The Wayward Time-Traveler: Living and Loving Life in the Gutter of Science Fiction

In college, I had a renowned creative writing professor try to convince me to stop writing “genre” fiction and put my talents to better use. My answer to him was to ask why I would give up writing something I loved for something I had no interest in? I would be like me saying to this professor, “Stop trying to be Raymond Carver and start trying to be more like Robert Heinlein.” I could be wrong here, but based on my experience with non-genre fiction writers, writing is supposed to be a painful, soul-wrenching process that turns a mirror inward to reveal viscera and entrails. And when these non-genre fiction writers see genre writers actually enjoying the process of storytelling, when they see them turning out stories with smiles on their faces, they look upon it as something beneath contempt, something rude that you’d find in the gutter.

And so what if they do? People who write science fiction have different motivations for doing so, but in most all that I know and in most all that I read, there is one common thread: you can tell that the person creating the fiction loves what he or she is doing. I love to read science fiction. I consider myself a fan first and a writer second. But when I am writing science fiction, I love it, every minute of it, and it isn’t a painful and soul-searching process for me, it is pure joy and fun, rolling around in the gutter with a story in your teeth and your clothes filthy and in tatters and seeing just how things will come out.

It begs the question, why does science fiction have to be high literature…?


…Why can’t it be, at its most basic form, entertaining? Even from within the genre, there are those who seem to want to dress up science fiction in fine suits. They want to call it something else, “speculative fiction,” to make it sound more acceptable to the masses. “Genre” is sometimes a bad word because some people don’t want to be boxed into any kind of formula but want to be unique unto themselves.

Hmph! When someone asks what I do, I say proudly that I am a science fiction writer. They usually follow up by telling me that there husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend is a huge “sci-fi” fan, and do I watch Fringe? Some people tell me that they don’t read science fiction (but they do watch Game of Thrones). Some people tell me that they don’t particularly like science fiction and to that I respond with a question that I’ve heard Robert J. Sawyer ask: “What is it that you’ve read that has turned you off to science fiction?”

The point is that for me, I love science fiction and I couldn’t imagine writing anything else. I grew up on science fiction, it fed me, nourished me with vivid examples that clarified and illustrated points of science that science teacher and textbooks couldn’t make clear. Science fiction kept me company when I was lonely, its giants walked with me to and from school. Being a science fiction writer for me is like being a major league baseball player. And frankly, I don’t care if people like my old professor come away with the impression that I am wasting my talents spending time in this gutter genre.

Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation series centers around two cities. The planet-city of Trantor, and that of Terminus. And I’ll take Foundation over Dickens’ lousy Tale of Two Cities any day. Maybe I couldn’t say this in high school out of simple lack of experience. But having read lots of classic and literary fiction, and lots more science fiction, the choice between the two is a no-brainer for me. There is some good literary fiction out there; even some of the classics are worthwhile. But the classics are rarely fun for me, while science fiction is rarely a drag.

It’s funny how acceptable science fiction is on the big screen, how most sci-fi films are hits at the box office, but to a large extent, science fiction as a literature is still written off as genre-fiction, a phrase usually dripping with derision. Truth be told, I love that science fiction is an underdog and I can’t understand anyone who wants to break away from the genre label for the sake of the label itself. (Certainly, there are those who want to break away because they think they can earn more money without the label, and if you are trying to make a living as a writer, then this is a more practical reason for which I can’t really blame them.)

“Speculative fiction” is a term I scorn; it is the emperor’s new clothes of science fiction and fantasy, a sycophant to literary fiction. No, I don’t write speculative fiction; I don’t read speculative fiction. I read and write science fiction down here in the gutter and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

37 thoughts on “The Wayward Time-Traveler: Living and Loving Life in the Gutter of Science Fiction”

  1. I respond with a question that I’ve heard Robert J. Sawyer ask: “What is it that you’ve read that has turned you off to science fiction?”

    That’s a very telling question.  I wonder how many would-be genre readers had a bad experience that turned them off from F and SF, and avoid Fantastika (to borrow from John Ginsberg-Stevens) entirely.

    Don’t diss Dickens entirely, though, I can trace descent through his sister. :) And I loved Dan Simmons’ take on Dickens in Drood.

     

     

  2. Maybe your creative writing professor was just aghast at your use of “renown” instead of “renowned.”

    Re the “somebodys”–maybe you need to get better “somebodys” because that’s not how the somebodys I meet react when I say I write fantasy and SF.

    But, by gawd, yes, you are sooo blue collar down in those trenches, so disenfranchised, stolidly keeping to your terminology. Go terminology. Jamie Todd Rubin: BUILT FORD TOUGH.

    JeffV

  3. I think you and your CW professor are both missing a fundamental point: Most of the “classics,” and Dickens is the perfect example, were written as popular entertainment for consumption and were not written with an eye toward entering The Literary Canon. Dickens’s novels were first serialized in magazines that paid him by the word, which is at least a partial explanation for his verbosity. Shakespeare didn’t care about preserving his plays but made sure that his poetry was published. Faulkner’s Sanctuary was considered absolutely scandalous in its day, and with good reason (female protagonist gets raped with a corn cob). Whatever is good will last. You & CWP have fallen victim to what I call “Updike Syndrome,” the tendency over the past 50 years or so for writers to aim for a specific niche in the canon, preferably the Boring Suburban Lit subgenre. The proliferation of MFA programs ensures that “literary” writers are churned out like sausage. Some of their stuff will endure; most won’t. Some current SFF works will endure; most won’t. Sturgeon’s Law applies universally. I have my own list of “canonized” SF works/writers, but I really don’t want to get into a flamewar. I will note, however, that Frank Herbert’s Dune was also first serialized in a magazine. :-)

  4. The “Canon” add things slowly.

     

    I know that Harold Bloom, who is a self-appointed keeper of what is Canon, recently added Little, Big (in his own opinion) to the Canon.

  5. Scot, I think that is a very good point and while I knew that Dickens (and Herbert) had been serialized, I never thought about the former as “popular entertainment” simply because it was never presented to me that way. I read Dickens in school because I had to: specifically Tale of Two Cities which I never did like. But I later read other Dickens novels (Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist) which I did enjoy. I still never thought of them as popular fiction.

    I would agree that I am aiming for a specific niche in the canon, but only because it was that niche that I most enjoyed reading growing up. Those opinions formed early, stuck with me, and while I think I am reasonably well-read outside the genre of science fiction, I have yet to find something that I enjoy as much as science fiction. Perhaps that point I was trying to make–and which didn’t come across as clearly as I’d have liked–is that science fiction can stand on its own feet against any other literature and it doesn’t need any special handwaving or moniker to make it seem something important. It is important and it is the entertainment value that it provides that acts as a kind of bait-and-switch, getting readers to consider things that they might not have considered in a traditional literature.

  6. MikeP, LOL! I get nervous when I realize that writers I admire (like Jeff) read these posts and then comment on them. Gulp! This post clearly touched some nerves. I think that is a good thing, though. This kind of discussion is important for the genre.

  7. Now this post is refreshing.   I am sick of the number of articles recently about cross-over novels and literary genre novels and what have you.  I write science fiction to entertain myself and others, and that is the only reason.  I don’t care if I hit at deep seated facets of the human condition or other literary nonsense.  Way to go Jamie.  You are my new favorite person.

  8. Jamie, FWIW, I can’t stand to read Dickens either, though the filmed adaptation of Bleak House with Gillian Anderson is astonishingly good. I fought a fight similar to yours; my solution was to take from the professors what I liked and disregard their ignorant opinions on what else I liked (SF). As a HS senior I never in a million years would I have guessed that I’d write my senior honors thesis on Faulkner, whom I formerly abhorred; nor would I have thought I’d fall in love with Chaucer, Thucydides, Ovid, or Conrad. In my mind there’s no longer a divide between loving those authors and loving PKD, Silverberg, Crowley, Herbert, Cordwainer Smith, Connie Willis, Kage Baker, etc., etc. I either like a book/writer or I don’t, regardless of whatever label’s been slapped onto their books. I can’t stand Dickens, but neither can I stand Asimov. Heresy, I know, but part of Sturgeon’s Law will always be in the eye of the beholder.

  9. Tale of Two Cities has a brilliant beginning, a brilliant ending, and a seriously plodding middle.  But I’ll still take it over anything Asimov, who has become one of my least favorite sciffy authors.  Foundation just becomes a bunch of hand-waving.

    I had a college creative writing teacher dimiss genre writing too.  It’s silly – all sorts of canonic literature is from within a genre, including “boring suburban lit.”

    Scot wrote, “Most of the “classics,” and Dickens is the perfect example, were written as popular entertainment for consumption and were not written with an eye toward entering The Literary Canon.”

    I wouldn’t say most.  Dickens, and many of the 19th c. greats, are good examples, and Shakespeare too was very popular, but lots of other classics were definitely not popular entertainment (especially since most of the populace couldn’t read until fairly recently).  The Middle Ages, the Roman period, indeed most of the 20th century tended toward literature for the educated few (though this may be distinct from the Canon, as some literary/historical periods didn’t view literature as Eternal the way we do).  Others wrote for both – again, Shakespeare’s an example, and the rest of that period – they were all obsessed with the Conceit of Immortality.

  10. No one in my MFA program, professor or student, has given me any grief over the fact that I write genre fiction. In fact, I’m taking a course in horror and fantasy techniques this semester, and my tiny publication record in that field is rather ego-boostingly respected. This isn’t a program that specializes in popular fiction, either.

     

    I have, on the other hand, heard plenty of gripes from sf/fantasy fans about how icky and boring literary fiction is. Along with a great deal of confusion about what “literary fiction” actually is. (None of my classmates, thus far, have workshopped a story about adultery in the suburbs in my presence.)

     

    At some point, we nerds have turned into exactly what we claimed to despise – defensive, backwards-looking, and obsessed with parsing what’s cool in the way most favorable to ourselves.

     

     

  11. Carrie, I think genre writing has grown more and more academically acceptable over time. When I was taking these classes (some twenty years ago) it seemed less accepted. But then again, the professor in question was a well-known literary writer who workshipped Raymond Carver and who, it seemed to me, frowned upon the notion of doing any kind of fiction writing for money.

    As an example of how things change, Nalo Hopkinson has been named an associate professor of creative writing at my alma mater, specialzing in science fiction and fantasy.

  12. All of the creative writing (fiction) courses at my college are taught by the same guy.  He is a wonderful person, a great writer, and an amazing professor, but he is firmly in the “write what you know,” “write about mundane situations,” “read the classics and never judge them,” schools, yet I’ve gotten great grades writing genre fiction.  Instead of seeing these literati as the gatekeepers to good fiction, picture them as the top gladiator in the arena and proudly pick up your broadsword and challenge them.

    Oh, and don’t worry about JeffV attacking you.  He’s done it to us all.

    It’s also good to see someone who values the entertainment that stories can provide.  Gives me hope for the future of the genre.

  13. Question for all:  I’m looking for something a little shorter than Science Fiction/Fantasy and had settled on “speculative” as all-encompassing.  “Genre” isn’t descriptive enough and too many people seem to have this thing about separating science fiction and fantasy so you have to say both in order to show that you are talking about both.  If speculative was brought about by people who were trying to make themselves sound better, I don’t want to use it.  So, what am I left with?  Do I just shorten to SFF and be done with it? (I’m starting a blog and it’s going to come up a lot, so this really is a dilemma.)

  14. There are two types of books in this world: What I like and what I don’t like.

  15. Fwiw, when *I* use the term “speculative fiction”, it’s as an umbrella term to save me from typing “science fiction, fantasy and horror”.  Jason Sanford asked last year about the supposedly derogatory term “SciFi” (which I tend to use when referring to sf on film) and how some fans are offended.  My take with this any public arguments about derogatory sf terms: It’s only derogatory if you *think* it’s derogatory. Call it sf, scifi, sci-fi, skiffy, sf/f/h, speculative fiction — it doesn’t matter.  I know what you’re talking about and I’m not offended.

  16. I agree, John D.!  I’ve never been ashamed of what I read, so I’ve never been offended.  I probably didn’t even know it if someone was making fun of me.  I assume everyone likes a good story.  Perhaps I should just make up my own term and be done with it.

  17. Sherry and John: I can understand the use of “speculative fiction” as a catch-all for SF/F/H. The problem is that I think a kind of stigma still remains from the days when it was meant to re-brand science fiction to something more academically acceptable. I use “science fiction” to include science fiction and fantasy, but this is completely unfair to the other genres. I do this because science fiction is primary what I read and write. When I want to include fantasy, I’ll just say, “science fiction and fantasy” or sf&f.

    This gets to the root of genre, but I’ve written before about how I look at genre as a high-level taxonomy, a useful bucket for general categorization. “Speculative”, like “literary” is an attribute of an individual work. A science fiction story might be speculative, it might be literary, whereas another might not. The fact that the taxonomy of fiction is two-dimensional (possibly more) often gets lost in these discussions.

    I think John is right, call it what you want; it is only derogatory if you think it is.

  18. Ditto John D on using “speculative fiction” as an umbrella term. As someone who writes “fantasy, science fiction, and indescribable stuff wherein weird shit happens”, I find it a hell of a lot easier to say “spec fic”. But I’m aware that the term gets used two ways in two settings: among genre fans it’s an umbrella term, and among those who run in literary circles it’s a way to say “science fiction” without getting snooted and sniffed out of the room. So I acknowledge your reason for rejecting the term, Jamie — but since we’re all genre readers here, I’m going to keep using speculative fiction, thanks.

    I think others have pointed out that there’s a contradiction in your argument: you say you love life “in the gutter”, or on the margins of respectable literature, and yet you complain that this genre isn’t better-respected outside the margins. Which is it? Do you want respectability or not?

    I think this conflict in your message points directly to one of the problems I always see with arguments like this, which is the fact that those who complain about the marginalization of SFF (to choose a neutral term) so often like that it’s marginalized, and don’t really want to do anything about that marginalization other than complain about it. There have always been steps that SFF could take to appeal to a broader audience — steps that the literary genre has at least attempted (to varying degrees of success), but which SFF has mostly fought tooth and nail. Not all of SFF, granted — but enough that the genre’s membership has developed a very deserved reputation for acting a bit like little boys guarding a kewl treehouse fort, right down to the “no ___ allowed” warn-off signs. Every time I turn around, there’s some respected soul in the community railing against the encroachment of literary techniques or genre-blending or whatever, and ranting that they just want SFF to go back to its simple, humble, rock ‘em sock ‘em pulpy roots. (But not if it means women getting their pulp on too via paranormal romance or urban fantasy! And while I’m on that, look at how we still react whenever someone dares to ask “but where are the women?” Or PoC, or gay people, or non-Americans, or whatever. We can’t keep acting like this and expect to be taken seriously by outsiders.)

    We can’t really fault mainstream readerdom or the literary genre for taking those warn-off signs at face value, and going elsewhere, and in some cases building their own forts with their own, “no skiffy geeks allowed” signs.

    Now, I should emphasize: I think you’re right to complain about the ill-informed snootiness that’s so often behind attacks on SFF from the literary sphere. I’m just saying you also have to acknowledge that some of that disdain was earned honestly.

    [EDITOR: Edited to maintain HTML emphasis and links]

  19. N.K.,

    Because our comments editor is a WYSIWYG editor. Anything typed in here is automatically treated as text, hence your HTML not rendering. If you want to add markup to your comments, you need to use the WYSIWYG buttons at the top of the comments box to add URLs, italics, etc.

  20. Jamie can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he is complaining that the genre isn’t better-respected outside the margins. I think he’s saying he doesn’t care if it is and kinda likes that it isn’t. Putting aside his shameful dissing of the classics (Bad, Jamie. Bad.), I took his point to be nothing more than what’s wrong with stories that are just fun and/or exciting?

    And toward that point, if he’s complaining about anything it’s about the actual representatives of the genre disrespecting anything that isn’t “high literature.” I don’t think that’s entirely true, but there is a lot of it and it’s not terribly difficult to see a time when it will be more so.

    (Please dear God don’t let there be any typos or grammatical errors in this!)

     

  21. N. K., I’d written what I think was a pretty good response to your question and the comment system just ate it. The gist of it was this:

    Yes, I think my position is somewhat schizophrenic. Part of me–the part that grew up reading science ficiton as a fan–did, and sometimes still does, take perverse pleasure in enjoying something occassionally derided by “outsiders”. I liken this (unfortuante?) attitude to friends who love punk and could care less if anyone else listens to it–they want it all for themselves. It’s not that I don’t think science fiction isn’t respectable; I know that it is and I don’t need outside confirmation or denial of that.

    That said, as I started to write science fiction (long before I started selling stories) I also began to learn the history of the genre. I became as fascinated by the rich and wonderful history of science ficiton as I was with the stories themselves. (“If they only knew!” I would say to myself.) As a writer, I certainly believe (or want to believe) that what I write is respectable. And I’ve felt like I’ve tried–through my writing–to encourage outsiders to come in and see what it is all about. Those two people–the fan and the writer–fight it out within me. The fan is one of those boys guarding the “kewl clubhouse” and the writer is the one trying to say to the world, look at how amazing this all is!

    I don’t know if that is an acceptable answer, but it is an honest one. The great thing about the science fiction world is that we can have open discussions like this. Hopefully we are receptive to the various arguments and sometimes, we can even change our opinions. I don’t think that has happened with me yet. I’ve still got too much of that fan boy inside me. But the struggle is continuing and I appreciate the wide variety of opinions that come of discussions like this one.

  22. Really? We’re still pushing this lit snob/genre fan false dichotomy bullshit?

    You like to read ‘entertaining’ sci fi. Good on ya. There’s no need to bash on people who prefer more ‘literary’ or ‘artistic’ or whatever-you-call-it writing–and in doing so you put the lie to not caring what “people like [your] old professor” think.

    If you really didn’t care, you’d expend your energy sharing your enthusiasm for what you love, instead of dismissing what you don’t.

    ~JGS

  23.    Wow, that professor really got under your skin.  You needed a geek girl watching your back.  Let me break this down for you.  What do you suppose the prof took in school?  Dickens 101, Intro to Ancient Greek History,  Library 101 & all that easy A stuff.  Where do you find the Sci-Fi and Fantasy readers?  Computer Science,  Engineering, and Anatomy.  People who disparage SF & F don’t understand science and aren’t up to the mental gymnastics it takes for world building. Now if someone asks you who keep moving all the PNR out of SF and over to Chic-Lit,  you have no idea. Right?

  24. Ah, now we’ve reached the point where opponents of SF are somehow just stupid. Let me break this down for you. What’s the Golden Age of SF? Thirteen. Years before most people take an engineering class.

  25. I’ve always wondered why some individuals treat genre fiction as the equivalent of “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings.  I myself enjoy a good Schnauzer with a stogie and a full house on occasion.  That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (although I do have challenges with Jackson Pollock but I suspect that’s just me.)

    Snobs exist on all sides, both within genre fiction and outside of it.

  26. Coupla random thoughts:

    1) I had a similar experience to Jaime’s in my creative writing program; none of my four instructors allowed students to write genre fiction of any sort, and bear in mind this was a state school, not some haughty Ivy or somesuch. They felt that you could not truly explore fiction within those frameworks. I disagreed with that then (so I spent two and half years working on a novel that was half-dream, and half in an alternate universe without telling them), and I disagree now. I think that is a horrible limitation of ideas and tropes to inflict on writing students.

    2) I’m not sure, however, that a reactionary stance is the answer. I love our little territorial literary mutt as much as the next fen, but reifying divides instead of realizing their power to shackle as much as define literary production and creativity just hardens positions and turns literary discussions into schoolyard fights. Essentially demeaning the perspective of writers and readers of the genre for not wanting to wallow in the gutter is as unproductive as genre writing being snubbed by “literary” fiction, whatever the hell that is.

    3) And just out of curiosity, what does “entertaining” mean in this context? The last three books I read were “literary fantastika” but I enjoyed the heck out of them (they were Kit Reed’s collection What Wolves Know, Paul Jessup’s Open Your Eyes, and Ekaterina Sedia’s House of Discarded Dreams). Does that mean that also enjoying Sam Sykes’s Black Halo and Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot is a contradiction? Is it really about one or the other?

  27. JGS, I’m trying to find where I bashed people who prefer “literary” writing. I certainly didn’t intend to. I was stating my preferences and my annoyances. As far as “you’d expend your energy sharing your enthusiasm for what you love”, I wholeheartedly agree and that is a large part of the purpose of my Vacation in the Golden Age posts. I hope that my enthusiasm comes across better in these.

    Diane, yes some things stick longer than others, I suppose. It’s not entirely my experience that people who don’t like science fiction don’t understand science. I came to science fiction at an age where I didn’t know much about it but I fell in love with it and it encouraged my interest in science. My experience is more along the lines that they don’t give the genre a chance because of some preconceived notion about it that they might have. Certainly this is something I am guilty of with some genres (um, fantasy).

    Paul, I agree: good topic for a Mind Meld.

    Scott, in the last two days I’ve had “on the job training” in how people feel about fiction. To me it was always about entertainment first–or as a gateway into something deeper, but this too varies for everyone.

  28. I’m trying to find where I bashed people who prefer “literary” writing.

    I reckon it’s easy to read this as stereotyping:

    I could be wrong here, but based on my experience with non-genre fiction writers, writing is supposed to be a painful, soul-wrenching process that turns a mirror inward to reveal viscera and entrails. And when these non-genre fiction writers see genre writers actually enjoying the process of storytelling, when they see them turning out stories with smiles on their faces, they look upon it as something beneath contempt, something rude that you’d find in the gutter.

    You’re projecting a prescriptive attitude (“writing is supposed to be,”) angsty self-absorption (“painful… entrails,”) and sneering hauteur (“look upon it… gutter”) for category fiction writers on the part of writers publishing outside those commercial categories. The reaction is not cast as a presumption of derivative hackwork rooted in the commercial imperatives of category fiction — a presumption which is generally wrong but not baseless; rather it’s a superficial response to category fiction writers “enjoying the process of storytelling.” So it basically reads as pigeonholing those who have an alterior approach as status-driven petit-bourgeois poseurs.

    That then extends to writers who publish within the category:

    Even from within the genre, there are those who seem to want to dress up science fiction in fine suits. They want to call it something else, “speculative fiction,” to make it sound more acceptable to the masses.

    Again, it casts a certain contingent as essentially status-driven, implicitly dishonest in presenting work in X genre under a different name simply to kowtow to standards of propriety. And while the scorn ultimately attaches to the term rather than those who use it, I don’t think it’s hard to see why some would take this as impugning the writers/readers themselves:

    “Speculative fiction” is a term I scorn; it is the emperor’s new clothes of science fiction and fantasy, a sycophant to literary fiction.

    Patch that together and I’d say it’s bound to be taken as a generalising diss on a certain type of writer/reader, another iteration of the Pretentious Literati straw man — sneering at good solid entertainment, writing/reading fiction that’s classed as “literature” simply because it’s posturingly angsty, and doing so less because they actually enjoy it than because of a craven desire for validation.

  29. Hal, thanks for clarifying that. I can see how it might be interpretted that way, although it was certainly not my intent. I meant to write about a person gripe, not bash others. As I said to someone earlier today, I’d do better to take myself out of these columns and focus on the subject at hand: science fiction, as I did in the first five. Hopefully the next one will be less controversial. :-)

  30. Jamie, are you familiar with Lester del Rey’s rant that academics who are trying to elevate science fiction to literature should “get out of my ghetto!”?

  31. For what it’s worth, literary writing is also a genre.  Like every other category of writing, literary books have particular stylistic rules and trends that define them – the highly polished prose; the often experimental structure; the slower pace and often unusual or more difficult narrative…  In the wrong hands, literary books can be boring, over-blown and self indulgent – at its best, it can be thought-provoking, memorable and challenge convential opinions. 

    I hope that current writing classes are no longer riven by such snobbish hype that still surrounds literary books – and I fully understand the defensive, slightly aggressive stand you took in describing your love of reading and writing speculative fiction.  But I do feel that a lot of die-hard fans DO relish the fact that it is a genre regarded as outside the pale and I notice that within the genre, there are a number of folk who insist that the ‘golden age’ has been and gone and that everything now written is somehow more trashy and derivative of the ‘Masters’ (some of whom, I’ve found, rather dated and with views somewhere to the right of Ghengis Khan…)

    Personally, my mission is to popularise the genre.  I’d like nothing better than people to reach for a science fiction novel with the same alacrity as a crime whodunit – but I do think that fans within the genre need to be a lot more welcoming to newbies.

     

     

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