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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.

9 Comments on Genre Boundaries and The Delimiting of Imagination: Some Conjectures About Margaret Atwood’s Engagement With SF

  1. Jonathan Strahan and Alisa Krasnostein touched on the Atwood book briefly in their latest “live and sassy” podcast.  

     

    I haven’t read the book, so all of my perceptions and opinions are second hand, and possibly useless to the discussion. It’s my impression that Atwood’s engagement with the genre has always been fraught and superficial, and that is why In Other Worlds reads as it does.

     

    This gets to a point–is someone NOT an SF writer if they say they aren’t, even if what they write is on the face, science fiction. Atwood seems to say no, and a fraction of the community says, yes, you are.

     

    Why is that fraction so determined to “claim” her, I wonder?

  2. Hal Duncan // December 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm //

    Why is that fraction so determined to “claim” her, I wonder?

    It’s neatly self-serving in terms of tribal identity to insist that an outsider is “really” writing SF and then be able to point out how they’re failing by not writing “proper” SF.

    Think of it this way: Basically, some writer who doesn’t identify as an SF writer writes a work following protocols A and B. Some SF reader picks up on the conformity to protocol A and insists that this makes it “really” SF. But what they want is a work following protocols A and C, and the absence of C — and quite possibly the presence of B — make it a failure in that regard. They can then hold the work up as an example of how outsiders produce worse works than members of the tribe — yay, us!

    The simplest protocol C is the demand of tropic novelty/sophistication, not to be retreading the conventions of yesteryear now considered tired and facile. A less-conversant outsider is one who neither knows nor cares that they’re reinventing the wheel. One could well say that justifies their claim to not be writing SF right there. But then one wouldn’t be able to make a big fuss over how rubbish the work is as SF and shuuuuun shuuuuun shuuuuun the outsider who thinks they’re too good for our gang when they’re really already in it but not good enough to be in it.

    Go figure.

  3. Nick Mamatas // December 8, 2011 at 11:09 pm //

    In other news, the person you had two dates with back in 2006 really really isn’t thinking about you anymore. I thought the book was interesting, and yes, it was about her personal, perhaps rigid beliefs, making them not one bit different than any claim John H. Stevens or Clute or anyone else ever made about SF. And yes, she is mostly interested in exploring her own definitions and what she thinks SF is via her own writing—she’s an excellent writer after all, not an amateur butterfly collector and the assistant editor of The Amateur Butterfly Collecter Quarterly (which appears every eighteen months).

    The only difference between Atwood and every other SF writer and SF critic is that she is very very famous for something else, and SF just cannot abide a Cool Kid (at age 72? 73?) daring to like the X-Men films if he or she didn’t cry over Dark Phoenix saga back in the 1980s.

  4. For the life of me, I don’t understand why anyone reads books like these.  I was a young teen when Acadamia noticed science fiction and decided to “legitimize” it.

    From that point forward, the academics have managed to systematically drain away all of the joy and wonder of the genre (much like my ex-wife, but that’s a completely different story).  Science fiction has gone from being a day at the county fair to a day attending a seminar on insurance underwriting.  The palette has gone from glorious technicolor to varying shades of black.  These days, it’s not “real” sci fi unless the reader is left with a sense of complete dread for the future.  Reading a “legitmate work” turns out to be mutually incompatible with “enjoying a good read”. Most of the sci fi reading I’ve done in the past 10 years was much more of a chore than a pleasure; I’ve gotten more entertainment out of reading books on programming.

    I have a digital tablet that Captain Kirk wouldn’t have beleived, and what am I reading on it?  Science fiction from the 1930’s.  The bad old “illegitmate” stuff that’s politically incorrect and unabashedly entertaining.  In one story, an airplane carrying parts for a space station manages to survive an attempt at sabotage, with “only a tear in the fabric”.  Think about that – they were still flying airplanes made of wood and canvas, and dreaming about moving into space.  That kind of optimism and wonder is simply not present in modern sci fi (at least, not the stuff that gets published).

    Bah.  I don’t need some literature snob telling me what I like to read and why I like it.  I don’t need to be looked down on because I enjoyed “Red Planet” more than “Stranger in a Strange Land”, I don’t need to be informed of the homosexual sub-text of “Farenheit 451”, and I don’t really care about the similarities between “I, Robot” and the Ukranian oral history of the fifteenth century.

    The bald fact is that over-analyzing science fiction is like over-analyzing comedy; by the time you get done, you’ve produced a cogent analysis of something that has long-since stopped being funny.

    For any authors who might be reading this, here’s a tip: forget this kind of claptrap and concentrate on writing a solid work of fiction that happens to also be speculative.  Give me an enjoyable read, long on characters and situations and short on Ukranian oral history.  Create a world I’m going to want to explore, people it with characters that I’m going to care about, set them on a mission that’s worth following, and confront them with challenges that take heroic effort to overcome.

    And above all, stop letting Mrs. Grundy tell you what is and isn’t “literature”.

  5. Nick Mamatas // December 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm //

    And thanks to “Fa Humbug” for demonstrating why Atwood–who has not written an academic book, btw—sees no need to dive into the genre with both feet.

  6. Wow, Fah Humbug…why do you care? Did she piss in your cheerios? I mean really, are you on some sort of genre gestappo that cracks the skulls of non-believers?

     

     

  7. Wait, did I say, “The simplest protocol C is the demand of tropic novelty/sophistication, not to be retreading the conventions of yesteryear now considered tired and facile”? Silly me, to suggest that SF readers have such lax standards as to not just sanction but actively valorise the slovenly waywardness of willy-nilly innovation. I guess what I should have said was, “The simplest protocol C is the demand of tropic formulation, to be following slavishly the conventions of yesteryear, no matter if many would now consider them tired and facile.”

    That would make for an awesome double-bind, after all. When the outsider acknowledges they’re not following that protocol C and distinguishes their work out as “not really SF” on that basis, we get to double-damn them for the literary snobbery of their ignorant stereotyping, and once again shuuuuuuun shuuuuuuun shuuuuuuuun the outsider.

  8. Says the Vigilant(e) Border Patrol:

    “Burn the witch!  How dare she be successful — well-adjusted, prolific, popular and awash in awards despite refusing to genuflect at our altars — while we priests of purity labor in obscurity, smelling each other’s [fill in as desirable/desired].”

     

  9. It occurs to me that Atwood does not want to call herself a science fiction writer as a courtesy. It takes a lot of immersion in the science fiction field to keep up with the rabid fans. Some writers are right there in it. They started as fans. They know all the back stories of all the “important” works and probably all the lesser works and they’ve even reread the trash. These are the writers of science fiction that deserve the moniker. They get all the in jokes. Atwood does not want to be responsible for having that kind of knowledge. She reads other things besides SF. If the rabid sf fan wants to claim her either because her work is “unabashadly entertaining,” or the type of “claptrap” us literature snobs like, then fine.  I just don’t think she feels comfortable taking on a title she, herself, feels she doesn’t deserve. Most of us don’t care. She’s find by us.

     

     

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