Speculative Fiction in Conversation Part 3

This is part 3 of an email conversation I had with Matt Cheney about the state of Speculative Fiction. Read part 1 and part 2. Some things discussed: Delany and transgression; anthologies; sf writers vs. literary writers; frames, objects and subjects; Roberto Bolaño.

Dear Matt,
 I finally finished reading your thesis. I have to say I found it incredibly interesting, and in some places quite surprising. For instance, I was astonished to see Theodore Sturgeon referred to as important and ethical, considering the only exposure I have to his work is the story in Dangerous Visions which was horrifying (not in the good way), seeming to advocate incest and pederasty. Is it just me or with him and Delany and Philip Jose Farmer and so on, was SF just a whole lot more transgressive in the 60s and 70s? I have a hard time thinking of any contemporary SF writer who would write something anywhere near as deeply shocking as [Delany's] Hogg. Then again, even the contemporary transgressive non-genre writers--Belaño, Huellebecq, Bret Easton Ellis--don't hold much of a candle to what you describe as taking place in Hogg. Maybe I'm just not reading the right stuff.

It's an interesting point about certain sorts of "slipstream"-ish anthologies becoming a genre of their own. You certainly see a lot of the same names over and over again--Kelly Link, Jeffery Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Elizabeth Hand and so on. I don't mind so much because these are exactly the anthologies and the writers that I want to read, but it's true that as it calcifies into a genre it looses some of it's edge. When you keep coming back for more of the same (which is really the whole point of genre definitions and why publishers like them so much), you don't actually want what's different and new. Which is all just to reiterate what you've already said.

However, having read your emails and your thesis, I have to say I disagree with Delany's object-subject concept (Either that, or I didn't really understand it, which may be the case.) If subject writing is about the individual experiencing the event and what that event means to him or her (either literally or metaphorically) and object writing is focused on the event itself, or the environment or other outside elements, and the person experiencing it is sort of along for the ride--and this is the meaning I was able to parse of the difference, though perhaps I'll have a more lucid understanding after reading Starboard Wine--if that is the case then I can think of plenty of subject-oriented SF writers and object-oriented non-SF authors. Indeed the whole project of postmodernism seems to be about divorcing the subject from its frame of reference, and by this definition I would put writers like Pychon, DeLillo and Barth firmly in the SF camp. (Certainly [Barth's] The Sot-Weed Factor feels like at least as much like an SF novel as [Neal Stephenson's] The System of the World does.) No, I think I'll go with a more community-conversation, sociology based definition. SF is that which self-identifies with SF. SF is as much a sociological phenomenom as a literary style.

That all said, I still wonder in which sandbox I want most to play and can't help but conclude I'll inevitably straddle both worlds, whatever frustrations that may bring; that is, that my writing will reflect what I  read. Which I suppose is only natural.


Hi Eric,

I fear I'm misrepresenting Delany some in my haste to get at various ideas here, and the trouble with using any of his particular insights to support myself is that I risk cherry-picking and simplifying -- one of the reasons I'm thrilled that SW will be back in print is that it shows how much of a system of thought Delany's ideas are a part of -- the "reading protocols" idea, for instance, that has been so popular among the SF community is a small part of a larger way of understanding how the overdetermined phenomenon that is SF works (or might work), and to bring out one idea like that is in some ways a misrepresentation.

The same goes for the subject-object relationship -- it, too, should be seen as one element of a larger epistemological system.  One misrepresentation I might have made or implied is that it's about something inherent in the work, and you make the good point that much fiction could be said to work that way -- DeLillo and Pynchon spring immediately to mind for me, too.

For Delany, though, the subject-object relationship is more about what the reader needs to do to make sense of the text -- the mindset of the reader who has the most meaningful experience of the text.  SF is about an object-prioritizing reading: it's about noticing the implied changes from our world to the world of the story, for instance.  This is not to say that subjectivity is absent, just that it comes second in the meaning-making.

This insight is tied not to a definition of SF -- remember that Delany repeatedly stresses that SF is an overdetermined phenomenon and therefore cannot be defined, only described -- but to a look at the way SF is well positioned to offer social critique:

[s]cience fiction, because of the object priorities in the way we read it, in the questions we ask of it, in the modes by which we must interpret it simply for it to make sense, is able to critique directly both particular institutions and the larger cultural object in general...  The object priority in the reading conventions — which must begin with a consideration of some real institution simply to understand how the science-fictional one works at all — generates the criticism directly in the understanding (cognition) process itself.

Which is not even to say that only SF can do this, but that SF can do it pretty easily because of the way readers have learned to make meaning from SF texts.  This makes sense to me -- after all, when non-SF writers write SF, it's often because they want to heighten the element of social critique, and when this is done well, it feels less awkward in SF than in most other types of fiction, and I suspect the reason for that is at least partly due to Delany's ideas about how we prioritize our techniques for understanding what we read.  (Awkward and unsubtle writing or thinking remains awkward and unsubtle, though, regardless of the subject-object priority.)

Anyway, I don't want this all to be about Delany, because I have some significant differences with him -- we are very different types of readers, not just in our tastes (which are pretty different), but also in just how we begin to make meaning from a work of fiction.  (I find his early essay "About 5,750 words" fascinating not because I think it's right, but because it describes a way of reading that is utterly foreign to me.  He's a very visual reader; I'm not.)  The SF writers Delany mentions repeatedly as being the ones he most values and connects with -- Heinlein, Sturgeon, Russ, Disch -- are not writers who have ever been very important to me, though I'd be an idiot to deny their significance to the SF field.  When I was doing academic work on Delany, I went back and tried to read a bunch of those writers, and the only one I could get very far with was Disch, whose work before about 1985 or so I often find interesting, though I wouldn't say very much of it stirs me to passionate admiration.  Russ is a very fine writer, one who deserves a far bigger readership, but though I like some of her short stories very much, I haven't ever been able to connect well with her novels.  Heinlein is ... well, I liked some of his '50s novels and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as a kid, but these days I tend to think it would hardly be a loss to world literature if all of his writings disappeared tomorrow.

And then there's Sturgeon.  A very interesting historical case, but if you remove him from the SF context and try to evaluate him as, say, an American writer of the 20th century, he doesn't hold up as well.  He's an edgier Ray Bradbury, but while Bradbury is a pleasant writer for children (inner children, too), Sturgeon's trying for a more mature audience and more mature/complex themes -- but he generally treats those themes with a heavy syrup of sentimentality.  Worse, he's got a penchant for purple prose that makes F. Scott Fitzgerald look like Hemingway.  The interesting thing about Sturgeon's purple, though, is that it's different from the standard purple of many of the pulp writers -- I'm tempted to say his purple descriptions center on emotion while the pulp purple centers on action, but I haven't really thought about this enough to know if such a suspicion holds any water -- and so within the context of 1940s and 1950s SF, he seems like a better writer at the sentence level than just about all of his contemporaries in the genre -- because his overwrought writing style is the overwrought writing style not of SF, but of mainstream magazine fiction of the era (it's no coincidence, I don't think, that Sturgeon was one of the only SF writers -- along with Bradbury and Judith Merril -- to make it into Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories -- his brand of sentimentality and his style of purple were closer to the idea of "good fiction" prevalent among the 1950s middlebrow [as was Bradbury] [and which could be compared to the "well-made plays" of Eugene Scribe, though with more melodrama than comedy].  Actually, I think one comparison for Sturgeon is the short fiction of Tennessee Williams, which had similar strengths and weaknesses, though because his stories weren't concerned with aliens and spaceships, and by the '50s he was among the most famous playwrights in the U.S., the stories were published in The New Yorker and reprinted more frequently in the Foley collections [though Williams's first story, published in his teens, appeared in Weird Tales].  Another interesting comparison would be Shirley Jackson, especially since she appeared more than once in F&SF, and had a more restrained style than Sturgeon -- in some ways, she's the apex of a certain style of magazine fiction in the '50s, and a handful of her stories are, I think, quite extraordinary -- "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts" is a story I've read many times with joy.)

Except this is not necessarily the right frame to put over Heinlein, Sturgeon, Russ, and Disch -- it does them a disservice in some ways.  Evaluating SF by the standards of the best literature inevitably causes us to lose sight of the virtues in the SF, because there's no American SF that can hold up against, say, Kafka and Borges.  But so what -- there's no American short story writer of the 20th century who can hold up against Kafka and Borges, period.  The freedom I find in reading SF is that it seldom occurs to me ever to make the comparison, because I'm looking at other virtues, whereas I suffer when I read, for instance, lit journals, because I can't help but compare what I read to the greatest literature of the past, and it never does well in that comparison, because there's always Kafka and Borges (and Beckett and......).  At least with SF, all I have to do is compare it to other SF stories, and that's a much easier and less demanding comparison for a story to survive.

But what if an SF writer aspires to reach toward the heights of Kafka and Borges?  Why write if not to try to join the absolute best? (Which is not to say everybody will agree with me that Kafka and Borges are among the absolute best, but they're among the absolute best for me, so I use them.)  Then I'm not sure it makes a whole lot of sense to try to write within a genre community.  It's kind of like wanting to make a zombie movie that is as good as Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game.  You're unlikely to include the stuff that makes for a good zombie movie, and you're also unlikely to be as good as Renoir, because, well, who's as good as Renoir?  Or maybe you'll be really good, but not in a genre that needs you to be really good -- the Stephen Sondheim problem.  Sondheim's created an absolutely stunning body of work within the musical theatre genre ... but despite the genre-bending that much of his work has accomplished, it's still in the musical theatre genre, and the limits of the genre continue to limit him, because if they didn't, he would no longer be writing musical theatre -- he'd be writing opera, or concerti, or plays.  Which is fine, and probably best, but reminds us that we have to evaluate things within the context that produced them.  It's not a perfect comparison, though, because SF can only be called a genre in a very general sense, and is less constricted than musical theatre, and its limits may be more limits of reader expectation than anything else.  If you don't want to at least partly meet the expectations of genre readers, then it's not doing you much good to try to write for a genre audience, whatever that genre may be.

Expectations change, though, and can be changed, and some writers are excited to try to change the expectations of genre audiences -- part of the point of BAF at its most idealistic is to try to expand the expectations of a bunch of different types of readers.  There's a perversity to that, but also a nobility, because something like SF, which is something more than a genre (maybe an idiom), stays alive and healthy by having its conception of itself challenged.  It's the same with the vast sea of general non-SF fiction.  I think this is one of the reasons Bolaño is so popular and important right now -- he shoves a few elbows into the borders of the novel in fun ways (leading to things like the N+1 review of 2666 that proclaims Bolaño doesn't really write novels because he doesn't value things the way certain 19th century novelists did, although the writer's definition of "novel" wouldn't even include half of Dickens's novels).  What I so love about Bolaño, and why especially The Savage Detectives is a novel I adore (haven't gotten to 2666 yet) is that it contains a lot of the energy I associate with 18th century novels, novels written before people thought of novels as a form of high art, before people cared much about what a novel "should" or "shouldn't" do.  That's the sort of writing that most appeals to me these days, regardless of genre -- writing that makes its own way.

And now I'm sure I've said utterly contradictory things, since I've been working on this note off and on all day in between other things......