MIND MELD: What You Should Know About Speculative Fiction and Mainstream Acceptance (Part 2)
[Note: Continued from Part 1.]
Read on to see their eye-opening responses…
I don’t believe mainstream approval would or will do much for genre fiction. It appears to do quite well in the marketplace as things stand, and lumping it together with the mainstream might, heaven forfend, see a decline in the sale of fantasy trilogies. There are authors-Tom Disch springs to mind-who have/had literary aspirations that such approval might have helped, at least as far as gaining them the respect of the literary establishment, but would it have sold more of their books? Perhaps, but who can say?
Does genre fiction have mainstream respect? Not so much, but it’s gaining respect, I think, in certain quarters thanks to folks like Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon. The previous generation of American writers didn’t like to admit they were nerds and geeks ; they were still trapped in antiquated self-images, considering themselves junior Hemmingways and Woolfs, and were threatened by anything that might erode those images; but the fact that both Diaz and Chabon seem to embrace their inner geek has prompted a number of their peers to come out of the closet and admit what an influence Steven King, say, had on their writerly lives and, in several cases, to write genre novels. Yet there are instances today where a writer has felt he had to escape the genre. Take Jonathan Lethem, for example. I feel you can’t generalize intelligently about this topic-it’s such an individual matter. For instance, not all writers are capable of being the self-promoters that Lethem was/is (and I mean this in the most positive sense.) Tom Disch, for sure, wasn’t capable of it. Though he could be charming, his personality was far too prickly for mass consumption.
My own attitude is this. I enjoy writing. I’m fortunate enough to have made a living at it for 25 years. I don’t write to be respected-I write to tell stories I find interesting, to communicate a mood, to resolve inner turmoil, and for a variety of personal reasons, not least among them being that I suck at holding down a steady job. Mainstream respect for what I write would be nice, but I simply haven’t cared about it enough to do doggie tricks. It’s no big deal one way or another.
Ever since I can remember, and apparently long before I was born, people have been complaining that genre fiction, particularly science fiction (broadly defined), doesn’t get enough respect. “If it’s good, it can’t be sf; if it’s sf, it can’t be good!” was the oftheard summary, as far back as the 1950s.
The complaint was valid, in a way. Science fiction and fantasy offer unparalleled opportunities for satire and social comment, and a number of great 20th C. writers took note of this an used them for that purpose. But the rapid ascent of, say, 1984 and Brave New World to classic status did nothing, or almost nothing, to change the status of science fiction as a field.
But, really, why should it have? Were people intrigued by the plight of the individual versus society, as depicted with such pessimistic intensity by Orwell, supposed to be drawn into the world of Slan, where it turns out that the dictator is a good guy, just a little misunderstood? (It’s okay to love Big Brother! No rats required! Keep those rats away from me, they are completely unnecessary! Also: fans are Slans!)
Using the imaginary world as a vantage point to critique society has long been sf’s claim to seriousness. It was Kingsley Amis’ focus in his attempt to rehabilitate sf in New Maps of Hell. And why not? Sf has been used for this purpose since it existed, before there was a name for it. But it’s also valid to be interested in the imaginary worlds for themselves, not as a vehicle for satire but as a new type of myth, projecting the longings and fears of individuals that resonate with audiences into stories that distort the world around them, forcing it into new and wonderful shapes.
This is the taproot from which the green life of the genre springs, and it can never really be respectable. It is the source of talking squids in outer space. It produces elves and leather-clad vampires in embarrassing profusion. It’s the reasons why the uniforms on Star Trek (any Star Trek) will always look a little silly. You can talk at the top of your voice about Asimov’s speculations on human psychology and how they inspired future-Nobel-prize-winning-economists, but in the background you will always hear the mad chuckle of a deranged scientist trying to destroy the world. You want to introduce your serious friend to Dr. Jekyll, but as they shake hands he will inevitably turn into Mr. Hyde.
The source of all creativity (even tragedy) is playfulness, and the respectability which commands respect is poisonous to playfulness. So I don’t think it’s impossible for sf/f to become respectable, because everything that lives can die. I just don’t think it would be a great thing if it did.
I think we need to talk about what we mean by mainstream respect and approval, because I think the entire discussion hinges on that. I get the feeling that what you’re asking is “does literary sf/f have literary respect?” The answer to that, of course, is no. We don’t win those awards, we don’t appear in those magazines, we don’t get filed on those shelves. And that’s okay, because we have our own awards and shelves and magazines. There are a lot of voices calling for sf/f to get the recognition it deserves, but I think that’s wasted breath. We’re trying harder and harder to get recognized and admitted to a club that just keeps getting smaller and duller and less important. What we need to understand is that sf/f is the seat of innovation, modern creativity and true cultural relevance. Of course the literary establishment is borrowing from our toolbox. It’s the best toolbox there is, and they’re welcome to borrow it. It’s kind of amusing to watch them treat time travel, or the apocalypse, or whatever else as a shiny new plot device. They probably won’t hurt themselves.
But that’s the literary community. You asked if sf/f have mainstream respect.
Let’s be absolutely clear here; I’m not sure *books* have mainstream approval. Increasingly though, science fiction and fantasy are the default languages of true mainstream media – videogames, movies, television and their continuously evolving, singularity inducing internet spawn. You can blame short attention span if you’d like, but only if you haven’t played World of Warcraft. WoW has eleven million subscribers, and it is the opposite of a short attention span game. The best television shows expect a lot of their viewers, emotionally and intellectually. We can pretend that we’re losing market share because we’re crafting a higher product in a lower world, but that’s just inane. If anything, we’re losing market share because we’re writing books for each other, and not for our audience. Or our potential audience, I should say.
The heart of the matter is that we seem to think we have to choose between beauty and excitement. We write ponderously important books that no one really wants to read, or we write vapidly exciting books that expect nothing of their readers and less of their writers. We can do both. We can write exciting books that are beautiful, and beautiful books that are exciting. We can make our readers think while they’re on the edge of their seats, and literary respect be damned.
First off, what is literary science fiction? It could be defined along the same lines as hard science fiction where the science in the story is an important, if not the most important, element (even more so than plot and character). Literary science fiction, then, holds form and theme above plot and character.
Using that as my working definition, I believe literary science fiction has always had mainstream respect. Isn’t Vonnegut and Orwell taught in schools? Brave New World? H. G. Wells? Science fiction gets reviewed in the New York Times and elsewhere. It may be reviewed by science fiction critics as opposed to non-genre critics, but there’s no question that it’s getting respect, so what else do you want? Oh yeah, the Booker.
According to the Booker Prize juror quoted in the Robinson piece linked above, very little, if any, science fiction was submitted for consideration. He suggests that it’s the publishers that don’t have the respect for the genre, not the panelists. To be fair, the publishers may have given up after so many years of being ignored. I think, though, there’s something else. The publishers may not be eager to publicize their genre fiction as literary. Perhaps they feel science fiction readership will only come from hardcore sf fans and maybe they are afraid of scaring off that core readership.
Does the consumer of science fiction disallow experimentation? (That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?) Perhaps this reader wants their science fiction the way they want it and no other way. I remember sitting on a panel where an audience member ensured us that the sf reader wanted only escapism: not message, not art. What’s a publisher or writer supposed to do with that? They sure as hell don’t want to publicize their work as literary.
If the science fiction fan doesn’t want art, what about the converse: does the art lover want futuristic speculation? My own unstatistically sound research suggests that the mainstream literary fiction readers do not, in fact, want peanut butter in their chocolate. “I can’t get past the space ships,” one such person told me when discussing science fiction, literary or otherwise.
Not sure that’s true. Wicked, Geek Love, Practical Magic, and others of the weird ilk are read by mainstream readers. Wicked and Geek Love are outstanding works of literary fiction. They are both quite popular and both fall under a genre umbrella. When you think about it, there would be no such thing as “magic realism” if mainstream readers weren’t prepared to read some sort of fantastic literature.
Personally I don’t think many readers, either science fiction or mainstream, know what they want. I’m sure there’s a good percentage of either type that would love Stanislaw Lem. You want respect, point the disbelievers in that direction.
Does science fiction need mainstream literary approval? Certainly not. Some writers may need it, especially if they have not found an audience among the genre-reading crowd. I suspect that finding an audience out in mainstream land is harder than finding one in genre land, though. Genre writers are advised to not go on about the portrayal of the human condition in their work. Appearing relevant may cause your numbers to dip.
What would happen if it got out that science fiction authors are secretly writing on an artistic level? What if we suddenly got taken seriously by people that can’t get beyond the spaceships? Eek. Our marketing machine may stop working. We’d be judged by our artistic merit rather than by our shiny plots, creative characters, and whoops-upside-your-head twists. Our wonderful powers of world-building would no longer matter.
That might all happen, but it’s not likely. Science fiction will probably never be embraced wholeheartedly by the high-minded reader. The incentive is for science fiction writers to write science fiction the way the rabid fan thinks they want it: no message and no art. Don’t bother with crossover appeal.
Literary science fiction authors will have to make up their minds how to market their work. If they want respect on a literary level, they will have to market it that way and demand their publisher get it into the Booker committee. Dammit.
With a few stellar exceptions — such as the lovely The Time-Traveler’s Wife — it’s clear that literary SF/F is largely marginalized by the mainstream. And while it would delight me greatly for SF/F authors to receive more mainstream attention (which would bring larger audiences, and larger publisher advances!), I fear that much of what we write simply isn’t intuitively accessible for most readers. I consider myself an adventurous reader, and even I find myself going cross-eyed at Fantasy novels populated with lands and characters with apostrophe-laden names, and SF books with endless descriptions of how, for instance, the Framistan works.
This isn’t to say these works are not good — they often are, and can be life-changing. (I wish I could forget reading Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep so I could read it again for the first time, the book dazzled me so.) But the contents of a great SF/F book, even with resonantly-crafted themes and likable characters, usually resides behind a wall of unfamiliar narrative turf, and terms, for most mainstream readers. We’ve built this wall ourselves, with our esoteric world-building, peculiar technologies and heady concepts. These things demand a considerable leap of faith from a mainstream reader. The barrier of entry can be even higher, particularly for sub-genres such as Military SF, or hard SF.
This does not mean the mainstream reader is stupid or unimaginative. He’s not. He’s hungry for intuitively-accessible content, is all. And this wall we’ve built: it’s okay that it’s there. We’re telling the tales we want to tell, the tales our subculture craves. But the more excluded a mainstream reader feels when skimming Chapter One (if the cover doesn’t exclude them first), the less likely they are to purchase, and tell a friend, and kick us up the sales charts … which is often the key to mainstream attention.
Mainstream audiences embrace visual SF quite easily — movies, TV shows, web-based short films, etc. The printed word? Obviously, not so much. I don’t know what makes one more appealing than the other, and honestly, it doesn’t matter. Authors are better-served creating great stories in their medium of choice, and not shaking their fist at the injustice of film or TV’s immediacy, flashy CGI, or whatever else differentiates it from literary SF/F.
Much like other SF/F creators, I hunger for our literary genre to become more accepted by the mainstream, and believe that the beating heart of most of our stories can greatly resonate with mainstream readers. The key likely lies in accounting for these newcomers as we craft our stories, and striking a narrative balance that caters to new readers, while delighting the initiated.
First of all we have to ask what ‘mainstream’ means. If by ‘mainstream’ we mean the approval of the self-appointed arbiters of literary taste and style who seem to run all the major literary awards, then no, in and of itself such approval doesn’t matter a bit, because these people’s opinions just aren’t very useful. Many of these literati elites tend to form a clique, and like most such self important arts cliques, are far more interested in themselves than they are with anything else in the world.
There is a tendency with all such groups to view their area of specialisation as an end in itself, whereas I’ve always believed that good writing should be a means to an end. Whether that end is pure entertainment, or escapism, or informing some grander point of intellectual insight, it barely matters — the point is that the artist should attempt invisibility, and act merely as the conduit to whatever goal they are attempting to communicate or achieve. With the literati elite (much like the painting elite or the drama elite or the film elite, etc) their self importance becomes so great that the art becomes nothing more than an endless series of self-portraits, with nothing more to say than any tribute to perpetual narcissism. Or to put it another way, the obsession becomes about form instead of function, because form is the simplest defining characteristic that can allow or exclude membership from the clique in question. Obsessive focus on form over function is a characteristic of trivial people who are only interested in big ideas insofar as those ideas perform some kind of psychoanalysis of the artist. If SF&F ever disappears up its own rear orifice in that way, it’s finished.
If by ‘mainstream’ you mean the broader audience of consumers, then I think SF&F is already well accepted. The sales of some superstar titles and authors in the literary mainstream may be impressive, but the average sales in SF&F I’m certain are much higher. And of course SF&F has an enormous presence in the broader marketplace in movies, TV, games etc… not that this popularity spills into books as much as we authors would like, but there is certainly some crossover, and perhaps more to come.
The only area for real complaint from SF&F authors, it seems to me, is that this very small literati elite controls so much of the apparatus that takes upon itself the task of defining good literature from bad. They control the prizes, and they control the most prestigious newspaper reviews, and claim the high ground of quality for themselves. This control can sometimes translate into higher sales for mainstream literary authors, but there is little evidence that it translates into lower sales for we SF&F authors, so the primary casualty here is our pride. It’s a bit like the way some non-American baseballing nations feel about the Americans calling their national championship the ‘World Series’. Certainly, the American Major League is probably the best baseball league in the world (more than can be said in certainty for major literary awards) but if you’re going to avoid raising hackles in other nations, it would be best to only call a team the ‘World Champion’ once you’ve actually invited teams from other nations to take part.
Mostly then, this is an ego and prestige thing. If ego and prestige matter to you, then yes, you have a right to be upset about the injustice done to SF&F by the literati mainstream. If not, then the SF&F genre should probably just be happy to be as commercially successful as it is, and be glad we sell far better on average than most literary fiction.
Prestige and mainstream respect are also reversible. Back in the days of the space age (I’m told, not being old enough to remember it myself) SF was held in far greater respect by the world in general, perhaps because non-SF people could see the relevance appearing upon their TV screens during the news each night. A human future in space seemed to be a real and incontrovertible fact at the time, and the idea that people might want to write stories about spaceships and civilisations on other worlds didn’t seem all that strange to even the most tight-collared literati. These days, people who are more concerned with their everyday lives than in what lies beyond, struggle to recall why anyone normal could possibly be interested in such things.
If the human settlement of space becomes a large scale fact of everyday life once more (and signs are that it may be about to happen, but in a sustainable commercial fashion rather than an unsustainable government-funded one) then the place of science fiction in particular within the popular consciousness may change completely (what it means for fantasy is anyone’s guess). Mainstream culture will not be able to appropriate this new reality so easily away from science fiction, as it has done to such other formerly SF-only topics as palm-sized computer gadgets, cloning and the internet, because as the HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says, space is big. However much of it we settle, there’ll always be a lot more out there, and what happens when we get there will always be in the realm of pure speculation. Pure speculation is what SF is good at, and while Hollywood nonsense entertainment may be a perfectly acceptable representation of space travel to an audience that knows nothing else about it, in a world where space travel is becoming common reality, even mainstream audiences will know better, and seek more. As always, that turns the entire SF genre back toward its writers, amongst whom interesting and entertaining depictions of that reality can be reliably found.
Whenever I hear the word “mainstream,” I reach for my revolver.
There’s no such thing as “the mainstream” – that’s what those of us in the ghetto call the people in several other neighborhoods of the city of fiction. But those people are very different from each other: they don’t consider themselves part of the same group, or socialize with each other, or live in the same places. To continue the geographic metaphor, people from the Bronx might think of “those Manhattan people” as if they were homogenous, but the Wall Street mob, the bar-hoppers on Christopher Street, and the ladies who lunch of the Upper East Side are vastly different from each other, and the only thing they really do have in common is that they don’t live in the Bronx.
Parts of what we call the mainstream do respect SF: it’s been taught in many colleges and universities, both as composition and in literature and popular culture programs. Many review outlets, including the very important and highly respected Washington Post Book World (under Michael Dirda’s direction) have given thoughtful and intelligent attention to worthy SF books. Some others, which I could mention here, have tried, and not always succeeded – but they still tried to pay attention to SF, showing that they believe that it’s important and worthy of their effort. So SF can be successful on the same basis as the slim poetry volume, the novel of academic mid-life crisis, and the serious novel of ideas.
On the other hand, there are SF books – giant towers of them if we take “SF” to stand for “Speculative Fiction” and include the whole spectrum of horror and fantasy – that have been vastly commercially successful, from Stephen King to Orson Scott Card to Laurell K. Hamilton. And so SF can also be successful on the level of public interest and acclaim – it does still help if the particular flavor of SF is “wish-fulfillment fantasy aimed at teenagers,” true, but bestseller lists are always clogged with wish-fulfillment, from Gone With the Wind to The Secret.
On the gripping hand, many “mainstream” writers now feel free to write very SFnal books with only the most token of “I don’t write SF” disclaimers, or even no disclaimer at all. A growing number of writers, from Iain (M.) Banks to Michael Chabon, move freely between SF and “mainstream with no career repercussions, or even are called out for acclaim for doing so by “mainstream” critics.
Yes, there are critics who hate SF. Most of those critics hate mysteries equally, and nearly all serious critics loathe romance, so SF isn’t even the most-despised genre among those who despise genre. And nothing is loved by everyone; don’t we often hear the snickering about those tedious “Oprah books” from within SF? It’s puerile to expect SF to be embraced by everyone, and the naked yearning for literary respectability at all costs from certain circles of the SF world looks even sadder now than it did in the Seventies.
Would it be nice to have SF books considered seriously for the Booker Prize? Yes, of course it would. Would it be great to have the new books by Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers reviewed with the kind of seriousness and depth that Philip Roth and Margaret Atwood get? Certainly. Do we want a thousand SF writers to get writing-workshops jobs at the mid-level universities of the USA? Well, maybe not that.
Respect is a trailing indicator; you only get the respect you’ve earned in the past, and often not as much of it as you deserve. SF has earned a hell of a lot of respect, and is getting a decent fraction of what it’s due. Some people will always dislike SF, as some readers hate romance, or loathe historicals, or detest thrillers. There’s no such thing as universal acclaim.
And it needs to be said that the old low opinion of SF was absolutely an earned one; the genre has spewed forth a vast torrent of rotten stories for eighty years. (We are the ones who created Sturgeon’s Law, after all. And the ones that needed it.) Even many of the great classics of the first three or four decades of SF were creaky and dull when they were written, entirely dependent on the fascination of their new ideas for their appeal. Many people have a bad opinion of SF simply because there has been a vast heaving mass of horrible SF, including many of the most popular books of various eras.
So maybe it’s lucky that we’ve gotten as much respect as we have. Old Uncle Hugo, and his contrived stories of scientific wonder for poorly socialized boys, is still lurking in our collective closet. We do our best to keep him there, and to draw attention to the better works that have proliferated since his day, but the heirs of Old Uncle Hugo are still out there writing, and there are still plenty of readers who prefer the kind of SF that will never, ever, get any respect.
I feel myself in an awkward position with respect to this question. It presupposes that there is a coherent thing called ‘the mainstream’ that can have respect, or contempt, for SFF. Now, I consider myself part of SFF; but when I try to imagine what this notional community called ‘mainstream’ looks like I find myself (it’s something of a failure of imagination, I concede; but perhaps that’s only reflects upon the paucity of the concept itself): people who read Joyce and Proust rather than Tolkien and Heinlein; university professors in ivory towers; brainiacs with high foreheads and pretentious ideas about literature as a quasi-Modernist art of experimentation. To which I say…really? Plenty of human communities have defined themselves by inventing a monstrous ‘Other’ onto which they can transfer their hostility and disdain; maybe SFF is no different. But here’s the problem: the high-forehead university professor who likes reading Joyce and Proust is me (I’m also the SFF nerd who has read The Lord of the Rings every year since I was twelve; and who lives for my SF fix).
Long story short: I don’t buy these premises.
Long story slightly longer, though still short: I’d say this is a very twentieth-century sort of question to ask. In the 21st, when SFF is winning, it looks wrongly conceived. Now, if we insist upon talking about ‘highbrow literature’ and science fiction as if they’re boxers in opposite corners of the canvas square, then I’d want to pick out another high-foreheaded university professor Roger Luckhurst, whose brilliant history of Science Fiction (published by Polity) has been rather unjustly neglected. Luckhurst phrases the twentieth-century in terms of a war for the soul of literature between H G Wells and Henry James, which to all intents and purposes James won. Here’s a brief account of the terms of Luckhurst’s thesis. I tend to agree with that, but I also tend to think that one of the things that’s happened over the last thirty years or so is that the ‘mainstream’ has withered, whilst SFF’s cultural capital, variety and aesthetic power has strengthened. Pretty soon we’ll be in a place where it would make more sense to reverse the terms of the question above. As we stand, the camps are so equally matched, and indeed so interpenetrated, that it’s hard to separate them cleanly. And why would we want to anyway?
A final footnote: I take it the question is inspired in part by Kim Stanley Robinson’s eloquent and timely dig at the Booker prize. But one of the main thrusts of that piece was that the juries on the Booker panel were in thrall to an outmoded, Modernist notion of what constitutes a ‘good novel’. Plenty of people are; but the landscape has shifted since then, and we’re more or less wholly Post our Modernism now. Robinson’s last novel is a better piece of writing than any of the six shortlists 2009 Man Booker titles.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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