction, and what formal factors are contributing to that experience.
Earlier, Paul Di Filippo posted the results of a panel at Readercon about a "slipstream canon", and Paul Kincaid responded, raising the point that there's hardly any such thing as a "pure genre" (no matter how you define "genre") and that the "canon" is a fine list of wonderful things to read, but these aren't texts that really have a whole lot in common.

Sarah Monette responded to both the list and to Kincaid's response by wondering if "genre" isn't the wrong word, and misleading. She proposes "modality" instead:
Contrarealism--or unrealism--(science fiction, fantasy, supernatural horror, magic realism . . . slipstream) is a modality. Because these things inflect a story on a level a priori to the narrative itself. If a genre is a kind of story, a modality is a kind of approach to a story. You can tell the same story in any modality. E.g., Cinderella. You can tell it as Coal Miner's Daughter (realism). You can tell it as a pararealistic Horatio Alger story. (Which I suppose some may argue is what Coal Miner's Daughter is. Not actually having seen the movie, I can't testify personally. The new Will Smith thing about the homeless man who becomes a stockbroker is also Cinderella. Realistic or para-?) Or you can tell it as a fantasy (Disney!). (I'm sure also that you can tell it as a science fiction story ... ooh, wait. Psion.) The narrative elements will not change. (Whereas, if you tell Cinderella as a horror story, the narrative elements do change. Hence we conclude that horror is a genre. QED.)
It's worth also bringing into this some of the reviews of Interfictions, the response to which I've enjoyed watching. Three recent ones that come to mind are the -- very different! -- reviews by Mikita Brottman, Daniel Green, and David Soyka. The anthology makes an attempt to chart, or at least provide a space for, fiction that doesn't fit into a clear category, and yet that in and of itself is clearly something difficult to assess, at least among the stories in the book. (For my own story there, I wasn't exactly thinking of categories, but rather of mixing up different kinds of texts, different sorts of allusions, different levels of seriousness and unseriousness, and see if I could hold it all together.)

Meanwhile, the old New Weird discussions have been made public once again.

Okay, so there's a bunch of stuff. And it all brings me back to what Richard Larson asked -- how does the experience of reading something called X differ from the experience of something called Y (or not-X)? That's a question I find far more interesting than how to define X, Y, and not-X.

It all brings me back, as so much does, to Samuel Delany, who has done a little bit of what Larson seems to be looking for (mostly in Starboard Wine, which is very difficult to get hold of, but it will be generally available again either in the fall of 2008 or spring of 2009. More on that later).

Delany has called SF a "field phenomenon" that can only be described, not defined. He has argued that "There's no reason to run SF too much back before 1926" because
More, Kepler, Cyrano, and even Bellamy would be absolutely at sea with the codic conventions by which we make sense of the sentences in a contemporary SF text. Indeed, they would be at sea with most modern and post modern writing. It's just pedagogic snobbery (or insecurity), constructing these preposterous and historically insensitive genealogies, with Mary Shelley for our grandmother or Lucian of Samosata as our great great grandfather.
(Adam Roberts has an interesting take on this in his history of science fiction, but I'm no longer near the library I borrowed the book from, and my memory of it is too unspecific to be able to paraphrase accurately.)

In one of his most important essays, "Dichtung und Science Fiction" (in Starboard Wine), Delany says, "For an originary assertion to mean something for a contemporary text, one must establish a chain of reading and preferably a chain of discussion as well." In another essay, "Science Fiction and Literature", he states, "To say that a phenomenon does have a significant history is to say that its history is different from the history of something else: that's what makes it significant."

I've said before that where a text is published can affect how it is read, including how it is categorized and understood by the reader. We see that in some of the reviews for Interfictions, where many of the stories are judged based on the purpose of the anthology, which of course is justifiable, but I also wonder how at least some of them would fare in an entirely different context. In fact, much of what is new about what's happening in the SF community right now -- the changes Susannah Mandel and others notice -- may be more the creation of new contexts than the creation of new types of fiction (about which I've got some of the same questions as Dan Green poses in his review and Paul Kincaid raises in his response to the "slipstream canon").

I'm wary of a form/content distinction, because it seems to me more an occasionally-useful illusion than an idea that really fosters good analysis, but how texts create reading experiences, and how those experiences change in different eras and circumstances does, indeed, interest me. That's an idea worth applying to those New Weird discussions -- what were the circumstances that made such discussions so energetic, combative, and sometimes insane? What was the effect of those discussions on writers' practices (if any), and why does it matter? Was the New Weird a momentary blip, more passion than substance, or was it a historically important argument/label/concern/whatever? What was it trying to be different from, and why?

If we want to map the topography of literary history, including all the little hills and dales, then texts alone will not explain vastly different reading experiences, because the contexts in which the texts are produced, distributed, received, and discussed contribute to that history. Such a conversation would, I think, allow more insight than yet another argument about how to define and delineate different types of fiction based on the texts alone, or on some mythical essential qualities those texts are supposed to possess.

7 comments:

  1. As usual, Delany is smarter than pretty much everybody else.

    I keep thinking there's some sort of postcolonialist, writing-back-to-the-center analysis that would make sense of the SF vs. mainstream battle, but I keep turning the pieces of the analogy around and can't quite make them fit together.

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  2. "Mainstream"?

    And what the heck is that? Forget SF as being an undefinable morass, what is mainstream?

    Thriller/suspense novels? They are the most widely read by the majority of people who do not read very much – the mainstream defined. There's hardly all that much difference between reading SF and reading Clancy or Nora Roberts.

    The category romance is the most frequently consumed type of book — not all that much different from reading SF except that the conventions are more rigidly held to.

    Is it the classics? I'd argue that reading Jane Austen in 2007 is somewhat like reading SF as one has to learn the social rules of the characters from the text while reading the text. O. Henry? Any current SF magazine will have some variation on an O. Henry story in it, sadly. Hemingway? Tough guys in exotic locales anyone?

    Contemporary American realism is an ideological mainstream. Is that what people mean? While those streams don't cross, someone steeped in CAR reading CAR likely has similar sorts of experiences as one steeped in SF does reading SF: epiphanies for sensawunda, lots of tongue-clucking over the moral imperatives or sensible actions of this or that character, reading about self-obsessed neurotics vs reading about self-realized demigods (who are by definition self-obsessed neurotics), etc.

    Postmodern fiction? Pfft, everyone's positively SOAKING in that.

    Much of this just boils down to quality of writing, honestly. CAR readers tend to valorize sentences, and SF readers tend to see sentences as a necessary evil for constructing The Movie in their heads.

    -NM

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  3. Ugh, "mainstream". Whatever definition people come up with for it, it's generally a term that doesn't so much have its own meaning as it has an opposition -- it's that stuff that's not SF, or not "genre fiction".

    Interesting that the term itself dates back at least to the early '50s.

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  4. Why say "modality" when "mode" is just as useful?

    I think she's got it exactly backwards, too, in that horror is a mode and SF is a genre. The former is defined by the affect it produces, not by any specific narrative elements, as the latter is. Or so says Clute, and I believe him.

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  5. True, but I think the point still stands.

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  6. In linguistic jargon "mode" often means what we might call the medium in everyday speech: the physical means of communication. I agree that "modality" is an essentially worthless term for what she's trying to get at, but the word "mode" might be even more confusing.

    Searching for a definition for mainstream is a pretty futile exercise. The mainstream in any field is defined negatively by what it is not. So we can talk about the geneology of SF and other outliers as a genre (and I agree that the word leaves much to be desired, especially when trying to distinguish between genres of content and those of form) but not necessarily the geneology of the mainstream. We can discuss the advent of the word's usage, and the changing character of what has been considered normative literature, but the nougaty center has no forebears.

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