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Are You a Literary Snob?

An Asimov’s forum post pointed me to an interesting essay by Peter Watts called Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt in which he talks about Atwood’s aversion to the science fiction label.

The very first paragraph grabs your attention:

Start with a metaphor for literary respectability: a spectrum, ranging from sullen infrared up to high-strung ultraviolet. Literature with a capital L (all characters, no plot sits enthroned at the top. Genre fiction, including science fiction (all plot, no characters) is relegated to the basement. Certain types of fantasy hover in between, depending on subspecies: the Magic Realists get loads of respect, for example. Tolkein gets respect. (His myriad imitators, thank God, do not. Down in the red-light district, science fiction’s own subspectrum runs from “soft” to “hard”, and it’s generally acknowledged that the soft stuff at least leaves the door open for something approaching art – Lessing, Le Guin, the New Wave stylists of the late sixties – while the hardcore types are too caught up in chrome and circuitry to bother with character development or actual literary technique.

Leaving the Atwood issue described in the rest of the essay aside, this description of the literature landscape resonates with me because it adequately portrays the attitudes some people have for science fiction; “contempt” as Watts points out. (“Here is a woman so terrified of sf-cooties that she’ll happily redefine the entire genre for no other reason than to exclude herself from it.” I love that line.) It’s the reason science fiction is still considered by many to be a lower-class citizen.

Call me impartial if you will. Although I like literature all over the spectrum, I tend to spend most of my reading time at the “lower” end. Yep, I can enjoy sf adventure that minimizes character development. I call it “fun”. I can also enjoy a good literary novel. That’s fun, too. It depends on my mood. It also depends on what I’m looking for in a book. I mainly read fiction for entertainment, wherever it resides in the spectrum. I’m not usually reading fiction specifically because it’s a Highly-Regarded Work of Literature.

I jokingly refer to those folks who look down on “un-Literary” books as Literary Snobs. There’s nothing wrong with preferring books written in literary style. It’s the contempt of anything else that seems unfortunate.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

13 Comments on Are You a Literary Snob?

  1. A few years ago in the runup to the Iraq war, Atwood published a piece decrying the horrible shark-mouths she saw painted on some Air Force planes. She felt this invention was a perfect symbol of modern American aggression, etc. etc. She didn’t seem to know that painting such things on aircraft was first done by Australians in World War II.

  2. Yes, SF stories which are mostly a plot with little character development can be fun to read. And I do read plenty of those.

    But to define the entire genre as “all plot, no characters” is just plain silly.

    Not to mention the idea that SF and Fantasy are so easy to separate. That’s entirely not so, and while some things are obviously SF or obviously Fantasy, there are a lot of books which fall somewhere in between.

    But even sticking to books which are very clearly on the SF spectrum, there are a lot which include very serious character building.

    Some examples, from a quick semi-random browse of my books list: McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer series, Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn or Greg Mandel series, Clarke’s Rama series, C.S. Friedman, C. J. Cherryh, Simak’s Project Pope or Why Call Them Back From Heaven?, Timothy Zahn’s Angelmass or Manta’s Gift, Delany’s The Ballad of Beta 2, Sarah Zettel’s Fool’s War, Sheri S. Tepper, Susan R. Matthews’ Andrej Koscuisko series, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Robert Charles Wilson’s Memory Wire, and plenty more…

    And besides, yes, you’re absolutely right, it is a level of snobism to decide that books are not worth anything just because they don’t contain much beyond fun reading. Fun reading is important. I love books which make me think, or make me really feel like the characters are real and complex people. But the stories who mainly focus on fights, explosions, and “special effects”, those certainly have their place (and a good place at that) as well.

  3. It reminds me of an essay by Norman Spinrad recalling a book review where the reviewer just loved his Child of Fortune and the reviewer went on and on about how the book “really wasn’t” science fiction. Spinrad went on in the essay explaining patiently, as if to a child, just why it is SF and why that is a good thing.

  4. I would advise against getting your nose out of joint over the opinions of others about the books you like to read. Snobbery is rampant when it comes to books. The literary with a capitol L types also have their own little maginot lines of snobbery within themselves that most of us aren’t even aware of.

    I used to be a CCG and rpg publisher and on a few ocassions I frequented SF cons for business. We gaming types weren’t mistreated but we were definitely second class citizens in the eyes of many. There’s also hard sf fans who look down on fantasy, etc. etc.

    Regardless of what you like to read, there will be any number of people willing to call you an idiot, ideological unsound, moraly unkempt, etc. etc, for reading it. These people are usually fools, disregard them.

  5. I notice that when someone wants to write about something trivial, he uses the conventions of the literati; for example ULYSSES by James Joyce: the plot (in so far as one exists) consists of the psychological depression of a cuckold.

    When someone wants to write about something profound, some idea too huge and too terrifying to place in the current day, he turns to the conventions of science fiction; for example, NINETEEN-EIGHTY FOUR by Orwell, or BRAVE NEW WORLD by Huxley, or … HANDMAIDEN’S TALE by Atwood.

    Myself, I would put THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH in this same category of the cautionary tale, along with STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner, ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand.

    Is ATLAS SHRUGGED science fiction? Well, we have a daring inventor persecuted by ruthless tyrants who hides in a secret valley beneath a screen of photonic-illusion rays …

    If this is not SF, it is at least a first cousin or bastard child, like the pulp fiction starring The Shadow or Doc Savage, like ‘Lost Race’ adventure fiction starring Alan Quatermain, or like spy fiction. All these cousins have SFF trappings, like mad scientists, killer-robots, spaceplanes, psychic powers, or superweapons: none are children of science fiction born in lawful wedlock. Bastard children bear the father’s stamp of resemblance, but they are not really members of the family.

    Now, then, if we define SF strictly, as that fiction which serves to excite a sense of wonder, a sense of Future Shock in its reader, then none of these books make the cut. The primary point the cautionary tale is to warn about current trends, what would happen ‘if this goes on’, not to tell a tale about an extraordinary voyage of an undersea boat or of a time traveler, or of a man who discovers he is the reincarnation of the lover of a deathless queen living in Roman splendor in unexplored Africa.

    But let’s be serious. If you set a story in the Old West, starring Cowboys and Indians, you have a lot of explaining to do if you expect people not to call it a Western. If you set of story in the future, you have a lot of explaining to do if you expect people not to call it science fiction.

    I am not saying such explanations might not carry the argument: but the argument had better be a good one, that’s all.

    Who here is convinced by her argument that Atwood’s book is not speculative fiction?

  6. Woops. After all that long post, I did not answer the question.

    I cannot tell if I am a literary snob or not. I have a friend who does not like Shakespeare, and my reaction is: my friend is a Philistine. If your senses are not trained to see what is good in the Great Works of literature, there is something wrong with your training. Sorry, but PARADISE LOST is the best thing ever written in English, and MOBY DICK is damn funny, and if you cannot read these works, then you are like the man who never climbed a mountain and never sailed the sea.

    On the other hand, sometimes one is in the mood for fast food instead of filet. The most recent The Shadow story I read was CIRCLE OF DEATH by Maxwell Grant, or maybe it was CHARG, MONSTER. Pulp does not get much pulpier than that, friends.

    So I am a snob, but I am also something of an anti-snob. I think there is a class of modern books that pretend to be literature that are just rubbish: give me SKYLARK DUQUENSE by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith over THE BEAR by Faulkner any day.

    I mean, come on. DuQuesne and Seaton use ninth-order psycho-cosmic rays to destroy and entire galaxy by teleporting a second-galaxy, sun by sun, into the space occupied by the stars of the first, to trigger an endless sequence of supernovae.

    In the Faulkner story … wWell, what does happen, again, exactly?

  7. Over 5,000 books at home, most of them SF? Sure, I’m a snob. Just not a literary snob.

  8. Jan Province // May 25, 2006 at 2:42 pm //

    I have to finish reading it by the start of Marcon, or at least until the queen gets her comeuppance for murdering Lady the direwolf, so I don’t have time to worry about whether the book is Literature. The characters are very real people, even the butcher’s boy who was slaughtered for absolutely no valid reason. But the author is Marcon’s Guest of Honor. He’s still alive, and I don’t think he’s over ninety, so that makes the book less than Literature, doesn’t it?:O

  9. Speaking of both literature and John Wright, I just finished re-reading (for the first time in a couple of decades) Damon Knight’s deconstruction of Null-A. Was that really the essay that launched his career? I wonder if he ever apologized to the grandmaster for being such a rude reviewer!

    (Any date on the launch of your Null-A contribution, John? I’m ready to start bugging the bookstore!)

  10. Here is the latest news on the Null-A sequel is that there is no news yet. The publisher and the agency representing the estate are still in negotiations about the contract.

    The process, friends, is very slow. But myself, I’d rather have slow negotiations than no negotiations. If the negotiations go well, we might see the book in a year or two. In the meanwhile (SHAMELESS PLUG WARNING), I have another book just coming out to tide you over. FUGITIVES OF CHAOS comes out in November.

    Back on serious topics: I made a comment or two about Mr. Knight’s critique of Van Vogt over on the Asimov Message board.

    My opinion—Knight just did not get it. He did not understand what the appeal of a Tale of Wonder is supposed to be. His own attempt to write a Vanvogtian pastiche was a failure.

    So he is deprecating the very things that Van Fans come to his writings to read, the wildness, the unexplained, dreamlike quality, the striking imagery, the complex confusion.

    It is like critizing Dickons for too much Victorian Pathos, or Milton for being ornate, or Star Trek for being optimistic, or Star Wars for being fantasy, or James Bond movies for having hot, fast cars and fast, hot women in them. That is what the audience is coming to see.

    Let me quote from a reviewer who DOES get it:

    “Van Vogt knew precisely what he was doing in all areas of his fiction writing. There’s hardly a wasted word in his stories: characters are delineated with sharp strokes, and actions are conveyed economically and with meticulous precision, forming striking visual images in the reader’s mind. His plots are marvels of interlocking pieces, often ending in real surprises and shocks, genuine paradigm shifts, which are among the hardest conceptions to depict. And the intellectual material of his fictions, the conceits and tossed-off observations on culture and human and alien behavior, reflect a probing mind.”

  11. I’m just curious about what Literary books John likes – give us some examples, sir!

    I myself enjoy books that interest me – some entertain me with wit, some with action, some with suspense, and some with allegory or cynicism on the human condition. I read with a critical eye and look for subtext, sure, but that doesn’t mean it is always there or needed.

    Look at Macrolife that I just reviewed – his ideas are so well thought out that they are stunning. But is that Literature? Certainly not.

    I love the works of Gene Wolfe exactly because they are more than usual, but I also love reading Larry Niven because he’s so darn interesting.

    For some reason I’m reminded of how the writings of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke and Jules Verne are respected for coming up with so many ideas on how our lives will be affected by technology. Isn’t that just as important to society as exploring the delicate heart of a pre-prubescent woman in the Victorian era?

  12. joshua corning // May 27, 2006 at 7:28 pm //

    one should point out that Atwood’s book oryx and crake has little value outside of some fun distopia sci fi reading and that the characters are 2 dimentional at best relying as it were on plot…

  13. Was it actually Margaret Atwood who coined the term: speculative fiction?

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