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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

No Apologies! A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Needs No Defense (Part 4)

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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.

I apologize for Fahrenheit 451.
Would it be too ironic if I burnt it?

Every genre, indeed all fiction, and actually even all forms of art, have within them a continuum of quality. It isn't exactly shocking to see such a continuum within speculative fiction.

“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 realistic fiction is good, considered, and exemplary of its craft and other realistic fiction is hastily produced and of little worth to humanities (except for possibly the observations of lots of such work for general trends).

Art in general has the same continuum. Television, film, theater, painting, and sculpture 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. The problem is ignoring genre fiction'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, Wuthering Heights, Lady in White, A Christmas Carol and so much more. I realize these titles in no way influence modern western literature, but they....

Oh wait. They do.

No one conveniently forgets the Raymond Carver when they’re talking about minimalism. No one would describe minimalism only 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.

See how that works? I can do it too.

No one is defending this.
Staring maybe, but not defending.
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 for prose quality. Though many (correctly) point out that J.K. Rowling got nearly an entire generation hooked on reading, only the most rose glasses fans don't know her writing has some deep troubles. It is the subject of considerable amusement in the reading world that during the last week or two before the release of Deathly Hollows, a copy of the book was leaked online, but readers were unable to distinguish whether it was genuine or second rate fan fiction.

Don't even get me started on the uncharitable things said about Stephanie Myers's writing.

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.

But... (and this is a big but)

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, ignoring the best, and wading into the discourse with raging confirmation biases and knee-jerk prejudice. With their 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. Their own offerings unassailable because they cheerfully 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 mostly against semantics.

And examining those semantics 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.)

It's not enough to only focus on the bad in something. If you really want to be judgmental, you also have to ignore the good. If you ever want to see a Creative Writing instructor with a no-genre policy lose their shit, ask them what “genre” means specifically, listen carefully to their definition, and point out exceptions to their criteria in the reading list they gave you for the class. (Or maybe this is just me.)

Because here's what happens: when lit snobs see magic and supernatural entities within excellent literature, suddenly it is no longer speculative fiction. Suddenly it gets a pass.

Ain't nothing here but us grittily realistic oracular witches.
If it’s modern fiction, it is usually relabeled as “magical realism." Fantasy that lit snobs like becomes "literary fantasy." Even the dreaded science fiction" gets relabeled as "futurism" (just ask Atwood fans).

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, sexist, 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 particularly guilty of this 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 go right on claiming that all science fiction is bad. You might think students of humanities ought to know better than to behave in such ways, 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. Sadly no. Sometimes this is just lit snobs being giant dillholes. Sometimes these actions are absolutely deliberate and conscious and jerkwadian to the extreme.

Kazuo Ishiguro, a multi-award winning author who wrote Remains of the Day, wrote a book called Never Let Me Go, which is about...

[spoiler alert]

[seriously walk away if you've never read Never Let Me Go]

[totes not kidding; it's a good read]

[Just go down to the paragraph below the next picture.]

...the young adulthood of a group of clones before their organs are harvested. It's a great book. 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.

Clones. Organ harvests. Crazy advanced medical tech. Alternative 90's timeline.
But that doesn't make it SPECULATIVE. Come on!

Well why not? If speculative fiction means “Presence of speculative elements” why wouldn’t this novel count?

Sadly, the reticence of lit snobs about Never Let me Go is no 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 because ghosts aren't realistic. 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 that lets you know it is only their fear of harassment complaints that keeps them from patting you on the head. Ask them to explain Beloved, and with spittle flying from their lips, they will tell you to leave their classroom if you’re just going to be difficult. (Really.)

Ghost stories are speculative.
Unless they're really good.
And then they're....um.... Fuck you; see me after class.
On to Part 5

2 comments:

  1. Yes, I've long been...bemused, shall we say, by the phenomenon of speculative fiction that meets certain other literary checkboxes getting a pass, and being elevated to "Literature" instead of remaining a part of spec fic. Sometimes they get a sort of double life. "Oh yeah, I guess that would be considered science fiction, huh?" (uttered with a look of faint puzzlement that such a thing could be true of something the speaker considered Good). Although, from my brief encounter with magical realism, I would give it its own subgenre within Spec Fic. But it would be within Spec Fic, undoubtedly. It's just that it has enough of its own conventions that set it apart from other forms of fantasy that it deserves a subgenre. What is really strange (and indicative of the snobbery and value judgements you're talking about here) are the books that have fantastical elements of one kind or another, that are simply considered "literary fiction." On the other hand, how many of those do in fact involve many of the genre-markers of "literary fiction"? Are they in fact "cross-genre" between Sci Fi and literary fiction or supernatural and literary fiction, in the same way that you can have a sci fi murder mystery or a steampunk romance novel? Shelving cross-genre books is always a problem. Large bookstores might just shelve them in both places, but most libraries and smaller stores must make a choice. So the same will inevitably be true of sci fi literary fiction or ghost story literary fiction. The difference is that fans will usually not argue of the sci fi murder mystery, "it's not really a murder mystery; it's science fiction" (nor the reverse) though there's some chance of hearing "it's not really a romance novel, it's steampunk" since there are some stronger stratas of value judgements in operation there.

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    1. I love your comments on this set of posts. Very insightful! Thank you.

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