After I published the first Future of the Fantastic article about the relationship between SF and Literary Fiction, I sent an email to John Kessel, co-editor of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology and longtime SF writer, telling him about it. What followed was an in depth exchange on the subject of the article, reprinted here.
Perhaps it's a sign of the times that when Ron Silliman posts about the new issue of Conjunctions (calling Conjunctions the best literary review in America), his comments fill with backlash about how journals are too long, too obsequent to big names, and that there are simply too many of them. In a follow-up post, Silliman writes, "I found myself sympathizing also with the commentators who bemoaned the difficulty of 'keeping up' with journals in an era of shit distribution, increasing reliance on web publishing & still way too many print magazines." (Let's also point out that they're too expensive.) Silliman then proceeds with a very interesting review of the poetry in the Conjunctions issue in question, including a piece of poetry within a short story by Jonathan Lethem.
In recent years it has become increasingly politically incorrect in literary circles to simply dismiss Philip K. Dick as a pulp Science Fiction writer; at this point, there seems to be a general consensus that there is more to Dick than there is to other "classic" scifi writers like Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, or Isaac Asimov. A dismissal of Dick in this way is no more acceptable than it would be to dismiss Kafka a horror writer, or Ernest Hemingway an Adventure writer. At the same time, there is the lingering problem with Dick in that he is somehow not of the same caliber as a Kafka or a Hemingway, and the critical appraisal of his work becomes problematic as a result.
It isn't so surprising that I didn't know what was going on in Science Fiction, as I'm the type of guy who generally reads "Literary Fiction," and like many readers of a particular type of writing, I didn't stray outside my aisles in the bookstore much. Sure I used to pick up a Philip K. Dick book now and again, maybe a Neil Gaimen novel, but hell, those guys are cool. And reading them made me feel like I was open minded and hip to what's going on, even if I wasn't.
Wet Asphalt is officially on hiatus until March 1st. Until then submit your essays, reviews, fiction and poetry to us.
In a recent interview with Bat Segundo, Kelly Link offers some interesting comments about genre labels. She says that she feels like the term "Literary Fiction" turns off lots of people, and she prefers to call what she writes "Science Fiction:" "People who are turned off by the term 'Science Fiction' probably aren't the people I want reading my work, anyway." Which struck me as strange, since so much of what Link does is exactly what I think of as "Literary Fiction." Then again, a friend of mine once pointed out that Literary Fiction is a redundant term, and one wonders if it really means anything at all. Longtime Science Fiction and Fantasy author Michael Moorcock recently wrote a fascinating review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, where, in a blistering litany of names and terms, he puts Pynchon in a linage that includes Brian Aldiss, William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut. And perhaps Moorcock is right, and my own analysis that science fiction started growing up in the eighties is off by at least 20 years. If Neal Stephenson can call The Baroque Cycle Science Fiction then maybe there is no reason that we can't call Pynchon that too, and indeed his work may share more in common with Moorcock's own then it does with "Literary Fiction" stalwarts from Hemingway to Updike to Joyce Carol Oates.
However, if Link is right that it's the term "Literary Fiction" that turns people off, then someone like Pynchon would sell more as a Science Fiction writer, and I'm not sure that's the case. A lot of the Science Fiction fans I've met seem put off by anything remotely difficult, and I recall J.F. Quackenbush telling me about the time he went to a Science Fiction convention and a group of authors on a panel all agreed that writers shouldn't use big words. This kind of thing, and the Star Trek-type imprimatur I talked about in my earlier article, are what turns people off Science Fiction, and I can't help but feel like Link's own defensiveness about the value of her chosen genre (and, more importantly, I think, of the community she identifies with) results in a kind of reverse snobbery. Yes, Moorcock and Link are right; there are many works labeled Science Fiction that are really great, and besides, there's nothing wrong with a rip roaring good story (I am, in fact, in favor of those). Further, I really like lots of work that's labeled "Science Fiction." Further still, I respect the decision of people like Link, Stephenson and China Mieville who could declare themselves "Literary Fiction" writers and get out of the perceived "ghetto" of Sci Fi and Fantasy but don't on principle. The fact remains that I get very turned off by so much "genre" writing that reads like rapidly produced hack-work, and am reassured that even the least of the "Literary Fiction" crowd spend a good deal of time refining their craft and style in a way that just can't be said by the run-of-the-mill "genre" author, whose writing is often laughably bad. Which leaves me torn, because on the one hand I want to believe that's it's great to say "Yeah, stick it to those uppity snobs, Science Fiction and proud of it," and on the other hand I have trouble accepting the idea that labeling your work Science Fiction is in any way an improvement over labeling it Literary Fiction.
Ultimately though, it's a bad situation all around. I've certainly met people from the Literary crowd with an irrational dislike of Science Fiction, and vice versa with people from the Science Fiction crowd (as well as those of various other genres). There are, in fact, lots and lots of readers who will only voluntarily read one genre, voluntarily pigeon-holing themselves. So the whole thing becomes silly, a situation which I suspect is the product of the way bookstores started shelving things in the last hundred years or so that's taken on an unfortunate life of its own. Thus turning one's nose up at Literary Fiction makes as little sense as turning it up at Science Fiction, and I can't help but wish that Link's attitude towards Literary Fiction was a little more forgiving.
I recently watched the Russian mini-series of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which was wonderful and supposedly scrupulously faithful to the novel (which I haven't read). One of the remarkable things about it, as with Dostoevsky in general, is that despite the fact that there's a huge cast of characters, every single one seems incredibly real and true to life, as if they could simply step off the page (or in this case, screen).
In his book, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester separates characters into "round" and "flat." The difference is deceptively simple; a flat character is "constructed round a single idea or quality"; "The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as 'I never will desert Mr. Micawber.'" The round character, on the other hand, is a character "capable of surprising in a convincing way"; "It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book."
Upon first glance, it would seem like a tautology that round characters are better than flat ones, with Dostoevsky as the perfect example. But Forester does not take this view at all, rather he says, "In Russian novels, where [flat characters] so seldom occur, they would be a decided help."
If Jorie Graham isn't the Headmistress of The School of Quietude, then I don't know that such a school exists as Mr. Silliman constructs it.
Rachel Cooke asks recently in an op-ed piece in The Guardian if we "amateur word spewers" would really do without Nick Hornby who Cooke feels has set the Gold Standard for criticism to which no lit blog can aspire.
I feel confident in answering that yes, I would be quite content to live in a world without Nick Hornby and his brand of insipid, uninspired prose.