Why I'm Not Worried About Academic Laurels or the Death of Mainstream Book Reviews

Back when I was Literary Fiction guy, I had a conversation about books with a girl I knew who was, if not exactly well-read, did certainly read books regularly. In the course of the conversation I mentioned Don Delillo and Dave Eggars, and she referred to them off-handedly as "people no one had ever heard of." It was at that point I realized how thoroughly we lived in different worlds.

I had a similar moment recently at my job at comiXology, when Jake, who does a weekly comics podcast, mentioned that he might have George RR Martin on as a guest and asked me if that was a big deal. There's this assumption that comics and science fiction are part of the same "geek" world (as if geeks are some monolithic entity), but Jake is extremely well-read in comics didn't have any sense of the scale of one of the best-selling authors in the world right now.

But then, I should hardly feel cocky for having heard of Delillo, Eggars and Martin. After all, according to Wikipedia, the top five bestselling fiction authors of all time are, in order, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins, and Georges Simenon. Shakespeare and Christie are recognizable enough, but before looking this up I could not have told you for the world who those last three names belonged to. Apparently, Cartland wrote romance novels, Robbins wrote adventure fiction, and Simenon wrote detective stories. How is it that I, someone for whom books are practically a lifestyle, has not even heard of three of the five best-selling writers of all time? Imagine how absurd it would be if I were a film buff who had not heard of three of the five top-grossing film directors of all time?

The Murakami-Mieville Continuum

I've mentioned before Bruce Sterling's famous essay from 1989, in which the science fiction author laments that "mainstream" (read: "literary fiction") writers are writing speculative fiction better than the genre writers are, citing examples like Margret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Don Delillo's White Noise, and suggests a new category, called "Slipstream," which would include literary works with genre elements and genre works with literary feel (or more precisely, "a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility"). (There's an interesting digression I could go into about how literary fiction people think of themselves as marginalized while genre fiction is "popular" and "commercial" and genre fiction writers think of themselves as marginalized while literary fiction is "mainstream". In fiction, everybody is second class.)

Sterling's attempt at rebranding was marvelously unsuccessful: while a small group of genre writers occasionally identified themselves as Slipstream, most genre writers ignored the term while literary fiction writers never learned it existed. Some people missed the point entirely and thought the term just meant combining two genres together, and there was at least one "Slipstream" anthology filled with cowboy werewolves and noir detective vampires.

The Meaning of Novelty: Convention, Form, Genre and an Existential Crisis

What is a Convention?

Allow me to describe a conception of art based around the twin poles of convention and novelty (which I will resist calling Convention and Novelty, because I am not French). A convention is simply a norm or collection of norms, and all art exists within certain conventions. In the visual arts, applying paint with a brush is a convention of method, and a landscape is a convention of genre, containing its own, respective conventions that can differ from time to time and place to place, as illustrated by the clear differences between traditional East Asian landscape paintings and traditional European ones. (European landscapes tend to be wider than they are high and emphasize the horizon, while East Asian landscapes tend to be higher than they are wide and emphasize scale. Each convention produces a remarkably different effect.) There is no art, or even expression, without conventions of some sort; conventions are the means by which things are expressed, the (sometimes literal, sometimes figurative) vocabulary and grammar we use to convey things. In this sense, conventions are a type of language.

Michael Moorcock: The Wet Asphalt Interview

This is part of my series on the work of Michael Moorcock.

Today marks the 70th birthday of Michael Moorcock, and for more the vast majority of those years the man has been publishing fiction read by millions. For more on his career, refer to my review of The Best of Michael Moorcock, from earlier in this series. Our interview took place via email over the course of a few months, and ranged widely in topics, including genre, ethics, feminism, imitation, comics, Jung and more.

In my initial email to him, I described my own introduction to his work. Normally, I would edit this sort of thing out of the interview, but I leave it here because it becomes important to his initial responses. In some cases where multiple questions were asked in one email and responded to in another, I spliced the emails together, or moved follow ups next to the questions they referenced, to make the whole thing read more fluidly. I apologize for any clumsiness caused by this technique.

Michael Moorcock's most recent book is Elric: In the Dream Realms.

Plot Genre and the Pulp Fiction Boondoggle

Apparently yet again the mainstream critics have gotten it wrong, and not surprisingly it came out of Northeastern literary circles, whose stable of critics includes such dim luminaries as the functionally illiterate Michiko Kakutani and the it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren't-so-tragic-how-completely-wrong-she-always-is-about-everything-she's-supposed-to-be-an-expert-on Helen Vendler, and need I mention N+1?

This latest, as Matt Cheney rightly points out, is an attempt to elevation to "serious literary discourse" the old straw man that's been kicked around in genre fiction and fan fic circles for at least a generation now, namely that genre fiction is somehow superior to literary fiction because it has a plot and literary fiction is just a bunch of navel gazing character study nonsense couched in mandarin language.

Why I Hate Short Stories: A Short Article on Why Short Fiction is Short on Interest

I don't like short stories. I have never made this a secret. There is the occasional writer like Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel Garcia Marquez who writes short stories that I like. But these writers are few and far between.

Genre Fiction, Best Of and Media

Michael Peterson's latest comics column in The House Next Door, which is a fascinating analysis of comics as cartography, contains this aside:

The Best American Comics was established three years ago as a counterpart to other "Best American" collections of prose writing and has largely maintained the same roster of talent in each annual edition.


I was digging through some old notes in preparation for this installment on an especially bitter night in 2005, after attending a gallery opening here in Chicago hosted by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, editor of a Yale anthology of comics very similar to the "Best American" books. The gallery featured the same few folks; I hurled out some invective that evening, some of which I'm inclined to retract and some of which is still true today:

Brunetti is part of that society of cartoonists that holds our most public faces—Spiegelman and Ware, Chester Brown and Seth and Joe Matt, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine and the rest of those who hold Schultz and Crumb as the binary star which we should orbit. They're the ones that sit at the Big Kids Table, and at this point, we're resigned to it. They're married to our roots in the daily and Sunday strips, and for many, that form is what informs their every creation, a view that cannot be disentangled. The comic book as a unit is the stuff of old pulps. To stray too far into genre territory, other than as an ironic metaphor, is to obfuscate your message and resign yourself to obscurity.

This all reminded me quite a lot of my own questioning of genre's acceptance by the mainstream critical world. After all this site was practically founded as a reaction to the predominance of quotidian, autobiographical, realist fiction in the "literary" world, exactly the kind of fiction that dominates both the Best American Comics and (usually) the Best American Short Stories anthologies.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the critical estimation of works in verious media, as judged by some well-known "best of" lists.

The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway's new novel The Gone Away World may have its problems. Its weirdness is sometimes too self-conscious, in a way common to first-time writers, throwing together as he does ninjas, monsters, mimes and other oddities. His view of corporations, around which much of the book hinges, is naive and simplistic; corporations in The Gone Away World are uniformly and inherently dehumanizing and evil without variation or exception, and the hierchy of their employees can be measured in exactly how dehumanized and evil they've become. Yet, whatever its faults, this is exactly the kind of novel I want to read. There's a temptation to call the novel cross-genre, as it mixes both science fiction and fantasy elements (to the extent that they can be distinguished or even defined) with a "literary fiction" sensibility (to the extent that that exists or can be defined). However, cross-genre for me brings to mind someone deliberately taking bits of two genres and joining them together-- the SF detective novel, the literary urban fantasy novel, the paranormal romance and so on. The Gone Away World doesn't so much do that as ignore genre boundaries all together; things happen according to the internal logic of the book, and not because of some loose system of conventions hobbled together over the decades. In the end, he creates something like a map of the human psyche, populated by freakish embodyments of friendship, fear and love.

I'm intentionally avoiding a plot summary because any one I gave would spoil the many twists and turns of the narrative. All you really need to know is that this is a book which is highly entertaining and also contains depth of character and elements of social commentary and satire. It is at turns fun and serious, wacky and emotionally tough, and is representative of a new kind of fiction gradually emerging, a fiction which knows no boundaries.

A Counter Proposition

I recently linked to John Scalzi's post about SF writers jumping ship to become Young Adult writers, and Mediabistro's additional notes on the subject. Scalzi expands more on this, but the bottom line is the same; books in the Young Adult section of the bookstore sell better (and therefore pay better) than books in the SF section of the bookstore.

"As a final kick in the teeth," Scalzi observers, "YA SF/F is amply represented at top of the general bestselling charts of YA book sales, whereas adult SF/F struggles to get onto the general bestselling adult fiction charts at all." The overall effect? Adult readers, he proposes, "are missing a genuine literary revolution in their genre because the YA section is a blank spot on the map to them, if not to everyone else."

As an example, consider Cory Doctorow's new YA novel Little Brother which is the first of his novels to make it to a New York Times bestseller list (granted it's the kids bestseller list, but still).

There have been a number of explanations of the reasons for this discrepancy, but let me put my two cents in: SF titles sell better in the Young Adult section because they're mixed in with non-SF titles as general fiction aimed at a certain age group. On the contrary, adult SF is segregated from the rest of the "Fiction and Literature" as if it were not fiction or literature, but instead the embarrassing power fantasies of people who think making women wear "touch-my-boobies" pins is acceptable adult behavior.

Let me say this to all you SF/F people out there: sometimes it's really hard to take you folks seriously. And there's plenty of talk about stigmas and ghettos in the SF world and even talk about how the constant death of SF is part of the nature of the beast. But so what? How low do your sales have to get before you finally abandon ship?

The Future of the Fantastic: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 1

In this space I was going to review, as promised, the book ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories. This anthology turned out to not be very good for a number of reasons I won't bother to enumerate; with stuff from very small presses, a bad review just seems egregious and unnecessary—no one's reading the book anyway. Instead I'll be reviewing The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 1, edited by Jonathan Strahan, which turned out to be excellent, and easily the best of the anthologies I've reviewed so far in this series.