Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes: Thoughts on the Cassandra Ghetto

I've been mulling over something for a few weeks now, and maybe the occasion of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's death is as good as any to try and organize my thinking. I heard Vonnegut speak on a few occasions, and while everyone will be talking about how much his fiction influenced them, it was actually his speeches and his essays that touched me profoundly as a young man. There's a fitting tribute in the works to the man starting up at the site of my friend and author Eric Spitznagel's blog, Vonnegut's Asshole, which I encourage everyone to check out. So I mean no offense if I use the occasion of the death of one of science fiction's most celebrated practitioners - and one who objected the most to the label of science fiction - as an excuse to look at our genre's struggle for literary respectability.

Recently, in a podcast on Adventures in SciFi Publishing, recorded at a speaking engagement at Mysterious Galaxy, Kim Stanley Robinson talked about the power that comes from being in genre:

"You pay a price for being in the world of science fiction in terms of essentially ghetto culture. In the larger culture you are marginalized in the way that everybody in a ghetto would be marginalized. But ... it's not the same as ghettos traditionally were in the origins of that word because you've actually chosen to enter it; you could leave it if you wanted to. So you go in there with the full knowledge that you may be marginalized in some contexts, but in other contexts you have actually been empowered. And you begin to speak with one voice. And also there's something very powerful about it, which is that it's the voice from the future. So no matter how marginalized you are in American culture - okay science fiction, these people, these fans - there's also this sense that, well they are speaking from the future, somehow they're two weeks ahead of the rest of us in some metaphysical sense that is very powerful 'cause it goes back to the power of prophecy. And prophecy is a very deep and ancient thing. When the shaman stands up and says, 'this is going to happen,' everybody says 'okay, where we've entered the magic space now.' So there is that power in science fiction that I try to focus on, whenever I get discouraged..."

I think I've made a case elsewhere that with great power comes great responsibility and why I think science fiction isn't just entertainment, but is "entertainment plus." I can, and have, spun off arguments for why this makes us literature, and damn important literature at that.

Meanwhile, a crop of recent films like Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and Sunshine aim to recover the dignified scifi cinema of Blade Runner and 2001, while an opinion piece in the Telegraph boldly declares, "It's now time to take Doctor Who seriously," comparing the series to The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and calling Doctor Who "an extraordinary study of loss." And all this positive attention to SF is having an effect, as over on the Guardian Unlimited, Sam Jordison wonders if there is good stuff in the genre he's missing due to the stigma, in his blog "Reading scifi for pleasure," where he asks:

"When it comes to the genre wars, science fiction is at a very curious disadvantage. As soon as someone writes a really good sci-fi book it nearly always seems to get reclassified as something else. It's a bit like the way members of the Ireland cricket team become English once they reach a certain level... Does writing brilliantly preclude Vonnegut et al from the sci-fi genre? Or is it just that there's so much more to their books than spaceships and aliens? Could it be that most sci-fi is just so bad that reasonable people can't stand to tar literary heroes like Angela Carter with its brush? Conversely, have I been unreasonably depriving myself of other great sci-fi works for years? Or is it simply the case that I'm barking up the wrong tree and that my approach to literature would be far healthier if I just ignored such semantics and the labelling policies of high street chains?"

Well, yeah.

But I'm starting to think respectability will take care of itself, or doesn't really need to be addressed at all. Looking at all the teenagers - soon to be adults - that I saw at Boskone 44, who are graduating to adult SF&F as we speak, I suddenly had a revelation, which is that science fiction and fantasy are both a good deal more popular and more mainstream than is generally represented. It’s just that a large percentage of SF&F these days is being consumed outside the SF&F section of the bookstore. To begin with, a large portion of what is labeled as children’s and teen fiction is straight genre, whether we’re talking about the Harry Potter books or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Trilogy. These are shelved outside the SF&F section and thus aren’t counted as SF&F sales, but it’s preposterous to label tales of wizard academies and genetically-engineered beauty as anything but fantasy and science fiction. While casting our gaze onto the other side of the bookstore, you find an increasing number of “mainstream” authors utilizing generic tropes in their efforts to address our increasingly technological present. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a straight alternative history set in a world where the events diverged in WWII, a direct narrative descendant of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, (a classic work that is itself about to be published in a prestigious Library of America edition, with an introduction by another literary writer who swims in genre waters – Jonathan Lethem.) Add to that writers like Susanna Clarke, Keith Donohue, Kazuo Ishiguro, Walter Mosley, Audrey Niffenegger, and Cormac McCarthy. Oprah's Book Club has just picked a post-apocalyptic novel, for god's sake! You can't get more mainstream than that! Then consider how obvious genre writers like Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, China MiĆ©ville, and Neal Stephenson have been accepted by the mainstream. Meanwhile, 9 of the top 10, and 16 of the top 20, highest grossing films of all time are SF&F (17 of 20 if you’ll let me count The Passion of the Christ as either fantasy and/or horror!) To say nothing of gaming. Obviously, the appetite for SF&F has never been higher and extends well beyond a few shelves in the back of the bookstore, reaching out in all directions and through all media.

So while the New York Times gives a grudging acknowledgment that Vonnegut was an SF writer, saying "Some critics said he had invented a new literary type, infusing the science-fiction form with humor and moral relevance and elevating it to serious literature," ultimately I think Charles Stross was right when he said it's apples to oranges, making his comparison to the difficultly of persuading jazz and classical aficionados of the relevance of the others preferred music.

Where I think the ultimate validation lies is in your pocket book. When those kids I saw at Boskone finish reading The Deathly Hallows and wonder what next, anyone who actively discourages them from remaining as consumers of SF&F is doing a grave financial disservice to writers, publishers, distributors, and booksellers everywhere. So while I will continue to extol the literary values of SF&F within genre itself, my new approach to outward-focused discussions is going to be a financial one, deriding anyone who still peddles outdated stigmas as, well, a fool. The challenge for us now – and by us I mean authors, publishers, booksellers and journalists – is to recognize the obvious; quit purveying and subscribing to outdated stereotypes and stigmas that are in no one's best interests; and find ways to connect readers who are already consuming genre in other packaging and other media directly with the source. When an entire industry’s quarterly fiscal reports fluctuate in direct relation to whether or not the period contains a book with a boy wizard in it, it’s time to admit that science fiction and fantasy are mainstream and quit worrying about whether or not it's literature. Just as the whole notion of what a geek is has altered from the image of the classic nerd with thick glasses and a pocket protector to goateed, pierced & tattooed kids with PSPs - have you looked at the real Comic Con audience lately? These geeks are cool! So it's time to acknowledge that it's a hell of a lot more fun to actually, well, have fun than it is to pick on those who are enjoying themselves. The stigma applied to the genre books relegated to the back of the bookstore is nothing less than money being left on the table. Quit looking down your nose and pick it up.

Update: I am thrilled to see this article from Jason Silverman over on, entitled "Writers, Directors Fear 'Sci-Fi' Label Like an Attack From Mars." Jason is pointing out the absurdity of denying that something isn't SF when it clearly is. As he writes:

"You won't find the words 'science fiction' in Random House's bio of Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author China MiƩville. Instead, he's called the 'edgiest mythmaker of the day.' Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep? It's classified as comedy, drama, romance and fantasy, but not sci-fi, at Even Battlestar Galactica, the flagship show of (hello!) the Sci Fi Channel, keeps a distance. 'It's fleshed-out reality,' explains executive producer Ronald D. Moore in the sci-fi mag SFX. 'It's not in the science-fiction genre.'

I love "fleshed out reality" to describe a show with androids, lost civilizations, planetary colonization, and spaceships. If Battlestar Galactica isn't science fiction - then nothing is! Not that I don't sympathize with Ron Moore's attempts to widen his audience, and Moore does have a very grounded knowledge of our genre - he is speaking at the Nebulas, after all. BSG is doing a good job of restoring awareness to SF, whether they feel the need to fight the label in public or not, and we need more shows like this on TV. But we need more articles like this Wired one as well. Thank you Jason. (And thanks to both Sean Williams and Paul Wargelin for pointing me to the article.)


Cheryl said...

It's a bit like the way members of the Ireland cricket team become English once they reach a certain level...

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

And a note in passing. I was in a book store in central Chicago yesterday. They had an SF/F section. All the books in it were mass market. The hardcover and trade paperbacks, in some cases of the same books were shelved in "fiction". Go figure.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Cheryl,
That is a really interesting observation. I think I would have assumed the just didn't stock hardcovers and trade paperbacks and wouldn't have looked elsewhere. I am about two steps away from reshelving my entire library without any genre divisions.

For one thing, I have Cavalier & Clay in my literary section, but Final Solution with my Sherlock Holmes books. When I get Yiddish Policeman, it will go in SF! And of course his two anthologies in the anthology section. Poor Chabon will be spread all over!

Cheryl said...

You have enough shelf space to be organized like that? Kevin and I just about manage piles of fiction in one room and piles of non-fiction in the others.

Paul Cornell said...

Ed Joyce, until recently an opener for England, has just become Irish again. Thus proving Kim Stanley Robinson correct.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Cheryl - I bought 10 floor to ceiling, 8 ft tall, shelves, with sliding ladder, etc... I still have books elsewhere (including another vanity bookshelf in another part of the library), and I am dreading what happens when these are full, as they almost are.
Paul - you are misattributing your quotes!

Anonymous said...


Thanks to you and this post, I am going to actually get around to doing a couple of things I've had kicking around my head to do. One will involve the Harry Potter midnight release madness and the other is related to the Oprah Book Club thing.

Both are an attempt to get good SF books in front of non-genre readers. You've just given the motivation to do it!

Second, I noticed that the British press are the ones who seem to be realizing that SF may not be as 'bad' as previously thought. Have you seen anything in the US along these lines? Hopefully the attitudes here will change as well. Maybe there ought to be some web site that says, 'Yes, you are reading SF!' SLAUGHTER HOUSE FIVE? SF. ORYX AND CRAKE? SF. And so on.



Aaron Hughes said...

Lou, if your new approach to outward-focused discussions is financial, doesn't that feed into the false stereotype that genre fiction is popular but lacks literary merit?

Everyone in the mainstream is aware that Stephen King sells a lot of books, but they still don't acknowledge that anyone in the horror field can write.

I don't particularly care about getting credit from the literary elite, except that it drives me nuts that so many intelligent readers never give SF/F/H a try, because they mistakenly believe that the knuckleheads at the New York Times know what they're talking about.

Lou Anders said...

Hey JP,
First, you can't keep me in suspense. What are these ideas? Share them! Share them!

Second, my sense is also that it seems to be the UK press cluing in first, and that the Guardian has had a fairly healthy attitude about SF for awhile now. I'm about to upload an update courtesy of Sean Williams of a Wired magazine article that joins the crusade. And I'd very much like to see more in the US along these lines. I think that, for all the flak it's generating, the NY Times reviewing SF regularly again is a good thing, as is the new column that the LA Times is about to initiate, though more important would be reviews that didn't segregate, but reviewed SF alongside other genres, and articles like the Wired one that pokes fun at the purveyors of the stigma. I think there is a real struggle to rebrand literate SF going on now - as the USA Today article "Science Fiction Gets Real" that I touted heavily last year partakes of (there's another US one) -alongside a parallel move to get people to lighten up and admit they enjoy things other than drab realism.

Lou Anders said...

Aaron, I don't disagree with you. And I wouldn't want to stop, inside genre or personally, advocating SF as literature. But I'm very concerned when the kids who are reading Harry Potter in the millions march out of the YA section and head to the SF&F, they will be met by gatekeepers who say, "Oh, you don't want to go here, that's for nerds." Whereas if I were a bookseller, I'd be painting glowing footprints on the floor and erecting big Warner Bros cartoon arrows and pointing hands saying "Go here next! Go here next!" I think that the "SF - is it literature or not?" debate is very, very old, and will never be completely won - let those who have ears to hear, hear and all that. But that the financial argument might have power to sway some of those gatekeepers to step out of the way. But with everything I post here, I am very open to opinions and discussion - I post to explore and learn. Which is why I want JP to share!

Anonymous said...

Hi Lou,

Great post! I love your summation:

"So it's time to acknowledge that it's a hell of a lot more fun to actually, well, have fun than it is to pick on those who are enjoying themselves. The stigma applied to the genre books relegated to the back of the bookstore is nothing less than money being left on the table. Quit looking down your nose and pick it up."

This reminds me of Clive Barker's 2006 FantasyCon speech (which I found linked from Neil Gaiman's site):

Lou Anders said...

thanks for the love and the link. I really like this quote:

"...what has happened historically is that the straight world, the world of straight critics and the people, the taste-makers, have taken the cream, if you will, off each generation and decided it is no longer generic, it’s ‘Classic’, right? And that’s fucked, let’s be honest, that’s fucked; it’s a lie.

"I think we should cancel the word genre, I think we should throw the word genre out. We are not a genre, which suggests a small or perhaps even somewhat besieged condition - we are a continent and, actually most of the smaller things which came along afterwards like naturalism, realism, these things are a mere 200 years old, to pick up Ramsey’s word, they are striplings. How long has naturalistic fiction been around – maybe 300 years?"

"We are in a tradition which began, we may assume, around campfires as stories were told and gods were made and goddesses were worshipped and the fundamentals, the primal concerns of human beings, were laid out. Fuck genre – this isn’t about genre, this is about the fact that we are writing and painting and making in film form expressions of the profoundest issues of the human heart!"

Anonymous said...


Sorry for the late response, I've been terribly busy.

I'm going to write up a couple of posts on SFSignal that will detail my ideas I mentioned above. I'd like to flesh them out in my head before putting them down in a comment, so, I guess, look for them sometime over the weekend, possibly on Monday (depending on what things my wife wants me to do this weekend..)!

Hopefully, they will be interesting.


Lou Anders said...

I look forward - but not impatiently, understanding as I do about wives and weekends.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding post, and thanks for pointing to the Telegraph article; I missed that one somehow. It's heartening when one of the heavyweight dailies runs an article which takes very seriously a series which is not only science fiction but was, until recently, considered by much of popular culture to be just a kids' show.
It might be too early to talk of a sea change in the media's attitude to science fiction, but if there is one I think it will be important. From where I stand, it looks to me that the popular media has for quite a long time regarded science fiction as a kind of deformed cousin of literature, something you keep in the attic and don't mention at dinner. I think that attitude has trickled down to the reading public: there's something `wrong' with science fiction (unless it's officially-sanctioned movie science fiction) and if you read it there's something just a little bit wrong with you too.
I saw a quote in one of the Vonnegut obituaries about him not being keen on being put in the filing drawer marked `science fiction' because critics `mistake that drawer for a porcelain receptacle in a restroom.' And that was in the 1960s.
I think that's been the weight science fiction has been labouring under in the public perception for too long: either it's literary (and therefore not science fiction at all) or it's that stuff about spaceships and aliens that socially maladjusted types read. It's notable that, with the noble exception of The Guardian, you rarely see science fiction reviewed in the papers over here, whereas most of the heavyweights will have, at least once a month, a roundup of thrillers and crime fiction. That needs to change, and the reviews need to be intelligently-written, by people who know what they're talking about, not someone who's going to write, `In Dave Hutchinson's new novel Zog goes to Planet P and...oh, look, a butterfly...' It strikes me that we need to convert the unconverted, and to do that we need to be up in their faces, showing them what we can do, and to do that we first have to let them know we're here.
Sorry about the rant. Makes a change from `Hm,' I guess...

Lou Anders said...

No, you're absolutely right. And what's more, we need to get across that science fiction is a genre, in the full range and sense of that word, and not a single style or school of thought.

This never happens in other genres:

A: What are you reading?
B: Hannibal Rising, by Thomas Harris.
A: Oh, yeah. What's that about?
B: It's about the early formative years of a man who will become one of the most famous serial killers of his day, although he is also a genius.
A: Oh, so it's a mystery book?
B: Yeah, I guess so.
A: I read a mystery once. Sneaky Pie Brown the Crime Solving Cat. I didn't like it. It was silly; cat's don't solve crimes in real life. I guess mystery isn't for me.

Somehow, it's understood that the mystery/thriller genre encapsulates something for everyone and fans of gritty crime serials and fans of cozies, and they aren't all lumped together like SF is.

Anonymous said...

And I don't quite understand how that happened. Once upon a time I could go into a mainstream bookshop and buy tons of science fiction - even the tiny bookstall at Sheffield railway station had a full set of the Lensman novels. Nowadays you go into a bookshop and the sf/f/h are usually all lumped together onto a couple of shelves. How is science fiction supposed to attract readers if they don't know what there is available, and can't walk into a shop and buy it?
Okay, I know, we have the internet now and if someone's interested in science fiction they can look it up, but if someone's interested in, say, Thomas Harris, all they've got to do is go into a bookshop and wander around the shop's extensive crime and thriller section. Where they will probably see other books that catch their eye and maybe buy them. And so on.

Lou Anders said...

I wish that the magazine Science Fiction Age had made it into the 21st century, as this truly is the "science fiction age," not in terms of the genre's popularity, but in terms of our living in an SFnal world. That's still my favorite title for a magazine - a title which makes a point we need to get across. I don't want to hide the label of Science Fiction, I want to reclaim it. "This stuff is fun. This stuff is relevant. Get over your bad self. We live in the future. Now get with the times!"

Ted said...

Lou, I think you're making a mistake by discussing fantasy and SF in the same terms. The fantasy label doesn't hurt sales, but the SF label does. No one is "leaving money on the table" by stigmatizing genre; YA fantasy sold as fantasy sells very well, while Scott Westerfeld's SF YA novels probably sell better without the SF label. They'd be leaving money on the table if they insisted on the SF label.

And when you say that it's time to "quit worrying about whether or not it's literature," who are you talking to? It seems like you're one of the people who want more respect for SF. Either position is a reasonable one to take, but not both at the same time.

A.R.Yngve said...

Maybe the very name "science fiction" was a burden from the start. (Damn you, Hugo Gernsback!) I wish the label "Speculative Fiction" had been around a lot longer.

Anonymous said...

Mind you, not all science fiction is doing badly. Film and tv tie-ins seem to be doing quite well, judging by the number of them in the shops.
ted's right, by the way; we are guilty of wanting to have our cake and eat it.

Vladimir @ Fantastic Planet said...

You know, I see this discussion going on and on for a while (and it should, we need to formalize how we as a community address SF&F), but what we forget is that genre has hurt writers as much as depriving readers of all the good stuff.

For the past 40 years, before a writer has laid a single word onto a page, he or she has already decided what 'type' of writer they want to be-- SF, Fantasy, Horror, 'Literary', Post-modern, whathaveyou and therefore they lock themselves into a mode of writing that has limits.

Now here we are creating words like 'slipstream', or magical realism, or meta-fiction, for writers who are breaking genre rules (in and outside of SF& F: Murakami, David Mitchell,etc.)... These writers don't see genre, they see technique, and this is what discussions like this get lost in. Conversely, within SF&F the craft of prose is often overlooked in favor of plot and quite frankly some SF&F authors could stand to take short journeys outside of the genre, to visit Woolf, Delillo, Mccarthy, Steinbeck, to name but a few.

We need to change the very words we use to analyze writing so that we can wash this stigmatism out of our collective consciousnesses and allow writers to expand their 'toolkit' and readers to explore more methods of storytelling.

I agree with Clive Barker: Genre should die.

I know someone will post about how genre is necessary to 'guide' the publishing industry and the readers, and for marketing purposes, but THAT IS NOT A VALID RETORT. It's like saying, "Well, it's always been like this so..." And that simply is not true. Thanks Lou for bringing together many aspects of this discussion for us to mull over.

A.R.Yngve said...

But can Genre BE killed? How's it done?

Lou Anders said...

This from Locus:

"Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road is winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction; Ray Bradbury is winner of a special citation, "for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy."

Lou Anders said...

Oh, and I see Kay Kenyon has some thoughts on the subject here: