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.

Life: and taking leave of it momentarily

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

(This appends to The joys of fantasy and Romance. Note too that Paul Graham uses the prison metaphor in his essay about schools, Why Nerds are Unpopular.)

The joys of fantasy and Romance

Patrick Kurp ponders why he doesn’t like fantasy, writing that “[It] feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children.” Maybe: but to my mind, it opens other avenues for looking at the world and goes places realism doesn’t. Good fantasy develops its own codes and limitations; it is different from and reflects our world. In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon says, “Now, games are important. They test us. They teach us comradeship. They’re fun. But cricket, more than any other sport, is, I want to say […] a lesson in civility.” I wouldn’t call fantasy a lesson in civility, but it often imparts, aside from pleasure, lessons in how to lead and organize one’s life. When teaching the LSAT, I often use the journey and confrontation plots in fantasy novels as metaphors. And if fantasy is a cheat, so too is metaphor, which takes one or multiple things and stands them in the place of others, as fantasy does.

It also inevitably returns to confront the ideals and problems of the society that produced it, as Northrop Frye argued in The Secular Scriptures. Romance and fantasy are inextricably linked to the societies that produce them, just as fiction more generally is. The power of fiction and fantasy is their ability to be rooted in those societies while simultaneously being able to transcend them to others. I have no experience in ancient Greece or Rome, but The Iliad and The Aeneid still speak to me. I have never set foot in Middle-earth, but it seems more real to me in some ways than South Ossetia, though I would never argue, obviously, that one is real and the other isn’t.

Still, the question of real and fake gets raised by this question and never satisfactorily answered, as it hasn’t been in literature or philosophy. Patrick writes, “I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another.” To my mind, we’re not slumming it in another world, but sharpening our sense of this one through contrast in a subsidiary world, both part of and separate from ours. Fantasy is where the imagination can run wilder than it can in reality, and it is another configuration of reality in the mind, a separate microworld that breaks off from the main world in the mind of its holder. Think of it as an extension of the multiverse or parallel universe theories, only with fantasy itself as another world that mirrors ours. Those mirrors sometimes distort for effect, and if realism is a standard mirror, fantasy is the one that stretches, contorts, and makes us wonder at what we really think of ourselves. The best fantasy novels have rules of their own, some of which can be bent, and others broken, as they say in The Matrix. See our world in fantasy and fantasy in our world. Umberto Eco writes in Reflections on The Name of the Rose:

And so the Middle Ages have remained, if not profession, my hobby—and a constant temptation: I see the period everywhere, transparently overlaying my daily concerns, which do not look medieval, though they are.

As said by Burlingame in The Sot-Weed Factor, “I grew so enchanted by the great Manchegan [Don Quixote] and his faithful squire as to lose all track of time and was rebuked by Captain Salmon for reporting late to the cook.” At its best, fantasy has this effect, almost as drugs or sex are wont to do. I think there’s a reason why children and teenagers are often drawn to fantasy, as it offers an relatively safe and accessible outlet for young people who feel powerless and constrained, or feel perceived constraint from parents and society. Another world offers solace and meaning, as it offers others symbolism and power. These sensations go far back in cultural time: some aspect of fantasy or fantastical journeys exist in numerous cultures, as Joseph Campbell argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Most of them and us are not Don Quixotes, who asks if we have “[…] read the annals and the histories of the England that treat of the famous exploits of King Arthur […]” The mistaken belief in fantasy as genuine reality is ridiculous, but the belief that we can see aspects of reality in fantasy is not. The prologue to Don Quixote more lays out the case for fantasy, and, more abstractly, literature itself:

Let it be your aim that, by reading your story, the melancholy may be moved to laughter and the cheerful man made merrier still; let the simple not be bored, but may the clever admire your originality; let the grave ones not despise you, but let the prudent praise you.

One could also say, let the adolescent find a way forward and the adult meaning in experience, and let a strong story exist for the literal and subtle metaphors and symbols for the intellectual. Only very good fantasy, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, accomplishes these lofty goals, but only very few works of fiction pass the hundred year test and become that strange beast we call literature.

Defending fantasy and science fiction as literature might be odd given my lament in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters. But I only wrote that post because both cause pain when they fail to live up to literature’s ideals and their own possibility. One of my favorite passages from any book occurs when Tomás and a Martian encounter one another in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken?”

Later, a character says, “If you can’t have the reality, a dream is just as good.” A dream isn’t, but it’s something, and inevitably leads us back toward reality, which leads us back to imagination in an endless circle of blending into different forms and shapes.

Fantasy and its cousin, science fiction, along with their forefather, Romance, are tastes not shared by all. Patrick avoids slamming fantasy to the extent he can given his dislike, and he flees that “ideologically rigid sack of theories.” I’ve tried to give as supple a theory and explanation as I can for the pleasures of fantasy done well, as the genre has long suffered disrespect it shouldn’t. One of the best essays on the subject is still Tolkien’s “On Faerie Stories,” which can be found in the collection The Tolkien Reader. This essay derives and and applies ideas from Tolkien’s work, which is still as complete a defense and analysis of the genre.

EDIT: See an addendum here.

J.K. Rowling, sexism, and literary merit

Colleen Lindsay’s The Swivet is worth reading, and from it comes an article about women in science fiction and fantasy that uses Harry Potter as a launching pad to argue that sexism animates some attacks on Harry Potter and female science fiction and fantasy authors more generally. I don’t think it motivates Bloom’s criticism of Harry Potter, and it certainly doesn’t motivate mine. The first two novels, which I read, weren’t all very good because they were cliché-laden and deprived of magic sentences. Why they’re so much more popular than the rest of the voluminous fantasy pile is unclear, and I attribute it to the vagaries and mysteries of books and place. Alas, some attackers of Rowling are fools, like at least one Harvard student:

Writing in the university paper, the Harvard Crimson, student Adam Goldenberg rips into Rowling as “a flash in the pan”, “a petty pop culture personality” who “tricked parents into letting their kids read books filled with sex, murder, and homosexual role models”. Furthermore, “writing bedtime stories is lame”.

One can, however, reach the right conclusion—that Harry Potter isn’t very good—using faulty reasoning, and just because someone uses faulty reasoning doesn’t mean their conclusion is incorrect in and of itself. If the article wanted to make a larger point not by citing Harry Potter, but one of the less-known female fantasy writers it deals with in the fourth paragraph—none of whom I know well enough to comment on.

I suppose that, being male, my argument could somehow be latent sexism emerging, though it seems unlikely given that one of the greatest fantasy, science, and speculative fiction writers of all time is Ursula K. Le Guin, who I used as an example of one of the few transcendent science fiction writers. Jane Smiley is one of my favorite modern writers—her work is uneven, but Moo and A Thousand Acres are excellent—and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and novellas are masterpieces. Perhaps the “subtle mechanism” described only applies to fantasy and science fiction, but even there I’m not sure it’s truly at work, and separating where the many legitimate attacks on Rowling end and the possible sexism begins isn’t an easy task. Because there are so many legitimate attacks to be made, I’m not sure it can be done save through critics aren’t all that serious in the first place.

As long Rowling is in the air, I will give her credit for her commencement speech at Harvard, which has gotten a tremendous amount of deserved attention in blogs and the media: it’s funny and deep, while the temptation to keep throwing on positive adjectives is difficult to resist. I only wish Harry Potter had been up to the standards of that speech, in which case this post wouldn’t have been written.

Literature and science fiction redux, with taste as a bonus

Science Fiction, literature, and the haters spawned great comments and e-mails, including responses from both the agents I referenced. The one who gave a minimum word count said that the agency he and a partner founded is relatively new, and the advice regarding word count and sequels comes from editors, and until they have more experience, they’re hewing to those guidelines. The other agent said that calling Pearle Transit “too literary” was a poor choice of words and that, although he admired aspects of it, the novel didn’t get him excited. Both replies, in other words, were reasonable and show that the agents care. Other would-be authors might want to take note: rejection is rarely as personal as it might seem. In addition, I’m reminded of this passage from Orwell, who discussed the problems with book reviewing:

[…] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

Most agents probably feel like that about most books. I just wrote a post expressing how Doctor Faustus roused nothing it me, though I perceive its technical merits. The latter can’t even be said of A Confederacy of Dunces, though it’s widely admired.

In other reactions, several people, including Big Dumb Object and agent Colleen Lindsay, pointed out the Clarke Awards shortlists. Thanks for the tip, and I’ll be reading some of them, although 2008 winner Richard Morgan’s first book, Altered Carbon, embodied some of the negative qualities discussed in my post. Still, very few authors write first books that are their best, and Thirteen is in my queue. I also noticed that Cryptonomicon was on the shortlist for 2000, but it’s not really science fiction.

One other thing I noted was the absence of any correspondents who said, “This is a great book that deserves a spot in the literary pantheon.” Likewise, I’d hoped for citations or links to essays that get deep inside great books. Where is the James Wood (see here too) of science fiction? Perhaps he already exists in Stanislaw Lem—his book Microworlds should arrive soon—but if the genre has as much material as some of the commenters and e-mailers say, it should also have its great critics. To paraphrase Saul Bellow without his racial connotations, I’d love to read them.

One commenter went in the opposite direction and said: “The reason as I see it that almost all science fiction writing falls short of literary merit is that its audience wants it that way.” I’m not convinced: although I pointed out a general trend toward the lack of literary merit in science fiction, it’s a law, and if it is, I’m wary of making correlation into causation. Furthermore, plenty of bad literary fiction exists, just like bad science fiction—but the literary canon pushes the upper bounds of knowledge and language in ways and volumes that science fiction hasn’t, at least to my knowledge so far. That’s in part why I’m writing these posts: it’s a process of searching, and I’m trying not to assume the very opinions I’m asking about it.

A few correspondents wrote that I had no idea what I was talking about and, implicitly, that there is no such thing as literary merit. I suppose both are possible, but they seem highly improbable; stating that there is an element of opinion in every artistic judgment is not the same as believing that every opinion is the same, and I also referred those writers to the “big three” books I’d mentioned about art and writing, which are the best reflections on what makes great literature and what makes great literature great I’ve found. Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel belongs there too. Alas, there is no short checklist that can be easily explained, and so the stack of reading necessary to really enter this conversation is intimidatingly high, and many of the accusers do not appear to have done it; such correspondents might not see the river because they’re in a valley and don’t have the fortitude to climb the mountain. Granted, at the top of the mountain they might look in the opposite direction I do, in which case I’d like to hear their opinions. Along these “everything is relative” lines, I once argued to a professor that Shakespeare and Joyce were way overrated and only read for historical reasons and because other people had read them.

Oh, how I want to take that back.

In Richard Feynman’s hilarious Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he writes about his lessons in art and his visit to the Sistine Chapel, when he recognizes the masterpieces and the lesser works without a guide:

This was a terrific excitement to me, that I also could tell the difference between a beautiful work of art and one that’s not, without being able to define it. As a scientist you always think you know what you’re doing, so you tend to distrust the artist who says, “It’s great,” or “It’s no good,” and then is not able to explain why, as Jerry did with those drawings I took him. But here I was, sunk: I could do it too!*

To be sure, there is an element of opinion in virtually any form of art and criticism, and just as there is in some fields more scientific: in economics, should we value making the resource pie larger through public policy like lower tax rates and flatter tax rates, or should we try and distribute what we have more evenly? Nonetheless, some people simply know much more about the trade-offs involved, and by the same token, some know far more about books and literature than others. The closer you get to hard sciences that are describing rather than interpreting the world—math, physics, chemistry, and the like—the farther you get from pure opinion, but as soon as you reach the application phase, judgment calls arise again: what would be more useful to sell—product derived from X or from Y? What would be a more useful use of physicists during World War II: having them build mechanical calculators and the like, or having them work on the atomic bomb? Someone had to make those decisions, and they’re closer in some respects to artistic choices than to ones regarding proof and experimentation.

In art and literature, there aren’t experiments, but taste exists. Not everyone’s is the same but not everyone’s is equal, either. Mine is well-developed enough to have some opinions of at least some validity, I hope, and I’m looking for others who can say the same, and who know something of science fiction—hence my appreciation of those who pointed out the Clarke Awards and made other suggestions. If I read through the Clarke books and decide I’m wrong, you’ll probably hear about it in a year or two. Although I’m not a scientist, I do have interest in all intellectually honest fields and all intellectually honest practitioners in those fields, and so I turn again to Feynman, who described what he wants to instill in Caltech grads and what they should inculcate in themselves: “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.” Literary critics should hold themselves to the same standards, and I strive to. How well I succeed I will leave to others to argue.

* Although I quote poetry sometimes, I almost never analyze it here because I’m like the person without a real sense of what great visual art is: not having read widely and deeply enough in poetry to have developed my sense for what makes it bad, mediocre, good, and great poetry, I’m mostly silent, though appreciative.

EDIT: Added Feynman quote to the last paragraph.

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