Speculative Fiction in Conversation Part 2

This is part 2 of an email conversation I had with Matt Cheney about the state of Speculative Fiction. Read Part 1 Here.


Let me see if I can wrap my head around what you're saying here. Most of the writers who self-identify as SF are not innovating because they're content to reiterate the old tropes over and over again. However, SOME writers are innovating, but are put into the SF group mainly because publishers put them there. The thing is, that there are a number of self-identified SF writers who are innovating but are choosing emphatically to remain part of the SF community, like China Mieville, Kelly Link, Neil Stephenson etc. The question then becomes, is it better to innovate within the community and still have the benefits of that community (James Morrow being an example) or to try to innovate outside of the community because that's where so much innovation is happening, anyway? Which conversation do you want to be part of? This dilemma is what I find so frustrating because ideally one would want to be able to participate in both communities. Does an author who chooses to be marketed as SF necessarily cut off the non-SF readership? (And I hate Delany's term "mundane" for mainstream fiction; I know literally it just means "of the world," but the word is loaded with connotations of the boring and unremarkable, and seems like just another way for SF to heap disdain on those who aren't like them.) On the other hand, does someone writing fantastic fiction outside of the SF tent automatically seem like they're looking down their nose on the rest of the community, or simply won't be read by them? The whole thing drives me mad, especially when this kind of sharp divide doesn't exist in other mediums; the guy who directed Y tu mamá también was then asked to direct a Harry Potter film, for heaven's sake.

So let me ask you this: You're a writer who naturally treads the borders, but you've been associated with SF through things like your series-editorship of the Best American Fantasy series. When you come out with a book of fiction, where will it be shelved and why?


Hi Eric,

I'm with you on hating the term "mundane fiction" for exactly the reasons you cite -- I use it when writing about Delany's criticism because he uses it, and it would sometimes misrepresent what he says to change the terminology.  But I certainly don't think it's a helpful term.  Which is not to say I have a better solution -- I often use "literary fiction", but if I could figure out another term, I'd be happy to have it, because everything I can think of has some sort of weird or inaccurate connotation to it.  (I like what Mark Thwaite says in his post at ReadySteadyBook called "Against Establishment Literary Fiction": "Literary Fiction is genre fiction; literature, art, is writing that deconstructs the very idea of genre."  I don't always want to read work that deconstructs the very idea of genre, but despite various attempts on my part to figure out ways around the fact, at heart it's what I most respect.)

Even "innovation", which is the term I used last time for the quality I think SF has, at least for the moment, finished with ... I'm not sure it's the right term.  Terminology always defeats me.  It's hard to put words to inchoate, contradictory thoughts. All terminology should be seen as provisional and containing its own deconstruction.

You mention Kelly Link and China Mieville.  I think Kelly was hugely innovative within the SF field and somewhat innovative outside it -- she brought a certain perspective and, particularly, a type of voice to SF that had not been there before (the closest thing to it was Carol Emshwiller, whose career would be fascinating to look at within the context of this conversation).  But perhaps the real innovation of Kelly was the ability to write work that appealed almost equally to SF readers and to non-SF readers in a way that is just about unique -- I can't think (at the moment) of a writer who has achieved such a passionate following amongst such diverse sorts of readers -- I know the snootiest of snooty lit'ry folks who cite Kelly as one of their favorite living writers, and I know people who read nothing but genre fiction who say the same thing.  (And I'm all for it!)

Mieville's a somewhat different case, in that I think he's a great example of a core SF writer -- he's part of a long tradition within the genre, and there are plenty of ancestors for him.  He's not doing anything breathtakingly new within SF, he's just continuing a tradition and doing it well.  (Iron Council is in some ways an exception, although there are plenty of examples from SF in the '60s and '70s that have similaritaries to the structural risks he took with that book, and examples from outside SF that go back at least to the 18th century.)

In any case, both Kelly and China were part of what I think of as the last innovative phase of SF -- they came to prominence just as SF and non-SF were really converging -- on the one side, we've got the various people who tend to get identified by the terms "New Weird" and "slipstream" within the genre (from outside the genre, those words are meaningless because there are fewer anxieties about the transgression of boundaries when your identity does not rely upon the policing of those boundaries) at the end of the '90s and the early 2000s, and at the same time we've got the rise of writers like George Saunders and Aimee Bender and Michael Chabon, magazines like McSweeney's and Tin House that are perfectly willing to push the limits of what is "literary fiction" while Century and Crank and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet are pushing the boundaries of what is "speculative fiction".  (Jonathan Lethem fits in here, too, but his case is more complex because he began within the SF community -- I've got a copy of his first-published story in a magazine called Aboriginal Science Fiction -- but his interests were those of someone who wants to play with various genres at once, and that inevitably made it difficult for him to stay identified within one ... but that, too, is a simplification and we could talk just about Lethem for quite a while.  Gordon van Gelder, the editor of F&SF, has a lot of interesting ideas about this whole topic, and he conducted a fascinating interview with Lethem at this year's Readercon.  Gordon has expressed what is to me a pretty compelling point about the difference between fantasy from within the genre and fantasy from without -- that it's a different approach to the idea of metaphor, with out-of-genre fantasy being usually somehow a metaphor and in-genre fantasy being more literal -- I think Delany and others have made a similar point, too, about the literal being primary and the metaphor being secondary -- that if, for instance, Kafka were an SF writer, "The Metamorphosis" would not have been about what Gregor's transformation "means" or what it suggests about his life and existence, but would, instead, have been first and foremost about a guy who turns into a bug.  Delany calls it a difference of object-subject relationship, with SF as the genre that elevates the reader's perception of the object above the reader's perception of the subject [utilizing the philosophical definitions of the terms "object" and "subject"].  This is what makes China Mieville fundamentally a science fiction writer -- well, this and his strong identification with a long tradition.)

The boundaries, though, can only be pushed so far before they no longer exist, and that's the point we're at now -- a time of reaction and regrouping.  Even the pushing of boundaries has become familiar and is almost calcifying into a genre of its own, because really there aren't that many boundaries to push.  I think Elizabeth Hand, in a forthcoming review of the second volume of BAF, really gets at something in pointing out that many of the sorts of things we reprint in those books have become a kind of genre of their own, and this has led to a blunting of contemporary fiction's cutting edge.  I completely agree, though not because I think we didn't look hard enough -- part of our mission is to reprint the sorts of stories that fall through the crack between The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror and Best American Short Stories, and I think we've generally been true to that mission, but to be absolutely honest, I don't think there's an entire book's worth of cutting edge short fiction published each year.  If your goal was to show only the cutting edge, you'd need to limit your book to coming out no more frequently than once every five to ten years.  Then you might be able to find 150-200 pages of appropriate material.  Maybe.

Getting back to the previous subject -- non-genre fiction doesn't worry so much about what it is, and I am attracted to the freedom in that.  Some things cause some critics to worry and fret about realism and what is or isn't a novel (Zadie Smith recently in the NYRB; I also think about the reviews of J.M. Coetzee's last few books -- Elizabeth Costello particularly seemed to cause reviewers to say, "It's not a novel!" even though the only way to really make much sense of that book, which is a favorite of mine, is to consider it as a novel).  I don't mind the existence of a section of the bookstore labeled "Science Fiction" because there are plenty of people who just want to read that sort of thing, and for that reason it's probably good that SF is retreating to a place where its stories are reiterations of themselves.  Some of those reiterations are going to be thrilling and marvelously crafted and maybe even occasionally brilliant.  They won't do anything to make fiction that is different from other fiction, but most readers don't want fiction that is different from other fiction, so it's really no big deal.  Most literary fiction remains mired in the conventions created in England and France in the 19th century -- at least SF is mired in conventions that aren't quite so dusty!

You totally nail it when you ask, "Which conversations do you want to be part of?"  That's the real question.  Do you want to be part of the conversation(s) within SF, the conversation(s) outside of SF, or do you want to try to be a part of both worlds?  It's possible to be within both, but it's a rare writer who can really navigate comfortably between them, or who wants to.  The communities are constituted differently.  They have their own proclivities and prejudices and biases and histories.  There's nothing wrong with that.  It's the same with lots of communities -- if somebody who is not a passionate theatre person asks me who my favorite playwrights are, they are likely to be mystified by my response, because in addition to my holy trinity of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Beckett, I'd also have to mention Georg Büchner, Caryl Churchill, and Suzan-Lori Parks -- HUGE names within the theatre, but not so much outside it.

As for my own writing, I don't know exactly how I want to be perceived.  Mostly, I don't think it's really worth losing too much sleep over, because most of the factors that affect how I will be perceived are outside of my control.  I used to like making mischief -- I liked trying to get genre readers to read non-genre fiction and non-genre readers to read genre fiction, and I liked publishing genre stories in non-genre markets and vice versa. That game gets old pretty quickly, though, and I'm not sure it accomplishes very much.  Nowadays I just try to indulge my neuroses enough to not let them overcome me, and so I write the fiction that I feel most compelled to write, and often I feel no compulsion to market or publish it.  I'm working on a novel now that is has one of its three sections set in the future, but if I ever finish it, and if I like it enough to submit it anywhere, and if somebody else likes it enough to publish it (big ifs), it probably wouldn't be published as an SF novel because it's not an SF audience that would really appreciate what it's trying to do (though it may appeal to some readers who also happen to like SF, if they like the novel it won't be because of its SF elements).  I'd love to write a really fun, complexly-imagined space opera, because it's a conversation I would be perfectly happy to be a part of, but I'm not that sort of writer.  I know enough about space opera to know I could never write it well, even if I tried for 10,000 years.  I'm a subject-oriented writer, not an object-oriented one.  I think the same would be true for a collection of my stories -- I've got enough published now for a collection, but I think they're too scattered in their strategies and styles to make a very good book, so I'm not interested in having a collection published right now, though if one were, despite the presence of many stories that are surreal and fantastic and even perhaps set in the future, it would be a disaster to market the book as SF because there's very little to please a core SF audience in them -- the SF elements are never present for their own sake, and so reading the stories from an SF point of view is less rewarding, I expect, than reading them as just fiction.  Ultimately that's what Delany's idea of reading protocols is all about -- what is the way of reading a story that allows it to be the most pleasurable and meaningful?

Well, it's late here now and I fear I've just blathered on without say much, so I'll stop....