Literary vs. SF
- 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?
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
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.
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...
- 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
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 :)
- 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@...>
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
> 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
> 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.