More on science fiction (again)

Earlier posts on science fiction (see here too) and fantasy have elicited some reactions worth considering; John Markley writes Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic and has a post called The stigma of imagination that I mostly agree with until the last paragraph:

Respectability for fantasy or science fiction is most likely a hopeless cause, at least in the current cultural climate. It has the stigma of childishness and Nerd Cooties at the same time. A genre might be able to get away with one; you won’t get away with both.

Maybe—but I’m not so sure. One very positive outcome of Deconstructionism has been the relative rise of genre fiction and an increase of the perceived merit of texts that aren’t purely in the tradition of Flaubertian realism. Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick have Library of America volumes dedicated to them, cultural studies flourishes, Tolkien has a peer-reviewed journal named “Tolkien Studies,” and Clark University, my alma mater, offers English courses in science fiction. Michael Chabon’s genre bending has engendered widespread critical admiration, and he defends the idea of genre as part of literature in his wonderful essay collection Maps and Legends, at one point saying:

Yet all mystery resides there, in the margins, between life and death, childhood and adulthood, Newtonian and quantum, “serious” and “genre” literature. And it is from the confrontation with mystery that the truest stories have always drawn their power.
Like a house on the borderlands, epic fantasy is haunted […]

To be sure, Chabon could be the exception that proves the rule. Nonetheless, I don’t think so; I mentioned Chandler and Dick already, and Philip Pullman has earned a strong and real reputation that brings him a spot along with le Guin among major literary figures. Chabon’s aware that some double standard still exists, saying that “From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter to focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out,” but I think he’s overstating the case and that the the double standard he’s implicitly writing about is shrinking by the year. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson wield as much literary authority as anyone this side of Ian McEwan and Louis Menand, and Chabon is busily demolishing whatever barriers might be left.

The result, however, will mean that science fiction is judged relative to other literary books, and by this standard it still too often doesn’t reach high or far enough. Beware of the walls that come down: it lets you into the world, and it also lets the world into you. My problem with science fiction and fantasy isn’t as genres, but when the formula of genre is used by bad writers and then defended by those who don’t appear to have really thought about what great writing means or done the heavy lifting real criticism demands. Some writers—Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you, and The Name of the Wind counts too—the find vociferous followers whose overall literary knowledge often seems low, causing the rest of us who defend the genre but not bad manifestations of the genre much angst.

I have one other partial quibble which isn’t about his assertion but the reasons behind it when Markley writes:

That might explain why magical realism is usually considered legit literature: it has imaginative elements, which is iffy, but it doesn’t compound the sin by thinking about the imaginative elements rationally.

Part of the reason magical realism gets good marks is because it’s associated with what academics like me call post-colonialism, which has been a major topic (or fad, depending on perspective) in universities. This is probably more political than aesthetic, but it partially explains why magical realism has been more accepted than fantasy. Nonetheless, the distinction, if there is one, has been fading, and is likely to continue to fade, like the idea that genre literature isn’t real literature. Notice that magical realism began growing in earnest after Deconstructionism, just like respect for fantasy and science fiction. In addition, speculative elements have long been in literature, as something like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or the vast body of myth and myth criticism demonstrates. In some ways, the acceptance of fantasy and science fiction is more a return than an all-out change.

(On a side note, Markley’s post on science fiction and ideology is also worth a read. I’ll add a comment a former professor kept repeating, which is that fantastic literature inevitably returns to comment on the society in which it is produced. I suppose this is opposed to the art-for-art’s-sake school, but I’m buying it nonetheless.)

The Barnes & Nobel Book Clubs forums have a fairly low-level discussion, and I’d like to respond to one poster who says:

I am not familiar with the author of the post on that blog, but what I am assuming they mean is the academic defintion of literary merit. Whether or not one agrees with that point of view (some people see “academic” as elitist), there is a particular approach to evaluating texts seen as standard. However, even from that approach that is a small list. Interestingly, though, in a college course I had on SF and Fantasy lit a few years ago we did read Solaris, Left Hand, Canticle, and Ubik (PKD).

(Mistakes in original)

I responded in the thread with a variation on this and a reply saying that I’m approaching science fiction from overall aesthetic and literary perspective that isn’t really academic. Rather, I think the issue is that some science fiction readers and others are talking past literary critics like the Martian and Tomas in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

By that I mean too much science fiction and fantasy aren’t sufficiently concerned with freshness and vividness in language and expression, which is the positive way of saying they’re too often filled with flatness and cliche, whether in character or plot. So is much literary fiction, but the best rises. What I’m describing will no doubt be misinterpreted: I’m at a very broad level, and to understand it in full would demand reading books like Jane Smiley’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche, or even Stanislaw Lem’s Microworlds, a book that preempted many of my criticisms about science fiction. Some authors transcend this—in addition to Lem and Le Guin, I might add Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.

My position isn’t that science fiction is automatically not literary or is literary, but that it can be literary and too infrequently is. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in blogland and print tends to want binaries and fights, and too often the background reading necessary to really contribute to the conversation hadn’t been done. Consequently, as one critic’s comment about the fantasy du jour goes, “There’s not one beautiful sentence in the entire first three books of the Twilight series.” It’s true, at least of the first half of the first one, but if you haven’t put in the time and reading to think about what makes a beautiful sentence, that probably just comes off as snobbery when it’s (probably) not. Real snobs wouldn’t give fantasy or science fiction real attention in the first place, while the rest of us are looking for what we’re always looking for: vigor, crispness, vivacity, and fidelity. If only we could find it more readily, whether in science fiction or elsewhere.

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