Samuel Delany on science fiction and effective social histories

WHM posts another excerpt from Samuel R. Delany — this one on how social history in science fiction requires rhetorical postures that show not only the current state of an SFnal society, but also the history of that society.

I have things to say about some of the fiction I have been reading, but before I get to that (hopefully next week), I have yet another passage from Samuel R. Delany’s the Jewel-Hinged Jaw to share. As I mentioned in last week’s post on the collection, I’m highly interested in exceptional claims being made on behalf of a genre or sub-genre: what does it do that other modes can’t?

The follow passage is from Delany’s lengthy, tour-de-force essay on Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed in which he heavily critiques several aspects of the novel while at the same time illustrating what an important, accomplished novel it is for the field. It follows a critique of Le Guin’s treatment of sexuality, pregnancy and gender relations among the Annaresti — one of the two main cultures in her book.

Annaresti ideas about pregnancy and Annaresti adolescent male bonding behavior want a different resolution from the one they get [in The Dispossessed]. What suggest this different treatment is the specifically science fiction model which holds that the origin of both ideas and social behavior — especially when the author is free to speculate and invent what she cannot know — is of equal interest with the ideas and behavior itself. This concept, that ideas and behavior, however natural/moral/unquestionable, have effective social histories, is one of the indubitably significant messages that informs science fiction’s inchoate textus. (This message is not intrinsic to the textus of mundane fiction.) A compendium of the various rhetorical postures, which both the most sophisticated and the most ham-handed science fiction have devised to support this model (and of which the model is constituted), would guides us through most of the truly significant verbal tropes traditional to the genre up through the beginning of the sixties: sometimes ideas are seen as degenerate, as in Bester’s Scientific People in The Stars My Destination; sometimes they have developed, as with Asimov’s atomic traders in Foundation; others are seen as simply laterally transformed. Yet there is hardly an s-f writer who has not expended some considerable amount of whatever linguistic inventiveness she possesses on presenting a compressed, syntactic or imagistic representation of such an ideohistory. (272-273)

If I’m parsing this correctly (and there’s no guarantee of that), what Delany is suggesting is that because science fiction (or at least a key — really the major — stream of science fiction) takes as its main subject a projection of a future state and because (textual) science fiction’s key tool is words, science fiction stories have to use words to represent that future state — and that requires playing around with those words in order to create the SFnal effect. And what’s more, that playing around includes it in some sense of the history of how those words arrived at that state of meaning and this is because the reader is not from the culture being represented in the story.

Certainly mundane fiction (what I would call ‘literary realism’) is limited in the exact same way that science fiction is in the sense that words can never truly represent emotional, psychological, historical and social states. However, because literary realism rests on the shared assumptions, the ideas, the ideologies of the current day, it is not forced into the linguistic inventions and rhetorical postures that are required of science fiction, which can only achieve its effect by interrogating and inventing itself away from those shared assumptions.

If you buy this claim (and I may, although I think the history of the field [and of “mundane” fiction] since this was written complicates things), then this is why the exhaustion of science fiction matters: it means that writers are not fully engaging in the rhetorical postures that Delany describes above (and elsewhere in his fantastic, exhausting essay on The Dispossessed). It means that science fiction has become more mundane.

Walter Mosley’s case for genre

WHM uses Walter Mosley’s recent column on genre fiction to again take up the issue of genre fiction vs. literary fiction.

Earlier this month, Walter Mosley wrote a case for genre for

He wrote:

Alternative fiction is not comfortable, not expected. There are heroes, yes, but the world they bring us stinks of change and betrays all the faith that we once had in the sky above our heads and the ground below our feet.

This is what I call realistic fiction; the kind of writing that prepares us for the necessary mutations brought about in society from an ever changing technological world.”

I’m not sure that all speculative fiction does that. Some of it is backward looking — nostalgic, a reminder of virtues that if not widely held were more widely valid in the past: things like honor and courage. But just because that type of fiction exists, doesn’t mean that Mosley is wrong: the core of both science fiction and fantasy are engaging in speculation (thus the term speculative fiction [a term that is not loved by all, but one that I find useful]) and one can’t do so, I don’t think, without engaging with where are, where we have been and where we are going as a society. And, of course, literary fiction can be nostalgic as well.

And I think what Mosley is saying is that to engage in the fantastical, the speculative is to remind us that we can imagine other lives, other worlds, other timelines, other technologies than these. If literary realism gives us a snapshot of time, attempting in so doing to provide some sort of psychological portrait of a segment of society, speculative fiction gives us moving pictures. A dynamic view. Motion. Change (a world that stinks of change, according to Mosley).

I posted about this issue last year when Lev Grossman defended genre in the Wall St. Journal. What I like about Mosley’s post is that he doesn’t engage in any of the three weak defenses that we often see. He also speaks not just of achievements but also potential. I think this is also good. No literature ever fully arrives — that’s why we keep writing and reading.

In that previous post, I made the point that genre fiction should be defended “by showing what you can do that other genres can’t.”

I’d like to amend that statement:

I think that the onus here is on literary realism (and I do like how Mosley twists that term and claims the terms realistic fiction and alternative fiction for genre fiction) to prove what it does that other genres of fiction can’t. That is, the default position shouldn’t be literary realism, which is, after all, just a blip on the timeline of storytelling. It also can’t be an argument of degree (it does this,  but better) because the argument that genre fiction ignores poetic prose or characterization or that it doesn’t experiment with structure or style or point of view is no longer true. In other words, I think we should treat genre fiction like everything that happened in the field of literature (the turn towards theory, the debates over canon, the hi-lowbrow collision) actually happened. And then we woke up from that fever dream and realized, hey, we still have all these novels and people reading them and maybe the genre lines don’t matter as much as the fact that fiction is being written and published and read.


Defending genre fiction

How not to defend genre fiction and a call to eschew the aim of literary respectability.

Due to the peculariaties of my biography and literary interests I have read many defenses of genres and minority art forms or literatures over the years. They all tend to fall into the same traps. Lev Grossman’s opinion piece for the Wall St. Journal does a decent job of avoiding some of these traps, but still not quite as deftly as I would personally prefer.

Generally the core problem with such defenses is that they seek for respectability — literary respectability. They usually do this by:

1. Pointing out examples in their field that are unusually well-crafted and share strong similarities with literay fiction. Lev Grossman does this when he mentions George R. R. Martin and Sussana Clarke* (and Neil Gaiman). Gene Wolf’s work also often gets deployed in this same way.

2. Acknowledging the field’s lowbrow roots but then pointing out how the field is maturing (and usually the maturation = more works that have the marks of literary realism [see #1]).

3. Weakly throwing up hands and pointing out that people like to be entertained and read a good story and what’s the harm of that.

There is some merit to each of those approaches, but they all fall down in that they, fundamentally, defer to literary fiction (or rather literary realism) and the sub-genres it has deemed acceptable (including magic realism).

Grossman tries to do better than this by pointing to the fantastic roots of fiction and by observing that all works of fiction are, well, fiction. Both good points, but also obvious ones that don’t carry much weight with those that worship at the altar of literary realism or are inimical to the whole notion of narrative fiction itself. For example, Grossman writes: “When it comes to novels, fantasy is the rule, not the exception. If anything, it is realist literature that pretends to be real.” Very true. But that does nothing to address the attitude that literary realism is the highest form of such pretending and that it gets closer to revealing whatever it is that we expect literature to reveal (character? truth? life? reality?).

The thing is that the proponents of literary realism** assert the superiority of the form (and you’ll see a couple of examples of that in the comments section to Grossman’s opinion piece), but are actually rather hard-pressed to prove it. Indeed, much of literary theory of the past 50 years seriously undermines it. And yet it in terms of critical and cultural activity (prizes, syllabi, criticism, academic appointments, anthologies, class offerings, best of lists), it remains the highbrow power in narrative fiction and other genres and minor literatures are excpected to defer to it and position themselves in relation to it. Genre writers can be gentrified by literary realists by proving their commitment to literary tropes and style. But, of course, only a few are let in to the club and, sadly, those who are the most on the edges too often feel the need to draw lines between them and their less gentrified cousins. Which then, often, leads to a petulant or resentful keening from the genres and the minor literatures. A “why not us too?”

I say stop it. Just stop it.

Don’t do so by, as certain genre writers have, decrying it as elitist or morally bankrupt. Do it by showing what you can do that other genres can’t (and I think that literary realism is a genre among genres and should be treated as such). Or by showing how you can do it in ways that they can’t. Let me give one brief example: I would submit that a really thoughtful, honed idea sci-fi short story is of equal literary value to a really good piece of epiphanic, honed literary realism. Both do very different things with the form. But they can be equally important, artistic, entertaining, revealing — whatever you want to assign to the function of reading fiction.

Another example: I think The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a failed genre novel. I found much of the reaction to it amusing because it betrayed the literary realists lack of awareness of the field of post-apocalyptic and horror fiction***.

There’s more I should say: about pulp fiction and plot vs. prose; about the recent slumming in the genres by literary authors; about the reaching for literary acclaim by genre authors; about the market and academia; about cultural signifiers and the beautiful shame of fandom. But I’ll leave with this simple thought: I don’t. You don’t. We don’t — need no literary respectability.

* Now don’t get me wrong. Both A Song of Ice and Fire and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are major favs of mine.

** Now don’t get me wrong. I also love literary realism. I’m one of those annoying people who loves the novels of Henry James and Tolstoy and Cather and Marilynne Robinson and has actually read Ulysses all the way through, etc.

*** Michael Chabon’s review of The Road (excerpt only unless you login; it’s also found in his essay collection) and his reading of it as a horror novel redeemed it somewhat in my eyes.