Speculative Fiction in Conversation Part 1

In November, I posted a blog entry about James Gunn's essay on protocols and ways of reading in science fiction, a concept he drew from the essay collection Starboard Wine by Samual R. Delany. While I was critical of Gunn's post, the concepts discussed made me realize that there might be a lot of SF criticism out there that I had never read and never even heard of. After a little Google searching, I discovered that the Delany book was out of print and difficult to find, however an earlier collection, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, had a forthcoming reissue with an introduction by my own friend Matt Cheney, who was trying to get the other book back into print as well. Matt is also the author of the blog Mumpsimus, a number of fine short stories, is the series editor of The Best American Fantasy, and is an English teacher who's known to sneak speculative fiction into the curriculum. It seemed natural that I would turn to him to fill in the gaps in my own SF education. What follows is part 1 of the email conversation that resulted, which moves from criticism to the history of SF and the ongoing debate about SF's place in the literary world, and whether protocols really exist at all.


Hey Matt,
I was thinking, one thing that the recent blog post I wrote about protocols and essentialism in sf is that there's probably a lot of sf criticism I haven't been exposed to. While I have come across occasional essays on the subject (Hal Duncan's recent Geek Show series, for instance), mostly it's been me stumbling around in a haphazard fashion. Being Mr. Sf teacher guy, I was wondering if you could recommend me some books/essays that would catch me up on the conversation that's been going on in the critical/scholarly/sf world universe on the subject. Really, any recommendations at all would be most appreciated.

Thanks, and good luck getting Starboard Wine released!
Eric

Hi Eric,

Oh, SF criticism is a ... minefield.  There are a few problems with it, including that the sorts of people who will be attracted to it are generally not of the same sort of mind that is attracted to literary criticism, and there are only a handful of people who have a good grasp of real literary criticism who are also interested in practicing SF criticism.  I mean, there's no profit in it, really.  Academically, it's not respected in the same way, generally, that more recognized literary criticism is, and yet it pays just as badly, so what's the point if you can get neither prestige nor money?  A few people have found ways to get one or the other, but there's no real path toward anything the way there is with more established litcrit, which at least can help you in your academic career.  It's possible that some SF crit will be able to help in your academic career, but it will take some time and a lot more publications than it would were you writing about something else.

In any case, though, these links are worth glancing at:
http://sfra.org/sfra-review.html
http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/

There is, as the SF Studies link there shows, a history of SF criticism that goes back to the late '50s, and before that there was a sort of criticism that existed in the fan community, though I think most of it was, frankly, idiotic.  There was also, though, a tradition of "utopian studies", which didn't use the words "science fiction" but instead looked at particularly the utopian writers of the 19th century.

Much of what passes for SF "criticism" is actually just historiography.  James Gunn is a good example of that. Useful and often interesting to read, but not what most people are talking about when they're talking about "criticism". Which many people would say is a good thing, since academic litcrit doesn't exactly have the best rep outside the academy.

There are only a few writers of SF criticism worth paying much attention to in addition to Delany: Darko Suvin, Alexei Panshin, Damien Broderick, Frederick Jameson, and Adam Roberts (writers such as John Clute and Gary Wolfe are knowledgeable and thoughtful, but are primarily reviewers and taxonomists -- Clute, in fact, has inspired an entire taxonomical industry amongst mostly British SF reviewers, who are bizarrely fixated on defining and categorizing things.  Clute's encyclopedias are invaluable and his reviews are often interesting, but the obsession with taxonomy [beyond its usefulness for creating an encyclopedia] is one I find mystifying). Certainly, there are articles here and there that are worth paying attention to, including some good recent work on SF and colonialism (an important topic, I think), but you'll get pretty much the full breadth (such as it is) of the critical discussion of SF from reading those writers.

Ultimately, the problem as I see it is that science fiction was an interesting publishing phenomenon of the mid-20th century, and most of the forces that created and nurtured that phenomenon have dissipated, metamorphosed, and disappeared, leaving most of the SF of today to be little more than a reiteration of what was done in the '50s.  It's notable that the primary magazine for "hard" science fiction in this, the digital age, is called Analog.

These days I mostly believe that SF is not a style of writing, but a publishing community, and that nothing done new in the SF world must remain SF anymore -- anything that is new is going to be able to be presented under the guise of "fiction" or "literature" now because the forces that led to the creation of something called science fiction in the U.S. have changed.  Readers' relationships to both technology and to texts have changed.  This doesn't mean SF will disappear, but rather that it will do what it's been doing for a while now, which is reiterate the structures of the past and feel more and more quaint, while things that could, in fact, be termed science fictional will be bought, sold, and read as something else.  The only people who have a problem with this are people who both want their lit to be new and different and who still want to attend science fiction conventions.

I've attached my thesis on Delany because it contains early versions of my intros for the reissues of Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine, plus some other stuff -- it's not well written and it's very awkward in places because I was under a huge time crunch, but it will give you some sense of what I see as the importance of Delany's criticisms.  The "reading protocols" idea is one that has been grabbed onto by the SF community because it makes them feel special, not because it's central to Delany's project.  And even though Delany doesn't make much of it and wishes people would look at other elements of his ideas, he values it even more than I do.

Starboard Wine will be out in the fall of '09 from Wesleyan, and I'll be curious to see how it's received -- I think most people won't understand it, or will understand it in the same way they would if they didn't read it.  Hardly anybody has read it, because it was barely distributed. This is unfortunate, because even though many of the ideas in it are present in the later books, they're never as thoroughly explored within an SF context as there, and so if people want only the SF ideas, they are left with the somewhat more available Jewel-Hinged Jaw, many of the ideas of which Delany has since moved far beyond.

I'll be curious to see how your explorations go!

Best,
Matt

Matt,
Wow. This is all very helpful, and I'm going pore over your thesis this weekend. Thank you so much.

One thing about what you wrote:

I've come to believe that SF is not a style of writing, but a publishing community, and that nothing done new in the SF world must remain SF anymore -- anything that is new is going to be able to be presented under the guise of "fiction" or "literature" now because the forces that led to the creation of something called science fiction in the U.S. have changed.  Readers' relationships to both technology and to texts have changed.  This doesn't mean SF will disappear, but rather that it will do what it's been doing for a while now, which is reiterate the structures of the past and feel more and more quaint, while things that could, in fact, be termed science fictional will be bought, sold, and read as something else.  The only people who have a problem with this are people who both want their lit to be new and different and who still want to attend science fiction conventions.

I hardly need to tell you that I'm very sympathetic with your viewpoint here. However, there are some problems. Take for example Nick Harkaway's book the Gone Away World, an excellent, post-apocalyptic type novel that was published, at least nominally, as a mainstream book, though consistently reviewed as "science fiction". Or take for example the anthology Logorrhea, which you yourself were part of. This anthology goes out of its way in all its copy to never utter words like science fiction, speculative fiction, fantastic fiction or any other permutations. However, right there on the spine is the publisher's own judgment, "Science Fiction/Fantasy", insuring that the book will be put in that section in the bookstore. Note also that, though the stories (which are excellent) are all (more or less) the kind that might appeal to mainstream readers, the writers themselves (with the notable exception of Michelle Richmond, and yourself with your admirably half-and-half bio) are all known as speculative fiction writers, published in speculative fiction magazines and/or have books in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section.

What I'm saying is that the wall seems to still exist between SF and not-SF, and if a writer like Nick Harkaway decides he doesn't want to be put in the SF section because the interesting work is going on outside of it, how does he avoid being put in it anyway? Margaret Atwood gets away with it because she's published numerous books that are not remotely speculative, and someone like David Foster Wallace does because he surrounds it with a postmodern veneer. However, interesting SF writers like, say, China Mieville or Brian Francis Slattery are still put into the SF section and may not get any exposure outside of that community.

Which is all to say, I would be the first one to champion the abolition of genre boundaries, but I'm not sure if the mainstream is really welcoming work with SF sorts of ideas, or how writers would go about becoming mainstream writers of the fantastic--in this country, anyway. (In many other countries things are substantially different.) Neil Gaiman still gets called by the press "the most famous writer you've never heard of", which is frankly baffling to me, considering how popular he's been for how long, but it's indicative of the wall that still exists between SF and the rest of the world, and in a practical sense, as both a fiction writer and a critic, I'm not sure how best to go about moving toward a more open future.

Thanks again for everything, and I look forward to reading Starboard Wine when it comes out. Oh, and happy Thanksgiving!
Eric

Hi Eric,

We're coming at the question slightly differently, and I didn't express myself well before -- I agree with everything you said!  (I do try to be agreeable...)  What I was trying to get at -- flailing toward, fumbling around -- was an idea of innovation -- that I think SF as an engine for innovation is dead, for reasons of culture and market -- that the SF community now desires reiteration and recursion -- the toolbox is no longer being expanded, and that adding tools would, in all likelihood, now destroy the box.  This is not a good or bad thing, just a thing -- most writers willing to identify as SF writers now are happy enough to reiterate and recurse, and, in fact, it's a major attraction: they want to write like the writers who inspired them, to do what Asimov etc. did.  And there's a market for that. That's fine with me, and I often enjoy reading such writing -- indeed, I, too, sometimes want nothing more than to read updated versions of the stories that made me fall in love with reading in the first place. Innovation doesn't generally take place at the level of story, which is one reason why SF is seldom innovative anymore -- it's too wedded to the need to tell certain types of stories. No big deal; innovation can come from elsewhere.

Where authors get placed and how they get labeled is a different sort of thing, and even more complex and contradictory and difficult to predict.  I remember a writer talking about his experience of being labeled as different things over the years at a Readercon a few years ago -- he began within the SF field, writing fairly humanist sorts of stories that were a bit too slow and contemplative to pick up a big SF readership, so his publisher decided to market one of his books as mainstream and keep the label off, and it really tanked, so they went back to marketing him as an SF writer, though now I think his latest book was more ambiguously labeled.  He said at least in the SF world he had a definite audience -- not big, but definite -- and that's one of the real benefits of the SF community -- a writer may not be able to sell much more than 5000 copies of a book, but they'll definitely sell 5000 copies.  The more dispersed world of mainstream fiction is much more difficult to sell predictably in. (I don't know if this is necessarily true because I don't have access to publishing numbers. Regardless, there's a stronger sense of community within the SF world than in the lit world, I think.)  The problem, though, that writers like the one I heard speak at Readercon face, regardless of their label, is the problem of being a midlist writer.  Publishing's unpredictable, but when your publisher isn't willing or able to sink much money into publicity and marketing ... well, the odds are against you reaching a large audience.

And you're right, the publishers decide what you'll be, based on where they think the book will sell best and what their experiences are.  Publisher Y publishes science fiction, and because Writer X happened to submit her first novel to Publisher Y (because they accept unsolicited mss., which few major publishers do) and because Editor Z, who likes the less categorizable stuff, happened to be the editor whose desk it landed on, Writer X ended up being published as a science fiction writer.  It's a matter of circumstance and luck.  Would Writer X's books sell better if they were published by, say, Soft Skull -- as Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown and Nick Mamatas's Under My Roof were?  I don't know.  I think the audience for things like Jamestown is growing outside the SF community and shrinking within it right now, and I don't mind that.  SF is at its most ecumenical when the mainstream lit world is at its most narrow, and right now the mainstream lit world isn't very narrow, so there's no need for people to be stuck in the SF community unless they like it there.  Sure, publishers will label things in certain ways, but most of the time that's because that's where people are coming from, where their roots lie -- Logorrhea is a good example, with John Klima, known within the SF world, selling it to Juliet Ulman, an SF editor at Bantam, and populating it with people they had access to, who are almost entirely within the SF world.  No big conspiracy to doom the book or lie to the public or anything -- the people involved went with what they knew and what they were able to get done.

Neil Gaiman's an interesting case because his original constituency was within the comics community, which has a big overlap with the SF community, and so he made the switch pretty well, though I think the majority of his audience still first encountered him via comics.  His stuff sells well because he's not only able to provide a particularly appealing sort of story in appealing ways, but also because he's good at seizing various opportunities, regardless of genre, and he's attentive to his fans.  His limits are not limits of genre so much as limits between popular and literary fiction.  The people who haven't heard of him are the people who can't believe somebody hasn't heard of Roberto Bolaño (hard as it is to believe, many people outside the world of litblogs have not heard of Bolaño but Gaiman is, for them, a household name!).  The only reason Gaiman isn't more generally known is that he hasn't yet been on Oprah's show. (I wish they'd put him on; he's a better writer than many of the ones she promotes.)

The best approach for a critic to take who wants to keep an open and free discussion going is to not assume that a label is a value statement, which is one reason I've written a lot about that element of Delany -- he's the model critic for me in that sense.  He's read widely enough to know that the stereotypes of "the other side" are just stereotypes, and that the worlds that seem so far apart are really within each other's orbit, and each world possesses quite a bit of diversity within it.

And now I have to go feed my cats...

Thanks for keeping up the good fight!

Best,
Matt

Comments

I actually agree with much of

I actually agree with much of what both of you said, including Matt's disparaging comments about certain types of sf criticism and some critics, but I literally spewed coffee at this one:

"Academically, it's not respected in the same way, generally, that more recognized literary criticism is, and yet it pays just as badly, so what's the point if you can get neither prestige nor money?"

Um, well, because you love science fiction, because you have solid academic training that you want to use, and because you enjoy writing criticism? Both inside and outside academe--academic jobs in English now being what they are--people are doing good criticism for not only SFStudies but also Extrapolation, JFA, and the NYRSF. Because we enjoy writing criticism and we are interested in the works we criticize. Overall, much sf criticism is bad, but frankly I haven't encountered any academic area in which that isn't true. Some types of bad work may be more characteristic of sf criticism, but others are almost or totally absent, too.

Also, some of the worries about science fiction being a ghetto genre seem outdated to me from my graduate school days, over 20 years ago! SF certainly has been a beneficiary of canon-busting, even if some might prefer that only other under-appreciated types of writing benefit. But you open the canon, you open the canon. For those teaching sf, this has been a good thing.

Definitions

"I've come to believe that SF is not a style of writing, but a publishing community"

It makes more sense to me to define SF by the people who read it. The border between literary fiction and SF is a subcultural border. That's why Gaiman made the transition to writing novels so easily: He's writing for the same subculture.

Science fiction and literature

There are only a few writers of SF criticism worth paying much attention to in addition to Delany: Darko Suvin, Alexei Panshin, Damien Broderick, Frederick Jameson, and Adam Roberts

Although you might only be referring to relatively recent authors, Stanislaw Lem's Microworlds is also worth reading. Though it's no longer in print, Amazon has inexpensive copies.

Some of my (limited) experience in science fiction publishing inspired this post on subjects similar to yours, which led to this follow-up post. Both deal with similar issues, and I like the idea that whatever forces held science fiction in its own genre in the mid-20th century have been dissolving. Science fiction sprang from Romance anyway—if you read some early reviews of H.G. Wells' work, for example, you'll often find the term "Scientific Romance" or variants on it. So maybe the genre is returning to the place from whence it came, especially if genre by its nature is ceaselessly bulging and contracting from some central cultural sphere, as Derrida seems to argue in "The Law of Genre."

When I wrote a later post defending The joys of fantasy and Romance, I more or less lumped science fiction in. Perhaps they're all under the umbrella of "speculative fiction" these days, although I'm not a fan of the term speculative fiction because, to my mind, virtually all worthwhile fiction is speculative in some way.

Though it's important to

Though it's important to point out that the word "romance" meant something very different in the 19th century than it does today. See the wikipedia article.