12.29.2003

Pretension

Like Gabe, I was looking forward to McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Like Gabe, I was disappointed. With such a strong lineup—Elmore Leonard, Michael Chabon, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, even Stephen King, among others—I expected a solid entry from the good people at McSweeny’s, only to find Chabon’s pompous essay and pretentious, even precious stories from the likes of Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Nick Hornby, Jim Shepard, and even (inexplicably) Elmore Leonard and Michael Crichton. Furthermore, I was not surprised to discover that the genre writers were actually faithful to the pulp tradition, while the non-genre writers acted as if they were slumming, something that never crossed the minds of real pulp writers.

My disappointment wasn’t quite as strong as Gabe’s, however. I had heard friends who are booksellers tell me that, while Stephen King fans were looking for “this McSweeny’s thing with a new Dark Tower story,” regular McSweeny’s readers were puzzling over the inclusion of Stephen King in their anthology. And, knowing something of the disregard of most non-genre writers have for any story that doesn’t involve sexual frustration in the twenty-first century, I expected some degree of literary snobbery. Though it featured good stories by Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman and Carol Emshwiller, the anthology on the whole was nonetheless unremarkable.

The problem, for me, was that the anthology was pretentious.

Chabon’s problem was that he treated the very concept of genre as a bastard offspring, not understanding that the walls between genres have always been artificial. He failed, I think, to listen to thriller writer David Morrell, who wrote in his book Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, “There are no inferior types of fiction, only inferior practitioners of them.” Rick Klaw, author of Geek Confidential, shared a similar sentiment when he pointed out during the Texas Book Festival that even literary fiction is a genre because it has to follow specific rules.

Ruminating on this, I thought of three novels published by the genre’s Big Names this year. They were released with much fanfare, with interesting but mixed results. Neal Stephenson’s backward-looking science fiction novel Quicksilver was jammed full of history and characters, much of which would have been absorbing alone, and featured ever-cleaner writing from Stephenson himself, yet was hindered by a sluggishly paced story lacking conflict. Likewise, William Gibson looked over his shoulder to check the pulse of contemporary society with Pattern Recognition, providing us with a well-written science-fictional look at the immediate post-9/11 world, but in his fascination with the minutiae of our daily lives forgot to tell a compelling story. Dan Simmons, too, looked backward for inspiration, then shot us into a posthuman future to retell Homer’s first great poem with his novel Ilium. All three books have their merits, yet Simmons’ novel is the most successful in terms of story and pace, providing this reader with the most genuine pleasure.

Yet none of these novels is pretentious.

None of the writers acts like they are paying a visit to the ghettoes, and each treats the subject matter with respect and admiration. Indeed, in interviews they seem to relish what they are doing. Neal Stephenson addressed his relationship to science fiction by saying, “The fact that some of my recent work is set in the past should be taken, not as an attempt to ‘escape’ from SF, but as an attempt to see what I can do with SF.” Gibson felt that Pattern Recognition was not technically science fiction because he cannot “accept as science fiction a story that involves inherently fantastic elements for which there is no attempt at rationale,” stating that the novel may have “the flavor of science fiction, but so does the world today.” Dan Simmons, who has never shied away from genre, likened successful science fiction to poetry in an interview with Steven Silver at SF Site. “As with poetry,” he stated, “quality speculative fiction demands great skill with language and invites linguistic invention. As with poetry, good SF delves deep into metaphor while sliding lightly on the surface of its own joy of telling. As with poetry, quality SF demands a much greater collaboration on the part of the reader -- a greater sensitivity to detail, word-meaning, texture, and nuance, as well as a greater involvement in ferreting out meaning.”

These books, and their writers, may have aimed high, but they did not set their sights low. I wish I could have said the same for McSweeny’s Treasury of Thrilling Tales.

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