Category Archives: The Bellowing Ogre

Worlds Are Conjured, Not Built

I am heading to Readercon this Thursday, 12 July, and I am very happy to be a participant for the first time. It is going to be a very different experience and one that I hope to repeat in the future. I’ve been thinking a lot about the panels I’m going to be on, and this week I want to write some thoughts down about one of them. On Friday the 13th I am leading the panel entitled “Anthropology For Writers,” which has this description:

“In a 2011 blog post, Farah Mendlesohn wrote, ”Worldbuilding’ as we understand it, has its roots in traditions that described the world in monolithic ways: folklore studies, anthropology, archeology, all began with an interest in describing discrete groups of people and for that they needed people to be discrete.’ This panel will discuss the historical and present-day merging and mingling of real-world cultures, and advise writers on building less monolithic and more plausible fictional ones.”

I think there’s potential here for a good discussion about the ways in which culture is invoked and represented in fantastic fiction, but I must say that I have some reservations about the idea of “worldbuilding,” some of which were articulated in a recent blog post that is well worth reading (and yes, it is ranty and mean in parts, but it also points out some concerns that could use more thought and discussion). Cultural appropriation is one of them, tangled as that concept may sometimes be. The fetishization of made-up cultures is troubling to me, particularly since that is part of my own history. And the focus on arcana rather than message, when it occurs, shapes the way that we discuss fantastic literature in ways that dilute some of the potentials and gifts that lie within that field.
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Diving Into Pandemonium: Some Turbulent Postulations About Reading and the Fantastic

“In metaphorical terms, one could say that the processes essential to the reading mind are not mechanical or computational, but more oceanic, that is, dynamic, fluvial and fluctuating.” Michael Burke. Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion: An Exploration of the Oceanic Mind

Reading is on my mind at all times right now, not just because I (like everyone reading this) does it many times per day, but because I’ve been immersing myself in different scholarly disciplines and genres that try to theorize and analyze the practice. When I first started reading about reading, I had no idea that there was such a dense history of its study or that there would be so many theories about the practice that no one book could contain them all. Someone has been trying to grasp how the process works, and how best to teach and utilize it, for almost 2,500 years. From the earliest forms of Mental Discipline Theory to the latest revelations via fMRI and other scientific scanning processes, humans in literate societies have been attempting to understand just what it is we’re doing and why we do it that way. This history is fascinating, but its vastness can be overwhelming without some thought about what you want to learn from it.

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Nothing Can Fly Us Away From Here: More Thoughts About Thomas M. Disch’s “On Wings of Song”

“For the future to be interesting your desires, or your fears, must have a home there.” – Tom Disch, from On Wings of Song

On the SF Signal Podcast this week Scott Cupp, Jules Sherred, Patrick Hester and I talked about books that changed our lives. While that sounds rather dramatic, it took me no time to realize what book I wanted to discuss. My choice was Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song, his 1979 novel of life in the American near-future. I talked briefly about what the book did for me, why I felt it was life changing, but after listening to the podcast I realized that I have much more to say about it. While other books have had a profound effect on me, On Wings of Song provoked me to examine my desires, and my fears, for my future.

I read the book in the fall of 1982 as a junior in high school. As I noted on the podcast, it was the first serious SF novel I had ever read. Before I was given it I had read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter books, a few Heinlein juveniles, most of the Doc Savage novels and a fair amount of sword-and-sorcery, and had just for the first time finished reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My American History teacher, Mr. Cahoon, had seen me carrying a copy of Heinlein’s Space Cadet (which, when seen by other students, immediately became my new nickname, which I appreciated more than “Professor Whale”) and offered to give me more reading material since he was well aware of the poverty of fantastic literature in our small school library. Continue reading

Of Jetpack Utopias and Hyperbolic Tomorrows: David Graeber and the Science Fiction Imagination

“[J]etpacks and flying cars symbolize the gap between our imagination and our ability to impose our imagination upon our world.” – from You Call This The Future?

“[O]ur science fiction future is, most often, not a future at all, but more like an alternative dimension, a dream-time, a technological Elsewhere, existing in days to come in the same sense that elves and dragon-slayers existed in the past—another screen for the displacement of moral dramas and mythic fantasies into the dead ends of consumer pleasure.” – David Graeber, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit”

A few weeks ago a lengthy article appeared in The Baffler, a journal that publishes critical, sometimes satirical pieces on art, politics and culture. The last issue featured an essay by David Graeber, an anthropologist currently affiliated with Goldsmiths College in the UK and an intellectual advisor to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The topic of this essay was neatly contained in its title: “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” and in it Graeber discusses a particular formation of the American science-fiction (SFnal) imagination. What I want to do this week is discuss his invocation of an American SF imagination and how he uses it to discuss problems with our economic system. My intention is not to comment on the political aspects, but instead look at the SFnal idea he asserts to represent Americans’ imagination of the future. What does his conception of this imagining reflect in terms of popular speculative thinking and how fruitfully does it represent the SFnal imagination? Continue reading

Why We Need To Imagine The Impossible

“Fortunately somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether.” – Luis Buñuel

This week I had planned to write a response to a very intriguing article by David Graeber on America’s imagined future and its failings. But since then I’ve read some unrelated articles and arguments that have recombined in my mind, and the ideas that are bubbling up demand that I write them out, so here goes. I want to discuss why the most fabulous thing that human beings have invented is so important, not just in terms of survival but in terms are creating our world, for better and for worse, and look at some of the paradoxes in how we conceive of and use that invention.
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The Bradbury Effect > The Amazon Effect

“”[R]eaders care not a whit about cover design or even good writing, and have no attachment at all to the book as object. Like addicts, they just want their fix at the lowest possible price, and Amazon is happy to be their online dealer.” – Steve Wasserman, in “The Amazon Effect.”

“You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” – Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday, after 91 years of dreaming and writing and breathing and wondering. I am sure by now that everyone reading this knows this fact. It is a fact; an incontrovertible, real thing that happened. But his words, his conjured presence in them, the lessons and pleasures many have gleaned from them, will last for a very long time. That too, I think, is incontrovertible. President Obama paid tribute to him, and a quick Google search will yield a list of many more. The outpouring of reflections and memories is everywhere. One of the last old masters has left us.
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Diversion and Immersion: Escapism and the Reading of Fantastika

“ESCAPISM: The desire to retreat into imaginative entertainment rather than deal with the stress, tedium, and daily problems of the mundane world.”

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought.”

- J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

“Perhaps there is no way of escaping in art from one’s society, as any social product will of necessity embody the society’s values and pressures, and the less these values or pressures are confronted and examined in the work, the more in force they will be.”

I recently finished reading Thomas Ligotti’s Noctuary for review here at SF Signal, and as I sat in my bed, very late at night, I felt like a leaden statue that was levitating above my bed, impossibly unmoored from any comfort or connection to the world. My notebook computer was lying next to me, and the file that I had open to write down my reactions and thoughts was blank. I read the book in three sessions, which worked well since it is a collection, and each time I was so caught up in the reading, so harrowed and beguiled by the words, that I forgot to make any notes. I cannot think of many books that have had that effect on me, but as I sat there, still drifting but slowly feeling the pull of the world below me, I wondered why these words, this book, these stories had undone me so powerfully that I had a contradictory physical reaction of feeling cut off from the world but anchored deeply within my own skin. I had in some sense abandoned the world for a short time, but the question that came into my mind as I refamiliarized myself with my surroundings was: did I escape?
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The Problem of the Idealized Reader in Fantastika

“The ‘deficient reading protocol’ is a comforting explanation, and like all comforting explanations, should be regarded with some suspicion.” – John Barnes

In the comments to last week’s column Chris, The King of Elfland’s 2nd Cousin, observed that one of the problems with looking at reading in any field of literary production is that there is not one type of reader. “[W]hat about readers who are unaware of/unengaged in the field of production?” he asked. “How does the process/experience of fantastika differ for the cognoscenti, the niche sub-genre fandom, and the casual reader? And how [do] these groups’ perceptions of genre outside of books (especially film) filter back onto their perceptions of literature?” My immediate response was to assert that, in some way, those more casual or less-invested readers are part of the field of production, but are perhaps more peripheral, and may be better at crossing (or just ignoring) borders and textual cues because they are looking for something more essential in their reading. The issue of different types of readers who may occupy different positions in/around the field and to particular texts and other field participants is one that I want to examine more closely. Before I do that, however, I have come to realize that I need to deal with another issue first: that of the idealized reader that many of us in the field conjure up in our discussions of how the literature is read.
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The Bellowing Ogre: 12 Excogitations on the Reading of Fantastika

“All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” – Alberto Manguel

I have a lot of ideas rattling around in my head this week, so I thought that I would write them down, still-forming and tentative, and see what I can make of them. And I ask you, the reader, to let me know which of these notions make sense, and which seem counter-intuitive.  A few of them are intentionally excessive in their speculations — little thought-exercises to stimulate debate and reflection. My goal here is to articulate my conjectures and then start taking them apart to find out which ones are most useful and evocative for examining the reading experience and process.
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The Word and The Brain: The Creative (and Vital) Speculations of Reading

“At this very moment, your brain is accomplishing an amazing feat — reading.”

- Stanislas Dehaene

“[R]eading does not begin or end when eyes apprehend the words on the page, but long before that and indeed long after it.”

- Michael Burke

Last week I sketched out a too-brief examination of the basic cognitive processes of reading. This week I want to elaborate on that, and start filling in the picture of how we read. As fascinating as those processes are (and there is certainly more to discuss about them), in the end they are only one aspect of the practice of reading. And, while they demonstrate how we read, they only hint at why and what we read. Reading is a doubly amazing activity because it is not only an unforeseen adaptation that changed how humanity lives, it has an enduring power and utility garnered from the puzzles and connections it creates and reveals. As Oliver Sacks has noted, “Writing, a cultural tool, has evolved to make use of the inferotemporal neurons’ preference for certain shapes” and the process of reading functions in dialogue with that retooling of function. I think that “evolved” is a somewhat loaded term, but the fact that writing and reading developed culturally rather than biologically has to be kept in mind, so that we do not lose sight of the innovative core of these practices and the ways in which they have been transformed over their history.

Many books have been written about that history, but I want to briefly touch on the points that seem most relevant to discussing the reading of fiction and fantastika. What began as a mnemonic aid has become a practice that can shift us from the world around us into one unfolding in our heads by giving our predilections for speculation, prediction, and adaptive social organization ample fodder and an outlet for sharing them with others. What made humans start to read and write? There are multiple theories, but most likely symbols were used as a tool for accounting. As human social and political systems became larger, more elaborate, and more hierarchical, there was a growing need to keep track of obligations. “Initially it was the simple faculty of extracting visual information from any encoded system and comprehending the respective meaning” (Fischer, A History of Reading, p. 12), but the use of this faculty supported a number of social changes that led to the gradual elaboration of these systems. From simple marks denoting a number or symbolic linkage more sophisticated symbols, such as abjads and ideograms, were developed to meet new needs of information transmission. At this point, the marks denoted additional meanings, such as sounds and words, representing aspects of spoken language and, eventually, distinct ideas.
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The Bellowing Ogre: Altered States of Reading

“It’s clear that participants are not simply projecting the bare meaning of the words in a sentence. They are adding to it.”

-  Livia Blackburn, “From Words to Brain.”

After several weeks of discussing the field of fantastic literary production, this week I want to shift back to thinking about reading, the primary subject of that field. We discuss reading constantly, but often in ways that gloss over its combination of complexity and variety. We (including myself in that pronoun) talk about genre and protocols and “close readings” and tastes, but we don’t get under the skin of our ideas to look at what we do when read, whether cognitively, sociolinguistically, or anthropologically. Over the next few weeks I want to discuss reading from several different analytical angles and ponder “aloud” what we do when we read generally and what we might be able to apply from these ideas to the reading of fantastic literature specifically. My overarching thesis is that there are aspects of how we read that intensify and deepen our engagement with and interpretation of fantastic literature, starting with the fact that reading is, at its core, the generation of an altered state of mind.
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Sociality, “Struggle” and Pleasure in the Discussion of Award Controversies

“There is an economy of cultural goods, but it has a specific logic.” – Pierre Bourdieu

Last week I wrote about the recent controversy stirred up by Christopher Priest’s critique of the Clarke Awards. Using ideas modified from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu I examined some of the responses to that critique and discussed them as a form of “struggle,” a contentious dialogue over the generation and reproduction of prestige and symbolic capital within the field. I knew when I made that argument that it was reductive of both the implied intentions of the participants as expressed in their discourse and of the interpretation of the controversy, and several commenters noted that John Scalzi and other respondents might not be saying exactly what I asserted. To an extent, I agree; there is more to these discussions than I was able to elucidate. I do think, however, that these responses have ritualized elements that reinforce or take for granted certain ideas about awards like the Clarke, mixed in with other expressions, including pleasurable ones. Sociality, “struggle,” and pleasure are all present in these discussions, and if we want to understand the gradations of struggle, contention, etc., within the field, all of these need to be addressed.

Unfortunately, most social and cultural theories cannot easily perform such a multivalent task. Social theory is difficult to apply to the practice and power of literature, in part because so much of what literature does takes place inside our heads, whether we are reading, writing, editing, or thinking about it. Social theory also tends to be functional and/or deconstructive in its invocations about what we are doing with literature, and with art in general; it seeks to reframe or reinterpret social action and cultural practice and thus alter our understanding of how our lives work. Its application is also tricky because, as humans, we’re all social theorists (as well as cultural theorists and political strategists, but those are considerations for another time); we all spend our days figuring out frameworks and field parameters, assessing relationships, ascribing meanings to actions, critiquing ours and others’ practices, weighing outcomes and agendas.
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The Christopher Priest Controversy: Contention as Social Creation in Fantastika

“And yet, in a real sense, the awards that we bestow give us a snapshot of where our cultural priorities are in any particular year. And when we grouse about the shortlists and the winners, what we really rail against is the consensus taste that they imply.” – Chris, The King of Elfland’s Second Cousin

“[T]he beauty of the Clarke shortlist is that it’s always going to offend someone.” – Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Last week I discussed one way to think about how we create, interpret, and use literature, building on some ideas of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. This week I will elaborate on that discussion by examining an episode of controversy that recently arose in the fantastic field of literary production: Christopher Priest’s polemic against the selections for this year’s Clarke Award and the responses to it. Priest’s unblunted critique quickly became a point of contention and fomented a mixture of agreement and backlash from other authors and bloggers across the Internet, which was been the main arena for these struggles for a generation. Indeed, Priest published his polemic on his website and it was quickly disseminated, generating a plethora of responses. While some echoed or extended Priest’s criticisms, others were dismissive; many respondents found Priest’s line of reasoning self-serving or elitist. A few, such as Jeff VanderMeer and Catherynne Valente, used Priest’s diatribe to reflect on matters related to the field. It was often noted that a response like Priest’s was common, as most awards announcements inevitably spawned reactions that took issue with the choices of the awards.

But this characterization only scratches the surface of both Priest’s polemic and the struggle that it engendered.
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Reviews, Awards and Controversies: A Few Thoughts on the Dynamics of Struggle in the Fantastic Literary Field

I am perpetually fascinated by the social and cultural stuff that is spawned by our engagement with literature. Some of this stuff – the positions, structures, and practices that constitute the literary field of production – is seen as a natural part of the field, while other elements are seen as distractions or problems within the field. But the more I read about and observe how we discuss and share our thoughts and opinions on fantastic literature, how we use our imaginations and communication skills to enjoy and interpret it, the more I see what is exceptional and troubling about how the fields around that literature work. Sociologists, anthropologists, and other academic and scientific analysts have frequently tried to theorize about and explain those workings, but most of those efforts are dense, discursively challenging (in both use of jargon and structuring of argument), and sometimes outright obtuse. One of my own goals as a writer, critic, and observer of the field is to figure out what is useful about some of those theories and explanations and apply them in ways that can get people thinking more critically and creatively about how we bring literature in our lives and what its effects are on us, and how we in turn affect the production and perception of literature.

This week, I want to sketch out some ideas of how the field works and then apply them (too briefly) to the way in which reviews and awards create focal points of struggle through the negotiation of controversy.
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The Potential of Paratext in the Criticism of Fantastika

“SF is an ongoing conversation between fans and writers: a conversation that occurs at conventions, in fanzines, and in fiction magazines. Any study of a popular genre such as SF must include careful attention to the historical, editorial, and commercial details of the fiction as well as the literary contexts.” – Robert Bee

“Paratexts indicate the forces that have shaped a text: they show how contexts invade the text” – Samuel Kinser

Last week’s column on the work of SF/fantastic criticism generated some good comments, and it is from one of those comments that I want to proceed this week. Felix asked a reiterative question: “So, I interpret this as a call for grounded theory in that the theoretical concepts of SF criticism would emerge out of the ethnographic, yes?” My reply was “Yes.” I thought that her question codified one of the points I was driving at quite well, and I’ve been thinking about that in relation to the necessity within that idea of “reconsidering criticism’s mode of production.”

That may sound like fancy academic-speak, but if we want to facilitate critical conversations that engage more readers, present the range of interpretations of works and discourses with more finesse and resonance, and understand the effects we create and produce in the field of literary production, we need to think and imagine towards that reconsideration. Applying popular literary theories or general methods to the study of fantastic literature only reveals some of its facets and leaves out considerations and linkages that can heighten our appreciation of what the literature evokes in our imaginations. We need to bridge the literary and ethnographic spheres, and one approach that might accomplish this goal is to more consciously bring paratexts into the critical conversation.
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De-Parochializing SF Criticism: Is it Really Necessary? Or Even Possible?

“Science fiction criticism, of course, is still very much in the Formalist stage. It is often obsessed with “good” and “bad” – it is a mode of review rather than of criticism. Its effectiveness, in the majority of cases, is questionable.” – Lavie Tidhar

“[S]ince it is in the nature of SF’s oxymoronic fusion of the rational and the marvelous to challenge received notions of reality – sometimes seriously, sometimes playfully – critical provocation is part of SF’s generic identity.” – Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

I had hoped to write more about the subject of reading fantastika this week, but I would rather take my time to absorb the new material I’m reading on the topic. Next week I will return to this subject, with an eye to examining how cultural assumptions about metaphor color how we read different modes of literary discourse. This week I want to discuss a topic that, like the death of science fiction, frequently arises  like a hungry zombie looking for brains to feast upon: the problem of “SF criticism.” This problem is a virtual feature of the field of fantastic literary production, one that seems at once simple and knotty.  The “problem” is that some sense of omission or parochialism is discerned in the critical discussion of the literature by an observer who then critiques the criticism itself.  The quotation above from Lavie Tidhar, in a post on the critical facets of Adam Roberts’ fiction, codifies a common viewpoint on the state of SF criticism, that it is unsophisticated and often doing a poor job of critique. But what is the job of SF criticism, and how does that job relate to how readers perceive the genre and engage it?  There is plenty of criticism in the field that is not reducible to a mere review, but the object of “SF criticism”  is still often critiqued as not being either reverent or constructive enough. And so the tension continues.  The question is, however, what the de-parochializing SF (and, and, to an extent, the broader field of fantastika) criticism (which, to be fair, has been increasingly academicized and elaborated) might accomplish?  Is such a shift necessary?
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Neuroscience, Fantastika and Cliché: A Few Musings on the Effects of Reading Fiction

“Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, ‘is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.'” – New York Times, 3/17/12

Last weekend the New York Times published a thought-provoking article on how our brains respond to words and stories. It discussed an array of studies that monitored the brain when performing assorted reading activities, noting what areas of the brain reacted to particular sorts of phrases. Two conclusions were drawn from these assorted projects: one, that our brain responds to written words, particularly action terms and metaphors, using areas “distinct from language-processing areas.” Two, that reading, in particular fiction, functions as a sort of social simulation that enriches our “theory of mind,” the ideas that we use to make sense of others’ actions and motives. “Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity,” the article claims, and the author ends with this inspiring coda:

“Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined. “

There is a lot to think about in this article, and also in the more detailed studies that contribute to it. But it is not just “great literature,” as the NYT article concludes, that stimulates and “improves” us; stories, metaphors, even a well-chosen phrase can elicit a response from other parts of our brain. What is suggestive in these studies is that reading is not just the absorption of written communication to be stored away or reused. There is a lot more going on in the act of reading and in the experience of reading fiction, for better and for worse, if we follow some of the conclusions of these studies along their possible courses.
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Genre as a (Perhaps Necessary) Fantastic Fiction We Tell Each Other

” If we wrote fiction the way we talk about genre and mainstream most of the time, we would all be hacks, our prose full of the most crass and belabored cliches. Yet we persist in outdated, dangerous generalizations, and allow them to color our perceptions of reality. We refuse to engage with the individual in front of us, to communicate, and instead create badly-made fictions about them.” – Jeff VanderMeer

“…I think science fiction is — well, no, not important, yet still worth talking about, because it is a promise of continued life for the imagination, a good tool, an enlargement of consciousness. . . .” – Ursula K. Le Guin, from “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” in Gunn & Candelaria’s Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction

I wanted to start with these two quotations because they encapsulate for me a contradiction that colors how I consider writing, reading, and the understandings of fiction that result from these activities.  I heartily agree with Jeff VanderMeer’s notion that genre should not determine our perception of literature, but I also feel very deeply, as Le Guin does, that SF (and, for me, fantastika) as an idea provides fuel for my imagination. This is a paradox that I have been struggling with since I started writing about fantastic literature: the struggle between the truncation of convention and the potential for inspiration. As I try to talk about literature in general, and specific fictions in particular, I find myself caught in webs of signification spun by others (to steal from Clifford Geertz), and I realize that to not just understand the uses of genre, but to understand how they shape communication, there is a need to examine what stories we are telling with genre, instead of just trying to make the stories more believable.

Later in the essay from which I drew that quotation, Jeff VanderMeer talks about being on a panel where the idea of genre was used to do just what he talks about:  serve as a bad story about, in this case, a writer. This is not an isolated incident; the discussion of literature is filled with moments like this that use genre to label and characterize people, texts, and ideas. The ways in which we think about fiction are conditioned by the ways that we talk about fiction, and the use of genre as explication and designation conditions the discussion of literature by creating  boundaries around and characteristics for literary works, in a concentrated fashion. As I noted a few weeks ago, “We often talk about fiction in terms that simplify it,” and the most simplifying concept is that of genre.

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Feeling Very Estranged

I think a lot about how humans read, and imagine through reading. This has led me to read more and more about how cognition works, how we receive and process what we read, and how our ideas of the workings of the imagination influence our understanding of texts and narratives. There are many theories of reading in general, and there are also notions of how we engage and comprehend certain textual forms, and more culturally-variable notions such as genre. In the study of fantastika (more specifically, SF), such understandings are very specific to the genre as different theorists and discussants conceive of it. The notion of cognitive estrangement is one of the most well-thought-out and commented on of these ideas, and, well, it bugs me. While there are some aspects of the idea that I find useful, it creates a limited view of how literature works generally and, in particular, what SF and most fantastic literature does.

Cognitive estrangement was first presented by Darko Suvin (the man who brought SF criticism the novum) as a formalized, narrow conception of what SF does, and thus what makes the genre distinctive. In the decades since he presented this idea (in most detail in his Metamorphoses of Science Fiction), it has undergone scrutiny and development, by both Suvin and other writers. and maintains an influential position in the discourse on fantastic literature.  What Suvin wrote in 1973, that cognitive estrangement is “the basis of the literary genre of SF” is true, if more nuanced and critically-examined, today. As Patrick Parrinder noted in his introduction to Learning From Other Worlds, a volume that examines this idea from a number of angles, Suvin’s conception has become “paradigmatic.”

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A Few Grumblings About Theorizing Fantastika

“Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as ‘common-sense’ is in fact an historical construction. . . . As a critique of common-sense and an exploration of alternative conceptions, theory involves a questioning of the most basic premises or assumptions of literary study, the unsettling of anything that might have been taken for granted…” – Jonathan Culler, from Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2011)

“The mainstream (or mundane, as NS [Neal Stephenson] slyly calls it) is being, or has been, gentrified-reduced in status to one among many other genres. It’s the center that cannot hold, the mainstream which is breaking apart into tributaries.” – James Enge

One of the great obsessions in the literary field of fantastika is the discussion of what, exactly, we are reading/writing/identifying with/talking about when we use that term or one of the many others people invoke to represent their notion of the field. This is not old news; in fact, one could argue that this combination of definitional controversy and genre elasticity has been argued about since someone had the audacity to create a label for such literature. The debates have ranged from those dealing with the genre’s (however you categorize it) uniqueness to the idea that the genre is really part of the “mainstream.” Writers dispute the label for their fiction while others in the field dismiss genre labels as marketing categories. What unites all of these conversations is not just the subject of the debate, but the idea that definition is significant (even if wrong-headed or too narrow/broad/specific/imprecise) and requires constant discussion.
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