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October/November 1998
 
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Editorial - October/November 1998
by Gordon Van Gelder

Unlike a lot of SF fans I know, I'm neither a first nor an only child. My older brother had been around for three-and-a-half years when I came along, and he never let me forget that fact. As per the rules of The Official Older Sibling Handbook, (I'm sure that such a book exists---I just know it---but rule number one is that younger siblings can never ever see it.) nothing I did ever impressed my brother. Whatever I said or did, my brother had already seen or done better.

As I grew up, I recognized that I couldn't win this game, so I stopped trying so hard to impress him. And that, of course, was when I discovered he'd been impressed all along.

Various critics credit the birth of science fiction to Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, or Hugo Gernsback, but nobody yet has suggested that SF is older than realistic, "mainstream" fiction. As Robert Killheffer points out in his column this month, SF is like many other contemporary genres in that it matured in the pulps during the early part of this century.

When is it ever going to realize it can't win the game of trying to impress the mainstream?

My lament this month is brought on by an article in the June Voice Literary Supplement by Jonathan Lethem. In "Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction," Jonathan argues that science fiction missed its opportunity in the 1970s to bring down the genre walls merge with the mainstream. He uses the fact that Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama beat out Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow for the 1973 Nebula Award as a tombstone to mark the point where science fiction blew its chance.

I consider Jonathan one of the most widely- and well-read people I know---it's scarcely a coincidence that he contributes this month's "Curiosities" column, since he has been steering me towards good books for years. But I think he's off target here.

Jonathan's main argument is that SF's 1960s New Wave produced masterpieces in the early 1970s like Dhalgren, A Scanner Darkly, The Dispossessed, and 334, and as a result of these books it stood poised on the brink of literary acceptability. Then:

just as SF's best writers began to beg the question of whether SF might be literature, American literary fiction began to open to the modes it had excluded. Writers like Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Coover restored the place of the imaginative and surreal, while others like Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy began to contend with the emergent technoculture. William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon did a little of both. The result was that the need to recognize SF's accomplishments dwindled away.

The result, says Jonathan, is that

SF's literary writers exist now in a twilight world, neither respectable nor commercially viable. Their work drowns in a sea of garbage in bookstores, while much of SF's promise is realized elsewhere by writers too savvy or oblivious to bother with its stigmatized identity.

Jonathan goes on to wish that:

the notion of science fiction ought to have been gently and lovingly dismantled, and the writers dispersed: children's fantasists here, hardware-fetish thriller writers here, novelizers of films both real and imaginary here. Most important, a ragged handful of heroically enduring and ambitious speculative fabulators should have embarked for the rocky realms of midlist, out-of-category fiction.

Okay, let me say now that aesthetically I'm very sympathetic with Jonathan---in fact, I proposed something similar on a convention panel in 1992, only to have Barry Malzberg lecture me for twenty minutes. "I turned my back on science fiction in 1976," declared Barry, "and I was wrong. The genre is bigger than us; we are here because of it."

Having spent four years in ivy-covered academic halls and ten years at a mainstream publisher editing books in this so-called twilight world, I agree mostly with Barry nowadays.

Today the term "science fiction" encompasses so much that I'm leery of generalizing about it, but indulge me. Of all the genres, SF is fundamentally the most radical---unlike mysteries or romances or westerns, it can rewrite all the rules, or make up the rules as it goes along. (Indeed, Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon is a good example of a book that plays fair with the reader but changes the rules in midstream.) As John W. Campbell always argued, it has the widest scope and the most freedom of any literary form, and consequently it intimidates many readers. A science fiction novel can challenge a reader in ways no other novel can.

In a New Yorker review circa 1990, John Updike argued that SF relies on spectacle for its entertainment value, and as Aristotle taught us, spectacle is the most base of all artistic goals. Personally, I think it's foolish to deny the spectacular nature of SF. This genre is a form of popular literature; its inherent goal is to entertain (unlike much mainstream fiction). Some people will forever adopt the attitude espoused by John Updike and look down on SF because it remains a story-driven and primarily popular art form.

Those people seem to be the ones whose respect Jonathan seeks, if I understand him correctly when he refers to "literary respectability." When I hear those words, I think of green pastures on the other side of the fence. They mark the exact spot where I disagree with Jonathan.

For one thing, as I've stated many times in many places, things are no better in the mainstream than they are in the genre. Indeed, they're generally worse: the "the rocky realms of midlist, out-of-category fiction" are the one place where books get ignored most. I once sat on a panel with William Trotter, whose first novel Winter Fire was published handsomely in those rocky realms. "How many reviews did you get?" I asked. "Well, we got the trade reviews, and the Times review was okay." When I asked if he got any other reviews, he said, "Yes, there was one other---in Deathrealm."

The commercial prospects are even worse. It would be improper for me to cite sales figures and such, but I believe that the careers of such novelists as Jack Womack, Jonathan Carroll and Jack Cady would have foundered on those rocky shores after two or three novels each were it not for the genre and genre editors. I could go on, I could cite the careers of mainstream novelists that have petered out because nobody would publish their third or fourth books, but to keep this short I'll limit myself to pointing out the ironic fact that some of the writers Jonathan names as "ascendant powers" in our "literary culture" don't sell nearly as well as do Jonathan's own books. Trust me. I've seen the figures.

Enough about the grass-is-greener syndrome; every writer is prone to some envy. It's an occupational hazard. What I really want to address is this notion of "literary respectability." I have grave problems with it. In 1973 it meant something different, but here in 1998, it's more than forty years after such American masterpieces as A Canticle for Leibowitz and Fahrenheit 451 were born in the SF genre, thirty-plus years since Daniel M. Keyes illuminated the human condition with help from a mouse named Algernon, more than a quarter of a century after J. G. Ballard Crashed into the literary field and Harlequin let loose those jelly beans. The science fiction field has fostered and grown numerous such works whose literary merits are, to my mind, incontrovertible. In light of the evidence they provide, I think that any critic who summarily dismisses SF is guilty of literary bigotry, prejudging the fiction by the color of its cover. (Please note that I'm not questioning anyone's right to read whatever suits their tastes. But, I think that a critic who dismisses an entire category of fiction---any category---shouldn't keep a closed mind.)

And who really needs Archie Bunker's respect? At least my older brother kept an open mind, but people like some editors at The New York Times Book Review obviously don't, and I see no virtue in seeking their approval.

I do think Jonathan Lethem's right is in pointing out that the SF genre no longer means what it used to mean. The SF publishing category hasn't entirely kept pace with the tastes of American readers. A lot of writers and readers are stuck in the twilight because publishing doesn't know how the right way to put the two together (and the few efforts at doing so, such as Dell's "Cutting Edge" trade paperback line about four years ago, never really got a chance). But I think the answer lies in shifting the boundaries of the genre, not in knocking them down.

Let me end with one brief anecdote. In college, I studied with novelist Stephen Wright (M31, Going Native) and I still run into him occasionally. Last time I saw him, we got on the subject of how nice it was that Steven Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize, and Stephen---who is wonderfully opinionated---started sounding off about the Pulitzers. "Did you know that those bastards at Columbia wouldn't give the prize to Gravity's Rainbow? The judges all wanted it to win, but the award administrators were afraid of it, so they gave it to something safe . . . some Civil War novel, I think."

In point of fact, Michael Shaara's lovely novel The Killer Angels won the Pulitzer in 1975 (Eudora Welty's The Optimists Daughter won in 1973, and no award was given in 1974). But if there's any truth to Stephen's claim, and I believe there is, are we to conclude that the mainstream missed its opportunity to merge with SF? Or should we just decide that we're different from our big brother and get on with life?

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