After I published the first Future of the Fantastic article about the relationship between SF and Literary Fiction, I sent an email to John Kessel, co-editor of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology and longtime SF writer, telling him about it. What followed was an in depth exchange on the subject of the article, reprinted here.
Nice essay. I'm glad you are open to reading all this stuff. It's been one of the frustrations of my creative life that several generations of fine writers have come of age in sf, most of them completely invisible to so-called "mainstream" writers who would probably like their work, but are convinced that they don't like "speculative fiction." Only a few (Lethem, Fowler), by the grace of god and persistence and political skills and the fact that they write a book that somehow gets published without the "SF" label on it, break through the wall.
In the past I have quoted Langston Hughes on this situation. Hughes was talking about the plight of black writers who worked without literary recognition, but as you note, the dynamics of race prejudice work in the literary world too.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
Unfortunately, though I think we have eaten well and grown strong, I don't think most sf writers are welcome in the parlor yet. That's one reason for the resentment you decry. That's why Kelly Link asserts that she is a science fiction writer, though she has no spaceships or robots or aliens in any of her stories. (Neither do most of us). I've spent most of my creative life, as a writer, teacher, editor and workshop organizer, fighting this battle.
I'll look forward to reading your reviews of the individual works. I did a similar review for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in last
Thank you for writing. Keep the faith.
The irrationality of the whole genre thing makes me a little queasy, but it also makes me kind of think that Gernsback may have done more harm than good in the long run. Sure he united a certain kind of reader, but he alienated other kinds of readers. A question for you: how will you know when the battle's been won? When everyone reads sf or when there is no such label as sf? Because is it possible to get people to read sf when it's called sf? Or, for that matter, called anything that seperates it from simply 'fiction'?
I really look forward to reading more of what you have to say on your blog, which, from the little I've read today, I find intelligent and stimulating. But let me suggest the way this looks from the point of view of a long time sf writer, critic, professor, and editor.
"How will you know, Mr. Hughes, when the battle has been won? When everyone treats Negroes they way they treat other people, or when there is no such label as a 'Negro' anymore."
I think that Gernsback's invention of "science fiction" as a category did indeed create a ghetto of the fantastic. In the broadest sense, it is all literature, and we can more profitably spend our time talking about what makes for excellence than in erecting or maintaining walls. I have said publicly that having separate courses or anthologies for sf will not solve this problem, that sf will not be free of being stigmatized until the Norton Anthology of American Literature contains sf stories along with realist fiction side by side, Philip K. Dick next to Philip Roth. Or, alternatively, until all the sf in the bookstores is shelved as "fiction."
But realistically, do you expect that to happen? I am not holding my breath.
The positive side of the ghetoization of the fantastic is that writers within that ghetto have done a lot of exploring and defining. Jazz was not invented by the high culture--it was a popular, low art form fermented in a ghetto. Art as a whole gains new forms when artist create schools, defining themselves as a thing apart, gaining strength and artistic coherence by finding their literary ancestors and their literary opponents, inventing their craft. I think both movements--the separation into schools and the breaking down of walls between them--can be useful to artists.
You ask whether it is possible to get people to read sf when it is called sf. Good question. But why is it so difficult to get people to read sf when it is called sf? I think it's because they think they know what sf is without actually knowing anything much about it. They see Star Trek and some George Lucas movie, have some Isaac Asimov novel thrust upon them, and think they know everything there is to know about the genre. They say that nobody any good has written sf since P.K. Dick died in 1982. Few of these people, however, would have been caught dead reading P.K. Dick when he was alive.
There is something to be said for calling everything "fiction" and being done with labeling. But that also falsifies reality. There is a difference between what an sf writer does and what Raymond Carver or Amy Hempel does. Can't we recognize different, perhaps even incompatible, kinds of excellence? Would Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire be a better book if it just got rid of all that futuristic stuff about life extension and information technology?
I don't know the answers to these questions. There has been some change, for the good. I like it that all sorts of writers are writing against the realistic tradition. I think there is a general movement to merge the materials of the fantastic with literary fiction. And I think the resentment of sf readers and writers toward the so-called mainstream, and the habits of the ghetto, have not helped the sf be better. Just as the attitudes of many black people toward white-dominated society stand in the way of racial comity.
But you know, can we blame a black man for looking a little sideways when a white liberal tells him he ought to get the chip off his shoulder, realize he isn't any different from anyone else, and embrace his white brothers, forgetting that there is any black and white--when he has evidence every day of his life that his blackness is a fact that the vast majority of the world cannot and does not ignore? It's easy for the white liberal to say that race doesn't matter.
Anyway, I think that's at least part of the psychological dynamic. I wish it were not so, and I hope it can change. And frankly, people like Kelly Link (and me) are overwhelmingly more likely to read widely outside of their chosen genre than those outside of the genre are willing to read within it. Who has the most work to do in tearing down these irrational barriers? I know a hell of a lot more about Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf than the average literary intellectual knows about China Mievelle and Gene Wolfe.
Sorry to let my own resentment show here. Strangely, I have argued your side of this debate in a long correspondence with Bruce Sterling that had some influence, I believe, on him writing his original slipstream essay in the 1989.
Funny enough, my copy of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (a few years old now) has one story by Ray Bradbury and another by Ursula K. LeGuin. Which is token, to be sure, but it's something.
The current edition of the Norton Anthology of American literature 1945-present has this table of contents:
Which includes LeGuin, but no one else I readily identify as an sf writer. LeGuin also appears in the Norton Antholody of Contemporary Fiction.
So, at least one sf writer has entered the hallowed ranks of Norton.
John, I have found this interchange fascinating. May I reprint our correspondence on Wet Asphalt?
Last time I taught from one of those AmLit anthologies, it also had a Raymond
Chandler story in it. So some genre writers do make it into the canon.
Please do feel free to post any of these comments on your website. I'll be
visiting it again.