Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More Thoughts on the Cassandra Ghetto

So Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic SF The Road is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in addition to being an Oprah pick. And while some critics may bend over backwards to explain how this proves that it isn't SF, most of the pieces I'm picking up on in the press and online are regarding it as such. Equally exciting to me is the special citation for Ray Bradbury, which has been given "for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy." I really would have expected that sentence to have a period after "career" and can't believe the Pulitzer board went on to actually identify Bradbury as a science fiction writer. He doesn't even identify himself that way sometimes! I'll say it again, the times they are a changing!

In a post on Ron Hogan and Sarah Weinman's excellent publishing blog, GalleyCat, entitled "First Oprah, Now a Pulitzer: SF Now Best of Mainstream Lit", Ron proclaims that, "after decades of neglect from the Pulitzer fiction committee, science fiction finally gained literary respectability yesterday with the recognition of Cormac McCarthy's The Road as the best novel of 2006... wait, what do you mean The Road isn't science fiction? If Alan Cheuse went on NPR and said it was, that's good enough for me..." Ron also, very kindly, characterizes my own recent post "So It Goes: Thoughts on the Cassandra Ghetto" as being something "that anyone involved in the publishing industry should read carefully."

Meanwhile, on her blog, When Danger Is a Gal's Best Friend - which has a beautiful design, btw- Lisa Paitz Spindler posts some similar thoughts to mine when she says, "I think that the genre is changing and continuing to describe SF/F as a nerdy-male-only interest pretty much guarantees that the general public will continue to see it this way." Lisa also cites the wonderful informal study that Carol Pinchefsky conducted last year in converting the uninitiated to SF literature. Lisa points out a whole other demographic consuming SF&F I neglected to mention, which is all the speculative fiction being marketed as romance. She then concludes, "I think the market is in the process of switching over to a more gender neutral one and with that change we’ll see the demographic expand."

Speaking of expanding demographics, sparked by some of my comments, over on SFSignal JP has launched "the Harry Potter Outread Program." He asks for help in creating a list of books that might appeal to readers of Harry Potter who have yet to venture past Hogwarts walls, said list to be divided into categories by age of prospective reader. Check it out and send him your candidates.

While over on her new LiveJournal, Kay Kenyon posts "Opt Out or Fight Back" and says, "Here's one that gets to me: When self-appointed cultural caretakers continue this simplistic and tedious snobbery about science fiction... Authors like John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman and Kurt Vonnegut (ah, farewell) who are 'uneasy to think that they write fantasy' (Pullman's words) or outright deny their work is anything of the sort. Afraid to be in the company of the best of our stylists--like George R. R. Martin, Carol Emshwiller, M. John Harrison, Ian McDonald, and many more--they engage in denial and window dressing, never understanding that they're covering old territory that has been done as well or better in our genre. As a publishing strategy, assuming a mainstream mantle isn't in itself reprehensible. It's just the way they flee even the mention of science fiction and fantasy that is so unnecessarily snobbish."

As I've said before, literary respectability is in the process of taking care of itself. I suspect we'll see less and less authors and their publishers looking to duck the label in times to come. Looking back, the turning point might have been when Stephen King received the 2003 National Book Award for his contribution to American letters. At his acceptance speech, he proclaimed, "Giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future things don't have to be the way they've always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction.... Tokenism is not allowed. You can't sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, 'Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we'll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.' It's not good enough." At the time, King called for more of the same to follow. And with these Pulitzer Prize announcements, it has.

Update: This article by John Mark Eberhart in the Kansas City Star "Ray Bradbury finally wins a Pulitzer, but it shoudn't have taken so long," sees this as a positive step towards widening the scope of the award beyond realism and name checks a few talented genre writers:

"To be fair, there is a lot of bad science fiction, fantasy and mystery fiction out there. Too much of it remains formulaic. For every genius like Bradbury, there are a hundred authors doing mediocre work. But there are some great ones, too — Andy Duncan, Joe R. Lansdale, Nancy Kress and Pamela Sargent, to name a few."


Aaron Hughes said...

Lou, I'd love to believe that you're right, but I think you may be reading too much into this award. I'm happy to see the mainstream recognize that a science fiction book can be important literature, but that is very different from acknowledging the literary merit of any of the books published within the SF genre.

If The Road had been published in the SF genre, rather than in the mainstream fiction section with a well-established name attached to it, it would never have had a shot at the Pulitzer. Nor would it have deserved one. The Road is not a particularly good novel, and there were any number of SF novels published last year that are superior by any reasonable measure of literary quality -- but the Pulitzer folks didn't read any of them.

dave hutchinson said...

If I can carry some thoughts over from Part One of this thread, I thought what Andy Sawyer said, quoted at the end of Jason Silverman's article, seemed pertinent - that stuff about science fiction in blockbuster movies and on television being hugely popular. I wonder if part of the problem isn't that people are getting their science fiction elsewhere these days, that there's no stigma to the label when you apply it to something starring Tom Cruise or to a Star Wars tie-in.
Also, I thought vladimir had some interesting things to say about genre, but he mentions something about `we as a community,' and that too may be part of the problem. We're not a community, in the sense that we can sit down around a table and come up with some kind of action plan. There's far too many of us for a start, but I think science fiction is more of a loose tribal confederation, and I think the chances of getting any kind of a consensus about what the problem is, let alone what to do about it, are fairly slim.

Lisa Spindler said...

Lou, thanks very much for the shoutout and the link.

Sadly, increased sales may not get the SF/F genre any additional respect. Despite comprising 54.9% of the popular mass-market fiction sold and $1.2 billion annual sales, people still make the judgment that the Romance genre has little meaning. I do think it would be easier for the SF/F genre to make that leap than it has been for Romance, so there is hope.

The genre on a book's spine does seem to make a difference for the intersection of Romance and SF/F in that there are male readers who would never set foot into the Romance section of a bookstore, and yet love to read Catherine Asaro.

Many people who consume SF solely via film and TV don't get the connection to its source in SF novels. Philip K. Dick is a great example, in that so many of his stories have been made into successful movies. Many fans of The Matrix are unaware of its source in Gibson's Neuromancer and other cyberpunk. So, I think you're onto something about educating readers cross-genre and possibly even cross-media too.

dave hutchinson said...

lisa, I have a sad little example of that. A colleague of mine enjoyed the movie version of Minority Report and a couple of weeks later told me he was really enjoying the tie-in novel. At which point I became a bit shouty.

Lisa said...

Oh my. You'd think by now everyone would know that it's always better to read the book first and see the movie second. Has he seen A Scanner Darkly yet? Maybe you can beat him to the punch.