5.30.2006

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.