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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

No Apologies! A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Needs No Defense (Part 3)

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All the Way Back to Part 1  

It is actually 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. This isn't about "good literature" vs. "genre." It's about "a good story" vs. "a boring story."

And "literary fiction" is guilty of an awful lot of boring stories.

That's why so many people like certain canonical authors beyond just what they are forced to read of them in high school or college. Austen, Dickens, Woolf, and Shakespeare are all great with language, but they also spin an irresistible yarn. Even the cardboard dry writers like Melville and Hawthorne that take some getting used to are enjoyed and appreciated by more fans than most modern day authors.

It's almost like plot is a major element of literature. It's almost like stupid linguistic flourishes don't much matter if your story sucks.

Dismissing the audience for philistines is all too easy.

"Ug do appreciate human condition.
But Ug rather hear story about great hunter.
Boring story about Oog not interesting--even if deep."
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.

Oh and ten copies to their mom.

However, the 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.

Exactly when has this light switch sold out?

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 high 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.

Stevenson, this is really hard to pigeon-hole.
Can we add a Vxendrathi space cruiser and be done with it?
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 possible that this might not be some of the best literature ever written.

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.

But of course they shouldn't have to.

On To Part 4 


  1. I've been thinking about this for awhile, and one of things I feel like needs to be cleared up is really what constitutes "good" for writing as opposed to "not for me". Which, in turn, I feel like has to come from "what is the point of reading?"

    I have read that the job of the writer is to get the reader to turn the page. If that is the case, than Dragonlace is better than Moby Dick because I Dragonlance pages might as well be made out of tissue paper when it comes to turning the page, whereas Moby Dick was such a slog that it felt like each page was made out of lead.

    Is the point of reading to be entertained? Then popularity would be a pretty good indicator of what was "good"- Dan Brown and all.

    Or is the point of writing to have some insight into the human condition; to find something that speaks to your soul and/or opens your mind? Then it's going to be extremely subjective- Harry Potter* made me cry, Emma made me bored as hell. Lots of people seem to get something meaningful out of the Left Behind series despite it being so poorly written that the characters routinely contradict their informed attributes and it is hard to figure out what exactly everything is doing from scene to scene.

    If writing is about proficiency of language- following the rules of grammar and making sure your language is sufficiently esoteric, then Catcher in the Rye** is discounted.

    I'm not sure there is a single, compelling reason why we read and that makes it hard to come up with a single standard as to what makes a novel "good". Sometimes we're going to want something that you have to sit down, struggle with, enjoy the layers of symbolism, character development and theme and have this feeling like the world is just a little bit bigger than you previously thought. Sometimes you just want to get through a plane ride. And sometimes you're feeling in between. Any of these can be accomplished in any genre of literature.

    *I would not include Harry Potter in the same pile as Twilight et al. For one, I can tell what is happening in the story without being forced to re-read and make leaps like in Twilight. For two, it has a decided lack of rape jokes, so it is leagues above Xanth and sometimes King. I mean, it may not be the gold medal of literature and I think relies on cliches just a little too much, but I cared about the characters, I cared what happened, and the story was relatable. Also, it's the only one on the list that is SUPPOSED to be read by children, so I give it some wiggle room for not having overly complicated language.

    ***Though that would please me greatly. Goddamned Catcher in the Rye is the epitome of "Coming of age is SO HARD when you're a spoiled white guy. Let me do nothing of consequence while I work this out. Where do the ducks go during winter? Why does nobody give a shit when I'm obliquely asking what happens when I grow up? It's like they might all have inner lives and things that they're dealing with... nah must just be that I'm so special and unique that it takes a rare person to have these deep insights like worrying about losing your innocence." Fuck do I hate this goddamn book. Though, to it's credit, at least it's short.


  2. In my English 101 class in college, we talked about the classics and I suggested that Lord of the Rings should be considered a classic. That did not go over well. And I their reason for not considering it a classic basically came down to it being fantasy.
    Never mind the themes and symbolism, the quality prose and good plot, the interesting characters and intense world building, the cultural impact it had, particularly on writing, being fantasy disqualified it.
    I'd rather read Lord of the Rings than Lord of the Flies any day