MIND MELD: What You Should Know About Speculative Fiction and Mainstream Acceptance (Part 1)
Read on to see their level-setting responses…
That’s a softball. No. Literary sf and fantasy are not respected by mainstream critics or the mainstream professoriate. Neither needs mainstream approval, which would diminish (and perhaps destroy) both. Just look at what they DO respect. Look at what poetry was as late as the early 20th Century, and what it is now.
Now and then I’m asked at cons why I don’t write fiction of the respected sort. You know, he is a professor and she is a professor and they are having adulterous affairs, and they are almost overcome with guilt and angst, and there is no God, and scientific progress doesn’t enter into it, and just about everybody in the world is upper middle class.
When that happens, I ask the questioner abut Martin du Gard. Have you read him? Have you heard of him? Invariably the answers are no and no. Then I explain that Martin du Gard won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the year H. P. Lovecraft died.
OK, so I’m gonna turn your question back on you again – you keep inviting me back, so I figure that’s allowed.
What is this “mainstream” of which you speak? Where are its boundaries? Do members of the mainstream get a badge (or a few bytes in their biometric passport, perhaps) by which we can identify them more easily? The problem with the question is that we’re trying to define “the mainstream” in a similar way to our attempts to define “fandom” or “the genre fiction scene”… and given that those two latter examples are tiny subsets of human culture as a whole, and furthermore given that we still can’t agree on definitions for them after years of enthusiastic teeth-gnashing debate, I think our hopes of defining the constituency formerly known as “mainstream” are pretty much doomed to failure.
There is no mainstream any more; it’s not a place or a group, it’s an emergent synthesis of purchasing patterns and socio-cultural interactions. You cannot touch the mainstream; neither can you shut it out of your house like some unwanted wi-fi signal. From one day to the next, you may be be a fully-paid up element of the cultural mainstream or a complete outcast from it… hell, from one hour to the next. Stuff moves fast, the map is not the territory, so on and so forth. The Long Tail wags the whole damned dog.
(“Respect” is a little slippery, too, but for convenience I’m going to assume it as meaning “liked by the subject sufficiently that they aren’t ashamed to be publicly labelled as liking it”.)
So, does SF&F have “mainstream respect”? Well, yes – if we take that to mean “do lots of very ordinary members of Western Anglophone culture enthusiastically consume media from this particular thematic sphere”, then of course it does. Take a look at the local cinema listings, or page through the on-demand action series selection on your cable box, or browse down one of public-voted lists of favourite books. People love SF&F. They drink our milkshake. They drink it up.
People don’t love fandom, however – quite possibly because the constituency called “fandom” has a tendency to sit around looking all serious and asking questions just like this one, which (despite being a great part of its appeal for myself, at least) switches a lot of people right off. (And by “fandom” here I’m meaning “that nebulous set of people who self-identify with types of fannish behaviour deeply enough to have an active sympathy for the state of the cultural industries it surrounds and supports”; self-identification as a fan plays a part, certainly, but it’s not a line in the sand by any means, and I’m certainly not trying to target specific people or groups.)
Fandom doesn’t get respect from “the mainstream”, and I suspect it never really will (even though fandom, when considered as a loose behaviour set as opposed to a cultural identity, is a very ordinary and everyday thing). It’s a psychology gig; we’re genetically coded to view marginal outsider groups as something to be ridiculed and shunned, and the more vocally and stubbornly self-defining and different that group is, the longer it’ll stay sat at the very edge of the pool of light around the cultural camp fire. (To over-extend the metaphor somewhat, you might say that fandom, though socially shunned, has a strong and valuable ability to hunt down and kill (or plant and nurture) new and nourishing foodstuffs with exciting flavours for the feast at the bonfire… but that would be a more contentious suggestion, and a tricky (though fun) one to defend).
So, does SF&F need approval from the mainstream? Well, no – it already has all the approval it needs. If it didn’t, no one would produce it – and while short fiction appears to be in recession, at least with respect to viably monetised paying markets for such, there’s more cultural material being churned out in the genre fictional spheres than ever before. You been on DeviantArt recently?
Does fandom need approval from the mainstream? I think it craves approval (paradoxically enough – a phenomenon replicated almost exactly in most strong and persistent subgenres of music), but I don’t think it needs it.
I suspect that desire for respect is as genetically hard-wired into us as the ostracism of outsiders; the tribe needs to maintain coherence, but the outsider needs to get closer to the fire. Cultural evolution, y’know – vigorous hybrids, all that stuff. The rejection of newness by the cultural mainstream is just as essential to the system as a whole as the thirst for innovation of the outsiders; memes and ideas pass from the outside in, toward the black hole of the Zeitgeist at the centre of everything – the event horizon known as “Now”. The mainstream is necessary to support the genre; the genre is necessary to feed the mainstream’s (admittedly thankless) maw. There will always be people writing or creating in genres; whether you are particularly enamoured of the genres they create in is another question entirely.
But “fandom”… fandom would die if it ever got “mainstream respect”. When it reached the same sort of braying uncritical enthusiasm associated with popular sports, when the price of entry was little more than a team jersey, six beers and a handful of violent curses and racist epithets, it would have ceased to have any meaning other than a purely economic one. The people who had loved it would have abandoned it long before, moved on to something else where they could feel like an individual rather than a shard of the mob. These two things are closely related, I think. For all its internecine wranglings, for all its partly self-imposed status as a ridiculed outsider culture that nonetheless plays a large part in the development of mass culture, fandom is – all fandoms are, in fact – a function of the emotional needs of their members, rather than the other way around. And that need is a desire for membership of a group small enough that one feels ones contribution is valued individually. That will probably never be entirely respected by those to whom it doesn’t apply, but so what? If mainstream respect comes only at the cost of distancing me from the mechanics of the system that produces the art I love, I want no part of it. The big kids will only break it by playing with it wrong.
Or, to be more brief, I think we should stop worrying about it. As I said at Futurismic after the KSR article, “I’d rather concentrate on converting one reader at a time to one book at a time… and whining on about not being respected never works.
Believe me, I’ve tried it.
It’s the bookstores who decide. Tess Gerritsen and Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut deny they write science fiction, and they’ll always deny it (well, not Vonnegut anymore). Why? Because they–and their publishers–want their books sold in the mainstream section of the bookstore, and not tucked away in the back with the SF. Mainstream sells more.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say, “I don’t read science fiction” while clutching a Michael Crichton novel, and I’ve heard “I don’t read fantasy” from a zillion teenagers who inevitably flitter off to the stores when a new Twilight book hits the stands. They think if they didn’t get it from the fantasy and science fiction section, it’s not fantasy and science fiction.
So as long as bookstores shelve science fiction in a little ghetto, the mainstream public will continue to operate under the delusion that they don’t read science fiction.
I think that when you label the novel “science fiction” or “fantasy” and market it into the sf/f genre, it does not have mainstream respect. I think if you take the same book and publish it through an accepted “mainstream” publisher-like Knopf-one known for “quality literature,” the book will have tremendous respect. (Note that all of the terms I’m putting in quotation marks are only marketing terms, not identification terms. Clearly Roc is a mainstream publisher and all sf/f houses publish quality literature.) We’re seeing that more and more often, with things like The Time Traveler’s Wife or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Michael Chabon has done a lot to bring the genres together, happily accepting his Hugo, celebrating his Edgar nomination, and being pleased with his mainstream awards. Chabon, like J. Roderick Clark of Rosebud and the staff at McSweeney’s, are at the forefront of the united the marketing categories movement, designed to remind us all that stories are stories are stories. Thank heaven for these guys.
So to answer your question, does sf/f have mainstream respect? Only when someone in the mainstream pre-approves the book, and then doesn’t tell the mainstream readers that the book is using sf/f to tell its story. Is it important to have mainstream respect? Heavens, no. Does mainstream respect “threaten” sf/f? Um…excuse me? That comes out of an argument first posited in the 1950s when the pulp writers watched their markets go away for distribution reasons and blamed it on people like Anthony Boucher of F&SF who, as the reviewer for The New York Times, was also trying to bring literary respectability to genre fiction. And Milford started up to improve craft, as did Clarion a decade later. That argument is so stuck in the past as to be laughable.
Mainstream respect won’t change the genre. Writers will write what they write. Publishers will try to get those books to the biggest markets possible. Right now, sf as a marketing category has lost readers and needs to rebuild them. SF as a branch of literature has more readers than ever-some in the literary mainstream, some in romance, and some in mystery. Who cares what we call it? We just have to be able to find it and enjoy it.
But I must add this one snarky comment. As a person who reads in all the genres, I also notice reviews. Reviewers can be the snobbiest readers of all-and the literary mainstream ones are the funniest to me. Because if they like a book like The Time Traveler’s Wife, they bend themselves into big giant pretzels to prove the book isn’t sf. Usually the underlying message of their review? I liked it, and because I like it, it can’t be sf.
Leave them to their prejudices. Just enjoy the good stuff, no matter what marketing category some publisher puts it in.
After a great deal of thought, I’d have to suggest that the best answer to the first question is: who cares? There should be no definition of “mainstream respect” that bears any connection to what I do as a writer, beyond the simple fact of needing to sell something in order to eat. It rankles, yes, that the genre I love isn’t loved by everyone, it seems, but if I needed to be propped up by reviews, awards, or whatever, then neither my heart nor my head would really be in the game. I’d be playing for the audience, and shooting for entirely the wrong goal.
What does “mainstream” mean, anyway? It can’t just be sales, or else science fiction would have all the approval it needs, thanks to Hollywood, which keeps stealing our best (and worst) ideas. It’s many things to many people. And therein lies a whole other layer of dispute.
I sometimes joke that I’d like to be the first SF writer to win the Miles Franklin Award (for a novel “of the highest literary merit [that] presents Australian life in any of its phases”) but I know I’m just as likely instead to win a Brownlow Medal (for the fairest and best player in the Australian Football League). I can’t stand football and don’t write much about Australia, so I’m not a good fit for either. Should the rules be bent to include me? Certainly not in the case of the Brownlow, so why even consider it for the Miles Franklin? We in the SF community have our own awards, and they are attended by the mythical mainstream to the degree they arguably deserve.
It’s important, I admit, to examine our place in things, at all levels, and I admire the energy so many people have and will continue to invest in this issue. Occasionally, I am inspired. Occasionally, it seems like so many kids shooting potato guns at each other from forts built out of cardboard boxes. We drone on that no one is reading our work, and so do writers of capital-L literature. Some of our books sell; so do some of theirs; and meanwhile the vast numbers of books in both genres occupy the midlist, unnoticed and unappreciated by almost everyone. The authors of said books, showing admirable restraint for not singling out their own books from the forgotten herds, can only defend their “side” en masse, in the hope that someone out there is paying attention.
They aren’t. They’re busily reading what they want to read, guided principally by their own tastes, followed by word of mouth, reviews, and, lastly, who is winning awards. The literature of the day is not what Kim Stanley Robinson or James Naughtie or anyone else thinks it should be. It’s an emergent property arising out of a system of such incredible complexity that we can barely catch it as it evolves. If SF ever shows any sign of becoming respectable or approved, then it’s likely to have done so through no effort of our own.
Casting back to my high school days, I can say with confidence only that you won’t win anyone’s support by ramming anything down their throats, nor by calling them names for objecting to said ramming. I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favours by pouting and crying that no one will play with us. Let’s just play, and when the rest of the world realises what fun we’re having, let them join in.
I think the simple answer is no, they don’t have mainstream respect because lots of people would be surprised to see the word “literary” paired with “science fiction and fantasy.” Although if one were to remind such individuals of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, or The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien, they might respond with something like, “Oh, those books are literary? In that case yes, they’re wonderful.”
But it may be a moot question because it could be argued that there is no such thing as a truly mainstream audience anymore. Increasingly TV shows, music, and print journals are being sliced and diced to appeal to specific groups. That’s why we’ve seen the proliferation of magazines, journals and blogs like SF Signal and specialized TV channels for men, women, and children. The people in charge of these communications channels know precisely who they’re talking to, what kind of information and entertainment their audience wants, and how to interact with them.
Fiction, which was once broken down into broad categories like Romance, Horror, Mystery, Westerns, and Science Fiction/Fantasy has long since been subdivided into ever narrower slices. For example under the heading of Fantasy we can find Medieval Fantasy, High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Magic Realism, Urban fantasy and various iterations on the Vampire theme that straddle Horror and Fantasy.
My point is that as readers increasingly zero in on the exact type of book they want, and authors/publishers deliver those stories, it becomes difficult if not impossible to talk about a mainstream audience.
There are exceptions of course, literary science fiction and fantasy authors who continue to draw a large and diverse set of readers. Michael Crichton was a good example of that, although I don’t think he wanted to be categorized as a science fiction author, primarily because he could tap into a cross genre audience.
And literature isn’t alone in that regard. I think all of the arts are increasingly focused on micro-audiences which though relatively small, are often intensely loyal to a particular artist, author, or sub-genre of music, dance, or literature and therefore determine what is or is not praiseworthy within that particular category.
One can view that in a negative light if they choose to, but to my mind it’s all part of the continuing trend towards mass customization, which is getting what we want the way we want it. (I’ll have a grande iced mocha, non-fat, decaf, no-whip please.)
So no, I don’t think science fiction has a need for mainstream respect, largely because there isn’t one. That’s progress I guess, although there was something nice about beach books that everybody read, must see TV, and block buster movies that entire families went to. And, even though I don’t remember reading any science fiction in it, I miss the Saturday Evening Post.
Hold on now, some dodgy distinctions here. What do we mean by ‘literary sf’? The kind of SF we think that ‘mainstream’ readers might find acceptable? Isn’t there an automatic assumption of inferiority here, that only those books which we think of as ‘literary’ –and are in some way less ‘SFFnal’– are good enough to be respected? Do we have to meet on their terms? An awful lot of SFF is indeed badly written–a common complaint leveled at us–, but then an awful lot of Mainstream is badly written as well. Sturgeon’s Law is no respecter of genre boundaries. And what do we mean here when we talk about ‘mainstream’? The kind of book that wins Bookers is (often) seen as mainstream, but not all mainstream is the kind of book that wins Bookers. So the question asks to compare a small sub-set of the SFF field with a genre that takes in everything from Labyrinths by Borges to Labyrinth by Kate Mosee. What’s meant here is ‘literary’ fiction –the kind of books that get on to prize shortlists.
So for me, the question inside this is, ‘does literary science fiction and fantasy have literary fiction respect?’ The answer has to be no. We come from different sets of genre rules and tend to apply them to each other.
Does literary science fiction and fantasy need mainstream respect? Of course. It also needs the respect of crime, romance, comic writing, historical fiction, thrillers, any and every other genre. All writing needs respect, and to respect every other form of writing. We need a respect-in. We need rapper-hands and mutual high-fives. Likewise, SFF needs to respect literary fiction. Its aims, goals, genre tropes and mechanisms are different from ours, but SFF as a genre can be as intolerant of literary fiction as that genre is of SFF. You read a lot of SFF snobbery, ‘pretentious rubbish—big words… what I want is to be entertained… the plot the plot the plot… lots of running around and shooting’. So let’s give some respect to those writers who write other kinds of story. We’re still a young genre; young things need respect.
What would this approval mean? Very little, thank God. Don’t worry about it. But I think that once you respect what other genres are trying to do and what their structures and values are, it makes you want to read more widely. To limit yourself to just one genre and to values its tropes as absolute, whether ‘mainstream’ or SFF is not to love books. There are many ways of telling stories.
LOL. *Of course* there’s no mainstream respect for science fiction, let alone “literary” science fiction, which is something only people inside the genre even believe exists.
I’m going to speak about science fiction specifically, as fantasy seems to have a bigger umbrella with more room to maneuver for different audience slices, whether that’s by going magic-realist, going historical, going romance, or going vampire–but science fiction is pretty hemmed in by negative perceptions, and this has huge sales implications.
If I look over the Amazon rankings of bestsellers, science fiction titles don’t seem to make the upper rankings unless they’re packaged mainstream, are part of a larger media property, or have gone YA. They exist, but they’re generally camouflaged as something else. My personal experience continues to be that if I tell the average reader that I’m a science fiction writer, they will say…
“Oh. I don’t read that.”
End of story.
I don’t need respect for my genre in the sense of mainstream prizes. But I sure like having readers. If people aren’t reading my work simply because it exists under an umbrella which is automatically dismissed by a large segment of the population, that’s very bad news.
Being packaged as science fiction creates a formidable hurdle which a book has to jump past in order to convince any reader outside the genre to even pick it up, let alone buy it. Technically, a political intrigue about rapacious agricultural corporations, global warming, and monoculture food plagues pushes a lot of interest buttons for environmental/slow food/Michael Pollan sets, but my novel The Windup Girl will have a tough uphill journey making it onto their radar. The book looks wrong, lacking the respectability of a Margaret Atwood novel, for instance. No point whining about it. But it’s good not to be in denial, either. Science fiction just isn’t respected.
Atwood is actually pretty smart to place herself in a context which allows her to harvest readers from several different audiences (including a number of SF readers). But in order to do so, she absolutely can’t allow herself to be labeled or packaged as an SF novelist. It would kill her career. I don’t blame her for strenuously avoiding the genre label. That’s a necessary survival strategy which gives her more room to appeal to more audiences. While I’m not sure that science fiction needs mainstream approval, I can’t help thinking that our sales would improve if we weren’t grimed with flat-out disdain.
Every time this issue surfaces, I always get wound up by the terms of reference. What is “literary”? The usual argument is about why certain books get racked on the 21st literature shelves, with subsequent critical and media attention, and not in the genre ghetto. A lot of it is fired by authors seething with resentment that their books are over here and not over there, dammit! “My writing is as good as theirs!” Egos back in the box, please.
Just because some 21st century literature contains science fictional or fantastical settings or ideas doesn’t make it SF or F. The starting point is very different. Those writers begin with something they want to say, then look for a setting and characters to illustrate it. The SF elements are secondary, and often the same point could have been made in a non-SF/F way. Genre writers start firmly in the SF/F landscape – because, let’s face it, that’s who they are – before developing their themes. Here, the SF/F elements are primary. It’s a false argument because you’re comparing apples and oranges, even if the oranges look like apples.
Which isn’t to say that genre SF/F can’t be a source of good, elegant writing – literate writing. But if you think that’s enough to attract the high praise from people who like 21st century literature, you’re wrong. It’s still genre. Well-written genre, but still genre. Don’t believe me? Compare some of the reviews for an author who writes both. Iain Banks gets a lot of praise for his “literature” novels, but Iain M Banks still writes “yarns” – good at what they are, well-told, but somehow lesser.
And so what? There is not one way to measure a book, despite what the literary establishment likes to think. Books speak to people in different ways, carry different loads that demand different modes of communication. SF/F works because it is the juvenile delinquent of the fifties, the hippie of the sixties, the punk of the seventies… The great strength is the transgressional nature. You can’t kick over the statues, smash down established thinking with new ideas, or produce a visceral rush of blood and wonder if you’re wearing a suit and bow-tie in the Guildhall waiting for the Man Booker result.
My one concern is the corrosive nature of the sneering and snobbery directed toward genre fiction from some people who are opinion formers in the wider media. That attitude can prevent attempts to grow the genre commercially – people move in herds and the majority don’t like to be seen picking up something they are continually told has little value. That attitude needs to be combated at every turn.
Stay tuned for more responses next week in Part 2…
Filed under: Mind Meld
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