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Monday, October 12, 2009

 

So do I think there's a problem with the readership?

After a weekend away, I have managed to catch myself up and view the Newsnight Review section in which I featured as a talking head. (A somewhat nervous talking head, by the standards of my own conversation; I'm only that jittery when someone's pointing a camera at me. Just saying.) But, for those of you who didn't see it, here's what happened:

Voice-over: Science fiction was nowhere near the Booker list, to the anger of sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson, who insisted that Yellow Blue Tiba should have won the whole thing. Is sci fi literature really, as Booker judge John Mullan claimed, a self-enclosed world with work bought by a special kind of person, with special weird things they go to? Novelist Kit Whitfield thinks there is a problem with the readership.

Novelist Kit Whitfield: I think that there's a lot of people outside science fiction who think that they don't want to touch something just because it's science fiction. And I think within science fiction, you have some people - though by no means all the science fiction fans - who will read something because it's science fiction and be more forgiving of its faults than they would be if it wasn't science fiction. So I think if you add the two together, you can get a degree of ghettoisation.


First thing to say: I haven't read Yellow Blue Tiba, so I have no opinion on whether it should have won the Booker or not, but it is worth pointing out that one of the books shortlisted was Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger, which, if not science fiction, is definitely a ghost story. A ghost story in the same way that Turn of the Screw is, perhaps, or the movie The Haunting (the Shirley Jackson book may be, too, but I haven't read it yet), in that it's a haunted-people story in which the ghostliness or otherwise of the haunting is presented in a deliberately ambiguous way - but whatever else it is (a very good book, among other things), it's a ghost story. So in fairness to the Booker judges, evidence suggests they aren't excluding everything with the slightest non-realist element.

Second thing to say: if you read what John Mullan said in its proper context, he wasn't saying 'Nobody but a weirdo would ever read science fiction.' He was saying two things: one, they can't choose books that weren't submitted and not much science fiction got submitted, which isn't the judges' fault, and two, he thinks that science fiction is getting more ghettoised than it used to be and he thinks that's a bad thing. Which isn't antagonism to the genre; he's expressing the view that the genre's capable of more than it's currently doing. And why not? I personally see nothing wrong with aspiring.

Third thing to say: time limits being what they are on television, I'd like to clarify my statement, because 'there's a problem with the readership' isn't exactly what I was trying to say. Here's a fuller version:

I think that there's a lot of people outside science fiction who think that they don't want to touch something just because it's science fiction. And I think within science fiction, you have some people - though by no means all the science fiction fans - who will read something because it's science fiction and be more forgiving of its faults than they would be if it wasn't science fiction. So I think if you add the two together, you can get a degree of ghettoisation ...

... because the law of supply and demand means that if there's a proportion of the market that will consume badly-executed stuff, poor execution won't be as big a barrier to publication as it should be. So there will be bad stuff out there that really doesn't deserve a ticket out of the ghetto.

Which means that some of the ghettoisation will be for unfair reasons: people refusing to touch anything science fiction at all no matter how good it is. And some of it will be for fair reasons: if you get a big enough proportion of bad things in any genre, it will drag down the average quality and increase the chances of newcomers ploughing down in bad examples. As Raymond Chandler said about detective fiction when it was riding high: 'The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn't get published.' Anybody approaching that section of the bookshop for the first time is thus statistically more likely to put their hand on a bad book than a good one and retreat discouraged.

On the whole, the panellist I most agreed with on the Newsnight discussion was Jeanette Winterson, whose first major remark on the subject caused me to point at the screen and shout 'Yes! Exactly!', to the resignation of my husband, who hears me make the same point regularly. Now, I understand that readers outside the UK can't get hold of the discussion, so for your amusement, I'm transcribing the relevant portions, interspersed with my heckling.


Jeanette Winterson: You have to rip the labels off. It's time we did this with everything. Labels are for packaged food in supermarkets, they're not for books.

[Kit applauds offscreen, yelling, 'That's right! Genre is a bookseller's convenience, not an artistic category!']

JW: And you know, we've had Aldous Huxley, we've had H.G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, there's so many good writers who play with it, now the whole thing is up for grabs.

[Kit applauds again, yelling, 'Yes! Tropes don't belong to any one genre or a subculture, they belong to everyone! Anyone should feel free to use them!']

JW: We shouldn't be saying, 'This is sci fi. This is history. You know, this is literature, this is realism. We should be saying, 'Is this a good book? Let's read it!'

[Kit applauds, and her husband pauses the broadcast so he can hear what's being said.]

Kirsty Wark (presenter): Yet Kit Whitfield says that actually the bar is set much lower, because what she seems to be saying is that sci fi nuts will read any sci fi whether it's good or bad, and they're not as discerning as it were other readers.

[Is that what I meant? I don't think that's it precisely. Some 'sci fi nuts' will read any old tosh; I've known some. That doesn't mean everyone who's a science fiction enthusiast. If you want to draw a line between 'sci fi nuts' and 'science fiction enthusiasts' you could, I suppose, but people tend to be a sliding scale rather than clearly defined camps and individuals often defy categorisation.

You get undiscerning readers in any genre, or else undemanding ones. That's one reason why genre is such a problem: any genre publisher whose income depends at least in part on people who will consume anything that has the right label on it is under a market pressure to lower its bar. (And you can get a vicious circle going there: if you get too dependent on a specific market, you can't afford to alienate them with products that might attract new markets for fear of losing what limited custom you have.) I have nothing against Mills and Boon, for instance, but there's a reason why you never see their publications on the Booker shortlist, and it's not prejudice against romance. Nothing against Mills and Boon authors either - writing a saleable Mills and Boon book is much harder than it looks and deserves respect - but no such author would call their work fine art. If someone wants to argue that all romance is as pulpy as Mills and Boon they're liable to make an idjit of themselves, but so is anyone who wants to argue that romance as a whole doesn't adapt itself to market demands and produce a whole lot of books that aren't very sophisticated.

So if you're talking about a genre as a whole, you have to factor in the badly-executed stuff at the bottom. Expecting to be judged only by the best works won't do. You can't have it both ways: either you decide there's something exceptional about really good books, in which case we're talking about good books and that's a quality thing, not a genre one, or you decide you're talking about the genre, and that means everything in it, including the stuff that doesn't make the genre look very good.]

Natalie Haynes: Yeah, well, perhaps that is true. But I, for example, like Pride and Prejudice, I don't read Mills and Boon. You can't dismiss all of fiction where a boy meets a girl and they get together by saying, 'Oh yeah, but that Mills and Boon book is rubbish.' And that's absolutely the same thing with sci fi.

[Kit: Yes, I agree. But that's a reason to read books individually. If someone's talking about romance as a genre, those Mills and Boon books are going to come up. People don't admire Jane Austen because she's a romance author, they admire her because she's Jane Austen, and there was only ever one of those. She doesn't prove anything much about romantic stories except that it's possible to make fine art out of them, and you can make fine art out of any subject if you're a fine artist.]

NH: If you only read really, really low rent TV fan fiction spin-offs, then you would be depriving yourself of George Orwell, John Wyndham, H.G. Wells. Why would you do that?

[Kit: Ooh, nice choice of writers there. All good stuff. But if we're talking about contemporary science fiction, which was was the subject the discussion seemed to be about, I can't help noticing that all of them are, well, dead. And have been since before either of us were born. Wells was writing at the turn of the previous century, Wyndham and Orwell in the middle of it. Wells was writing at a time when 'science fiction' as a category barely existed; he was just a writer trying something. Orwell was a political writer who occasionally used allegory or dystopia to make his point. Wyndham was writing in the Golden Age - an age when, as with Wells, things were still in a phase of newness and experimentation. If you want a discussion of science fiction nowadays when it's become so much associated with a particular subculture and acquired specific imprints and all the rest of it, you need other examples.]

NH: It's one of the hopeful joys of the rise of places like Amazon, surely, is that books will stop being sold on a case with a title on the top, and instead you'll get somebody going, 'Oh, did you like this book? Somebody over here liked this other book.' And you're going, 'Oh, okay.' And let's all be more interesting.

[Kit: Well, you say that. But every time I've ever seen 'you might also like this' recommends on Amazon next to my books, they've been next to books that I don't want to read. The recommends tend to have only only the most superificial thing in common with my books: that there's some kind of supernatural element in them somewhere, generally a werewolf or a vampire knocking around. That's no reason to buy a book.

Amazon isn't a literary analyst; it goes on a mechanical calculation of sales. As long as people are buying conservatively within genres, it will be making recommendations conservatively within genres. That means clumping and stereotyping in exactly the same way bookshop sections do. Come the revolution it might work in a hopefully joyous way, but at the moment, in my experience at least, Amazon's recommends run on exactly the same principle as the bookshop's title-on-the-top case system, only worse.]

Kirsty Wark (presenter): With science being so mind-blowing at the moment, should there be more science in fiction, Jeanette?

[Kit: There should be in fiction whatever a fiction writer can make work. Always. If that includes science, so be it, if not, so be it.]

JW: You have to leave that to writers. There'll be as much as we think we have to put in at any one time.

[Kit: Yep. Thank you.]

JW: But, you know, this is a place where the whole world is opening up right now, so it's absolutely right for a fusion of imaginative capacity and scientific endeavour. Now it's time for everything to merge, not for things to be separate in little boxes. We don't live in a world of little boxes any more.

[Kit: I don't think we ever lived in a world of little boxes. Boxes are only there when people put them there, and those were never the people worth listening to.]


So was I saying what the voice-over seemed to think I was saying? I'm far from saying that every science fiction reader in the world is a weirdo, because that would be stupid. But I do think there is a problem that seems to affect writers in a distinctive way.

One of the issues discussed on Newsnight was the idea that 'boys in bedrooms' had, since the rise of the Internet, managed to organise into a visible subculture with power of its own. Kevin Smith, who was also on the panel, made the very reasonable point that the prevalence of science fiction movies calculated to appeal to that demographic was probably down to the simple fact that a few of those boys in bedrooms grew up and got jobs which allowed them to make commissioning decisions, a common-sense observation if ever there was one. But what if you weren't a boy in a bedroom reading science fiction but grew up to write it nonetheless? That was a question that seemed to occur to no one; the assumption seemed more or less to be that the kind of person who produces science fiction is inevitably someone who spent their adolescence wrapped up in it. And that's not necessarily true.

The ghetto is a problem for writers for a specific reason. If you're a reader and you don't like the ghetto, you don't have to go in; you can go read something else. When I say 'like the ghetto', I don't of course mean 'like being ghettoised', because nobody likes that. But science fiction, more than most other genres, isn't just a set of literary tropes and categorisations. It's also a large subculture. Someone who's a detective-story fan is much less likely to use that as a major element of their identity than someone saying 'I'm a science fiction fan' or 'I'm a geek.' There isn't even a word equivalent for 'geek' with detective stories; you might conceivably call someone an 'armchair detective', but I've certainly never heard it done. I know people who love science fiction, I know people who love romance, I know people who love whodunnits, and the geeks are the only ones who have a word for themselves. Science fiction fandom has, over the past few decades, built up to the point where it is a bona fide subculture rather than just a taste: being a geek nowadays is like being a punk or a hippy, part of an identifiable club with its own ways.

The thing is, clubs have positive and negative sides. If the entrance criterion is 'liking a certain kind of book' and you want to join the club, that's marvellous: the doors are open and you can go right in and start partying. But if the entrance criterion is liking the books and you don't want to join the club - whether because you don't like it or simply because it doesn't feel like your kind of place - then the logical step is to avoid the books. Once the books get too firmly associated with the club, many people will find it hard to judge them as separate from it, and their disinclination to join the one will put them off trying the other.

The Newsnight special was more or less explicitly addressing the question 'Will the geek inherit the earth?' as a means of talking about science fiction - but therein lies the problem. No genre belongs to any one subculture: every trope, every story structure, every fictional conceit belongs to the people. Geeks may be all about science fiction - or some of them, anyway, some of the time - but science fiction isn't all about geeks. As long as it's perceived that way, of course it's going to be ghettoised, or at least seen as somehow separate, because it's associated with one particular subculture that not everyone belongs to. If biographies of Tudor monarchs were a major criterion for describing yourself as a mod, people who didn't fancy ska and scooters would think twice before picking up a David Starkey book.

Readers have some freedom of movement when a genre is the badge of a club. They can join in, stay out, or read at home considering their tastes of their lives a thing apart: they can engage with the club on their own terms. But if you're a writer, you can only write what you can write, and if it's your living you can't do it quietly at home. You have to get out there. If your natural bent is towards a club genre and you don't particularly want to join the club, you do at least have to cope with the expectations created by its existence - both from within and from without. It doesn't have to be your spiritual home to end up being at least a proportion of your workplace.

It's interesting, therefore, to find myself so much in agreement with Jeanette Winterson. Not entirely surprising, given that I admire her writing, but it's not the only case of a writer trying hard to make the same basic point. In the essay by Raymond Chandler quoted above, The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler remarks '...some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with' - insisting, again, that execution matters more than subject, and with a note of frustration that sounds familiar both from Winterson's vehemence on Newsnight and from my own experiences of being assumed to be a certain kind of writer purely because of the subjects I choose. My husband remarked that the champion of such frustration was probably the comics writer Warren Ellis - someone I haven't personally read, but who, husband informs me, found the demand for superhero books of the kind he wrote to support his original work a source of frustration so extreme he became famous for his colourful invective on the subject and his tendency to ban any visitor to his website who pushed his buttons on a first-offence basis.

This is the kind of thing, in short, that drives writers crazy: a good book is a good book, you can write a good book about anything, labels only get in the way, and assuming any kind of book is the property of a particular subculture or conventional genre rather than the broader culture is only going to make the labels harder to shift.

Nobody's really to blame for this. Writers write what they can. Publishers publish what they think they can sell. Readers buy what they want to read. TV features have to find some kind of angle. But if we're going to discuss any genre as a literary question, for goodness' sake let's not confuse the subculture that most heavily reads it with the genre itself. One is a literary form, the other is a group of people: those are two very different things.

I keep coming back to the same point, in the end. Discussing whither science fiction is precisely the wrong question if you actually want good art. The question should always be 'Is this book any good?' or 'What shall I write?' 'Science fiction' is a term applied from the outside that has nothing whatever to do with the issues that are actually important, like whether the book is well written or perceptive or engaging, and anybody who gets too preoccupied with the definition, which means anyone from a stereotyping outsider to a tub-thumping insider, is perpetuating the problem. We need to get everyone to drop the categorisation game if we want to get anything done.

So do I think there's a problem with the readership? No. The readership of anything is made up of people, and most people are pretty nice. But I think there's a definite problem when anyone, no matter who, starts conflating the readership with the books.

Comments:
But science fiction, more than most other genres, isn't just a set of literary tropes and categorisations. It's also a large subculture.

This was a very thoughtful and evenhanded essay. I would -- not quibble, but perhaps add -- that sf also, more than most genres, prizes *originality* in the handling of its tropes.

Which is not to say that originality (or at least "freshness") isn't valued in other genres -- but it's a double-edged sword. Readers of romance and mystery, especially, are seeking a certain comfort in the familiar working out of the pattern -- there WILL be a "happily ever after", justice MUST be served somehow -- so that they may even feel angered or cheated if the author is "too clever."

While I won't deny that there are some of the same expectations at work in sf, there is also at least an equal expectation of "show me something I've never seen before!" Sf readers give bonus points -- sometimes excessive bonus points -- to an author who is startling or different, even if the literary quality is sub-par

But the drawback to this expectation is that authors who are not as well steeped in the genre (that's your "adolescent in the bedroom") will come up with what they think is a new or creative innovation on a standard sf trope, and execute it with real literary skill -- to have sf fans shrug and say, "Yeah, we've already read that a thousand times before."

This dismissal can turn into real anger, though, if they see "establishment" critics hail the outsider author as "Daring! Innovative! Unprecedented!", and the sf fan will often think -- with justification or not -- "Where have you BEEN? This is been done already, done to death in this genre that you ignore!"

(I am putting aside the very justifiable objection that being done *before* has no bearing on whether a particular author does or does not do it *well*. Think of an Elizabethan playgoer muttering "Oh, no, not another bloody play about cross-dressing twins!")

I know that I have seen this particular dynamic work out in exactly this fashion over at least two critically well-received YA sf novels, and I think it plays a role in some of the carping against the forays of authors like Margaret Atwood, e.g., into sf.

(There's also some residual sexism there, I think, but already this comment is bidding to become longer than your original post. But can you tell that the topic of genre simply fascinates me?)
 
Ah, let's discuss! This reply will have to be in bits because it is long. :-)

Readers of romance and mystery, especially, are seeking a certain comfort in the familiar working out of the pattern

In fairness, I think that readers of whodunnits are often pleased if the tropes are handled in original ways; it's just that the originality lies in different elements. One of the reasons I admire Agatha Christie, for instance, is that I actually do think she's original: she works within narrow margins, but the formal changes she rings within them can be very clever and unusual, and do sometimes subvert conventional expectations of the form. Raymond Chandler is so admired because his style was original, to take another example. There are lots of ways you can be original when writing crime; heck, I wrote a crime book with werewolves in it. The need to solve the crime isn't the whole of the story, it's just the basic unit of plot around which you invent stuff. Just because you know where you're headed doesn't mean you can't be extremely original in working out how to get there.

(Romance may be the same, but I've read less of it. It does occur to me, though, that one reason Bridget jones's Diary was popular was that its form and tone were original, so I suspect there's something there.)


But the drawback to this expectation is that authors who are not as well steeped in the genre (that's your "adolescent in the bedroom") will come up with what they think is a new or creative innovation on a standard sf trope, and execute it with real literary skill -- to have sf fans shrug and say, "Yeah, we've already read that a thousand times before."

I've heard science fiction fans make this claim before, but I'm not sure. I've yet to hear critics of my novels call them unoriginal, for instance, (if they are, don't tell me!) but I'm not at all steeped in the genre.

I really don't think you have to immerse yourself in the genre to be capable of writing inventively within it. Oversteeping can have its downsides too: you know so much of what's already been done that it can get your mind thinking along certain expectations: trying not to repeat this and that is already thinking in terms of this and that.

Ultimately, I don't think it's about steeping. I think some writers have more unusual imaginations than others, and they will have those unusual imaginations whether they're familiar with the genre or not. An unfamiliar writer will either rehash an ancient trope or they'll think outside the box and come up with something entirely new. It's not an iron-clad rule.
 
This dismissal can turn into real anger, though, if they see "establishment" critics hail the outsider author as "Daring! Innovative! Unprecedented!", and the sf fan will often think -- with justification or not -- "Where have you BEEN? This is been done already, done to death in this genre that you ignore!"

Well, perhaps. It's a bit hard if that ends up blaming the writer for what the critic said, though. That's not the writer's fault.

But then again, I'm under the impression that science fiction fans considered, say, Neuromancer to be fresh and innovative, and it was using tropes that had equally been 'done to death' in crime fiction. The tendency to overrate the newness of something outside your usual remit is by no means confined to critics.

Too, it's perfectly possible to say that something in unprecedented in a particular context. Maybe something has been done a lot, but not in this style of book before. Combination of elements can produce strong new material.

There was, for example, very little that was truly original about Star Wars; what it did was synthesise the plots and framing of Akira Kurosawa with the artistic visuals of Stanley Kubrick and mix them in with a lot of tropes from pulp and myth. The result was a film different enough to change the whole way popular cinema was made; at the time, it was very original in some ways - its scope and ambition, its combinations - but not in others.

Would you say it was an unoriginal film just because lots of its elements bore a strong resemblance to previous works? I wouldn't. And if not, I don't see what's so entirely unoriginal about, say, using a plot device from science fiction and combining it with a style influenced by Hemingway and a structure lifted from George Eliot. There's sugar in every cake, but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as a new recipe.

And, again, the fact that something's been done previously doesn't mean the author didn't use some invention. I may blog about this later, but recently I had a journalist approach me to ask where I'd gotten a particular word in my lexicon, because he'd found a later example of someone who seemed to have coined it. I speculated, correctly as it turned out, that it had occurred to each of us independently. We'd both coined an original word; we'd just done it separately and come to a similar place. Does that mean either of us is unoriginal? People being as numerous as they are, statistics favour certain ideas being reinvented more than once, and there may be something new and interesting about each reinvention.

Ultimately, I think, the question is always whether a book is good or not. I don't mind authors using tropes that have been done before as long as they use them well. After all, there's supposed to be only half a dozen basic plots in the world; the ability to make a work feel original even if you're not the first person to try it is not to be sniffed at.

That, though, is a question of execution, which possibly matters less to someone who is mining for ideas rather than rendering.
 
I think it plays a role in some of the carping against the forays of authors like Margaret Atwood, e.g., into sf.

Residual sexism? How so?

But it's the idea of 'forays into sf' that frustrates me, because it smacks of the idea that geeks own science fiction, that by writing her own book she's somehow on somebody's turf and has to get their approval. Which is as unreasonable as someone assuming that nobody who reads science fiction ever has sex. Both are what I was talking about: assuming that a very, very basic literary device - writing about things that are not as they are - is territory. And that's just not right. Everyone's equally entitled to use any literary technique they can make work; I can think of nothing less ownable.

I mean, people have written dystopias before, but until The Handmaid's Tale nobody had written a Margaret Atwood dystopia: that's something new. Something being done by a particular author is always new; the only question is whether the author is good enough to make it both new and interesting.


I think where we basically diverge - most interestingly - is that you're talking about the genre in terms of its history. The way I see it, every book has to be begun from scratch. 'Science fiction', such as it is, is to my mind a technique authors can use rather than a dynasty they join. After all, the great authors whose work so influenced the genre like Wells or Huxley weren't trying to write a genre book: they were trying to say something or do something, and they availed themselves of the technique of non-realism to do so. To me, the steep-in-the-genre attitude smacks of considering ourselves mere descendents of our forebears - and if we're going to do that, we need to consider ourselves the descendents of the whole of literature, otherwise we're cutting ourselves off from an infinitely rich source.

I just think that when a form gets overly established it can get hidebound. Ingres was such a worshipper of Renaissance art that he was quoted as saying, 'Our task is not to invent, but to continue', and he was steeping himself in the form. I'm more with Mahler: 'Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire' - and to me, being overly preoccupied with the details of what was done before feels like ash-stirring. Other writers may differ, of course.

But I think we read and learn from literature to discover what's possible. Discovering what's been done before with a view to avoid repeating it is the opposite: trying to decide what's not possible. It feels very deadening to me. This is me speaking as a writer rather than a critic here, but the idea that one has to study up to make sure one's repeating nothing is one of the reasons why I feel uncomfortable being classified entirely as science fiction, because it's a technique that would render me unable to write at all. All my instincts rebel at the suggestion; it actually makes me angry in my turn - not at the person saying it (definitely not at you), but just at the concept itself: something in my artistic self wants to fight it like I'd want to fight someone trying to strangle me.
 
'Science fiction', such as it is, is to my mind a technique authors can use rather than a dynasty they join

I'd say it's both. Most writers who produce science fiction -- not just those who are published as such -- cite other science fiction writers as influences. So there is a tradition. Of course the same books can be placed in many traditions -- sf writers have many other influences as well, as you point out with Neuromancer and crime; or John Brunner's debt to Dos Passos -- and of course not every writer will perceive themselves as part of the sf tradition. But a lot do.

The charge laid at the door of much "mainstream" sf is often precisely one of literary technique -- not that the ideas themselves are unoriginal, but that they are presented clumsily, because the writer is unfamiliar with techniques developed within science fiction. So you end up with, for example, Michel Faber arguing that a novel features "the usual demerits of mainstream science fiction: creaky expository monologues about how the future came to be, cringe-making references to people taking a 'dermaslough' or hydraulicking their pods, and worship of concepts at the expense of narrative credibility." Sometimes I do think this is a fair cop. Other times, it's true, not so much. The Road may be a familiar scenario, but the sheer force with which it is executed is worthy of note. (Michael Chabon's review-essay of The Road, which includes much discussion of these issues, is excellent, although sadly not freely available.)

Separately, and to go off at a slight tangent from one of the points in your original post, of course any criticism has to address the whole of the sf genre. But one reason why, to me, is that it's imperative to address why readers love -- not just consume indiscriminately, but love -- work that by conventional literary criteria is indeed rubbish. What is it about the work that's hooking them? That's an interesting question, and usually not that easy to answer.

Finally, of course as soon as you mentioned Amazon recommendations I had to go and check. I have to admit I'm deeply amused to find that Amazon UK is currently noting that readers of In Great Waters also bought Yellow Blue Tibia....
 
That's interesting about the recommends. I guess people have been watching Newsnight. Perhaps I should try to get my hands on a copy...

I do agree that there are certain things a science fiction book can deliver other than literary quality. I have to say that it's usually described in terms of originality or clever ideas, which can be done in any number of realist ways to, so it might be as much a preference for certain settings as anything else - which would be perfectly legitimate - but I don't know, as I'm not that kind of reader.

What does always sink my spirits is when I see science fiction fans defending badly-written science fiction with the following argument: 'Okay, this book doesn't have well-drawn characters, but then Emma doesn't have a good portrait of alien worlds, so you can't judge one by the other's standards.'

It sounds convincing on the face of it, but it makes no sense to me. You can write a book without alien worlds; you can't write a book without characters - or if you can, you certainly don't need my advice. Leaving something out is not the same thing as doing it badly.

A science fiction book may have some things in it that other books don't have, but I don't think that gets it off the hook for trying to do the stuff every book has - like style, pacing and character - well. Arguing that being science fiction means you don't have to be well-written or psychologically realistic is saying the same thing a prejudiced outsider is saying: you can't expect very much of science fiction in terms of literary quality.

Which is nonsense. Any book can be well written; any book that features characters, say, ought to try and render them reasonably well; any book that uses language should try to use it agreeably. You don't need great stylistic elaborations or in-depth portraits, but you ought to aspire to at least a basic level of competence. Otherwise it's a flawed book; maybe a very interesting flawed book, but the idea or concept would have been just as good if the writing had been better. It's not as if bad writing is necessary to idea-driven fiction, and if it's not necessary there's absolutely no excuse for it.

And again, on a point of consistency, genre defenders can't have it both ways. You can't argue both that a book's science fiction merits excuse its lack of literary skill and that it's mere snobbish ignorance that causes literary critics to dismiss science fiction. There are two ways to go: either what matters in science fiction is conceptual work and execution is unimportant - in which case, there's no point complaining that literary judges don't value work within the genre. You've decreed literary judgement irrelevant, and so the rejection shouldn't matter. Alternatively, literary quality does matter in science fiction, and hence is something whose absence shouldn't be shrugged off - and if a lot of literary judges are saying something is badly executed, it might be time to wonder whether they have a point.

On the whole, it strikes me as a right-to-be-bad argument, which does no artistic service to anyone.

Of course, plenty of science fiction readers do care about literary quality. The way I see it, 'literary' is a description of the execution rather than the content; it's just a way of saying 'written well'.
 
Okay, this book doesn't have well-drawn characters, but then Emma doesn't have a good portrait of alien worlds

Although given the current fashion for literary mash-ups, I'm sure this terrible state of affairs won't obtain for long!

You can write a book without alien worlds; you can't write a book without characters

Right; but define "characters". Or more specifically, define "render them reasonably well". Or "literary quality".

What I want to suggest, I think, is that it's not a right-to-be-bad argument -- though I freely admit it is often used as such -- but an argument that there are more ways to be good than is often admitted. That the assessment of a book's worth has as much to do with differences in reading strategies as it does with attainment (or not) of some supposedly universal threshold of writing quality.

Does Thomas Pynchon do characters? He is often criticised for the lack. Or does he do "people-shaped utterances who ... are codes to spell his book with"? Is that hollowness, in other words, a strategy for focusing a reader's attention elsewhere?

Some other sf, I'd suggest, is also using that sort of approach to character, yet gets tarred with "bad characterisation" because it's not achieving a standard of conventional naturalistic interiority -- psychological realism -- that it's not even aiming for.

Another version is what happens with Neal Stephenson: you come across some reviews of his book which assert that his characterisation is ridiculous, nobody talks and thinks like that, and others which are head-over-heels in love because finally, someone has written a book they can see themselves in, with characters who act and speak in the way that they act and speak.

Of course, plenty of sf is aiming for more conventional characterisation, and just doesn't do it very well. But, though you're right that there's an uncritical part of the sf readership that laps that up, I don't believe that every non-sf reader is a model of taste and perceptiveness. Certainly staggering clumsiness of characterisation seems to me as common in published work outside the genre as inside. I've read The Inheritance of Loss, and I'm not getting those hours back. It's just a different kind of clumsiness to that which you get in, say, a Neal Asher novel.
 
Okay, this book doesn't have well-drawn characters, but then Emma doesn't have a good portrait of alien worlds//

Although given the current fashion for literary mash-ups, I'm sure this terrible state of affairs won't obtain for long!


Argh. I hate that stuff!


Right; but define "characters". Or more specifically, define "render them reasonably well". Or "literary quality".

Any definition anyone could make would be easy to pick holes in, so I'm not playing that game. There are lots of ways to write characters well; probably as many ways as there are writers. There are also a lot of ways to do them badly. As long as we agree on that, and that it's better to find a good way of writing characters, I don't think we're at odds.

I don't think you necessarily need 'interiority' for good character writing. All you really need is to avoid making your characters act in ways that no real human being ever would. Unless you've got a really good excuse. Same thing with writing style: any style can be made to work, all you need is to avoid using language in horribly inept ways.

And that holds true of any genre. It's not a science fiction thing, it's a writing thing. You can be subtle or clear, complex or simple, modern or archaic, funny or tragic. You can be anything you can get away with.

All writing is an issue of what you can make work, and any definition imposed from a critical perspective is going to have some resemblance to trying to pick up jelly with a fork, and a garden fork at that. Definitions aren't useful for writing, they're a game people play after the writing is finished. The only real definition I'd go with is 'Any rendering that doesn't make you blush for the writer.'


I don't believe that every non-sf reader is a model of taste and perceptiveness

Did I say anything so silly? No. Saying 'science fiction includes an uncritical proportion of the readership' says nothing one way or another about other kinds of books. And indeed many if not all genres have discerning and undiscerning consumers. But then again, so what? Bad books are a problem in any field, and the presence of undiscriminating readers in another field doesn't make the bad books in yours any better.
 
We do agree on a lot, I think. But I think we also disagree on some fairly fundamental points. I don't feel able to leave this discussion as abstractly as you. Stepping quickly around the quagmire that is the issue of post-human and alien characters, I have to come back to: who decides how a real human being would act? And in general the answer, when it comes to cultural stature, is not sf readers. I don't think there are many hypothetical sf readers who would disagree with a hypothetical Booker judge that the sf genre contains numerous books with bad characterization. I do think they might disagree quite strenuously over which books those are.

So my point about The Inheritance of Loss was meant to be somewhat ironic; the thing won a Booker prize, so obviously it is judged as "good" by at least one standard. I heartily agree that the measure of a book should be if the writer gets away with it. I'm just not sure we have a mainstream discourse that really recognises writers who get away with anything that falls outside a fairly narrow definition of "it".

To try to wrench this back to the original post, this is part of what makes me dubious about stripping the labels off everything. You say that execution matters more than subject, but part of what I'm arguing is that subject is execution, subject shapes the nature of the execution. Which means I'm not convinced we'd get infinite diversity in infinite combinations if we lost the labels -- I'd worry that we'd get a monoculture.
 
What is different, it seems to me, about SFF (as compared to mysteries, say) is that it's often either/or: it's SFF or good, SFF or literary. Susanna Clarke, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger, sometimes Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy, the adult covers of the Harry Potter books: these are all generally shelved in fiction instead of science fiction & fantasy. Now, you can argue successfully that it is silly to put half of Atwood's or Winterson's or McCarthy's books in f&l and half in SFF, but the others are, by any reasonable standard, authors who have written only sff books (as of yet). This doesn't seem to me to be true of mystery: books about people solving crimes all go in mysteries, no matter how literary they are.

Margaret Atwood, for instance, is very poor at infodump in worldbuilding. There are a number of tropes for how it can be done successfully and unobtrusively -- or even successfully and very overtly, like Neil Stephenson, or Susanna Clarke -- but as a general rule, literary authors who write sff but insist absolutely that it is not sff tend to do it badly, because they have no experience reading books where it is done well or badly. You don't need to read everything in the genre to be reasonably good at incluing, but you do need to read some of it and concede it is a genre and that your writing is part of that genre. (China Mieville, for instance, wasn't terribly successful at the mystery part of his new novel, and I wonder if part of it was lack of familiarity with the genre. I enjoyed his book a great deal, it's just that the mystery that was the justification for the plot was thin, especially compared with the characters of Beszel and Ul Qoma.)

I say Margaret Atwood forays into science fiction because, as a whole, she doesn't write in that genre. Her poems and all but two of her novels and most of her short stories (or all? I do not know) are not in that genre. This isn't a criticism -- I love much of her work -- and if she started writing only sff (and admitting it?) then it would not be a foray anymore. Equally, if she wrote a single romance, or a single mystery, it would be a foray into those genres. I don't think most people mean much more than a first step or two into a new territory; it seems to have nothing to do with what the new territory is.
 
Okay, another split post...

who decides how a real human being would act?

That's the thing: I don't think it's a question determined by an authority, I think it's a question that can be solved by studying the evidence. We have real human beings all around us. You don't assess whether characters are realistic by comparing them with other characters, you assess by comparing them with real people. Other characters in other books only serve to show how other writers have answered the same question, but everyone's referring back to the same source. It's not a question of who decides: everyone has the same evidence and can make their own decisions.


I'm just not sure we have a mainstream discourse that really recognises writers who get away with anything that falls outside a fairly narrow definition of "it".

Well, I don't think you can assume that from the Booker round this year; as John Mullan pointed out, they had to judge the books that were submitted, and if they didn't get much science fiction, the absence of science fiction on their list proves very little.

It also depends on labels. Science fiction fans often point to Nineteen Eighty-Four as a science fiction book that's widely praised within mainstream culture, and indeed it is. Now, they also complain that mainstream culture doesn't call it science fiction, but if it's a case of narrow definitions of 'good' that isn't relevant: it's a book that portrays a world in which things are not as they are, and it's not just considered good, it's a classic. Same with Brave New World. Michel Faber's Under The Skin was a big critical hit. I mean, I sold my first novel to Jonathan Cape in the UK, and that's not a science fiction imprint, it's a literary one.

So I don't think that mainstream culture automatically rejects a book for having a non-realist premise or setting. Too many examples militate against that theory.

I think it may be more to do with a case of justification. If you want mainstream culture - which is what, exactly? - to embrace a book with a non-realist premise, there needs to be some kind of point to it. Orwell was making a point about Stalinism. Faber was considering issues of beauty, class and cultural alienation. I wrote a story about the psychological impact of discrimination. A lot of lower-end science fiction or fantasy goes on assumptions like 'vampires are cool' or 'space travel is interesting', and that's not going to cut it in the literary world. Nothing's inherently cool or interesting. But that applies to every kind of book, not just science fiction.

The books that get embraced tend to be books a reader can enjoy without being, as hapax says, steeped in the genre. A book you have to have read a lot of science fiction to 'get' is probably not going to be quite so successful. But I think that's a good thing: if a book can't stand on its own merits, it's a faulty book.
 
Which means I'm not convinced we'd get infinite diversity in infinite combinations if we lost the labels -- I'd worry that we'd get a monoculture.

I really couldn't disagree more. Human beings will always be diverse; you don't need to impose labels to stop them all merging into one massive hive brain. If we needed labels to create diverse books, where did the first science fiction books come from? Or the first crime stories or romances or Westerns or thrillers? Every genre is based on a kind of book that some writer somewhere accidentally invented just trying stuff out with no labels for guidance. Slapping genre labels on them only happens after the fact: they occur spontaneously. And, in fact, the books that occur spontaneously are often considered the greatest examples, while the labelled stuff that follows is often lesser descendants. Is your average Mills and Boon book better than Pride and Prejudice because we now have the category of 'romance'?

Again, we don't need an authority for this: we work fine when we act independently. If anything, I'd say it was the labels that were the problem: tell people 'You're writing X kind of book which involves Y features,' and they're far less likely to go off in their own interesting directions.

Once you start labelling you have expectations to which people have to conform. That's the way to get a monoculture. To me, saying we need labels to ensure diversity is like saying we need to clip a bird's wings to ensure flight. The bird was flying fine on its own, and intervening is going to mess things up. Both labelling and clipping feel to me less like an issue of nurture and more like an issue of ownership: someone puts their mark on something spontaneous to make sure it's going to be there tomorrow. Really bad idea.
 
I say Margaret Atwood forays into science fiction because, as a whole, she doesn't write in that genre.

But that's the whole point: that statement only works if you think genre is a meaningful distinction. Every book Margaret Atwood writes exists in its own genre: the genre of 'Margaret Atwood books'. That's way more informative than 'literary' or 'science fiction'; who needs more?


authors who write sff but insist absolutely that it is not sff tend to do it badly, because they have no experience reading books where it is done well or badly

Okay, that statement depends on an assumption of knowledge as to the whys and wherefores of someone's motivations and experience. To begin with, there's no reason to assume that an author hasn't read science fiction; more importantly, there's no way to know, if they handle a trope badly, whether reading other examples of it would have made any different to their writing. We don't know what's going on in other people's heads. Writing is a more complex process than it looks from the outside.


books about people solving crimes all go in mysteries, no matter how literary they are

An Instance of the Fingerpost
by Iain Pears leaps to mind as a counter-example. So does Iain Banks's The Crow Road. I'd bet good money there are more.


You don't need to read everything in the genre to be reasonably good at incluing, but you do need to read some of it and concede it is a genre and that your writing is part of that genre.

You don't need to do any such thing. You need to write a good book. That's all any writer needs to do.

This is what I mean: who says a writer 'needs' to say their book is whatever genre? If it's fans of the genre, what gives them the right? They don't own the genre or the definition. Nobody does. Nobody has that kind of authority. The way a writer defines a book is like the title; it's something the writer adds on, separate from the main text but contributing to your impression of the book and part of piece as a whole.
 
We have real human beings all around us.

Absolutely; but we also all have quite distinct experiences, and it's not necessarily a given (much though I wish it were) that even outstanding representations of those experiences are comprehensible to those who haven't shared them. I remember being very struck by Joanna Russ (writing in the 1970s) talking about her experience reading literature by Black Americans. The first few books she read, she thought were absolutely terrible; then, as she read more, she began to understand the worldview being represented, and recognise the good examples. She told the story as ironic, because she'd just written a book in which she argued (among other things) that something similar often pertained to women's writing as read by men. And she was also an sf critic, and one of the staunchest defenders I know of the idea that different kinds of literature, including sf, cannot all be judged by the same criteria -- see this essay for an example. It is demonstrably true, as I mentioned upthread, that people who don't know people like the characters in Neal Stephenson's novels sometimes don't believe in said characters. I have seen it happen! But they're wrong. (This is not to say that his characterisation can't be challenged; it can. But flat disbelief that people aren't like that won't do.)

Of course, you're right that "mainstream culture" is a straw man; or at the very most a shorthand that's easy to poke holes in. But as far as Mullan's comment goes, I know at least one publisher who had previously submitted titles, but received feedback to the effect that they were just wasting their time. Needless to say they're going to try again next year, now.

Nothing's inherently cool or interesting

I'd come closer to saying that everything is inherently cool and interesting, to be honest; but when it comes to the practicalities of books perhaps that's more or less the same thing. I certainly agree that speculative books in which the speculative elements are used in service of a clear "point" often have an easier time of it. But I think there are many, many sf novels that neither use the fantastic that way nor merely indulge in "spaceships are cool!" posturing.
 
I think there are many, many sf novels that neither use the fantastic that way nor merely indulge in "spaceships are cool!" posturing

No disagreement there.

No particular disagreement with saying everything's inherently interesting either - but when it comes to fiction, the ability to make something appear interesting depends on the writer. An inept writer will fail to draw out what's interesting about something.


I'd say, more generally, that if someone insists that science fiction is so different from literary fiction that they can't be judged by the same standards, that suggests science fiction shouldn't be submitted for literary fiction prizes. It would be like submitting a romance novel for a crime novel award, or like presenting a dog at a cat show. The whole point of a prize is to put comparable works side by side and decide which you like best. If you have, say, two works that have to be judged by one set of criteria next to four works that go by a different one, it throws the whole process off.

If science fiction has to be judged by its own standards, it needs to be judged separately, and indeed, it does have its own prizes. If that's the way people want to go, that's up to them - but then they can't complain if they aren't considered literary fiction. They've drawn the line between literary fiction and science fiction themselves. Again, you can't have it both ways.

I don't subscribe to that view; I'm of the opinion that genre is a constricting notion, and so I'd like to see science fiction on the literary prize lists - heck, I'd like to see my books on the literary prize lists. But if you insist that science fiction can't be judged by the same standards, it has to be judged by different ones, and that means different judges.
 
If you have, say, two works that have to be judged by one set of criteria next to four works that go by a different one, it throws the whole process off.

And yet, the Whitbread/Costa rumbles on ...

But actually, I'm not as hard-line as Russ on this. I don't think the goals and techniques of sf are so different to non-sf literature that no meaningful comparison is possible. I do think there are differences, one of which is often the approach to character, and that at present said differences are often only seen as flaws, rather than opportunities. I do also think things are, have been, changing over the last decade or so.

Hmm. I think we may have reached the point where we start to go in circles?
 
Well, it's going in circles to repeat that no meaningful comparison is possible, because you've already said that. :-) I don't think it really addresses my point that if you can't make a meaningful comparison, then logically you can't put the books up for the same prizes. The fact that books sometimes do wind up on the same prize lists suggests that you can make comparisons using the same standards.

The thing I'd say about Russ's essay is fairly simple: she's a novelist herself, and any novelist who proposes a set of criteria for judging novels, including me, is going to find it very difficult not to use their own as a yardstick. Not necessarily because we're plugging our own work, but because our fiction is influenced by our opinions: we write fiction based on what we think fiction ought to be like. Russ describes science fiction as inherently didactic; her Wikipedia entry suggests that her own fiction was satirical and thus indeed didactic. So she's right about her own work, but if another novelist comes along and insist that they're equally science fiction but anti-didactic, what to do? Nothing, really, except conclude that no one novelist or critic gets the final say.
 
Huh. I thought I posted on this before, but it seems to have been lost in the wash.

So to try again...

I agree with you wholeheartedly that writers should not have to "conform" or the story they are called to tell to fit the constraints of a particular genre, either before or after the fact. Nor should the over-all "quality" of a fictional work be judged according to how well it conforms to a particular set of genre-specific criteria (or any other such arbitrary specifications), unless it is being submitted for, say, a prize with peculiar restrictions (e.g. 'Best Crime Novel' or 'Written by LGBT Writer' or whatever.)

But whatever the merits of genre distinctions to writers, I don't agree that genre is useless, much less destructive, to readers -- and even more so, to those who seek to connect the products of writers to those who consume them: publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, etc.

Genre is nothing more nor less than a convenient "tag" such persons use in communicating a certain set of expectations, desires, tropes, and stylistic conventions of a particular form of entertainment. It isn't by any means the *most* helpful one -- if I had to choose only one delineator, I'd probably pick the character- / plot- / setting- / idea-driven distinction -- but that is more due to the fact that most "genres" (sf, fantasy, mystery, romance, etc) are far broader and broken up into subgenres than to any particular constraints imposed by the labels themselves. (For example, I'd be far more likely to recommend a fan of comic crime capers by Donald Westlake to try out Terry Pratchett's fantasies than the psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell)

But like all such tags and codes, genre labels are only useful so long as the are mutually understood. Up above, for example, you seem to equate "science fiction" with "fiction with a non-realistic premise" and mention that your work was not published by a science fiction imprint.

I don't know how you describe your own books, but if I were working with a reader, I would NEVER hand them to someone who just asked me for some "science fiction." In fact, it would never have occurred to me to "tag" them in that way. (Well, I should say, "it", not "them", since BAREBACK/BENIGHTED is the only one so far to make it to these shores.)

If I had to give a shorthand genre tag to that book, (which I did, since that's my job) I'd give it a sticker for "dark fantasy", and catalog genre classifications for "occult", "noir", "psychological fiction", and "suspense." It's far more likely that I would hand it to someone who was looking for "something like Jim Butcher" than I would to someone who was looking for "something like Neal Stephenson", whether or not you consider yourself writing in the same "genre." And yes, if I'm trying to broaden a reader's experiences, much more likely to hand BENIGHTED to a Ruth Rendell reader, than to a, oh, Borchardt reader, although they are both "about werewolves."

Now I can understand that perhaps it would be "better" for readers if they would not confine themselves to particular genres (= set of predefined expectations) and be open to the possibility of stumbling on good books far outside their usual reading fare. And I daresay it would be "better" for most of the customers at the breakfast shop if they gave up ordering sausages and waffles and were more open to a meal of muesli and fresh fruit.

But I am not in the business of improving people; I am in the business of connecting stories and readers. And in that business, genre is an extremely important tool.
 
Oh, and as for the "residual sexism", witness the kerfuffle about that extremely stupid post that can be found by searching on the words "science fiction" and Marvin Minsky". (No, I won't post the link, but here's Scalzi scathing response: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2009/10/13/a-boys-own-genre-or-not/

It isn't a defensible position, mind you, but you see plenty of more genteel expressions of the same attitudes in criticism of science fiction. (Also superhero comics, and crime fiction, and westerns....)
 
The thing I'd say about Russ's essay is fairly simple: she's a novelist herself, and any novelist who proposes a set of criteria for judging novels, including me, is going to find it very difficult not to use their own as a yardstick.

True dat. And critics have their own biases, of course. A friend of mine is fond of pointing out that where a given critic decides that sf starts -- with the ancient Greeks, or with Frankenstein, or with Wells, or with Gernsback -- inevitably shapes their view of what sf is and should be. Me, I don't have a firm view as to when sf starts, but I find myself most in sympathy with the Wellsian tradition, which to me is (in part) about refuting humanity's tendency to put itself at the centre of things, be they the natural world, the cosmos, or stories. So of course I am interested in fiction that uses approaches to character that can be read as attempts to come to terms with the smallness of any one human. And, by extension, interested in fiction that deals with characters who are not quite human, or something beyond human.

But now I'm really wandering from the topic at hand.
 
I'm really not proposing to improve people; what people read is their own business. The reason I'm talking about it at all is that it becomes my concern when my work gets channelled that way, because that affects me. I can't count the people who've told me, 'I didn't think I'd like your work because I don't usually read that kind of thing - but you know, I really did!'. 'That kind of thing' isn't just a convenience they're using, it's a name they're calling me.

And, too, they enjoyed it. Not found it improving; it turned out to be, for them, the literary equivalent of sausages rather than bran. It's just that they didn't know there were sausages in that restaurant, because the restaurant guides insist on categorising all the restaurants in town based on mentioning only one dish off any given menu.

So I'm not in the position of a dietician tutting here. I'm in the position of a chef who's frustrated at the restaurant guides for giving everybody inaccurate cover.

As to the use of genre for booksellers and so forth ... well, those are noble professions, but the whole point I'm making is that the genre categorisation system is an inadequate way for them to connect readers to books. It may be a quick way, but, with no disrespect to booksellers, placing their need for a shorthand over the need for good connections and accurate descriptions seems like a failure of priorities. A conscientious librarian like you, I'm sure, does a good job, but that's more to your credit than the system's.
 
A friend of mine is fond of pointing out that where a given critic decides that sf starts -- with the ancient Greeks, or with Frankenstein, or with Wells, or with Gernsback -- inevitably shapes their view of what sf is and should be.

Which, I suspect, has a lot to do with whether you regard it as a literary device or as an interconnected subculture. Start with something ancient and you're basically categorising it as 'Something a writer can do to make their story interesting'; start with something recent and you're categorising it as 'Identifiable links in a specific chain of influence.'

Me, I'm not much of a joiner, as you can probably tell; if I'm in a club I want it to be 'all books' rather than 'some books' or I feel like I'm missing out. (This isn't specific to science fiction, in my case; I've never hung around any subculture without getting claustrophobia after a while.) Which means that if I was doing a didactic definition of science fiction, I'd probably start somewhere fairly early and pick out a lot of isolated examples.

Now, if I did that I could certainly make a case, but I'd end up ignoring the fact that, as you say, there is also a specific chain of influence: writers who want to follow the lead of Wells and the lads, and then writers who follow their lead in turn. It's a chain of influence that exists, and excluding it from the definition would be a case of selective blindness.

But on the other hand, if we see science fiction as only the self-identifying chain of influence, that's a narrow definition. It begs the question of where science fiction comes from in the first place, and tends towards ghettoisation.

It also leads to fights over borderline cases - the amount of vitriol directed at Margaret Atwood is dismaying, for instance, and as furious as a fight can only be when there's no common agreement about the definitions.

Which is why I don't think that 'science fiction' as a label - or 'fantasy', for that matter - is ever going to be a perfect definition, because it means two things, the device and the club. Things would be a lot easier if there were two different terms for the two different things.

Atwood calling her work 'speculative fiction' was, I suspect, an attempt to find a different definition that indicated her willingness to use the device but her disinclination to join the club. Which, as her detractors accuse her of not having read enough of what for convenience I'll refer to as 'club sf', seems something they're actually in agreement on. And that shouldn't be a problem. Atwood's non-membership would really only be a bad thing if you consider that the club owns the device and that you should have to pay your club dues before you're allowed to use it. It tends towards the idea I've been arguing against, that a particular group of people own not just their own subculture - which is fair enough - but the literary technique it favours, which isn't right.

So I think we're looking at several different phenomena here. We have, let's say, the SF Club, which consists of people. We have club sf, written within a specific tradition. And we have, let's say, 'trope sf', which is to say literature that uses the technique of having non-real elements in the story but comes from a writer working outside the club. Those are three separate things, all perfectly legitimate, but if we don't keep them separate we're likely to end up valuing one at the expense of another, getting confused and quarrelling.

The more we use literary definitions, the more we wind up with literary politics. Fights over who is or isn't or should be in or out of this club or that remind me of nothing so much as fights over actual political issues of the day. It's for this reason that I prefer to position myself as an Independent as far as possible, because once you start getting identified with one side or the other you start getting antagonistic in your stance towards the other guys, and that's not what art needs.
 
It isn't a defensible position, mind you, but you see plenty of more genteel expressions of the same attitudes in criticism of science fiction. (Also superhero comics, and crime fiction, and westerns....)

Is that, do you think, partly a reaction to the tide of vampire romance and the like? There are certainly pulp power-fantasy books for women kicking around that are about as good as the average pulp power-fantasy books for men always have been - ie not very - but people are more used to male pulp and hence assume that's what all pulp is or should be. Someone who sees the maleness as a feature of pulp rather than just pulp by and for men is more likely to see the femaleness of pulp by and for women as some kind of mutation.

Gender-specific power fantasies often don't show that gender in its best light. From what I've seen of the female pulps, for instance, they tend to objectify men just as much as the male pulps objectify women: the style is different (emphasis on devotion rather than admiration, providing protection and fighting rather than getting kidnapped and tied fetchingly to chairs and so on) but they're basically the same thing, which is reducing a human being to a bundle of desirable responses rather than a dignified independent adult.

I can see two different kinds of male objection to that. One kind would be the same objection feminists make: this stuff is unrealistic, stereotypical and demeaning. With which I have quite a bit of sympathy. The other kind would be basically: get your horrid oestrogen out of my face. With which I have none.

I do think there's a conversation to be had about female pulps presenting a dehumanising picture of men, but I suspect any such conversation would have more problems with misogynists muscling in than a conversation about male pulps objectifying women would have with misandrists. Perhaps. What do you think?
 
Wow, lots of food for thought, as always! I definitely agree with Winterson's comments.

And I can't help but be reminded of this article: http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2009/10/12/women-gays-apparently-ruining-sci-fi-for-the-rest-of-us

Apropos of nothing, really, and not something I know agree with, but another slant on the sci-fi genre.
 
I'd say that if you think the mere presence of women and gay people messes up the genre for you, your fun is long overdue for some spoiling. My main reaction is a hearty 'Yah boo.'

On the other hand ... Don't shoot me, but I think there are times and places where 'feminisation' can go too far in the opposite direction. Women writers can get overly girly just as male writers can get overly macho, and neither makes for the most balanced portrait of humanity. For instance, the majority of the Lord of the Rings scriptwriting team was female. From what can recall, the amount of 'Oh Frodo!' 'Oh Sam!' got really too much. It started to feel like the emotional equivalent of ladling on the nudity - women do like their verbal declarations of devotion - and it also seemed less and less like how men actually behave. On the whole the scripts were pretty good, but in that particular case, an equivalently talented male screenwriter would probably have produced something more convincing and less, well, soppy.

So I think you can get female writers who do not-very-convincing portraits of male characters, same as you can get vice versa. I can see getting bothered about that. I just think you need to be equally bothered about male writers doing not-very-convincing female characters if you want to deserve any sympathy.
 
From what can recall, the amount of 'Oh Frodo!' 'Oh Sam!' got really too much.

Yes, very much so... I can never watch those films with my dad. He spends the whole time asking me if I'm sure Frodo and Sam aren't gay.

And I agree with the yah boo assessment, with the caveat that I'm not a huge fan of sci-fi to begin with, so I've no idea if us damn girls are softening up the genre or not. What I am a fan of is people reading/watching what they like without having to defend or explain it.
 
What I am a fan of is people reading/watching what they like without having to defend or explain it.

Yes!

I don't actually know how much effect women are having on science fiction as a whole; I'd need to know way more than I do to make any kind of authoritative statement. I do remember the day my husband told me, in some bemusement, that he'd seen an entire shelf of books classified as 'Vampire Romance' in a bookshop, which does sound like female demand is having an impact in at least some areas, because I doubt that many boys read that stuff... But if anyone actually knows more about it and would care to enlighten us, consider yourself invited. :-)
 
There's a section in my local Waterstones called "The Lady and the Vamp" which is entirely paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Look for vampires in horror or fantasy, and they're nowhere in sight!

I have seen a few books billed as "romantic sci-fi," though, so maybe we damn women are to blame?
 
Not to worry, Forbidden Planet has the other half covered. Or did, I'm not sure the section still exists, whereas their urban fantasy/paranormal section gets a little larger every time I visit. (Although my understanding is that the popularity of that (sub?) genre here is still lagging somewhat behind the boom in America.)
 
Also, regarding Atwood, see this interview [big mp3 file link].
 
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