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Saturday, September 6, 2014

No Apologies! A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Needs No Defense (Part 5)

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Literary 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. 

If you don't believe me (maybe you think they're just too smart to make the kinds of mistakes I'm accusing them of) watch how the irony comes through with absolute clarity from even a cursory glance at the canon.

Because buckle up kiddos. Much of the best literature in the English language is speculative.

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 and the cranky old white folks who coin them, the word got away from his prescriptive ass, moved out, carved out a life of its own, and did things its parents wouldn't approve of while singing Billy Joel's "My Life."

It grew and changed despite what he wanted. People can be so pesky about ignoring curmudgeons who claim fiat over semantics. While there are still some Heinlein purists and some contention about precise meaning these days, 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--recently the die hard hold outs of "Only Sci Fi and Fantasy have basically been forced to put a few more chairs at the table because of the popularity of young adult distopian literature.  Others cast the umbrella far and wide, pulling in even magical realism, literary fantasy, and sometimes 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!) 

~snotty voice~
Sorry, I don't read books where magical things happen.
It's not real literature.

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 up.

The term “speculative fiction” enjoyed a modicum more respect in literary circles for a time, being used by snotty writers who didn't deign to write science fiction or fantasy (even though that's exactly what they were writing); 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 said elements. Their attempts to use terms however they goddamned well feel like it lack intellectual rigor and integrity and, to be blunt, comes across as exactly the petulant elitism it is.

While we might kerfluffle over 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 and may even have written "real art."

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.

Play your cards just right and "minority" becomes "elite."
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, what to listen to, what to watch, and what to read. The last bastion for the bourgeoisie to claim they have the lease rights on what makes for propriety 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 rig the outcome, and so by defining “what is literature” the literary world has been able to keep the genre of literary fiction in power.

I'm not racist, sexist, ethnocentric, heteronormative, or anything like that!
Heterosexual, white, men really are the best writers.
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.

On to Part 6

1 comment:

  1. 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.

    I can't make this list, because as previously mentioned, I'm not terrible fond of the literary fiction genre. If I had to include terrible books that were in the literary genre, I can remember "Go Ask Alice" and maybe some John Grisham works.

    I mention this for two reasons:

    1) If I were to ask a lit snob, they would say those don't count as "literary" because "Go Ask Alice is" *sniff* TEEN fiction, and Grisham does mostly mysteries, and that's another genre. So it's not only that they wave away "good" speculative fiction as suddenly NOT speculative fiction, they also decide that anything literary that is bad must not be literary.

    2) I find it curious that despite the fact that that genre writing is considered "awful" by lit snobs, they still know it. Even if you are a lit snob, you know what Harry Potter is. You are aware of Dan Brown, and probably even Pratchett. If you asked a lit snob some examples of bad genre fiction, they could list of tons of examples. But in order to list those examples off, you still have to know about them. I don't read literary fiction, so I can't list off the same reams of bad lit fiction except the stuff that I was forced to read by school or circumstance. Literary fiction that is bad goes unread. So which is worse- a cliche heavy story that has a few laser guns or dwarfs in it that everyone still reads and enjoys, or a cliche heavy story about homophobic dads and drug use that no one reads?