Genre Boundaries and The Delimiting of Imagination: Some Conjectures About Margaret Atwood’s Engagement With SF
“The problem is that this is a book that means well towards sci-fi; Atwood wants to take it seriously, and wants her readers to take it seriously, yet she can never quite conquer her own ambivalence towards the genre.” – Paul Kincaid
“It may be that like a lobster in a trap who cannot find the exit door, Atwood cannot work her way out of the perplex of ill-judged subjectivity in which she had trapped herself: perhaps because, as with any statement of belief as opposed to argument, her “definition” of SF is as unfalsifiable as any sermon.” – John Clute
“Margaret Atwood is bedeviled by genre — or possibly by others’ notions of genre.” – John Williford
When I reviewed Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds several weeks ago, I was perhaps too kind to the work. At least, once I finished my review and started reading others, that was the impression that I obtained. While most reviews had something laudatory to say about the author and the book, there was an overt disappointment with both at the same time. Many reviewers, particularly those from the SF/Fantastika field, were unhappy with her explanation and explication of the difference between “science fiction” and “speculative fiction.” Even extremely positive reviews, such as Ryan Britt’s at Tor.com, admit that, while they found her ideas to be fruitful and informative, “[t]he conclusions another reader might draw from this engaging book may be different than the ones I outlined.” Atwood herself, as Britt also notes, wrote that it is “the reader, rather than the writer, who has the last word about any book” and that is evident in the response to this book, something that Atwood certainly knew would happen.
A re-reading of the first part of the book, where much of the discussion of SF and imagination takes place, inspires me to think that Atwood is not interested in current debates over the definition of genre or the contemporary constitution of the literary field. This book is not an apologia for her stance, nor is it some revelatory confessional about her secret history with SF. This is a book designed to show the reader what is going on in Atwood’s head and what effect her encounters with SF have had on her creative process and her own writing, and how these inform her critical position, which she admits in the book is not an academic one. This book is not designed to answer the Big Question of SF’s relationship to the human imagination, but serves rather as Atwood’s own very personal take on what she had learned about the human imagination from her experiences in reading and thinking with SF. This book is not a rapproachment or a deep analysis; it is a collection (of pieces written over a number of years) brought together to show readers where Atwood is coming from, and to demonstrate the human imagination’s workings through the writing and thinking of one author.
While Atwood states her essential (and rather essentialized) thoughts on what SF is plainly, it is also easy to detect that her history with the genre has developed in stages that coincide with shifts in her education and life as an author. SF is both exciting and irksome to her, gave her a vast imaginative space to grow in and also contained messages that grated against her own beliefs. This comes out most obviously in her oft-noted ambivalence about being labelled a “sci-fi writer” and her work being considered “science fiction,” which emerges in her discussion of genre boundaries. But this is not uninformed hesitation or some elitist unease (although there may be some of the latter); as I noted in my review it comes from a combination of wanting to characterize her own creative choices her way and a suspicion of some ideological aspects of (classical) SF that she believes detract from its potential to critically look at the future and, by extension, the present. Atwood wants to pick and choose the elements of SF that she finds valuable and simultaneously asserts that this selectivity extends (as much as possible) to her own work and her identity as a writer.
“What emerges from In Other Worlds,” James Lovegrove wrote in the Financial Times, “is Atwood’s continued reluctance to don the mantle of SF author, even though there is seemingly no shame in joining the ranks of such illustrious forebears as Orwell, Huxley, Wells and Swift.” Shame, however, is not really the point (or, perhaps, not the sole point); the point is that this is how Atwood sees genre distinctions; as she puts it “[b]endiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping, and inter-genre visiting has been going on in the SF world — loosely defined — for some time.” While she is somewhat ill at ease with the SF designation, she works to chart how that cluster of tropes and ideas have effected her storytelling and the imaginative work behind it. She does not want to “don the mantle” precisely because she sees her position as outside of the SF mainstream and her ideas do not reflect a persistent engagement with the field, but rather borrow from and trade with them. Most critics want to draw a line and put her on one side of it or the other, and Atwood prefers to be on neither side. Given this, I’m not sure why many people are so insistent on her need to rhetorically commit to being something that she clearly is not.
At the same time, I disagree with Kincaid and others who want to dismiss Atwood’s ideas. If we are interested in expanding fantastika’s readership and breaking down assumptions and limitations we need to focus on the ideas being put forth, not on how much they talk about clothing. Being dismissive elides the discussion, and implicit critique, that Atwood is laying out in (part of) this book. I noted very little engagement in the reviews I read with her critique of totalizing optimism or of gender issues, which are significant elements that recur frequently in her discussions. They are not laid out as explicitly as her discussion of SF and the imagination, but they do shape her perspective and are addressed in detail in a number of pieces in the book. Certainly Atwood puts the spotlight on her demarcation of genres boundaries and a genealogy of SF, and the problems these raise do need to be addressed, but that is not all that she is discussing in this book. These serve more as a jumping-off point to discuss related issues and outline her personal literary history.
As I noted in a comment on my review. Atwood’s stance is “not simplistic so much as simplified, condensed and seen from a distance, the result of an effort to codify rather than explore the genre.” Her genre typology is designed not to illuminate that porousness she invokes, but to demarcate boundaries and limitations for her own purposes. This is not a descriptive, critical endeavor but a processual, highly subjective one, which Atwood freely acknowledges when she states that “my somewhat tangled personal history with SF.” As reviewer Jonathan Ball noted: “Atwood’s writings on ‘SF’ accomplish little in terms of offering new arguments or insights regarding SF, but trace with intelligence and passion her lifelong connection to this genre-of-sorts and present a compelling look at her own literary fascinations.” She is not penning a new theory of SF or crafting some sort of cross-genre reconciliation, but presenting her own experience and perspective by laying out the ideas that have shaped her own writing. She gives due credit to the SF that she remembers, and then discusses other angles that she has utilized to understand it. This is how “SF” functions in her imagination.
As Charles Tan rightly noted, Atwood is not well-versed in contemporary SF and concentrates on “SF that is decades old.” As John Clute also pointed out, she is not engaging current debates and is not connected to the arguments about genre that have been a part of the field since its inception. And, except for some sparring with Ursula K. Le Guin, it is obvious that Atwood is not invested in updating her ideas except through her own writing. While her codification of the genre could benefit from exposure to all of that, it is clear from this book that she is not interested in that, and that is partly what her argument of not being a writer of SF rests upon. Many reviewers and readers are frustrated and irritated at her refusal to accept the mantle of SF writer, but if this book proves one thing, it is that she is indeed not an SF writer. She does not want to engage with that field and holds her ideas as her own, as her personal standpoint that emerges, in part, from historical interactions with the ideas and media of SF (and fantastika more broadly, I would argue).
Does this diminish her definition of SF? It does. Are her boundaries too rigid and based more on personal interests than an historical or textual analysis of a wide variety of texts? I think so. Is her formulation too obsessed with a vestige of realism being necessary to produce “speculative fiction”? Indeed. There are a number of angles from which a critical reader can deconstruct and debate Atwood’s ideas. I found her rather generalized history of SF’s linkage to mythology to be very troubling, and her notion that SF is primarily a theological debate to be incomplete. The current literary field of production is diverse, interactive, and sometimes quite innovative, and historically there has been more to SF than what Atwood discusses. As Tom Shippey noted in his review, even the examples she cites when making her distinction are more complicated than her characterization of them demonstrates.
But what Atwood outlines in In Other Worlds is her formative experience with the genre, the elements that she has gleaned from it, and how these continue to inform her writing. While she often enjoyed the pulpiness, the flights of fancy, and the exuberant excesses SF creates, she prefers to take a step back from all that and use that as secondary inspiration. Atwood delimits not the effects of SF on her imagination, but the impressions that invigorated her creativity. She argues, basically, that one can be steeped in SF for a time, and then move on from it, that it does not have to be part of one’s creative identity to be influential or inspirational.
I personally find that to be counter-intuitive, and I write this as someone who did for a time abandon the fantastic for something more “real world” and acutely academic. But in my case, I could not put SF or fantastika or speculative fiction or any of that in the background; all of that is part of my identity and intellect; it saturates my imagination and my creativity. What Atwood is arguing is that this is not so for all writers and readers, that there are different levels of engagement and influence. She is arguing precisely from the position she articulated about the reader having the final word. Atwood is very proudly a reader and lover of SF, but she assesses that through her own lens and through these lectures asserts that a literature can stimulate the imagination without being wholly embraced. Despite her invocation of very essential genre boundaries, her discussion undermines that starting point by demonstrating the idea of permeability that she advocates, that she demands as necessary for an artist to perform their work.
Atwood’s work often turns on the conventions it utilizes, sometimes subversively, sometimes paradoxically, quite often with a sardonic sharpness. I think that she does something similar here, articulating a very inflexible definition of boundaries that she then tries to play with and transgress. I think the effectiveness of this technique is inconsistent, but given the general wryness and expanse of her discussion, taking that opening definition as final and programmatic diminishes what comes after it. What Atwood does in In Other Worlds is not reinforce that definition, but proceed from it to show that a writer need not be an “SF writer” to appreciate the genre and perceive its influence on their imagination. SF opened a lot of creative vistas for Atwood, and while we may quibble with how she appreciates it, this book can lead to more discussion and reflection on the nature of SF and its role in enlivening the imaginations of not just SF readers and writers, but our literary, intellectual, and popular imaginations as well.
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