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SF and Literary Fiction

Bruce Pennington,

As some of you probably know, I’ve spent a lot of the last year or two reading and thinking about SF. I’m still grappling with a number of questions about the relationship between SF and more conventional literary fiction (for what it’s worth I do think it makes sense to speak of the two as discrete, if overlapping entities), but I’ve been very taken by three things I’ve read in recent months.

The first is from Ken MacLeod, a writer I admire very much (and anybody who’s trying to think through the longer terms implications of Wikileaks could do worse than read his excellent 2007 novel, The Execution Channel), who concludes a discussion of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia by making a point that’s been made before but deserves to be made again:

“SF literalises metaphor. Literary fiction uses science as metaphor. In Sputnik Caledonia, the parallel world is a metaphor of what is lost in every choice. That’s why the book is literary fiction and not SF, and is all the better for it. ‘What might have been’ functions in SF as a speculation. In Sputnik Caledonia, as in life, it’s a reflection that we seldom have occasion to make without a sense of loss.”

The second is from Paul McAuley’s blog, Unlikely Worlds (McAuley has been one of my favourite SF writers since the mid-1990s, and as I mentioned in my Best Books of 2010 post a while back, his most recent novel, Gardens of the Sun, is both beautiful and very moving). Responding (with what seems to me considerable forbearance) to Edward Docx’s idiotic piece about the crapness of genre fiction Paul suggests Docx’s argument proceeds from a false assumption about the relationship between genre writing and its audience:

“Bad genre writers pander to the expectations of their readers; good genre writers subvert those expectations; great genre writers, like Philip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, or John Crowley, transcend them, completely rewriting conventions or using them for their own ends. And while there may not be any genre writers who can match, sentence for sentence, literary writers at the top of their game – Saul Bellow, say, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez – there are certainly a good number who can match the middle ranks of their literary counterparts. Who aren’t content with utilitarian prose and (quoting Wood again) “selection of detail [that] is merely the quorum necessary to convince the reader that this is ‘real’, that ‘it really happened’”, but want to bring life to their pages by selecting the best possible words in the best possible order.”

And finally there is this, from Frederic Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, also quoted recently on Paul’s website:

“The conventional high-culture repudiation of SF – its stigmatization of the purely formulaic (which reflects the original sin of the form in its origin in the pulps), complaints about the absence of complex and psychologically “interesting” characters (a position which does not seem to have kept pace with the postcontemporary crisis of the “centred subject”), a yearning for original literary styles which ignores the stylistic variations of modern SF (as Philip K. Dick’s defamiliarization of spoken American) – is probably not a matter of personal taste, nor is it to be addressed by way of purely aesthetic arguments, such as the attempt to assimilate selected SF works to the canon as such. We must here identify a kind of generic revulsion, in which this form and narrative discourse is the object of psychic resistance as a whole and the target of a kind of literary “reality principle”. For such readers, in other words, the Bourdieu-style rationalizations which rescue high literary forms from the guilty associations on unproductiveness and sheer diversion and which endow them with socially acknowledged justification, are here absent.”

Or, as Paul pithily puts it:

“attempts to appeal to the gatekeepers of the high literary citadel by pointing out that SF is firmly rooted in the present, that it extrapolates and amplifies current nightmares and obsessions, or that it explores alternate social structure through utopian or dystopian constructions, are, even though valid, pointless. . . Better to turn away from that and address the great luminous question that SF should make its own: what do you mean by reality, anyway?”

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. H. #

    Literary fiction – or the kind that gets nominated for Booker prizes and the like – is surely a genre unto itself anyway. Scan any shortlist and the conventions of this genre become pretty apparent. They include conventional realism, historical settings, lyrical-literary style (not to be confused with good writing), emphasis on character rather than plot, and I could go on.

    April 1, 2011
    • My apologies for the shamefully slow reply – I’ve been racing to get a story finished.

      For what it’s worth I think you’re right at one level, but I also think it’s important to be clear what we’re talking about. To my mind there are several intersecting and overlapping ideas tangled in all this (often fairly heated) discussion of genre and literariness. The first is basically a commercial or marketing term for a particular brand, or genre of fiction known as Literary Fiction, much of which does – to a greater or lesser extent –exhibit the qualities or features you describe. The other is a more nebulous and to my mind more important thing, which is the quality of literariness.

      I’m not going to attempt an exhaustive definition of that here, but to my mind it gathers up a whole series of things to do with interrogating subjects and allowing us to see them anew, some of which may relate to society, power and personal relationships, others of which may relate to more intellectual questions about the nature of reality, or humanity itself.

      This quality often – though not always – manifests itself in the quality of the writing, by which I mean not its attractiveness but its intelligence, its capacity to use language to reveal and communicate meanings which might otherwise elude us. It can also manifest itself in a preparedness to reinvent or redeploy forms and genres, and in formal innovations. But I suspect (as you point out) it’s a mistake to conflate it with the quality of the writing entirely, or to assume that it’s confined to the sorts of lyrical writing you describe.

      The useful thing about this sort of distinction is it allows us to largely ignore questions of genre in making judgements about the artistic merit of works. A good SF novel can be good because of what it tells us about the nature of reality (to borrow Paul’s terminology) or the boundaries of the human, just as a good crime novel can be good because of what it shows us about the nature of power, or evil, or the contradictions that underpin certain social milieus. Likewise a literary historical novel, like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, can be good because of what it shows us about power and society. While genre isn’t irrelevant (Wolf Hall also works because it’s a brilliantly realised historical novel, just as The Broken Shore works because Temple is in full control of the conventions of the crime novel), to my mind at least it’s really a secondary question.

      The other useful thing distinguishing between the literary genre and the idea of the literary is that it suggests there are really two kinds of literary novels, ones which operate within the terms of their genre, and ones which aspire to something larger, or deeper. The distinction isn’t absolute, but it’s real, just as the distinction between really good SF and more generic or less interesting SF is real.

      Similarly it allows us the freedom to respond to works on several levels at once. Literary novelists sometimes distinguish between novels and entertainments, and while it’s not an unproblematic distinction, it’s quite a useful one in some ways, since it allows us to respond to some works without expecting them to crack reality open or show us the world anew. Often succeeding in this mode depends upon the sophisticated and intelligent deployment of the conventions of the genre, or a degree of playfulness within or across genre.

      April 6, 2011
  2. An excellent round-up of the topic James. I never have heard the spectrum of genre writing expressed quite so well as McAuley’s explanation:

    “Bad genre writers pander to the expectations of their readers; good genre writers subvert those expectations; great genre writers, like Philip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, or John Crowley, transcend them, completely rewriting conventions or using them for their own ends.”

    As a starting point, my genre writing will often begin in the first bucket both confirming my readers expectations and also relying (shortsightedly) on those expectations to carry the story.

    Sometimes I stumble into the second bucket, usually by starting outside of the genre to begin with.

    But I aim, perhaps naively, for the third bucket.

    Thanks also for some new reading suggestions!

    April 5, 2011

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