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Genre Fiction as the Future of Serious Literature

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Apr. 16th, 2009 | 09:23 am

Ted Gioia's "Notes on Conceptual Fiction"
Did sci-fi writers from the 1940s and 1950s anticipate the future of serious literature better than the so-called "serious writers" or, for that matter, the highbrow critics?

...

In the past, conceptual fiction existed at the center of our literary (and even pre-literary) culture. Nowadays it is dismissed by critics and typically shuffled off into "genre" categories such as science fiction and fantasy. Realism gained preeminence as a supposedly rock hard foundation for fiction. From that moment on, Newton's laws (and a million other laws) gave orders to the imagination, with the stamp of approval of the literary establishment.

But here is the more interesting question. Is it possible that this trend is reversing, and that conceptual fiction is now moving back from the periphery into the center of our literary culture?
My favorite paragraph:
By the same token, it is easy to see how mistaken those fans are who proclaim the superiority of so-called "hard" science fiction—in other words stories with a large dose of "real" science in them. Even a quick survey of science fiction books shows that the science is almost always bogus, and simply serves as a gateway for bringing imaginative elements into the narrative. The greatness of these books does not derive from their chemistry or physics or genetic engineering (which almost always prove to laughably wrong-headed a few years after the book is published, if not sooner), but in the writer's visionary reconfiguration of our conceptions of the real.
Discuss.

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Comments {15}

scbutler

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from: scbutler
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)
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David Hartwell has been arguing this point at cons for some time. He especially likes to point out how 'realistic' fiction tends to ignore the advances (and narrative possibilities) of neuroscience.

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C. C. Finlay

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from: ccfinlay
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I don't think this is a new argument. What's interesting is seeing it emerge from someone basically outside the genre. It's as if literary theory suddenly started paying attention to the stories people actually care about.

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scbutler

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from: scbutler
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC)
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"It's as if literary theory suddenly started paying attention to the stories people actually care about."

As if.

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princessalethea

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from: princessalethea
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC)
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When do we get to say *well, DUH* like annoying teenagers?

I think it's less possible that a "trend is reversing" and more possible that the states of the genres, the labels of said genres, and the reading demographic in general are evolving as they always will.

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C. C. Finlay

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from: ccfinlay
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
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When do we get to say *well, DUH* like annoying teenagers?

Only when you learn to pout like one.

The thing about genres evolving is that it generally seems to me that genre readers and writers are very conservative and slow to evolve: are we dinosaurs who will be outpaced by speedy little mainstream mammals who appropriate our tropes and methods so they can evolve while we stubbornly stick to things we already do as they (and the readers) leave us behind. How do genre writers evolve to tap into the changing mainstream reading sensibility?

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC)
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The argument put forth a few years ago by the estimable Sven Birkerts in his review of Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" is that SF can NEVER be Literature with a capital L because it privileges premise over character. I took issue with this in an essay that ended up in the NYRSF because it denies the possibility that landscape can be character all in itself, and in fact is inextricably intertwined with character because character is nothing without context. What SF provides is the possibility of examining philosophical questions (of character) in settings that presume reality instead of being only theoretical and showing the consequences of altered landscape.

Until the various materialist revolutions manifested in our daily lives, this may have been "merely" escapist, but given the profound changes in our own landscape in the last three decades, it can no longer be disregarded. SF tropes and ideas have been borrowed by mainstream writers for some time now. But it's becoming clear that soon enough the department with own the entire store.

This works both ways, of course. Writers of SF can no longer ignore the qualities of literature necessary to authentic impact the way they once could, because it's no longer just neat gadgets used by standard issue people. Becoming different in the face of profound change is an essential of any worthwhile examination of an SF landscape.

So, yeah...we're the future of serious literature and have been for a while.

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C. C. Finlay

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from: ccfinlay
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)
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(The above comment is by Mark W. Tiedemann)

Thanks, Mark.

Writers of SF can no longer ignore the qualities of literature necessary to authentic impact the way they once could,

Which was Damon Knight's argument over fifty years ago, wasn't it. Once more, a man ahead of his time.

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Nick Mamatas

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from: nihilistic_kid
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
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Gioia's argument makes so many ridiculous claims (especially in sentences that claim "no one would dare...") and simply inaccurate statements of fact that it is impossible to take seriously, even if it makes SF people feel good.

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C. C. Finlay

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from: ccfinlay
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)
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I found it linked today in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Arts and Letters Daily page, where they listed it as something apparently to be taken seriously.

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Nick Mamatas

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from: nihilistic_kid
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
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They've previously linked my essay on being a term paper artist.

More like, "Ah, here's something somebody wrote that triggered our Google alerts," not "And now we must tangle with this brave new idea!"

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C. C. Finlay

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from: ccfinlay
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC)
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That's too bad, because it is an idea worth tangling with. Once the parts you label as "ridiculous claims" are removed, there's still an observation there about the way genre influences mainstream story-telling in our culture that is worth attempting to understand.

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Nick Mamatas

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from: nihilistic_kid
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
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Sure, but once we remove the ridiculous claims we may end up with something else entirely—something that isn't going to put pulp fiction at the center of things.

It is easy to draw a solid line between horror and the Romantics, and one between fantasy and the general tradition of fairy tales, fables, and children's literature. You can't claim a "pulp" provenance for them. Further, boiling down Faulkner and Joyce to experimenting with sentences rather than concepts of reality means pretty much ignoring both their own dips into myth (Ulysses? Whodat?) and their use of then-current ideas in psychology (Watson and stream of consciousness to name one of many.)

Further, much "conceptual fiction" today absolutely has a line drawn from Joyce, Faulkner etc. and far more is going on that simply messing with sentences. (Messing with identity is one of the big things, for example.) The article puts up a strawman realism and inexplicably links it to Newton, which is just bizarre and ahistorical. Ditto any look at the work of, say, Wallace or Lethem, that doesn't see both Joyce and Faulkner as well as skiffy (much more so for Lethem) in their work.

Finally, and most basically, anyone who says "A mystery book must have a crime and a solution to the crime" needs to read a mystery novel written sometime in the last seventy years before saying such a silly thing again.

Take out all that stuff you're not left with much else other than, "Hey, some writers read widely between genre divisions and this shows in their work."

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(no subject)

from: kellysarah
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
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“Because these genres cannot take context for granted, as do so many so-called “serious” novels.”

I enjoyed his discussion of context. Many genre stories also depend on context. Fantasy stories that revolve around royalty depend on contexts and concepts shared by people from cultures with that history. Vine Deloria, Jr., a Sioux scholar, wrote in his book Custer Died For Your Sins, “I’ve often wondered if that isn’t why so many European Americans wanted land, an estate of their own. Through having been exploited by nobles and gentry in Europe, did that justify in their minds that it was OK to exploit other people for their own profit?”

Yikes! That’s enough to make this Euro-American think twice about my culture’s context. Is it really such a great thing to be king, whether chosen or a usurper?

“Hard” science fiction also sometimes indulges in presuming a shared context for reality. It often assumes that the scientific method is the only tool through which humans can gain understanding of the universe. The works of science fiction, fantasy and literary fiction that I most enjoy are those that challenge my conception of reality and make me rethink my assumptions. Oh, and whatever you call it, it better be entertaining, too!

Maybe instead of literary and genre, we could classify stories in terms of those that challenge our belief systems and those that just let us revel in them.

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cathschaffstump

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from: cathschaffstump
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 07:56 pm (UTC)
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So-called serious novels have their own conventions and tropes, and must be considered a genre as well, although labels can be arbitrary.

Seriously good serious novels, such as Alexi's Reservation Blues and Peake's Gormenghast are genre novels that do not use hard science as a basis for an examination of real concerns.

The idea that hard core SF based loosely on actual science is sort of a myth. Being married to a science teacher has let me look at how flimsy the speculation generally is, let alone that it's usually abandoned early in the story.

The best stories in any genre are mirrors in which we examine ourselves and how we live?

Or something like that.

Catherine

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Apr. 16th, 2009 10:54 pm (UTC)
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It's always been something of a misnomer, that label Science Fiction. It's more an aesthetic pose than anything to do with adhering to the rigors of actual science, though some writers have tried and a few have managed to greater or lesser degrees (Hal Clement comes to mind as does Robert Forward and others like them).

No, it is that the way we look at reality changed with the advent of sound science---it altered our stance toward the universe, if you will, and the fiction takes that as its principle aesthetic approach to fiction. The speculations are consequences of asking "What kind of adventures would Sinbad have had had he been a post-Newtonian rationalist?"

Mark W. Tiedemann

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