The Literary Value of Science Fiction

I'd once argued with James Gunn and other SF readers over whether Vonnegut was ashamed to be labeled among the SF writers. Gunn, who apparently knows the man personally, corrected me and I had to accept his word (though I was sure I’d read differently).

Vonnegut was on BBC radio this morning, explaining why he didn’t want to be labeled an SF writer. “I’m a novelist!” he said, going on to explain it was because academics don’t treat SF seriously that he avoided the term. It’s children’s literature. (Was Heinlein’s fame a mixed blessing, bringing so many kids to SF yet subliminally telling many others--because it’s on the kids’ shelves--that it’s for children only?).

Actually, that was pretty weird for Vonnegut to say. If any SF writer is taken seriously by academics, it is he. He probably paved the way for Audrey Niffenger to write the mainstream-published “Time-Traveller’s Wife,” which never uses verbal trickery that this is all in his and her mind (although, though I haven’t finished it yet, I doubt that it ever explains the phenomenon beyond “genetics” so it’s probably more of a fantasy) as well as Kirsten Bakis’ Lives of the Dog Monsters (fabulously cool dogs! Forgive me if I maul the title since I never could remember it right).

But Vonnegut pointed out that, when he went to teach at Smith college (I wonder if Andrea Hairston met him) as a creative writing prof, he did not find himself in the library stacks. If Vonnegut is as ubiquitous as dirt, that must be a snub.

Then I was reading the blurbed back of Jonathan Carroll’s book and wondered if Ron Hansen or Alan Cheuse would blurb one of Greg Bear’s. Cheuse might if he'd been pointed to an especially well-written one. Interesting quote from Cheuse: “[Carroll] does it better than anyone since John Collier, our last practitioner of fiction that blurs reality and fantasy.” Was Collier really the last? And is this why, if genre fans want literary respect from academics, they like to talk about fiction that blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality? Because we don’t know what reality is, we have an excuse for fantasies?

Because Henry James blurred fantasy and reality, maybe it’s more literarily kosher to do that. Things may be changing in publishing--I suspect Gordon Van Gelder did a lot of it while at St. Martin’s--but it appears to be a very slow process.

Voice, Money, and Celine (not Dion)

Ever since the magic of watching Barfly in high school, I’ve loved the strong character voice from Salinger to Bukowski to Henry Miller. A friend has just fallen in love with Miller, so I’ve been lending her my copies. The man could write about but nothing but a meal and you’d have to gobble his prose. Of all the grungy wit writers, Miller was probably the best.

I never got around to Louis-Ferdinand Celine, for some reason. When I was in college at Iowa City, Celine had been recommended because of my love of Miller. I thought I’d finally sample the man. The preface is strangely defensive. His book is popular enough to be republished, but he doesn’t want to republish the book because of all the grief he’s been given over it. But he has to because he’s broke.

It’s funny. Writers back then used money as a reason for writing. Vonnegut did in the aforementioned interview with the BBC. A lot of genre writers still do. Maybe the Depression changed perspectives: I’m doing this because I have to, to put food on the table. You probably couldn’t be respected if you didn’t labor, keep yourself useful to society.

Now that there’s no real money for beginning artists (and many established ones as well), you’re supposed to write out of love, not money. Art for art’s sake.

Which perspective is better? Do they look down their noses at each other?

While I appreciate Celine, I'd have probably loved him better at a different age.


The Arc of the Reader Covenant

This explication of Stevie Smith's "Not Waving, but Drowning" is an excellent description of arc, the point by point changes, reversals in perspective--not that poems have to swing so drastically.

Also, it points out how shorter stories can compact more story in fewer words. SF seems to reserve the short short for gags, which is rather disappointing.


Pulps Galore

Slate has a discussion on the old pulps, including praise for Westlake by John Banville.