Monday, November 24, 2014

Some Thoughts On Genre

Some books. American 20th
century writers.
A friend once asked me if I shelf my science fiction books apart from “literature.” I don’t actually recognize a separate category called “literature,” and my books are shelved in Library of Congress order. This means that writers are grouped by historical period, not their names, or the intent of their fiction. It would get muddy otherwise. Should you lump Charles Dickens, a writer for the masses, in with the popular fiction, despite that his work is taught as literature today.[1] I shelve Dickens in with the other Victorians.

I read something today that I think got genre a bit wrong.[2] In his view, genre fiction puts character subordinate to plot. I could doubtless fill his home with genre works that gratify that opinion. He noted that (and I will quote here) that “people are good or bad (sometimes evil)” (I"m quoting, but not naming. I have my reasons.) And I could fill his home with genre works that refute that claim.

There is a tendency, alas, to view science fiction in the context of the more ham fisted examples of the genre. Admittedly, they’re easy to find. But just as a chain bookstore is going to shove all novels that aren’t some readily identifiable subset together, you’ll find the same thing in the science fiction aisles. If we’re talking pure literary quality, you’re going to find some works that look at the human character in meaningful way, and if you wander over to the “fiction and literature” shelves, you’ll find things with a staggering intellectual shallowness, and yet aren’t shoved into the romance category.

There’s a tendency among science fiction fans to bemoan that universities don’t teach science fiction. From the point of view of English Department, the term “science fiction” as “American women writers who have the letter L somewhere in their names.” Let me throw out some names. Can you create a reading list out of Piers Anthony and Samuel R. Delany? Only if you’re trying to show the breadth of the field. I don’t think we’ll see a university press putting out editions of Piers Anthony’s work, though that has happened to Delany.

I have not yet read his latest work, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, his 2012 novel about rural gay men (that is, not science fiction), but when I do, I know that I will be looking for resonances between that and his earlier work, including the science fiction novels Dhalgren[3] and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. We can’t read Delany and pretend that these earlier works didn’t happen. (Happily, the publisher of “Spiders” does not ignore this, and two science fiction novels and a series of fantasy works are listed on the back cover.[4])

Of course genre can put character first. I suspect that editors would not let a romance novelist do that (because then you have explicitly changed categories, and the bookstore clerks will shelve you in a different part of the store). But we mustn’t mistake genre (really a convention so that the clerks know where to shelve the book) as a proxy for literary quality.

All generalizations are wrong. Generalizations made about science fiction seem to be particularly wrong. Yeah, of course most of it is forgettable crap. Most stuff is. You wouldn’t describe The Seventh Seal as “a movie, much as is Santa Claus Captures the Martians.” If you tell me that science fiction is all action plots, weak on characterization, I’m going to tell you to open up a copy of Dhalgren. Finding the comfortable chair is your responsibility.

  1. I find myself thinking about the story of the Oxford don who reacted to the then-new field of English studies by describing it as “chit-chat about Chaucer.” In the 1880s, the idea that students would sit in a university classroom and discuss Dickens would have been thought utterly risable.  ↩
  2. I’m not going to quote it here. Sorry.  ↩
  3. I think Dhalgren is science fiction. Fred Pohl was Delany’s editor. It was published as science fiction. Something happens in it that’s not quite in the ordinary. I should read it again.  ↩
  4. Spolier alert: “The Bridge of Lost Desire” is an AIDS metaphor, transferred into a psuedo-medieval setting. Sometimes we need distance to see things clearly.  ↩

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1 comment:

  1. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, though, IS sf--starting about halfway through. I couldn't read it, for the raw sex.


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