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Saturday, February 18, 2012

No Apologies: A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Needs no Defense

Note: This article has been revised and rewritten. The newer version (with very cool pictures) can be found here.



No Apologies
Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other art forms.
–Theodore Sturgeon


When I admit my love for speculative fiction, I often feel like I should be in a high school gymnasium or church multi-purpose room being clapped at by others who have accepted their “little problem.” I will clutch a Styrofoam cup of burnt coffee in my hand, and preface my admission with “Hello, my name is Chris…” 

For many familiar with the literary world, or just casual fans of mysteries, romances, westerns or science-fiction, the rocky relationship between “genre” and “literature” (or as they say “real writing”) is well known. These two terms are set up as a opposing dichotomy at the opposite ends of a quality spectrum, with “genre” mainly being the purview of people who don’t know any better—sort of in the same way that a gourmet might talk about those who appreciate microwavable burritos or mac and cheese out of a box. Despite the literal meaning of genre (translated from French as “kind” from the Latin genus, or even the more English meaning that finds commonalities in any kind of stylized art form), amongst the literary community “genre” basically has two meanings. At once, it can refer to the different disciplines within writing of poetry, drama, fiction, or creative non-fiction, and also as a description of formulaic, plot-based fiction that is—according to these very same literary circles—notoriously bad.

 In fact, very often, one will hear the word itself often used as a pejorative. Fans are no stranger to the backhand compliment of “It’s not bad…for genre.” And if that strikes as about as sincere a compliment as saying “Hey, you’re pretty good at math…for a woman,” you get your merit badge in observing asteism and would probably notice if the nobles in court were making fun of you.

It is important though, before we even begin discussing a specific genre to understand it. Terms that define anything as nebulous as a genre are rife with contention and debate. Genre creates a set of conventions within an art form that can be followed or broken in the same way that GRAMMAR creates a set of conventions that can be followed or broken. The claim that every convention within genre writing is a tired trope has no more validity than does denigrating drama for it’s adherence to a basic three act structure, or instantly disregarding poetry because it has a meter or end rhyme. (Both of which some modern literary critics are guilty of.) Genre is as much about what we find familiar in art as what delights us because it is different. If we had no “rules” a work of art that “broke all the rules” would be meaningless. And in a turn of irony that is often overlooked, even the purported “realistic” literary fiction would be considered genre by these terms. It contains its own set of conventions, tropes, commonalities, and stylistic motifs. Minimalism, present tense narrative, second person meta-fiction, HIV/AIDS, coming to terms with cultural paradox, parents who don’t accept a child’s sexuality… If we filled out these things on a bingo card, and gave everyone a random literary review, it would really only be a contest to see who read the fastest.

I asked a professor of literature once when "genre" became a pejorative, and she told me it started showing up with that connotation in criticism around the fifties. Now this isn’t an essay about the history of literature, nor am I particularly qualified to speak on such topics, but one thing I thought of immediately when I heard this was about everything going on at the time. New Criticism, which threw out the book on a work’s quality being related to its “moral lessons,” was hitting its peak. When anything peaks, that means the reactionary swing is beginning in some form. The Red Scare was destroying artists left and right. Culturally there seemed to have been an almost hyperconscious struggle between rebellion and conformity at that time.

And suddenly we had the “right” kind of literature and the “wrong” kind of literature. I’m no academic, and I would probably just embarrass myself if I tried to develop a thesis for anything other than an undergrad class, but it seems to me awfully convenient timing that the rise of the perception of genre as inherently valueless came at roughly the same time that the fuddy duddys all said rock and roll wasn’t real music and had no aesthetic value. And while the tweed jacketed Humanities professors of today seem to have eventually have worked out the cultural value of…well…CULTURE—at least when it comes to music—over at the English department, the war rages on.

However, despite the fact that it is currently harder to find a Music History teacher who DOESN’T like The Who or Jimmy Hendrix, the genre work of speculative fiction—comprising sub-genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, hero (or superhero) fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, alternate history, and possibly even more—holds a place among the lit snobs in the genre “hall of shame” with mysteries, westerns, romance, and erotica and is considered by these literary elite to be only a small step up from fan-fiction in the annals of dross writing. Those who are attracted to speculative fiction, both as readers and writers, find themselves ever on the defensive about their tastes.

Sadly, though, the real irony is that speculative fiction fans have no reason that they should be on the defensive, and every reason to be aggravated by the elitism of the literary world. It is the growing prejudice of the literary communities that leads to dismissing preferences out of hand, ignoring the generous contributions that speculative fiction has made—both modern and classic—to the literary canon, and undermining speculative fiction’s enormous potential as an art form and literary genre. It is they who are descending into labels rather than having the kinds of discourse that would be genuinely meaningful.

For many literary reviewers, literary editors, MFA’s of creative writing, literature MA’s and PhD’s, teachers of the craft of fiction, and other sommeliers who collectively claim the authority of determining “what is literature,”—and more frequently the aspersion of “what isn’t,” the prejudice about anything that hints of genre runs deep. It runs deep enough that it can actually be analyzed with the same handful of tools we might take into a discussion about privilege among social justice theories or the tools we must cultivate to engage in a discourse about class dynamics within a society whose cultural narrative of meritocracy silences such dissent. (Though it must be understood that I mean only in terms of the discourse’s tropes and tactics, and that I would never claim literary preference to be anywhere even remotely close in moral equivalency to social justice.) In the case of speculative fiction, the mere presence of a speculative element—a time machine, a vampire, a space ship, or a castle—is enough to get the fiction dismissed outright—without consideration of quality—without any rationalization beyond itself. Professors will not accept it. Reviewers will not review it. Teachers will not incorporate it into curriculum or accept it from their students.

This isn’t about quality, for quality does not even enter the conversation. It is only about the speculative element present and glaring within the piece. While a piece of gritty minimalism about a dysfunctional family living in a seedy halfway house whose gay son is dying of AIDS may get two or three careful reads—giving the author the benefit of the doubt, digging deep for meaning and subtext, and working hard to discover what symbols and literary elements the author may have incorporated (even unconsciously!)—it would be almost laughable to think that a piece set on a newly colonized planet with a guy who is a little too quick to use his laser pistol to solve his problems would be given the same attention, even if the writing were of EXACTLY the same quality, exploring the same themes, and using the same symbols and subtext. Genre simply can’t get a respected seat at the “big kids” table in modern literary circles. These sommeliers consider genre to be commercial, a word that in literary circles has an antithetical meaning to “literary.”

The first problem we must consider with this viewpoint is the false dichotomies that exist within the vernacular of our darling sommeliers. 

“Literary” tends to be at the good and proper end of an awful lot of spectrums. We hear literary paired up in a dichotomy at the opposite end of words like “commercial,” “mainstream,” “non-literary” “popular” and of course “genre.” Also “expository” and “informational,” but those seem more like classifications than value judgments. (Really, I’m not kidding. Plug in “Literary vs.” into your Google field and then run down the letters of the alphabet. You’ll get all of these words as top hits.)

What is notoriously lacking from these dichotomies is any indication of the actual qualities that place them at odds with each other. Most art forms have an awareness of the commercial or the mainstream, but we get a sense of what makes them commercial or mainstream in the pairing of their opposites. You have mainstream film and independent film, which tells us something about the movies’ budgets and the studios behind them. You have commercial television and public television, which is a difference that most people can elucidate after only a short time of watching each. With “literary” we face an increasingly nebulous word that has consistently been used simply as a synonym for “serious,” “valuable,” or “proper,” and not actually adequately defined except by what it is not.  Rather than actually meaningful dichotomies, we increasingly see a self-referential one that just gets used as a sloppy way of saying good vs. bad. And it’s time the ivory tower stopped accepting that as anything but intellectually lazy elitism.

Wait. Stop. Am I actually claiming that “literary fiction” doesn’t have any meaning? Am I claiming that someone familiar with it wouldn't know the difference between it and speculative fiction? Oh perish the thought, my friends! Literary fiction is its own genre, and the hegemonic genre of our era, but it does not mean—and never has meant—“good.” That is simply the way it is being used these days in literary circles to avoid more meaningful discourse. Cultures in power often set themselves as the bellwether for what is proper and good and invalidate the way any other cultures choose to do things. If they do regard another culture it is only through the lens of their OWN culture’s values, resulting in Kipling-esque portrayals. Post-colonial criticism and Orientalism are rife with this sort of observation of judging one culture through the lens of the hegemonic one. Currently, it seems that the culture in power of the literary community is no exception to this tendency. They are the imperials, laughing at the genre savages, and possibly giving the approving nod of “noble savage” to the genre writers like LeGuin, Orwell, or Bradbury, who come the closest to what they value in a work.

However, before we pick apart the genre of literary fiction (and let’s be absolutely clear that it IS its own genre), let us first look at its enemies across the "divide" of those dichotomies I mentioned earlier. “Non-literary.” Well that charming bit of circular logic certainly doesn’t tell us much except in as much as anything can be said to be the opposite of not it. Cats are very much not like non-cats, and green is very much not like non-green colors. “Genre,” of course is what this is all about and we’ll get back to that. But let’s look at the other three for a moment: “Commercial,” “Popular,” and “Mainstream.” “Commercial” is a strange little word in the context of fiction, seeing as most fiction doesn’t have any commercials at all. Ever.

So what this little back-handed bitch slap of an aspersion actually is getting at is that the writing made money--probably a lot of money. That doesn't happen unless a lot of people are willing to spend their hard earned money buying it. “Mainstream” means having appeal to many groups and sub-groups instead of just esoteric ones. “Popular” means liked or enjoyed by many people. What we quickly realize is that all three of these words mean successful. People like this fiction. Lots of people like this fiction, and not just people who’ve had 7 years of studying what they “ought to” like. I’m going to pick on “commercial,” but really any of these three would work.

Now let’s be clear here. “Good” and “bad” are opposites, but “literary” and “commercial” are not. They are USED as opposites in a very sloppy, intellectually lazy way, but they are not. They exist upon separate axes in a way that it is entirely possible to have a work of high commercial value and high literary value at the same time.

“Real literature doesn’t sell very well,” I hear echoed in my head from the Lit Sommelier professor’s voice. “And what does sell well is inevitably crap.”

Oh really?

Orwell’s 1984, Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, Heller’s Catch 22, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye are all among the top 30 selling books in English OF ALL TIME—and this must also be considered in the context that most books in the top ten are religious texts. These works are absolutely literary—and unless you’re H. Bloom, you probably think at least one or two belong in the canon. These literary masterpieces have also had extraordinary commercial success. If we widen the list to the top fifty or one hundred bestselling books of all time brings even more literary works to that list. Sure, you’re going see J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown on that list too, but the assumption that anything with mass appeal must not be quality work is patently absurd. The opposite claim is even more ridiculous: not everything that sells poorly is literary—some of it is just crap that you wonder who the holy fuck published in the first place. And while there may be the possibility to find some correlation between the literary quality of a work and its general commercial appeal, the presence of data points in explicit contradiction to that claim would make any assumption of causation laughable.

In some cases, like in the works of Antonio Belaño, a conscious, deliberate attempt to make money (to give as an inheritance after his death) has turned out works of extraordinary quality. Charles Dickens wrote serial novels to support a horrendously huge family, and no one denies his literary quality. Even William Shakespeare was trying to gather up the money for a family crest.  Maybe he's a sellout too?  Even most literary purists can, in theory, acknowledge that literary fiction can be make money. However, the fact that anywhere in the literary community, folks will instantly understand a conversation of “literary” vs. “commercial” as being one of quality, shows how deeply the perception is ingrained that this dichotomy is actually valid.

Let’s make sure we are crystal clear here. What is called “literary fiction” is a genre of its own. It has distinctive stylistic markers, such as banal protagonists (rather than extraordinary ones), settings that work as kinetic landscape for the themes, intense psychological depth, ambivalent or negative endings, a strong emphasis on the elements of linguistic manipulation, style, and theme over plot and sometimes even character, and of course…the intense concern about its message regarding the human condition. This of course and the fact that it visits certain thematic landscapes so often as to create its own tropes that boarder on the cliché—landscapes like childhood trauma, parental rejection, addiction, suicide (especially by siblings), and sexuality. This genre gained a hegemonic dominance in the 60’s that was so powerful that it has since been able to call ITSELF “literature” or “serious” and everything else around it “genre.” It’s not much different than the way the Dutch, then the English, and most recently The United States have been able to declare their culture superior and all others "uncivilized" in some way. Unfortunately for the writers of this genre, “literary fiction” has the problem of being not particularly compelling to wide audiences....even when it's really good.

Anyone who has been dazzled by the complex elements of Samuel Becket's later works, but still wanted to leave the theater anyway knows what this is like.

It’s kind of hard to look at what’s happening within all these dichotomies of literary vs. “people actually like it” synonyms and wonder if this isn’t a case of sour grapes. To think that somehow the entire literary community has managed to collectively do the equivalent of petulantly saying “you people just don’t appreciate my genius!” The world of art, regardless of discipline, is often an austere labor of love to all but a tiny few who scrape out a bohemian life and even fewer who could be said to be successful. But this stark reality of an artist is made that much worse when the dominant acceptable and “proper” form of that art is particularly uninteresting to almost everyone who hasn’t had nearly a decade of indoctrination telling them that they love it. To see the material gains of those with far less concern for those parts of craft that are supposed to be the “real” and “serious” parts—or so we’ve heard for over fifty years—must seem at times to present success as antithetical to artistic integrity. However in the case of commercial vs. literary, like most overly-academic perceptions, a bellwether created to illustrate something has turned into a false dichotomy with a life of its own. Thus I will continue to use these terms “commercial” and “literary” as they seem to have agreed upon meaning, but I take great umbrage with them.

Many writers need to incorporate more Derrida and reader response into their worldviews, and consider the idea that once they put something in the world, they are no longer the authority on it. It is very hard to get a reader to keep reading some avant-garde, experimental work long enough to appreciate what an author is trying to do with language when the reader couldn’t give a crap about the characters or the plot. Dismissing the audience for philistines is all too easy. Sadly when you have a perception so ingrained about the superiority of a single style, things in the sommelier word can get a little...circle-jerky. This idea that the unwashed plebs don’t appreciate good art is simplistic. It’s seductive. It’s comforting. It makes a writer feel better about the fact that even small press won’t take a chance on them because their last book only sold 128 copies...mostly to their MFA writing group peers. But this perception of mainstream unwashedness isn't true. It’s a sweet lie. Literature sells. People read it. And a good writer, like Woolf or Joyce, can create compelling plots and characters AND be completely avante guard for the time. And of course, Shakespeare can play with language beautifully AND sell out a theater to those plebs with a compelling plot and some bawdy jokes.

Another factor to consider is that there often is an illustration of the quality of a work as being EITHER commercial OR literary (and mind you, I hate these terms) in the same way that a light is either on or off. However, I would also suggest that this dichotomy is not a dichotomy at all, but a continuum. The literary world speaks in absolutes, and in value judgements. But the reality of a work’s quality is far more complicated. Authors like Kurt Vonnegut, JRR Tolken, and Phillip Pullman (all speculative fiction authors if you're keeping score) clearly present a conundrum to the ideas of writing as EITHER commercial OR literary (in as much as either of those terms is synonymous with “high artistic quality”). Unless one is dismissing speculative fiction outright (as some do), none of these authors could be put squarely into either category—commercial or literary. Not, at least, without considerable difficulty and a number of exceptions. There is clearly more going on in these authors’ works than could be dismissed as commercial, and yet none write definitively at the caliber of fine literature—whether we define that by canon authors or by the quality of “literary fiction” we might find in the Pushcart or awarded an O Henry. We could probably debate about exactly where on a line each author might go. (Personally, I would place Pullman slightly to the commercial side, but just about dead center, Vonnegut very close to literary, and Tolken somewhere between the two, but that’s just me). The point is that they defy straight classification, as do many other authors of both “genre” and “non-genre” alike.

Like the assumptions of most communities, the assumptions behind the vernacular of the literary community usually go unexamined and most dialogue or discourse assumes their truth without question, but we must be careful about letting established community culture fall into the fallacy of begging the question, EVEN if that community is the literary community. It is this sort of examining the forest for the trees that can reveal how patently absurd the rest of the prejudice towards speculative fiction really is.

Really, REALLY stupid.

To fully understand the prejudice against speculative fiction, it helps considerably not to try to be disingenuous about its quality. The devil must be given its due if we are to proceed honestly or with integrity. So let us be honest. There is a lot of extraordinarily bad writing within speculative fiction. Genre sells well—and speculative fiction sells particularly well among genre—so publishers and agents will lower their standards when deciding to take a chance on speculative works--particularly sci-fi or fantasy. It is not unlike how the current trend in the popularity of reality television has led to producers giving the green light to shows SO stupid that they actually have the power of performing non-surgical lobotomies on the audience.  They do this because they know that a bad reality television show is a better risk than a bad sit-com.

Within speculative fiction there is work that isn’t so much plot driven as plot railroaded, there is character dialog that is mostly a round robin of exposition, there is melodrama, sentimentality, Star Wars and Star Trek clones by the cartful, and there is work where the fantastic elements do nothing for the story but change a pedestrian setting out for a fantastic one (often called the “….in space” factor—as in “this is just Beverly Hills 90210…in space”).  And while we all care if Kelly is going to pick Dylan or Brandon before Starship Melrose docks with Dawson's Space Station, this writing pretty much sucks.  Speculative fiction is the comfy EZ chair for flat characters, clichés, tired tropes, and enough truly awful work to fill a giant library with nothing but writing that the world would probably be a better place without.

Beyond the patently bad exists another strata that is simply mediocre and uninspiring. Reams upon reams of speculative fiction exist that aren’t necessarily of poor quality—and when some people grab for pleasure reading, it’s their first choice—but it certainly isn’t deep, moving, or literary writing either. This is the fiction of preference—the fiction of someone who would prefer to read a story about space pirates than one about Somalian pirates. This is the fiction of people who want to read to visit other worlds, or take fantastic journeys. (That this motivation to pick up a book and read is judged as a less valid than immersion into banal realism is little more than a value judgment manifest as an objective criteria, but we’ll explore that soon.) Speculative fiction is home to Harry Potter, Twilight, Xanth, Dragonlance, dozens of Stephen King novels, and so much unnamed dross as to—at first glance—warrant any degree of prejudice about its quality as absolutely valid. A glance across the landscape of speculative fiction would seem to confirm that it is the denizen of little but bad and mediocre writing. And this is the position from which many fans of speculative fiction find themselves defending their tastes.

However, there is no need for lovers of speculative fiction to be apologists for there is a strata of speculative fiction that is good--even very good, literary, and possibly "the best writing you'll ever read in English." This strata is not particularly rare or hard to find either. There is no need for fans to cry obsequiously: “If you but dig through the mountain of crap, quality exists. Diamonds in the rough are there if only you look hard enough…” There is no call for such a disclaimer that most is bad but some is good. Indeed, the literary world misses the boat by only looking at a genre’s worst contribution, and they are fools to do so.

 Every genre, indeed all fiction, and actually even all forms of art, have within them a continuum of quality. “Realistic” fiction is no stranger to flat characters. Realistic fiction is no stranger to tropes. Realistic fiction has settings that do nothing to add to the story. Some art is good, considered, and exemplary of its craft and other art is hastily produced and of little worth to humanities (except for possibly the observations of lots of such work for general trends). Television, film, theater, painting, sculpture, and, yes, even writing all have quality examples and poor examples of work. Therefore, of COURSE genre fiction has poor quality, and bad examples. This is not a remarkable observation.

The problem is focusing on this poor quality work to the exclusion of everything else. The problem is failure to acknowledge poor quality in all art mediums—including the vaunted “literary” fiction—and treating genre like it is somehow special in this regard. This while ignoring the genre’s contributions to great writing, literature, and even canon. Genre has given us The Maltese Falcon, The Moonstone, The Tropic of Cancer, Blood Meridian, Brave New World, 1984, Invisible Man, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse Five, and so much more. No one conveniently forgets the Raymond Carver when they’re talking about minimalism, or would only describe minimalism in terms of its worst, late-eighties emulators. Why then are they comfortable with forgetting great speculative fiction when examining the latest slap-dash 10-page filler piece for the September issue of Asimov magazine? Indeed, if we rounded up all of the worst minimalism we could find from every source, and CONVENIENTLY left out Carver, Wolff, Lish, Beattie, and a few others of note, we could probably make a stunningly good case that all minimalism is always atrocious writing. This is not unlike what is happening in literary snob circles towards speculative fiction today.

Let's make sure we understand that no one is suggesting that a conversation discussing quality would not be worthwhile. Speculative fiction fans routinely castigate their own writers for poor quality. Though many (correctly) point out that J.K. Rowling got nearly an entire generation hooked on reading, she is routinely taken to task for the quality of her prose and it is the subject of considerable amusement that during the long wait for her last novel, the work that was said to be a leak of Deathly Hollows was indistinguishable from her second rate fan fiction. Stephanie Myer is the subject of considerable ridicule among various speculative fiction communities. No one is defending the dregs of speculative fiction, and no serious writer or student of craft merely wants to be given leave to write at non-engaging level because they've made the setting be....IN SPACE. However there is a real and genuine harm being done by our well-intentioned sommeliers by hyper-focusing on the worst that speculative fiction has to offer. With its selective vision about genre fiction, the sommeliers have set themselves up to always be right. Their “proof” is irrefutable because they ignore any examples that disprove them. They ignore the gallons of ink spilled on mediocre and bad writing with their own genre, and they ignore the best that speculative fiction has to offer.

The problem is the corner they have painted themselves into with this kind of rank elitism and blatant lito-centric value judgments. In declaring genre inferior, they have pitted themselves against semantics in a way that reveals how absurd their position is. Especially facing trends of 21st century authors to defy genre, sommeliers myopic prejudice in this regard has become particularly...(what's the nicest way to put this?)....idiotic. In recent decades, the presence of a speculative element—be it a monster, a space ship, or an inhuman power—automatically makes a piece genre, which to their minds means that it cannot be good. After all, they argue, look at how much bad speculative fiction there is. Realism trumps! And while this is prejudice is damaging in and of itself, it requires a complementary perception to be complete and that truly demonstrates the power of this prejudice to create blinders that are as justified and defended as the blinders surrounding racism or sexism or homophobia. (Again, I want to point out that this illustrates a behavior pattern of prejudice in action and is not meant in any way to establish a moral equivalency to bigotry.)

Even more destructive than the knee-jerk assumption that genre must be bad, is when our dear, sweet sommeliers do the complimentary action and assume that because something is good, it cannot be genre. If you ever want to see a Creative Writing instructor with a no-genre policy lose their shit, ask them what “genre” really means, listen carefully to their definition, and point out exceptions to their criteria in the reading list they gave you for the class. (Or perhaps this is only true of certain Creative Writing instructors from SFSU who didn’t stop to think that psychic fax machines are “speculative”.) When they see magic and supernatural entities within literature that is excellent, suddenly it is no longer speculative fiction. Suddenly it gets a pass.

If it’s modern fiction, it usually becomes relabeled as “magical realism” or simply ignored. Fantasy that lit snobs like becomes "literary fantasy." Even the dreaded science fiction" gets relabeled as "futurism" if Margret Atwood is the one writing it.  This is where the blind pathology of prejudice and rank confirmation and disconfirmation bias comes into the literary community’s relationship with speculative fiction. This is where its fans and writers have the most legitimate right to be outraged. It’s bad enough to focus on the worst of a genre’s contribution as exemplary, but the sin is compounded when the best of a genre’s contribution is reclassified, or isn’t counted at all. In many ways it is analogous to so many other kinds of stereotyping and prejudice (racial, sexual, sexuality-based) where only the examples that fit preconceived notions of what to expect are “counted” and the rest are forgotten, rationalized, or otherwise converted into token non-examples.

The literary community is extremely guilty of this kind of prejudice. Rather than simply admit that there is good science fiction and bad science fiction (or fantasy or whatever), they twist themselves into pretzels trying to create new categories so they can claim all science fiction is bad.  You might think students of humanities ought to know better than to act like this, but if anything they just have more sophisticated and well expressed rationales to justify what amounts to the highest order of knee-jerk intolerance.

I wish I could even say that this is always an unconscious manifestation of human failing, but it isn’t. Sometimes these actions are absolutely deliberate and conscious and reprehensible. Kazuo Ishiguro, a multi-award winning author who wrote Remains of the Day, wrote a book called Never Let Me Go [spoiler alert] about the young adulthood of a group of clones before their organs are harvested. It is a great book. Everyone ought to read it. Not because it has speculative elements, but because it is GOOD. There’s symbolism, theme, setting, marvelously powerful character development, and a sensational social critique behind the allegory of what is literally going on. However, Never Let Me Go is, a speculative fiction novel. It has human clones, organ harvesting, medical technology that is way beyond where we are now, and it takes place in the 90’s on an alternate timeline. This novel isn’t “realistic.” Yet because Never Let me Go is good—because it had deep subtext, social critique, symbolism, strong characterization, and was written by an MFA with a fistful of “literary” awards—there has been a strong reluctance to define it as genre.

Well why not? If speculative fiction means “Presence of speculative elements” why wouldn’t this novel count? The problem is that this is not an isolated incident surrounding a single author. We see this trend time and time again especially as genre-bending becomes more and more compelling to our contemporary, powerful writers. If a work of speculative fiction is good, it dodges the label of genre. Ask a typical “no genre” creative writing teacher if a ghost story is genre, and they will say yes. Ask them if Toni Morrison writes genre, and they will say no with a condescending shake of their eyes and a "what-a-sweet-idiot" smile. Ask them to reconcile these two ideas in the light of Beloved, and with spittle flying from their lips, they will tell you to leave their classroom if you’re just going to be difficult. (No...REALLY.) Our sommeliers’ failure to acknowledge speculative fiction is a classic case of not realizing the forest for the trees because of cognitive dissonance that comes from bias. This irony comes through with absolute clarity from even a cursory glance at the canon.


The term “speculative fiction” was coined by Robert Heinlein. At the time he intended it as an exact synonym for science fiction, and didn’t even intend it to include fantasy. But like most coined phrases, the word got away from his prescriptive ass. It grew and changed despite what he wanted. People can be so pesky about ignoring curmudgeons who tell them what words mean or claim authority over them. While there are still some Heinlein purists and some contention about precise meaning these days (Uberdude shakes his head and clucks when I point out the full list on Wikipedia's Speculative Fiction entry), speculative fiction describes a number of sub-genres mentioned earlier [science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, hero (or superhero) fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, alternate history, and possibly even more] and tends to encompass any kind of fiction where there is something "out of the ordinary" or "unrealistic" happening—something that couldn’t really happen, didn’t happen, or hasn’t happened yet.

In a sense, any time an author is saying “what if” in an impossible way it falls under the auspices of speculation, and speculative fiction. We will ignore the GLARING irony that this is essentially what any fiction does and that only NON-fiction is not in some way speculative. (I mean do people think Victorian Realism with it's alls-well-that-ends-well denouements and bad people--always disfigured physically--getting their comeuppance is even a little realistic?) Any fantastic element, be it technology yet to be invented, magic, or creatures that never were fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction in modern parlance. Some try to limit the word’s scope to narrow various communities of readers and writers and others cast the umbrella far and wide. The speculative fiction literary magazine Zahir, which attempts to focus on speculative works of high artistic integrity, will even accept works of magical realism, literary fantasy, and even some surrealism. (I suspect even our lit sommeliers will have to grudgingly admit that waking up to find out that you have turned into a cockroach does lack a certain realistic je ne sais qua about it--oh Kafka you genre hack!) Regardless of what sub-genre’s are included or excluded from our list, or why, there’s a bit of a linguistic shell game going on with speculative fiction and the gig is pretty much up.

The term “speculative fiction” enjoyed a modicum more respect in literary circles for a time; however, most of speculative fiction’s traditional sub-genres generally carry the full stigma, and it seems like the literary community is starting to catch on to the semantic switcheroo. Regardless of terms, lit snobs are running into the trouble of whether speculative fiction genre is a descriptive term or a prescriptive one, and the ramifications of trying to have it both ways. (Here's a hint: they can't.) If they use it to describe fiction with certain supernatural, preternatural, or theoretical elements within it, they have to accept that good fiction can be genre. If they use it to describe only trope-laden writing, they're going to have to release their knee-jerk prejudice of these elements as there are plenty of fresh, innovative writings that contain them. Their attempts to use terms as they find them convenient lack intellectual rigor and integrity and, to be blunt, come across as exactly the petulant elitism that they are.

While we might debate the exact meaning of how the word "speculative" ought to be used, let’s keep using the Wikipedia conventions to get a sense of how it IS used. Let us also acknowledge (as our sommeliers seem to have conveniently ignored) that speculative fiction has been around for much, much longer than its current label. In much the same way as things reflected electromagnetic waves of 520-570 nanometers long before the angel begged to be allowed to call it “green,” speculative fiction has been around before it had a term to denigrate define it. If we look back through the canon literature we can find it replete with examples of speculative fiction. And this is where the sommeliers get into big, big trouble.

The fountainhead of English literature is a story of a superhero vs. a horror monster. Beowulf's inhuman skill, prowess, and even breath-holding ability remind one more of Professor Xavier’s mutant condition than the human condition. He fights horrific monsters who embody the most terrible fears his culture can imagine, each with descriptions so grisly and horrid that they feel like they belong on the pages of a Stephen King novel. Easily this could be classified as heroic fiction, superhero fiction, horror, or supernatural fiction. In the Green Knight our intrepid hero gets into a head chopping-off contest...AND HE LOSES—not exactly the pinnacle of realism. Le’Mort De’Arthur has all the elements of fantasy, even at the time Malory wrote it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are rife with gods and demi-gods. Plato’s Republic is utopian fiction. Gilgamesh is another tale of a superhero in a world of monsters. Spencer’s The Fairy Queen was actually written with the express intention of creating speculative fantasy as a political allegory. Shakespeare had fairies, ghosts, magic and still we would go so far as to suggest that perhaps he had a thing or two on the insightful side to say about the human condition. Dante described an impossible journey through an impossible place—realism was not on the menu. Easily two thirds of anything within the canon from before the Age of Reason is speculative fiction. But ask anyone in the literary community if the canon is filled with genre, and they would find the question absurd.

Of course there are more modern examples as well. Lewis Carroll created a very fantastic setting across two of the most well known books of all time. (Though placed in something called the “nonsensical genre,” these books arguably contain speculative elements--journeys, quests, dragons, talking animals, magic.) Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein would be considered science fiction by any bellwethers today. Nathaniel Hawthorne was always writing about dark and foreboding forces just beyond the realm of possibility, and “P’s Correspondence” is basically alternative history. Mark Twain wrote repeatedly about time travel—is he a genre hack? And this is to say nothing of more modern authors who wrote, or write, almost exclusively within speculative fiction like LeGuin, Poe, Orwell, Bradbury, and Clarke. Each has given us literature of tremendous value. And perhaps one of the most confusing case to people who attempt to define speculative fiction by its elements and all genre as sub-par writing, is the case of H.G. Wells. If we do widen our semantic net to include magical realism, literary fiction, and surrealism we must suddenly have Kafka, Marquez, and Esquivel—all strong, literary writers. But propose to literary sommeliers that these authors are genre and you might be run out of town to banjo music.

The question really isn’t why the literary community won’t let speculative fiction sit at the big kid’s table; the question is did they seriously think that by simply declaring that they were real and serious literature, they would fool the world? Did they seriously think no one would notice that over half the canon comprises a type of literature they say has no value? Did they seriously believe that we would fail to realize that when speculative fiction is good, they give it other names like “magical realism” —perhaps one of the most patently ironic names for a genre ever—or “literary fantasy” (as they have labeled Murakami...since he continues to have dimensional travel, fantasy elements, AND is probably going to win a Nobel Prize for literature one of these years). This whole charade of literary fiction is like the little kids at Thanksgiving putting on airs and insisting that their sippy cups are champagne flutes and that actually they are the adults.

An old friend of mine, who is a raging alcoholic (dry for years now), used to be an absolute control freak about everything. It was maddening. He would try to micromanage every aspect of everything. Ever. When he started getting recovery in A.A., he learned that he wasn’t supposed to do that controlling stuff. “Let go, and let God,” they say. However, what he COULD do was set boundaries. And so, using the proper vernacular for a person in recovery, and playing by what he thought were the rules he proceeded to stop being controlling of the people around him.

Instead he would lay boundaries upon boundaries until there was only one possible course left—the one he wanted. While his friends all blinked when he said things like “I want to lay a boundary that you can’t call your ex-girlfriend until she apologizes,” he thought there was absolutely nothing wrong and that he had given up his control freak days. This is not as random non-sequitur as it seems. The lit world has similarly sought to control the conversation by insisting that it is not advocating a single homogeneous style, but rather has done so surreptitiously by laying down so much that is anathema that there aren’t really very many choices left. The very fact that they have invented new labels like magical realism and literary fantasy just to handle the "good" exceptions of genre writing goes to show how singular in focus this literary bigotry goes. Fortunately for sanity, artists simply love to tear down the walls that others use to define them, and crossing genres has made this tap dance of the sommeliers harder and harder to maintain.

These question of why this is happening is interesting, and the answer is more so. The term “genre” didn’t become a dirty word until the post-war era. The upper-middle class has struggled hard in the modern age to maintain its control over the “rules” of polite society, and for what should or shouldn’t be taken seriously.

They want to tell you how to talk, how to eat, how to converse, how to argue, how much body hair is okay, how to spend money, how to dress, how to bathe, how to debate, and of course, how to read. The post-war era (especially as we met the threat of communism by increasing our immigration quotas to places where communism was in danger of catching on) threatened that sense of decorum with massive access to other cultures--other cultures with other ways of doing all that stuff. Specifically in the literary world, there was access to many other cultures’ canons, with so many different ways of viewing the world. When immigrants started keeping up with the Joneses too, suddenly the superiority of one’s culture isn’t so self evident. The last bastion for the bourgeoisie to claim they have the lease rights on what makes for beauty is to control the very conversation itself--as they have across many of the arts.

Is it any wonder that few new art forms are considered “real art” in their own generation and that their most stanch critics come from the upper middle class (usually of established academia)? Is it any wonder that with the incorporation of millions of new voices, Bloom and company STILL cannot seem to separate literary canon from the voices primarily of dead white males? And in much the same way that social justice has pointed out that the “tone” argument is just a way to maintain the status quo, so have many speculative authors realized that their struggle for acceptance is equally rooted in a judgment about what is valid that comes from a very specific power stratum, and a very specific demographic, and a very specific class. By controlling the “rules” it is entirely possible to control the outcome, and so by defining “what is literature” the literary world has been able to keep the genre of literary fiction in power

And why not? Of course this is the case given the timber of the discourse. It becomes impossible for speculative fiction to “redeem” itself when none of its good examples “count.” Its illustrious tradition within the canon is conveniently ignored. Any modern examples of good speculative fiction are relabeled as literary fantasy or magical realism or just given a pass. If you take away everything good, of course what is left is going to be...not good. A two year old can keep up with that concept. And then, of course, literary folk get to keep pointing at genre as inferior writing, and they have ensured that they will be correct. Further, when non-genre fiction is NOT held accountable for all the crap it produces, the issue of confirmation bias is compounded. No one is gathering up all the examples of mediocre gritty fiction in halfway houses with homophobic dads.

As these literary minds increasingly eschew and disdain genre two things happen that form a downward spiral and self fulfilling prophecy: those who want to be taken seriously as writers do not consider speculative fiction viable and avoid it much to the diminishment of those modes of expression, but far more pernicious and damaging is that those who are drawn to speculative fiction find themselves less interested in the opinions or education of the very literary minds that could help them deepen their work with subtext and stronger prose. They find the doors barred, the backs turned, the minds closed, the eyes covered, and the path to literary speculative fiction overrun with gatekeepers who do not take it seriously, and make it absolutely clear that they WILL not take it seriously. Speculative fiction is relegated to niche reviews and exposure, parallel lit awards and accolades, and its own literary sub-community. The literary community is then increasingly the target of well-deserved backlash for its baseless prejudice. Camps are formed, lines are drawn, and each side begins to develop contempt for the other. All the while the absurdity of excluding speculative fiction from viable expression is ignored.

I have spoken with dozens of genre writers, most speculative fiction writers, and they all say almost exactly the same thing about MFA programs (as do I): they’d love to have that kind of learning experience with their craft, but they will probably never devote that much time and effort to a world that openly castigates them. And in many cases this is absolutely the MFA program's LOSS.

The contempt that so many Humanities professors, literary reviewers, "serious" agents, and people that a writer would encounter within the literary world display openly for the idea of a robot or a spell makes them increasingly wary of what kinds of prejudice they would encounter within an MFA program towards the fiction they love to write and read. Is this something anyone would want to dedicate years of life and tens of thousands of dollars to doing?  Even if they could find a program that accepted them, they would be maneuvering in hostile waters of the literary world--basically getting an MFA that they couldn't use. At best they consider that the experience will probably be an exercise in gritting their teeth through the prejudice to get what they want out of the experience. But at worst it makes them feel unwelcome in the same way it might to tell a person from Nigeria that the program will not be accepting any post-colonial works as they are filled with tropes and often poorly written by the standards of US academia.   Prejudice is invisible until examined, and the lit sommeliers have not yet examined theirs. If anything, many of them are digging in.

The truly inane thing about our darling, sweet, lovable sommelier’s prejudice is precisely how much they have pitted themselves against human nature with their insistence that they know what’s best for us—or at least what’s best. As if standing and demanding that the sky is bright green for long enough will convince people that it is, they stomp their feet and assert that a lack of realism destroys the message, ignoring the whole time how powerful messages of speculative fiction can be. If anything the pre-generated audience that genre publishers can count on to flock to the mediocre offerings speak volumes to speculative fiction’s ability to capture the imagination of its readers. JK Rowling—whose prose almost every fan of speculative fiction will take umbrage with—wrote 7 of the 20 best-selling books of all time. There are only 6 texts on that list that could be considered religious texts. Not too many people can say they have written more bestsellers than God.

It’s almost as if a school for wizards captivates our sense of wonder. Funny that.

The power of unrealistic elements lies in their contrast. Though snobs are loathe to admit it, the sharp relief of what is unrealistic with what is all too realistic (and every bit of speculative fiction has something rooted in reality) creates a contrast that brings out what it is examining.  Much like how any art draws out the contrasts of various elements (like beauty and its opposite, life and death, or the banality of sublime moments and the sublimity of banal ones). Like the technique of using vibrant color in the background to bring out what is simple and ordinary. (A popular example of this would be the costuming of Christine in A.L. Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera during the Masquerade ball.) This contrast can actually help bring our attention TO the human condition in a way that literary fiction fails. (Oh yes, literary fiction’s precious human condition is not only not lost on speculative fiction, but is arguably better explored by it.)

See, while literary fiction does love a chiasmus, a paradox, and seems to adore liberal use of juxtapositions, the contrast of a setting that draws into relief that condition seems to have escaped them. In many ways science fiction is like science itself—it can isolate the variable that it seeks to explore . We will stop to think more about what it means to be afraid in a terrible situation when Data the android shuts his emotion chip off before facing the Borg than we will to read a page about how scared someone is going into battle.

What has also escaped our darling, sweet, naïve sommieler’s notice is the irony that sometimes concepts are so big that reams of realism exploring them simply are not as effective as a conceit that explores what they are not. It is entirely possible to learn more about the human condition watching Data make a mess of things, be almost human, or have his humanity challenged than by reading gallons of ink spilled about childhood angst or people coming to terms with their own prejudice.

The original assignment for this paper had an oral presentation component to it. Making almost all the same points I did in the paper, I finished off the presentation with the clip below from Star Trek: The Next Generation. A season 2 episode called Measure of a Man. I even pointed out that this clip was from a show that HAD commercials when it aired, so you couldn’t get much more commercial than this. The instructor, who had been proudly boasting that she WAS one of the anti-speculative sommeliers, by the end of this clip simply sighed and said “That was really good. Maybe we should rethink how tough a stance we’re taking with our department’s pedagogy.” I don’t know if she ever really brought it up in a department meeting, or if she convinced anyone to ease up if she did (I hit the no-genre pedagogy over and over even after this, so I doubt it), but I always wonder about that exchange. I wonder what kind of unexamined prejudice must exist if an undergrad with fairly unoriginal ideas can play a clip from a 20 year old show of pretty generic sci-fi ideology and expose a member of the faculty in a Humanities department  to something completely new.

What ignites our imaginations isn’t realism. It never has been—not through the recorded history of our stories, and all we know about oral tradition. What ignites our imaginations is that which is just outside our experience. Something rooted in what we know, with just a tiny bit beyond the pedestrian. The power of metaphor, allegory, and parable drew authors of the past and draws authors of the present to write outside the realm of stark reality time and time again. It is the ability of speculative fiction to bring fresh life to age old philosophical questions and engage in social critique that gives it such strength.

We learn in reader response theory that no author can avoid a reader coming to the table of their fiction without pre-generated thoughts and feelings. This is more important in the age of identity politics and globalization than ever before. Confirmation bias and disconfirmation bias constantly get truly quality works of literature disregarded because of their message, themes, or even criticisms. Speculative fiction can upset this balance. A piece written today about gay marriage—no matter how poignant, no matter how filled with concrete details, no matter how expansive, no matter how generous, no matter how honest, and no matter how sympathetic—would find mostly an audience of people who’d made up their minds, one way or another, about the issue. That voice is lost and diminished by the preconceptions of the reader. Such a work would run head long into readers’ prejudice, and would convince few of anything. Those who agreed would nod their heads and shed a tear at the unfortunate end. Those who disagreed would roll their eyes and probably never finish.

However, through speculative fiction the themes and relationships and characters and IDEAS can be explored “under the radar” of this prejudice. A reader may not realize that the forbidden love between elves and humans is an allegory for same sex relationships. They may not realize that the criticism of class issues and the propaganda of meritocracy that exists in this lunar colony is really a critique of the U.S. even if a direct criticism would have slammed their minds shut to the ideas by page two. The issues, the inequities, the emotions could all be explored without encountering the preconceptions of the reader. And even when such an allegory is blatantly transparent, it somehow still has power as an abstraction to inform—as a long and full history of the use of metaphors to make points clearly illustrates.

Lewis Carroll’s criticism of Victorian society wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if not seen through the eyes of Alice or written up as expository essays, or perhaps a “realistic” tourist through the world of Victorian idiosyncrasies and political failings—indeed Carroll may have ended up a fair bit shorter and in little need of a hatter himself after such a work. Shelly’s warnings of science’s proclivity to rush ahead without consideration for consequence would not have been as engaging without a monster in it. Nonfiction about the communist revolution isn’t particularly interesting. Even a fiction piece characterizing the ring leaders of the communist revolution and delving into their psyche would have fairly limited appeal. But a group of farm animals taking over the farm from its owners captures the imagination with the supernatural. Right or wrong, the opinions of half the English speaking world on the communist revolution are based largely upon the power of Orwell's talking pigs…upon the power of speculative fiction. Or did we forget Orwell likes to write fantasy and sci-fi when issuing the blanket statement that “genre is not real literature”?

My point in playing the Star Trek TNG clip was not to show how great Star Trek was or how great Data was or how great that clip was, but to illustrate the strength of speculative fiction. If anything the clip suffers from TNG’s habit of getting a little too preachy when the music starts and Picard begins his didactic-a-thon. And yet, from this simple clip, we see where science fiction can take us if we give it half a chance. The works of Hume or Descartes are a bit dry, and “realistic” fiction exploring the nature of sentience and philosophical questions so directly would probably come off at least as bad as Ayn Rand exploring the philosophy of objectivism through Atlas Shrugged (and please, please don’t ever put me through such horror again). In the clip however we can see several implications and ideas being explored, not just about possible morality surrounding our ongoing development of artificial intelligence, but also about what it means to be conscious, what it means to have a soul, and why we are sentient. It touches on slavery and exploitation as deep issues of social and cultural morality. All because Data wanted to resign. That is the power that speculative fiction brings to the table--a power that is quite foolish to ignore.

If “genre” is going to mean “bad” within literary circles then we have to stop assuming something is genre until we have established its quality, and that judgment must come without regard to a quantum laser, a superpower or prominent canines. If “genre” is simply going to mean possessing of certain stylistic characteristics then we must acknowledge that there can be—and is—good genre, great genre, canon genre. And we must acknowledge that more is still being produced today by superb writers. In either case, the conversations within the literary community must shift from the mode of storytelling to the effectiveness of the storytelling, and the prejudice against certain elements must be rethought. The alternative is to face an increasing backlash from the speculative fiction community who are upset that they can’t get a fair shake—and who have absolutely every right to be so. The dismissive attitude of the literary community to a work simply because it contains a speculative element (and conversely to shelter the literary speculative fiction from the label) must be exposed as nothing but baseless prejudice and rank elitism…and really stupid to boot.

I want a world with good, well-written speculative fiction. I want speculative fiction that engages in subtext and lives up to its potential as an art form with artistic integrity. I want it to have something to say, and say it very well. I the literary community to give up its knee jerk prejudice towards certain elements. I want to talk about what is effective without a prejudice about what “counts,” and let what counts (or not) speak for itself. I want a world where literary voices are hard on the settings of some authors that add nothing to the story—but that they do so without regard to whether that setting is a starship, a castle, or a rehab clinic. How much better would a writing teacher be to engage a student with the idea “that dragon needs to symbolize some human failing that your hero needs to slay,” rather than to simply, flatly demand its removal before proceeding. What a perfect container for so many literary elements exists in creating meaning from meaninglessness. I want instructions (and instrucTORS) that concern themselves with craft rather than content. I want to discuss fiction, irrespective of its hasty generalization into some pigeon hole. And I want the lit sommeliers of the world to get their heads out of their collective asses and realize that literary fiction is the new kid that needs to work on its street cred if it wants to be anything but a joke outside the ivory tower, that they can’t just dismiss the most powerful storytelling medium of recorded history. Speculative fiction is comprised of the giant talking Ents that roam the forest our sommeliers are standing in even as they casually discuss how forests are inferior. Perhaps it is time for them to look around before the Ents grow too irritated. Forest...trees...you get the precise idea I'm trying to convey about backlash and consequence...even though it's not realistic.

12 comments:

  1. Absolutely brilliant!

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    1. Thank you, but a lot of people make this case much more brilliantly than I.

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  2. Not enough academics are tackling this and I wish they would. You are absolutely right!

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    1. There are a few, but the ivory tower can be as intractable as any institution about new ideas.

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  3. Very nicely done. But way too long.

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    1. Yeah, this wasn't written as a weblog article. It was originally a 15 page final paper for one of my creative writing classes at SFSU. The only thing I did was to throw in a few more jokes and add a couple of stories about the SFSU faculty that I knew I wouldn't get away with while I was still there. It's also academia so I was VERY meticulous (at times redundant) about laying out the points.

      It could probably stand to be tightened up in a 2.0 version.

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  4. "...about what it means to be conscious, what it means to have a soul, and why we are sentient. It touches on slavery and exploitation as deep issues of social and cultural morality. All because Data wanted to resign. That is the power that speculative fiction brings to the table--a power that is quite foolish to ignore." THAT packed a wallop, my friend. Nicely done.

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    1. I have no idea why Blogger made me approve this comment. Even anonymous ones show up with no trouble. Regardless, thank you so much!

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  5. I have a prof who NEEDS to see this.

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