Speculative Fiction in Conversation: Epilogue

SF in Conversation: Epilogue

This is the final part of an email conversation I had with Matt Cheney about the state of Speculative Fiction. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

I think my last email makes it clear that I, too, have been throwing stuff at the wall to see if it sticks, trying to work out my own feelings w/r/t (rest in peace, DFW) SF and genre fiction vs. literary fiction.

I'm surprised to hear anyone didn't like Diary of the Dead, especially hard-core zombie people who should appreciate it the most. I'm also surprised to hear people didn't like Land of the Dead (first I heard of it was your email) which I thought was wonderful. Though a friend of mine worked on that film (and played a zombie in it!), so I may be biased.

Your Shakespeare aside reminds me of an essay by TS Eliot where he says that Hamlet is a failed play. Eliot had a ridged set of aesthetic criteria, much as James Wood does, and it is that rigidity that does both of them a disservice as critics.

In any discussion of aesthetics, there comes a point where you have to ask yourself how subjective you're willing to be. Because, truthfully, there are no objective criteria for aesthetics, not in the way that there's objective criteria for measuring weight or salinity or electric current (quantum mechanics aside). That being the case, maybe you do have to be able to look at things a different way. You know, I didn't have any patience for Robeort E. Howard until after I read Michael Moorcock. It's Howard's influence on Moorcock that made me go back and see what it was that made the former interesting. And, while he's no great stylist and his characters aren't particularly complex, he IS interesting, if only for the sheer weirdness of the stuff he would come up with and the verve and fire with which he would execute it. There's an enchanting quality to his writing. I feel much the same way about Lovecraft, who I deeply enjoy reading (and who was a mentor of Howard).

Did Moorcock give me the "protocols" to appreciate Howard? Well, he certainly gave me a different perspective.

And yet, there's Shakespeare. The guy who really is as good as everyone always says he is. The guy who had style, had character, had imagination and setting and description and pulse-pounding action and lots of sword fights. That's one thing I love about Shakespeare. Even with all that poetry and depth, he was also a man who appreciated a good sword fight. That's a lot of what I think is missing from most of the "great" writers these days. Shakespeare was fun. (And even funny-- he wrote comedies!)

But I digress.

The point is that as subjective as we think everything is, Shakespeare is still unassailable, and the people who try to assail him, like Tolstoy and Eliot, seem kind of odd. (As you said, it tells us a lot about them and almost nothing about Shakespeare.)

So where does that leave us? And where does that leave SF?

I'm still not convinced of the protocols; taking something on its own terms to me just means trying to figure out what the book is trying to accomplish and judging it on whether it accomplished it. You read a Philip K. Dick book and usually you don't think Dick was trying to write prose poems. Dick was trying to get at something else entirely, and it's his ability to do that that makes his books worthwhile. Of course, by that measure Lord of the Rings is a rousing success. But I think what Tolkein was really interested in was the world-building aspect of his project, and the plot and characters and so on were just icing on that cake. Simple carbohydrates, if you will. Which is why Tolkein has given birth to legions of world-builders. That is his legacy. (A similar case can be made for Herbert.) World building doesn't interest me very much, usually, and so I'm not so impressed with Tolkein. But if world building is what you're looking for, then JRR is your man. And I think those are the terms we have to take him in.

And this, I think (now that I've given it some thought) is the perspective we should take as a critic. And if, as a critic, we are more interested in plot or characters or style or description, then we should hunt out books that attempt to tackle those things. And if we find something worthwhile buried in the work of someone whose other attributes are somewhat lacking, then that itself might be interesting. (Then again the very "badness" of Lovecraft's style is interesting. I recall what you said about Sturgeon's use of purple prose.)

And that is, I think, what I think about that.


Further thoughts after the fact, February 19th 2009

I'm currently reading Blindsight by Peter Watts. If ever there was a book that trafficked in the language of Speculative Fiction, this is it, chock full of passing references to "The Singularity" and other concepts that one would have to be steeped in recent SF to make sense of. Not to mention a dizzying amount of math and science concepts, coupled with a very strange and analytical (and fascinating) narrator who describes things like someone's doubt as "an anomaly in her topology."

And yet, it just reminds me of David Foster Wallace saying that his readers were all people who'd studied some literary theory in college. Some people are trying to speak to a certain group of people, and that's well and good, one should know one's audience. But DFW doesn't represent the whole of Literary Fiction any more than Peter Watts represents all of the Speculative, and it doesn't mean that most readers of whatever camp can't pick up work like Coraline or Cloud Atlas or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Focault's Pendulum or Stranger Things Happen and enjoy them. In other words, what I'm trying to say is that writers make choices about their audience, their conversation, their language, but these don't define hard-and-fast rules about all genres but rather rules peculiar to each book. That is, every book creates its own language based in part on what conversation (and what aspect of what conversation) it's picking up on, and further can be read in different ways by different readers, coming from the background of different conversations.

That all said, I still haven't read the criticism of Samuel R. Delany which started this whole thing. Maybe it'll give me more to think about. I can't wait.



I like movies with explosions. Where does this fit into these discussions?