Sunday, October 15, 2006

J. Garcia & Mr. Medieval Weigh In

Jose Garcia, one of three bloggers behind the magnificent Meme Therapy responds to Paul Cornell's question "Where's Our Casablanca" in a blog post of the same name. Jose suggests that SF media and SF literature are apples and oranges and that far from being an asset that science fiction has colonized so much territory in the mainstream visual media, the reverse is now true:

"We all have a limited amount of time and money to spend on entertainment. If people are watching spending more and more time watching Science Fiction television and playing Science Fiction computer games they may be doing so at the expense of reading a Science Fiction novel. We may just have to resign ourselves to the fact that Science Fiction is now primarily about visual media and that such popularity won’t necessarily translate and possibly work against its popularity in dead tree media."

While I agree with the first half of that statement, what Jose fails to acknowledge is that Hollywood films attract readers in the scores of millions, so if we could attract even 1% of that audience, we're talking a significant increase in SF readership. So if 35 million people went and saw The Matrix, and even 1% of them had been persuaded to read SF as a result, that's 350,000 new readers. Hasty math, but suggestive that it's a target worth shooting for and simply writing it off as apples to oranges is a mistake. Yes, certain individuals whose time is monopolized by visual media will no longer read. But they may not have been readers to begin with. Whereas, there must be readers who, attracted by what they see in visual media, adjust their reading habits to include SF. Certainly, the number of people who respond to my frequent criticisms of Star Wars to tell me it was their entry to more sophisticated SF&F works suggest the flow between books and cinema is not exclusively one way. I am reminded of Gollancz editor Simon Spanton's advice that it is not the uninitiated whose attention we are after, but the "lapsed Catholics of science fiction," those individuals who read SF as a child, then put it aside. Some folks don't get it and never will, but let them who have ears to hear...

Meanwhile, Mr. Medieval himself, Paul McCauley, gets into the game with his post "Don't Fence Me In," in which he says:

"I became more and more enraged by Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s piece in Asimov's, mostly because it exemplifies the lamentably pious, holy-than-thou obsession with definitions that's becoming rife in the science-fiction community. If you really want to kill SF as a genre, go right ahead and tell people what is and what isn’t really SF, and don’t forget to exclude people whose work borrows from and expands on the central themes and tropes of the genre simply because they forgot to include a heroic narrative or some other tick mark that meets the approval of the Guardians of the True Quill."

He then goes on to make a strong case for diversity in science fiction, with the very sage advice that "SF should be a big, roomy mansion that welcomes all kinds of fantastic fiction."

Of particular interest to me is McAuley's observation:

"What’s this American obsession with the New Wave? Look, it happened thirty years ago. It shook things up a bit, it added some useful stuff to the common humus of the genre, but the people responsible have moved on. It isn’t around anymore. It’s as dead as a parrot. So why are people still acting as if filthy dirty New Wavers are about to ravish their precious little genre and piss on the furniture afterwards? Get over it, or get out of the way."

For my own part, I was born in the latter half of the sixties and started reading SF in the late 70s, post New Wave, and read Asimov and Delaney side by side without realizing they sat across philosophical and stylistic divides. I do remember realizing that Michael Moorcock's "Behold the Man" belonged to a different category of storytelling than his Elric work and having the good sense not to share it with my fundamentalist Christian parents. (Though I did give my father "A Boy and His Dog" to read, which he pronounced "disgusting.") However, it was only in retrospect that I learned what the New Wave was, or the importance of Moorcock the editor and the New Wave to our genre. I certainly enjoy being a reader on this side of the New Wave fence, where thesis and antithesis met, merged, and moved on. But ultimately, I think Kristine's prescription fails for the same reason the earlier Mundane Manifesto does, as McAuley points out - the Universe is a big place. What's sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander. This is true for those who write it and for those who read it. I wasn't so fond of those "Fuck Authority" shirts of a few years ago, but "Fuck Authority, Sez Who?" was brilliant.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to be interested in Carol Pinchefsky's informal study, and the notion that introducing the uninitated to SF requires, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, "a solid understanding of your friends and their tastes, and (I think on some level) writing itself." The italics are mine, because that's the part of the statement I find so insightful. Although in the minds of the general population and (regrettably) a lot of people in the publishing industry, SF sits below mystery and just above romance on the ladder of "literary respectability, " the field of speculative fiction contains some of the most sophisticated writing and complex style as anything out there - certainly more than what is found anywhere else but in "literary" novels. While browsing together in a bookstore a while back, I showed a friend of mine - a lawyer who reads bestseller fiction and some historical - William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. He read the first page, then jumped as if it were a snake that might bite. He exclaimed "that's literary fiction!" and backed away in almost-fear. He explained that he hadn't read literature since college and was just looking for something to take to the beach. So I gave up and pointed him to the towering stacks of The Da Vinci Code.


ian mcdonald said...

aall hail the New Medievalists!

Aaron Hughes said...

Lou, I agree with you that fans of media SF are a significant potential market. But perhaps Jose would have it right after all, if the field started to follow Rusch's advice and just focused on Star Wars-style adventures. Who would need written SF if it consisted of the same kind of light adventures that sci-fi films and computer games can do just fine? (As an aside, it's hard to imagine that Rusch actually means this, it is so much at odds with what she did as editor of Pulphouse and F&SF.)

Written SF should offer a synthesis of the fun entertainment you get from media SF and the literary style you get from high-brow mainstream fiction. And in fact, I think it already does. Where is our Casablanca? We have Casablancas all over the SF section of the bookstore, if only we could get people to read them.

It's as if Casablanca hit the cinemas but everyone refused to go see it, because they all saw Humphrey Bogart in The Return of Doctor X and so they know that anything with him in it must be crap.

Lou Anders said...

Ian - don't you even fucking dare. That could just about catch on. I mean it. Kill it now before I go print up the t-shirts.

Aaron - well said, sir. Well, well said!

ianmcdonald said...

it should go on underwear --then you really could get medieval on your ass. Okay. I'll stop now.

Paul Cornell said...

This has come down to the question of whether or not our putative literary SF Casablanca (let's call this proposed particle a Casablancon) would or would not move out of the bookshops under its own power. I'm inclined to think that if such a particle existed, it would move from shelves to hands at something close to the speed of light, as happened in the historical past. Aaron believes that there are limitations that are preventing such motion. I don't dispute that conditions in the bookshop dimension may tend to damp down the expression of the Casablacon field, but I'd continue to argue, nay, to rage, that when such particles are spontaneously created they reach their maximum velocity almost instantaneously.

A.R.Yngve said...

I may have said this before, but it bears repeating:

If the genre label is such a frickin' stigma on printed SF... then why not do without it?

"If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out."

Consider: Maybe the mainstream writers are SMART when they write SF and avoid getting labeled. Maybe that IS the solution.

I want to write the kind of stories I want to write... labels be damned. If the genre label is nothing but a liability, throw it away.

Just sayin'.

Aaron Hughes said...

Paul, I hate to lecture you on physics, but a Casablancon at rest tends to stay at rest until acted on by some body of mass that picks it up and starts to flip its pages. In order for that to occur, such bodies of mass must occupy the space in the SF section of the bookstore. If they are not found occupying that space, A.R. suggests tearing that section of the store down. But I find the idea of whacking those bodies of mass upside the head with copies of Spin and River of Gods and Snow Crash and Genetopia and Towing Jehovah and On and Altered Carbon much more aesthetically pleasing.

Lou Anders said...

Aaron, that's a fantastic list, I must say. It's got me wanting to waste the whole day making various category lists of SF evangelism.

Paul, you crack me up.

Yvnge, categories exist for a reason. It's fine to write against labels, but if you don't know your readers, you could easily be writing for an audience of one. Which is a choice some people make and nothing wrong with that, but you need to know that is the choice.

A.R.Yngve said...

No no no, you get me wrong. I meant writing SF without using the label. (It worked for Margaret Atwood, didn't it?)

Aaron Hughes said...

So did you come up with any good lists, Lou, or did you manage to get back to work?

Lou Anders said...

I avoided temptation, but am now enjoying reading this:
and pondering what I think about it.

A.R.Yngve said...

It's a great food-for-thought column, especially this line:

"Science fiction, in its proselytizing mode, even helped the recent spread of religion by writing checks science couldn't cash, and an awful lot of people have 'returned' to religion because they've felt betrayed by The Promise Of Science."
(My emphasis)

Is the genre, thus, tainted beyond repair? Would it be possible to just discard the word "science fiction" and start over? "Let's write Speculative Literature."

Ted said...

What's an example of an extremely populist novel of extremely high quality outside of SF? Since Casablanca is a movie (and over sixty years old), I'm not sure if it's a useful comparison; I don't know what qualifies as the Casablanca of literary fiction or mystery fiction or any other genre. Can anyone name some novels published within the last twenty years that they consider both truly excellent and wildly popular?

Lou Anders said...

How about Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay?

Ted said...

I agree it's a great novel; does everyone feel it was popular enough? If you rephrase the question as "Where's our Kavalier & Clay?", does everyone know what you mean?

(One could also argue that Kavalier & Clay is very close to being a genre novel, which would mean that the answer to "Where's our Casablanca?" is "Kavalier & Clay," and how much good did it do the genre?)

Lou Anders said...

Cavaliere and Clay was not published as a genre novel, nor was it published by a genre imprint. It may be borderline genre, but it was not presented nor received as such. And it sold over half a million in trade paperback, which is plenty popular for me. But you are correct that it doesn't have the same name recognition that somehting like The Da Vinci Code generates. Meanwhile, the afformentioned Cormac McCarthy is currently #16 on the Amazon bestseller list. But have we fragmented into so many niche markets that nothing - outside cinema - will achieve the sort of recognition you are talking about? We could site Stephen King's Dark Tower series as a possibility, perhaps, though I can't speak to the quality, having only read 1/2 of The Gunslinger and having been told everything I like about the prose will be jettisoned by the older King as extravagance.

Ted said...

But have we fragmented into so many niche markets that nothing - outside cinema - will achieve the sort of recognition you are talking about?

I'd say you should ask Paul Cornell this question. I'm still trying to figure out what "Where's our Casablanca?" means. Does it mean, "Where's a truly excellent SF novel that has sold half a million copies?" Does it mean, "Where's an SF novel that's as good as Kavalier and Clay, and that would sell half a million copies if only it were promoted properly?" Or does it mean something else?

Paul Cornell said...

Is Kavalier and Clay an SF novel? You could say Jonathan Strange was excellent and sold loads, but that was definitely fantasy. I think part of the problem is that when one even starts to take aim at writing a bestseller now, one finds oneself automatically aiming away from genre SF. The answer to your question is option A: where's a truly excellent SF novel that's going to sell half a million? Back in the day, sure. Where is it now?

Ted said...

Kavalier & Clay isn't SF; it has a slight thread of magical realism in it, but the primary reason it's of interest to genre readers is that it's a novel about superhero comics.

What truly excellent SF novel "back in the day" was wildly popular? Do you have a title in mind?

Paul Cornell said...

The Gods Themselves, perhaps. Or Childhood's End. Or Dune. When I was growing up in the 1970s, mainstream folk knew who Clarke and Asimov were. I'd suspect that Stranger in a Strange Land also hefted some copies. If one were to put forward 'Name an SF Writer' on the quiz show Family Fortunes/Family Feud, I suspect the top ten, if we discount J.K. Rowling possibly coming out on top, because the public are like that, would all be from before the 1980s. (Don't tell me those guys would know who William Gibson was.) Maybe Iain Banks would get onto the British list. Maybe. If you put the same question about Crime, you'd immediately get a bunch of authors who are still working: P.D. James; Colin Dexter, etc. And of those, some would be in their prime. So, there's another metaphor: we seek a book whose author is Family Fortunes Friendly.

Lou Anders said...

Yes, gone are the days when rockstars wrote songs with titles like "Starship Troopers," and it's been a while since The Illuminatus! Trilogy found it's eye in the pyramid symbol used on the blotter paper of a very popular batch of cid.

Ted said...

Literary quality is, of course, a subjective thing, but as much as I like The Gods Themselves and Childhood's End, I don't know if I'd call them truly excellent by non-SF standards. (I must confess that I'm not a fan of Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land.) Viewed strictly as novels, I don't think either of them are anywhere near as accomplished as Kavalier & Clay; they have other goals, and succeed at those pretty well, but that's true of many, many SF novels.

Is popularity the primary criterion? One (non-Star Wars) SF author who regularly makes the New York Times bestseller list is Orson Scott Card. Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert also regularly make the NYT list with the Dune sequels.

Aaron Hughes said...

Ted, in terms of "literary quality," I don't think The Gods Themselves or Childhood's End are truly excellent by current standards in the SF genre either.

Paul, are you really arguing that those books are better -- in terms of combining entertainment value with literary merit -- than the best SF being published today? I strongly disagree.

Paul Cornell said...

I think you've scored hits on me on a couple of points there. And I'm becoming tired of myself always popping up and doing this, so heaven knows what you lot must be feeling, 'not surprisingly, Paul Cornell is first to comment'! My appearance has now become as predictable as the first cuckoo in Spring.

I picked a couple of Clarke/Asimov titles that I recall as having bestseller status in my youth. In terms of quality, I'd say a couple of other Clarkes, like the 2001 adaptation, or The Fountains of Paradise, are populist, big-selling, bestseller-written reads that SF fans would say had all the requirements for books of quality. (Mind you, even the books I mentioned won the big awards in their day). Serious books in our field tend to age worse than romps, because the science goes out of date.

I'm not a fan of Stranger either, but it sold and is generally regarded as important. You know, this isn't about what we three like.

I think you firmly have me with Orson Scott Card, though. Which I feel oddly grumbly about. I found our Casablanca, and I am not thrilled by it. Can it really end like this? ('Yes, please' - the audience.)

And the Dune sequels seem right on a self-defined borderline between media tie-in and SF, and are probably happy to be there.