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Literary vs. SF

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  • Donovan & Lillian Mattole
    A friend and I have been writing back and forth discussing the differences between literary fiction and genre science fiction. I initiated the conversation
    Message 1 of 3 , Oct 22, 2000
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      A friend and I have been writing back and forth discussing the differences
      between "literary fiction" and genre science fiction. I initiated the
      conversation after talking with a friend who writes horror/science fiction
      (James F. David, "Ship of the Damned"). He had just returned from a
      conference where he was a guest along with two other "science fiction"
      writers. One of them was Molly Gloss, author of the science fiction novel,
      "The Dazzle of Days". She is most famous for her book, "Jump-off Creek."
      Anyway, from what he says she spoke first and began her talk with a bashing
      of the junk science fiction out there and talking about how her novel isn't
      science fiction, rather it is literary fiction. He was offended, especially
      since she was speaking along with two science fiction novelists. I was
      surprised, but didn't think much of it until a little over a month ago when
      I attended a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Ass. breakfast where Molly Gloss
      was the featured speaker. She also attacked science fiction and she said it
      was all junk except for a few authors, "most notably one who's initials are
      UKL." I agree that there is a lot of stuff being written, especially in the
      fantasy genre, that leaves something to be desired, but the genre on a whole
      has some superb writers. I'm curious what your take on this is. The
      following is a letter talking about this similar thing that was published in
      locus. Thoughts anyone?

      -Donovan Mattole
      http://www.geocities.com/songofalbion

      Dear Locus,
      I couldn't help noting the "controversy" over writers whose work is
      considered to be too good for the genre, or "literary" authors whose
      futuristic novels aren't really science fiction, at least according to the
      (mainstream) critics [in comments on Le Guin and Boyle on this page],
      without a little interest, let alone amusement. While it isn't inappropriate
      to think of books like T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth or Margaret
      Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as SF (and certainly, no discriminating SF fan
      could do wrong by reading either novel), there are other issues worth
      considering beyond simple questions of genre taxonomy.
      It's become almost a cliche to decry so-called "mainstream" authors for
      borrowing shopworn SF tropes and parading them as if they'd been invented
      yesterday (and "mainstream" really is a misnomer here, since the East
      Coast/white-male institution that graying SF pros still rail against is as
      dead as the dodo), but that's really beyond the point. SF writers, at least
      the Hugo and Nebula-winning variety, are a pretty self-conscious bunch. When
      they write a novel like Hyperion or The Book of the New Sun, they're aware
      that they're working in a tradition; in a sense, they're paying their dues.
      Mainstream writers have entirely different motivations for utilizing (or
      appropriating, if you prefer) genre themes -- pastiche, parody, a
      phantasmagoric urge. (At any rate, the last time I checked, the future
      wasn't the sole intellectual property of the SFWA. And while we're on the
      subject, magical realism isn't fantasy set in South America, sans dragons
      and hobbits.) The results aren't always necessarily breathtaking (take Paul
      Theroux's O-Zone, for example, or better yet, don't), but there have also
      been remarkable specimens like Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Kingsley Amis' The
      Alteration, or Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Or more recently, the short
      fiction of George Saunders, who may well be Philip K. Dick's true heir
      apparent.
      The real issue as far as I can see isn't so much that mainstream
      writers and critics are unbearable snobs, but that many SF fans and
      professionals choose to see them as such. For the most part, people don't
      choose to write or read "litrachure" because they're too good for popular
      fiction, but because they have different tastes in books. And to be honest,
      Jonathan Lethem was right: there are plenty of superb SF and fantasy authors
      working in the field today, but all too often, intelligent authors like
      Lucius Sheperd and James Morrow are shunted aside by booksellers and
      publishers alike in favor of the latest Tolkien rip-off/libertarian wet
      dream power fantasy/Star Wars spin-off. (And those are juvenile crap, make
      no mistake; they not only fulfill the worst expectations of highfalutin'
      mainstream lit'r'y critics, they exceed them.) SF publishing has never
      displayed much interest in the more idiosyncratic and unclassifiable
      writers. With a few exceptions, virtually everything by R.A. Lafferty, Edgar
      Pangborn, and Avram Davidson is out of print; until very recently, even
      Theodore Sturgeon was in publishing limbo (and probably still would be if he
      hadn't written a couple of Star Trek episodes toward the end of his career).
      Who knows? Maybe if they were repackaged and sold as "mainstream"
      literature, they might find an audience; they sure as hell haven't found one
      in today's SF reading public.

      Lucius Cook
      9 October 2000


      [ I grant the situation is more complex than making fun of literary snobs.
      They're making a distinction that, in a slightly different sense, a lot of
      us genre-insiders acknowledge and take for granted: that there's a
      difference between a Le Guin or a Wolfe on the one hand, and Star Trek/Star
      Wars, pop culture's default example of sci-fi, on the other. The slight
      difference is that books like those by Boyle or Atwood aren't really SF in
      the sense we (including Le Guin and Wolfe) understand SF, for the reasons
      you describe, and I doubt the mainstream critics understand this; I suspect
      they still regard SF as mostly unsophisticated claptrap. Anyway, it's still
      amusing how their protestations (James Cameron has made similar noises about
      Dark Angel!) echo those of decades ago; the more things change...
      --ed. ]
    • Stolzi@aol.com
      Thanks, Donovan, I thought that was very interesting. Was just talking to David Bratman, of this select circle :) the other day (by e-mail) about two
      Message 2 of 3 , Oct 22, 2000
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        Thanks, Donovan, I thought that was very interesting.

        Was just talking to David Bratman, of this select circle :) the other day (by
        e-mail) about two remarkable novels which I had, and read repeatedly, as a
        teenager: Sturgeon's MORE THAN HUMAN and Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END.

        Neither of these were perfect, but then they weren't space-opera either.
        Even then I think I sensed a greater scope, a greater seriousness, about them.

        I am sure others here would have other nominations.

        Walker Percy wrote a couple of serious novels of science fictional nature,
        too, which Lucius Cook didn't mention: THE THANATOS SYNDROME and LOVE IN THE
        RUINS. Much better ones (in my humble opinion) than P.D. James' rather
        effortful one of recent years, THE CHILDREN OF MEN.

        But I'd suggest that it's somewhere between difficult and impossible to set
        up a classification that puts sf that's "real" sf, and sf by people not known
        as sf writers, on opposite sides of a divide. Perhaps "Literary SF" would do
        for the good ones, whoever writes them? Just now in searching for James, I
        found her titles described as "Literary Mystery Novels." (!)

        Now, to divide sf from fantasy from magic realism, =that= may be doable. And
        I'll appreciate it, 'cause it'll give me the chance to avoid the magic
        realism :P

        I was so amused about ten years back when my mother, who was a great reader
        but who'd always laughed at my "crazy science fiction enthusiasm" wrote me a
        letter raving about a novel she'd just found - I forget its name now - which
        played with some rather simple time travel concepts. As if this were all a
        Big New Idea. But you see, she found it on the right shelf of the liberry :)

        Mary S
      • Trudy Shaw
        There are a few sentences in the letter to Locus shared by Donovan that I ve ... From: Donovan & Lillian Mattole To:
        Message 3 of 3 , Oct 24, 2000
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          There are a few sentences in the letter to Locus shared by Donovan that I've
          pulled out to comment on:

          ----- Original Message -----
          From: Donovan & Lillian Mattole <mattole@...>
          To: <mythsoc@egroups.com>
          Sent: Sunday, October 22, 2000 2:17 PM
          Subject: [mythsoc] Literary vs. SF


          > Dear Locus,
          > When they [SF writers] write a novel like Hyperion or The Book of the New
          Sun, they're aware
          > that they're working in a tradition; in a sense, they're paying their
          dues.
          > Mainstream writers have entirely different motivations for utilizing (or
          > appropriating, if you prefer) genre themes...


          My day job is 100% related to cancer genetics research, and the rest of my
          life is about 50% devoted to speculative fiction (well, I had to figure in
          church and family and trying to pay bills before they're overdue). So I try
          to keep up somewhat on fiction that uses genetics as a basis--no matter how
          it's classified. The main difference I've seen between genre books and
          those labeled mainstream is that the genre authors get the science right!!
          The mainstream bestsellers are generally the worst; it's no wonder the
          public has strange ideas about genetic engineering, cloning, etc. if this is
          what they're reading. (The most ridiculously impossible one I've read,
          entitled "The Third Twin," was a New York Times bestseller and ended up as a
          made-for-TV movie--why am I not surprised?)

          Another difference is that the genre authors use the science as a
          jumping-off point to deal with larger issues. Those labeled mainstream tend
          to have their characters spend the entire book trying to stop the
          science/technology before it destroys the world. And then, of course, the
          method the hero uses to destroy the technology is usually something that
          wouldn't actually work, anyway.


          > ...all too often, intelligent authors like Lucius Sheperd and James Morrow
          are shunted aside by booksellers
          > and publishers alike in favor of the latest Tolkien rip-off/libertarian
          wet
          > dream power fantasy/Star Wars spin-off. (And those are juvenile crap, make
          > no mistake; they not only fulfill the worst expectations of highfalutin'
          > mainstream lit'r'y critics, they exceed them.)
          > Lucius Cook


          I've been glad to see some bookstores putting a lot of the "junk" in a
          separate section (I believe they call it "media related"). Makes it easier
          to find the good stuff.

          --Trudy
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