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.


Don Ysidro

Originally published in Polyphony, this work by Bruce Holland Rogers won a World Fantasy Award in 2004. Evo Terra of the Dragon Page reads the hispanic voice pretty well.

But this isn't a story. Like his Stoker-winning "The Dead Boy at Your Window," originally published in the North American Review, there is no arc--a vignette about a dead person. Dead Boy's prose is closer to a prose poem than this present offering, but it's spare style is nice and seems to fit the vignette well. Don Ysidro has died, and his belongings and parts are given away and used to make new pots. The end. Still, it's a nice metaphor for the process of teaching writing.


News & Notes (x-posted to Mundane SF blog, which has another post on fear)

Online SF Workshop with James Gunn!

If you want to write SF, this is an important first step for at least two reasons: 1) You'll go through winnowing an idea to something workable. 2) You'll learn what makes a scene. This workshop flops for a number of writers because they either don't write or don't follow the exercises. Some writers start with the story first and worry about the science later. That's cool, but just try at this method and you may find it expands your horizons.

Gunn is of a newer old school cut, but that doesn't mean he doesn't mean he's incapable of reading your work. After all, he's studied under Caroline Gordon [and Allen Tate, I think] if that name doesn't ring any bells, consider that Gordon critiqued most of Flannery O'Connor's work.


Escape Pod

Since I do a lot of jogging, Escape Pod is perfect to catch up on a few of the less well-known writers I should have read by now--bless the editor's heart for taking on the project. I'll be reviewing the podcast stories available over there soon. I had to grit my teeth when the editor said that some wanted SF to be [M]undane and unambitious. Through reviewing the stories, I'll be able to demostrate how the editor is mistaken and misinformed.

The most effective story so far for their format has been Ben Rosenbaum's "The Death Trap of Dr. Nefario," but Tim Pratt had the most solid speculative work available in "Lachrymose and the Golden Egg."


Who can opine? Who can critique/review?

A professional author said she thought only published professional writers should review. I picked her argument apart*, but it didn't change her mind (of course, I'd rather hear my literary heroes said, but sometimes their judgement isn't any better than Joe Blow's). Aparently, this phenomenon of presumed authority is circulating the web in multiple discussions. Here are two of the best:

Patrick Nielsen Hayden:
"The fact is that one of fandom’s defining characteristics (and World Fantasy Con is very much part of fandom) is that everyone gets to weigh in, without regard for formal credentials, professional standing, or membership in any particular class or caste. Indeed, the specific project around which fandom formed, in the early 1930s, was sorting out which stories in badly-produced pulp magazines were the good ones and which ones were crap. That’s the heart of the enterprise: not writers being supportive to one another regardless of the quality of their work, but readers separating the wheat from the chaff and sharing their findings with one another. This isn’t something you can do without ever being rude; at its heart it’s a process of discrimination and discernment that can’t be made unfailingly polite."

Dan Green (emphasis mine):
"It is true that not everyone's opinion is equally valid--but this means only that not everyone bothers to support his/her opinion with equal weight. Simply writing for a newspaper does not in itself convey a "true" authority to the critic, if the views expressed do not go beyond plot summaries and vapid opinionizing. Speaking for myself, I don't find much critical weight in the opinions--about either film or books--expressed in most of the "major dailies" The amount of space given over to reviews is much too sparse to allow for much real criticism of any kind."

*My refutation:
"Most professional writers should but don't want to review because they don't want to step on toes. They've established a career. Note that Jay [Lake] doesn't review anymore (to my knowledge at least). How does [one get] start[ed] on the road to being 'someone universally acknowledged as a grand pooh-bah of reviewing?'"


Emotional, Impressionistic or Dream Imagery

Without doubt, the best image is the vivid one, the visceral one, the evocative one, the right one. It captures a moment. But I've debated writers on the ability to attempt other kinds. Here's proof.

If you've read Kelly Link, you may already intuit what I'm getting at, but here are some examples from Christine Schutt's Florida.

The vivid/visceral/evocative/right image (for contrast):

The coiled trail of the car lighter in the dark...
...the weak heat hushing from the baseboards against my ankles.
The old sashes rattled in the window--hundreds, all sides--so that a cold air rimmed the rooms...

On the other hand, some images are not sharp. They are meant to give an emotion, a stylistic impression, or simply create dream-like scenes. I list these in order of importance or ambition. The emotion adds character dimension, flavoring a narrator's feel of events in the story. Stylistic impressionism gives interesting taste. It is atmosphere through which events are revealed.

Schutt goes for emotion:

He was driving past shapes crouched in sleeping fields, past unplowed snow and smokeless chimneys. Grimaced light and hard snow, loose doors, abandonment.

"Shapes" is certainly vague. "Abandonment" is abstract. What is "grimaced light?" "Hard snow" is maybe the crunchy kind of snow where the top layer melts and freezes again, but how could one see that from car, though? A "loose door?" Maybe that's a door opened a crack?

Before these strange uncertain images comes a stronger series of negative images--images created out of what is not there. No one expects snow to be plowed, but combined with the sleeping fields (a blanket of snow, maybe?) a combined unstated image of undisturbed snow is brought about.

But why is the snow undisturbed, the chimneys smokeless, doors loose? Schutt explains indirectly: "abandonment." Perhaps the loose images didn't quite convey everything that the abstraction was tossed in. But this isn't all the images do.

Let me supply the story details now:

Uncle Billy was smoking and supervising Arthur as he carried to the backdoor and into the kitchen roped boxes from Mother's house. Suitcases, clocks, chiming clocks, more boxes. Uncle Billy held out the fur hat to me. "Where she is now," he said, "your mother won't need it."

So the narrator isn't describing the outer world but her inner world instead. "Abandonment" describes not just the houses and land but the narrator herself.
Notice the repetition, too, of "boxes" and "clocks." Not exactly stunning imagery, but they also convey a sense of time and moving. But these are not the only vaguenesses. No house is described except the parts that effect the narrator. They're all named by those who own them:
Here at Arlette's, at Nonna's, at Uncle Billy's
Uncle Billy's house was first--brick walk, cold wind, water, water roughing against the shore
...the rooms and rooms and rooms of Uncle Billy's house.
Walked north, away from water and local businesses, Main Street was houses: Sloane's and Doctor Humber's and Miss Pearl's

I bring this up to show a few options that writers can take.


SciFiction has ceased publication.

Datlow has done tremendous work in SF wherever she's gone (Omni, Event Horizon). Let's hope she get a new SF-editor's job soon.