Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pet Peeve of the Day

OK, I still must be at least a tiny little bit sick, because my brain just stopped dead to consider how funny the word "Peeve" looked, and wonder if it was somehow etymologically related to "reeve", and now I'm trying to remember what the heck a "reeve" actually is, but I'm too lazy to wiki it...

Anyhow, my pet irritation of the day: Science-fiction authors who insist they aren't science-fiction authors. Of course, the grand champion of them all is Kurt Vonnegut, but there are a few others (Margaret Atwood comes to mind, and even Harlan Ellison preferred to be called an author of "speculative fiction".) But let's face it, Vonnegut provides the perfect example of the author who says, "No, no, my work isn't science fiction. My work is literature."

Kurt Vonnegut's work has time travel, dystopian governments, spaceships, and ray-guns. While science fiction is a hard-to-define, mutable genre label, I think it's pretty safe to say that once you have aliens from Mars invading Earth in their rocket ships, you have written some science fiction. There are really only two reasons you would say anything else, and neither reflects well upon the author.

Reason Number One: "My stories just use the trappings of science fiction to tell deep, meaningful stories about the human condition. They aren't really sci-fi." (This is the one they usually say out loud.) Of course, the big problem with this statement is that everyone writing in the science fiction genre can say it. Nobody actually writes about rocket ships and ray-guns because they really believe them to be up-and-coming future developments in the field of transportation and weaponry, and want to describe them in detail. They use them because science fiction is a genre that speaks in the language of allegory far more potently than any real-world story ever could, and so can describe its symbolism in larger-than-life terms. So to say that your work is different from science fiction because it's intelligent and allegorical is both ignorant and arrogant. It betrays your lack of knowledge of other intelligent writers in the genre, and places you on a self-constructed pedestal; you're so much better than other sci-fi writers that you don't even think you should be in the same genre as them. (Presumably the next step would be to claim that you don't write books, you construct memetic paradigms or somesuch.)

Reason Number Two: "Science fiction isn't taken seriously as literature, and if I admit that I write sci-fi, all of the literary critics will dismiss me as trash and I will lose all of my intellectual cachet." (This is the one they really mean when they give Reason Number One.) This is actually something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since all of the great science fiction writers take pains to explain how their science fiction novels aren't really science fiction, it makes it hard for fans to convince people that sci-fi is a genre capable of producing respectable literature. If some of the "literary" sci-fi writers would use their intellectual credibility to argue for the credibility of science fiction as a genre, it might change some opinions...but unfortunately, they take the path of least resistance, preferring to escape the sci-fi ghetto instead of opening it up and bringing people in. So we're in the circumstance we're in today, where twenty-nine of the top thirty box office films of all time are sci-fi or fantasy movies, but people still say that science fiction is a niche genre.

Which is why this remains such a pet peeve of mine...ah. Back-formation of "peevish", as opposed to "reeve", which was a sort of medieval superintendant. So no, not related at all. I hope this has given you some closure.


E. Wilson said...

I'd be honored to be counted among a genre that includes Brave New World, Foundation, most works of HG Wells, Blade Runner, 2001, Alien...

Matthew Johnson said...

I agree. I've boycotted Margaret Atwood's last two books for that very reason.

Unknown said...

This is one of my top aggravations as well. You are not "using the trappings of [genre]" - you're writing a novel in the genre, goddamnit. It may be a good novel, it may be a groundbreaking novel... but if it's about wizards and unicorns and dragons, it's damn well a fantasy novel, and if it's about space travel, aliens, nanotechnology, or cyberspace, it's a science fiction novel.

I can't stand the authors who hit it big and deny their roots. It demeans all of us. It's right up there with "Oh, I love [Sandman/Watchmen/V for Vendetta/Insert-Mainstreamish-Comic here], but that's not a comic book - it's a graphic novel." Get over yourselves. Genre is a lens, a medium is a method. Stories of equal power can be told in any genre and any medium, and people need to break out of thinking that the power of a story changes the nature of the story.

Bubblegum Tate said...

Hey John, longtime lurker first time commenter. I came over from CBSG a while back. This post has driven me to finally pipe up.

One of the many, many reasons that I maintain Raymond Chandler is the finest American author was that he refused to look down on genre fiction. He was going to make art, beautiful, poetic art, and he was going to do it about a private detective who plied his trade in the seedier parts of Los Angeles. He never apologized for it and, in fact, often gave a lot of blowback to those who would look down on his choice to do things this way. He had the moxie to write what he wanted to write and make it amazing any damn way.

Anonymous said...

Kurt Vonnegut was born in 1922, 28 years before DESTINATION MOON, 31 years before WAR OF THE WORLDS, 34 years before FORBIDDEN PLANET, 46 years before 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and 49 years before A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

The most popular science fiction films of the first twenty years of his life were the FLASH GORDON film serial in 1936 and the BUCK ROGERS film serial in 1939; they were followed up by the alleged science fiction of the sleezy "alien monster" films about alien carnivorous vegetables and giant insects that routinely ignored the square-cube law out of blithe ignorance and not out of suspension of disbelief.

It was during this time that he first began publishing the works that we from the vantage point of the 21st century could call "science fiction" but which in no way resembled what was called "science fiction" during his formative years in the 1930s and 1940s.

Please notice that authors such as Vonnegut who state, "I do NOT write science fiction" are one and all old enough to remember clearly a time when almost all the easily available SF books and films were hack work and C-grade, churned out by talentless writers as a sort of boy's version of Harlequin Romances and with about as much depth.

Vonnegut and others had their formative years long before specialty stores existed, long before book chains were willing to care Science Fiction/Fantasy anywhere except the children's department, and long before the age when the better SF films received proper publicity.

So, although he is clearly in error by modern definitions of the term "science fiction", by the definitions that were most popular when he was in his childhood, teens, and twenties, what he wrote had nothing to do with the "science fiction" of his era.

Anonymous said...

John, if you take a look at your history, you will discover one key reason why so many writers have avoided the label of "science fiction author" or "fantasist" or etc., and that reason is quite sensible albeit unfortunate.

For most of its history, the New York Times Bestseller List has refused to acknowledge in its list any so-called genre novel -- not SF, not fantasy, not romantic escape, not horror -- even the List allegedly lists the top selling books of the period. Back then, the powerful (and well-paying) publishing houses and the career-making and career-breaking critics and literary authorities all took their cue from this List.

For example, for the longest time, no Stephen King book would ever be acknowledged anywhere in the world as a bestseller, even if it sold more copies than all other books combined that, because he had embraced the label of "horror" writer and the Bestseller Lists back then refused to include horror books in their lists.

This is why so many of our most beloved SF/fantasy writers have either written a heartbreaking number of hack works and toss-offs to keep themselves from starving to death before they could finish writing their most beloved works -- or they had full-time jobs and managed to write in their spare time, often sacrificing family and friends in the process.

Until the past decade or so (when Vonnegut would have been in his 80s and 90s had he lived), being excluded from the bestseller's list could break a writer who was trying to earn a living off writing serious work (including serious SF) instead of writing while also working at a full-time job. A writer interested in deep, complex, memorably insightful writing would have to do one of four and only four things: 1) be such a tireless genius that he or she could write so well even while working at a full-time job, and such tireless geniuses are absurdly rare; 2) have a wife or husband willing to support the family while the writer focused on writing; 3) make money as a hack, churning out forgettable but salable and humiliating garbage to earn a buck while slowly whiling away at his or her novel of inspiration and trying to look in the mirror without shame, sometimes getting lost in alcohol over the misery of self-prostitution of such a life; or 4) insist that he or she did not write genre fiction and thereby become eligible for the powerful New York Times Bestseller List.

(Well, technically, there would be #5, marry into or inherit great wealth, which is what SF author Larry Niven did.)

Vonnegut would not or could not prostitute himself as a hack, had neither independent wealth nor a spouse who could handle all his financial needs without complaint, and could not perform at the high level of quality he demanded of himself while also slaving away at a 40-hour job. His only option at the time, then, would have been to make himself available to the New York Times Bestseller List and to all the powerful, career-shaking critics who took their cues from the List by claiming not to write genre fiction.

To do otherwise would have been professional suicide and might well have led to literal suicide, as it has for many (as any perusal of the has-beens and never-weres of history will show).

By the time genre fiction was acceptable, the claim had been hardwired into him.

I think it's unfair for any of us to castigate for making a decision which is probably the only reason he had the opportunity to produce anything worth reading at all during his days as a writer starting in an era more than half a century before our current era.

Let's not be so narrow-minded and ethnocentric as to judge the actions of someone born in 1922 as though he (or she) had all the opportunities we have in the 2010s.

It reminds me too much of the students I encounter who insist that if black-and-white films were really any good, then they would have found a way to film them in color even if the technology did not exist at the time.

John Seavey said...

And if he hadn't stuck to that line until the day he died, I'd be more sympathetic. But he was Kurt freaking Vonnegut. He was studied in college courses on Literature of the 20th Century, he was a bestselling author with dozens of famous novels to his name, he was adapted in film and television. You're telling me there was no point in his career, ever, where he could have said, "Yeah, this is science fiction, but you couldn't say that in the old days or nobody would buy it" and gotten away with it? I'm calling shenanigans.