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Off On A Tangent: F&SF Style
The Melancholy of Mainstreaming SF
I admit it was with no small measure of trepidation that I approached the 600+ pages comprising Paraspheres (Omnidawn, Aug., 2006, Tpb, $19.95), subtitled Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction. It also proclaims on its cover that the reader will encounter "Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories." Editors Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan then devote a total of thirteen pages toward definition and explanation of literary fiction, genre fiction, and what the vague terms Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist mean in context of the stories they have chosen for this supposedly cross-genre tome. Part of the underlying reason for tomes like this one, and others cropping up in the small press, is to write stories that will have an appeal to both the genre SF reader and the more literary-oriented "mainstream" reader. They desire to mix elements of both genres in order to create a wider audience for what it is they write. (For a brief synopsis of this approach see John Kessel's review of Paraspheres in the January 2007 issue of F&SF. It has been reprinted online at https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2007/jk0701.htm.)
I tried valiantly to pick my way safely through the thorny thicket of intricate nuance carefully erected in my path toward a clear comprehension of their thesis. Alas, though I thought I understood the general drift of their argument, which would lead to the sort of stories I was about to read, the specifics became slippery, less graspable on a down-to-earth practical level. I finished their introductory remarks somewhat confused, deciding reasonably just to let the stories speak for themselves. Perhaps they would clarify through example the editors' attempts to explain the sort of story that "extends beyond the spheres of literary and genre fiction."
Fourteen of the fifty stories are reprints from genre magazines such as Aberrations, Interzone, and F&SF. If they were previously published in straight genre magazines, I wondered, what were they doing here? Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike," for instance, originally appeared in Universe 14 (ed. Terry Carr, 1984) and is just an alternate history story (albeit a good one) set during WW II—clearly a genre story in category and in method of exposition. It was nothing different than what one would expect to read in Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, or other traditional SF venues today—including any number of original anthologies.
Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Birthday of the World" from the June, 2000 F&SF is clearly a genre story. It tells through allegory how a fictitious world's declining society deals with the loss of its God, how this society must face living with no gods or false gods, and how one culture can become subsumed by another. Clearly SF/F genre territory, well established.
First published in a Finnish publication in 1998, Leena Krohn's short "The Son of Chimera" is straight SF. A young girl feels alienated because she is the offspring of a human female and a (genetically altered) chimera father. It's SF holding up a mirror to tell the story of a mixed race child and her alienation from both her parents' pure heritages and how she must decide to which world she truly belongs. SF has used this technique to make its various points for countless decades. While successful on its own terms (it is rendered sensitively through the eyes of the young girl who must ultimately realize her own unique nature) it reworks this theme using a tried and true SF technique, and therefore is clearly SF and nothing else.
Original to this book is Kate Kasten's "Ever and Anon." Quickly summarized, it retells Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel, with Prince Charming falling for all three and ultimately portrayed as a cad. It is a simple fantasy story that reworks other fantasy stories to make its point. Nothing new here in terms of being "beyond the spheres of literary and genre fiction."
There are a goodly number of others falling squarely into either the SF or F camps, and I can't explain their presence here. Some of them are quite successful, for wildly different reasons. Stephen Shugart's "Making Faces" is dark fantasy. Paul Pekin's "The Magnificent Carp of Hichi Street" is a surreal comtemporary romp reminiscent of R. A. Lafferty, and shows some energy and spirit many of the tales here do not. L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Tears of Niobe" is a straight-up SF story with a "seer" as valuable historian who imparts lessons her people should never forget, or forsake.
Neither science fiction nor fantasy, Ira Sher's "Nobody's Home" is perhaps the proto-typical "new wave fabulist" entry. Well-written with good imagery, it is mainstream fiction with whiffs of "the other world," and thus fails to separate itself from other mainstream stories dealing with death.
Other stories on the plus side include Brian Evenson's "An Accounting," a post-apocalyptic SF tale. K. Bannerman's "Armegedn, or The End of the Word," which is short and sweet and includes a useful message well expressed; that "mindles bable wuz a sin; . . . Languag had becum 2 precious 2 squander." Again, while not strictly SF or F, it falls clearly well within the shadow of the genre label's wide umbrella of speculative subject matter even though it is more a brief exposition of idea and not a complete "story." We are also given Terry Gates-Grimwood's "Nobody Walks in London," which is clearly satirical SF.
I found most of the remainder of the stories (some of which were straight mainstream pieces) to be either mediocre, boring, tedious, or downright narcolepsy inducing. (Never let it be said that I wrap my opinions in the comfy cloak of euphemism.)
In the boring and/or tedious camp we have Maureen N. McLane's "White Girl," which I see from my notes I've labeled "pseudo-intellectual nonsense, old theme poorly rehashed." Rikki Ducornet's "Lettuce," (what I could make of it) is a failed SF allegory/satire. It reads like a reject from a sophomore's first attempt at SF for the high school paper. Old theme with nothing new added, told in excruciatingly confusing prose, and all to make some point about not being able to grow lettuce because of the tired straw man of Evil Gummint (Jimi Hendrix blacklight posters and the smell of patchouli flashed through my mind as I read this one, the subject matter was so old and tired). Spare me. Laura Moriarty's "Maryolatry" is another embarrassing attempt at an SF story with some supposed "important" point. Having something to do with a time storm, it reads as a self-consciously pretentious exercise in free-form poetry written as fiction. Trying heroically to determine if the style (i.e. free-form poetry) added anything to the story or was merely technique for its own sake, I came away concluding reluctantly that it was naught but a bit of confusing, meaningless drivel. A final example should suffice. Laird Hunt's "Three Tales" (from my notes) is "one paragraph stream-of-consciousness silliness, one piffling, trivial vignette sliding into the next. Pretentious crap."
I scribbled "first-impression" notes at the top of each story and several key words after each story in the table of contents. Several words kept cropping up: pretentious; boring; trivial; pseudo-intellectual; character study; confusing; and failed rant. I'm tellin' ya, folks, so many pages of this collection were filled with exploring trivial, boring minutiae, or dealt with insecure or troubled characters with a marked inability to deal with reality, and in such melancholy, depressing, or bleak circumstances that it's a wonder I even wanted to get out of bed and face the world after reading many of them. Not that every SF story must be of an optimistic, Pollyannaish nature mind you, with upbeat endings, but optimism, real plots (not just an internal-to-character series of events storyline), happiness or joy, strong characters (or at least characters not utterly baffled by the world, or confused by the various realities in which they find themselves), real world conflict (as opposed to internal conflict), or even important themes were in the vast minority here; were virtually nonexistent. Here is a typical example of ink wasted on an unimportant, trivial, theme; Mark Wallace's "The Flowers." From my notes: "99% mainstream. Big mystery about a flowerpot. Does it change people? Who knows? Who cares?" Fifteen pages of my time and life wasted. "The Flowers" is but one of several of like kind here.
In Alasdair Gray's "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire," (one of the longer and better entries) one character gives advice to another (a poet), when the poet asks to return home to see his parents. He is told that "They have changed. . . . After meeting them you would feel sad and wise and want to write ordinary poems about the passage of time and fallen petals drifting down the stream. Your talent must be reserved for a greater theme than that." Too bad for SF readers that an ever-growing number of new publications, and stories within traditional SF venues, are taken up with "spec-fic" stories (with little or no sf/f content) dealing with the "ordinary," or with the equivalent of "fallen petals drifting down the stream." The existence of Paraspheres is a prime example.
As James Gunn points out in The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 4: From Here to Forever (orig. pub. 1982, White Wolf ed. 1996, p. 546), "One of science fiction's functions is to domesticate the strange, to make the future plausible and the unusual commonplace, and one of its accomplishments is to inoculate its readers against humanity's customary fear of the unknown." This aspect of SF is tied very closely to what sociologists term "cultural lag." Cultural lag occurs when the force and speed of the modern world impact the human being to the point where he no longer feels capable of coping. As in assimilating fast-paced technological advances which change our world at such a rapid rate that they either clash with, or outstrip traditional moral, ethical, legal, or religious beliefs, and leave the unprepared groping for answers that become quite a challenge to them. They feel alienated from the very world in which they live. Their lives become filled with angst; they become depressed and confused, unable to cope. But when SF (as but one of its functions) deals fictively with these issues, its readers are therefore cushioned to the blow of any such cultural lag they may come to experience. They've already—vicariously—been there. Armed with this knowledge, they are forewarned, and thus more able not only to accept the future as it races around them, they are more able to cope with such changes. That SF domesticates the strange is one of its defining roles and areas of imaginative inquiry, yet it is a crucial one marking and distinguishing it from the canon of literary mainstream work.
On the other hand, one of the predominant, defining aspects of the stories in Paraspheres (including many of the new pieces, whether SF, F, or mainstream) is that they do not attempt to domesticate the strange. Their speculative element, when there is one, seeks to "estrange the domestic" (again from The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 4). They delight in heavy prose description of background, or lush evocation of mood or atmosphere through metaphor, surrealistic images or, in most cases, heavy internal woe-is-me characterization, as confused, dreary people find the tiniest element to their lives seemingly worthy of our prolonged notice. The authors want us to travel with them as they find weirdness in the trivial, a sort-of "gosh-wow" revelatory experience in the simplest and perhaps overlooked mundane goings-on around us. A few puffs on a bong will achieve the same effect.
I don't mind characters who take time for self-examination, or who examine their interactions with other characters or situations in which they find themselves (in fact, I encourage it), when and where appropriate in short fiction and necessary to the story, unless they're perennially sad-sack losers unable to cope. What I do mind is a short SF/F story that deals with inconsequential, mundane, trivial themes as the core of the story (such trivialities most often occur in current short fantasies of a certain stripe). This isn't why I read SF/F. I couldn't care less about flowerpots, or petals in a stream, or dippy old-hippie type rants told by a new generation of writers who have no real idea what they are writing about; or poorly written nonsense about why I can't grow lettuce because of either a government plot or fantasized oppression by same. One of the stories supposedly "extending beyond the spheres of literary and genre fiction" had something to do with a young traveler, recurring images of swans (or was it geese) and having sex with an older woman before he trekked on down the road. That it was told in such a manner that it wasn't clear what the young man really saw, or did, doesn't make any difference. Who cares? You can have your "estranging the domestic" if this is all it amounts to. The next time I get drunk, find some geese to count (to make sure they're all there, I guess), and find some loony older woman to boff before moving on, I'll feel comfort from the useful knowledge imparted by this story. I won't feel as much angst when I set about contemplating the deed. It will be a familiar scenario to me.
If, on the other hand, you slaver over this sort of story, then by all means I heartily recommend your spending the $19.95 (plus tax) asked for this book. In reality, however, be warned. The stories within don't "extend beyond" much of anything; the SF and fantasy stories are just that. The mainstream stories likewise. The only extending being done is by way of new definitions, and the overall impression one comes away with is that of an uneven, ill-fitting admixture from those who, for the most part, attempt to tell perfectly trivial mainstream-themed stories by way of sprucing them up with surrealist imagery, or use of baroque or opaque description (primarily used in fantasy fiction—and as a subset of fantasy fiction, and as a generalized observation only—magic realism).
As a lover of science fiction, one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to draw a mainstream audience to SF through these new labels and trying to mix mainstream literary story-telling conventions with those of SF, is the current approach being used and promoted by such books as Paraspheres (to name but one). I'll try to explain what this approach is and why it is dead wrong and doomed to failure, but first a bit of history for context, as the idea of SF trying to reach a wider mainstream audience isn't a new one. It's been around for close to fifty years.
From SF, 4th Annual Volume, The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merril (Dell, pb, June, 1959), in her "THE YEAR'S SF: A Summary," Merril writes:
"For the past three years, an annual Science-Fiction Writers' Conference has been held at Milford, Pa. Discussions at these meetings cover every facet of the writer's craft, with special reference to science fantasy: markets, agents, editors, critics, research sources, and the basic subjective problems of writing itself. During the 1958 sessions, one point of view emerged repeatedly: the writers who had been in s-f for any length of time, almost to a man wanted to get out—but to take it with them as they went. Some wanted the greater literary freedom of the book form; some wanted to get away from 'gimmicks'; others wanted editors without established s-f conventions.I take from this two separate but predominant feelings. That the writers involved wanted to take SF to a wider audience, and at the same time wanted to write "something in between s-f and mainline fiction" by way of bridging this gap in audience. If you are a writer who wishes to be taken seriously (and what writer does not?), then you would like your work to be read by as many as possible. This is the artistic consideration. At the same time, if you reach this wider audience you will automatically enhance your pocketbook through sales. This is the commercial consideration. Just how this is to be accomplished was then—and is now—the question.
There are two approaches to answering the question of how to involve the much larger mainstream (i.e. "mainline") audience who may not appreciate the SF that many of the authors at the first Milford workshops wanted to "take with them as they [went]." The first is to write SF for the largest mainstream (i.e. popular in this context) magazines possible at the time and allow the readership of these magazines (i.e. market forces) to decide if they care for this type of fiction or not. Bradbury, Sturgeon, Heinlein and a very few others in the '50s had already broken in at The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and a few other widely distributed national magazines with huge circulations.
This approach might have worked, though we will never know, for in the 1950s and '60s many of these high-circulation, high-paying, "mainline" magazines went out of business. Alexei Panshin, writing in Nebula Award Stories Number Five (Doubleday, 1970) in his summation of "Short SF in 1968" says:
"Recently, with one outstanding exception—science fiction—the short story has fallen on hard times. Thirty years ago the pulps and their grown relatives like The Saturday Evening Post published short fiction by the yearly thousands of stories. Today, except for a few stories published in men's and women's specialty magazines, the commercial short story has all but disappeared. The serious short story is largely confined to literary magazines of small circulation.Approach Number One never really had a full opportunity to prove itself; to promote SF to a wide middle American audience who supported short fiction. The closest opportunity SF writers enjoyed (and its audience was hardly the equivalent of those catered to in the Post in terms of a wide demographic, though its circulation was quite high) was when Omni magazine appeared and ran several SF/F/H stories each month. After a successful run of many years, it too folded (but as I write there is word of its possible resurrection).
Approach Number Two was envisioned as reaching a much larger mainstream audience by writing a " 'a sort of s-f' or 'something in between s-f and mainline fiction,' for a wider market." Coincidentally, the same time period as Panshin's essay in 1970 (discussing short fiction from 1968) saw the U.S. SF world being engulfed by the New Wave. This "movement" saw literary techniques and experiments tried in mainstream "literary" fiction roughly half a century before, as well as out-and-out mainstream stories that no one thought of as SF: many had storylines but no plots; they dealt with the small details of life, perhaps with an aura of the surreal about them, or tried stylistic experimentation as an organic, symbiotic component tied to the textual message of the story itself, etc. However, these were the extremes (think Delany & Hacker's Quark, and to a lesser extent a lot of the material published in the U.S. version of Moorcock's New Worlds). There was some good—and even award-winning—fiction published in a few of the New Wave, or New Wave-associated publications (notably Harlan Ellison's pair of Dangerous Visions anthologies). One of the best all-original anthology series was Damon Knight's long-running Orbit (1966-1980). But even in 1973 "conservative" publisher/editor Donald A. Wollheim, writing the intro to his The1973 Annual World's Best SF opined in no uncertain terms: "Orbit, formerly the best of the American books of that sort, seems to have fallen deeper into the temptation of "new-wavism" more than in previous editions—we could not enthuse over any of its offerings the past year."
Ascribe a single reason or any number of reasons for its demise, but somewhere around the mid-1970s the New Wave died. This has been widely acknowledged, and the following is but one admission of such:
"Having served their literary apprenticeships in the sf magazines during the '70s (a decade otherwise notable for disillusionment and retrenchment), they were witness to the failure of the 'New Wave' both as an esthetic program (art can't be brought into existence by manifestos) and commercially."That Tom Disch was one of those writers at the core of the New Wave should lend a respectable degree of gravitas to his assertion that the New Wave died both artistically and commercially.
Algis Budrys (recently given the Science Fiction Research Association's Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Contributions to Science Fiction and Fantasy Scholarship) offers a snapshot of what the New Wave writers experimented with in the '60s and '70s, and thought "new" and "revolutionary" at the time, and is what can be seen in many stories in Paraspheres today, some 30 years after Budrys's essay:
" 'Experimental' writing—the rediscovery as claimed innovations of such perennials as second-person or present-tense forms of address; the use of an intellectual resolution for a statement of idea, as distinguished from plot-resolution or a story; eccentric punctuation, sentence structure and paragraphing; multiple moods; direct interjections from author to reader—none of that is selling any better than it ever has since its first flush in the college quarterlies of the 1920's. Its appearance in a manuscript is immediately recognized by the top editors as 'literary'—that is, visibly concerned with technique . . . with 'writing,' if you will, as distinguished from 'storytelling.' "Budrys has offered that this mainstreaming of SF approach doesn't sell any better than it has for the past 85 years. Tom Disch acknowledges its commercial failure—at what should have been the heyday of its popularity. Not only did the New Wave not reach a wider, mainstream market, it failed within the SF community as well.
That these sorts of assessments are an on-going dialogue in the SF community are evidenced in the quotes from the '70s (Panshin and Budrys), the '80s (Disch), and again in the '90s by Nebula-winner Sheila Finch when she asks:
"How healthy is science fiction? As a longtime reader of the genre, I seem increasingly to have the experience of finishing a story in an SF magazine and wondering what on Earth it was doing there. The fantasy stories seem to thrive (although a lot of them begin to sound alike, a side effect of the genre's popularity, I suppose), but I think something more disturbing has been occurring in science fiction.In several editorials over the years I have complained that far too many sf/f stories over the last twenty years or so—that measure of time being when I began seriously to read short SF again—appeared to have more style than substance. I saw stories written quite well and I was glad of it. I also saw in these well-crafted stories, rich in beautiful language, old themes reworked with no enthusiasm or imagination, with received wisdom and viewpoints on various important issues from forty years ago being regurgitated as a cutting-edge idea, as if time had frozen the authors' insights to those important and popular themes from the '60s and '70s (feminism, environmentalism, politics, to name but a few), while allowing their writing skills to catch up; or minor ideas trying hard to carry a story's weight, and so forth. I'm afraid I see the same affliction in many of the original offerings in Paraspheres, as well as in a lot of the so-called "spec-fic" print and online magazines currently publishing today. This is a scarcity of anything new, I am sad to recount; but I am at the same time given to wonder when the editors of these collections and magazines might learn that they are merely the latest generation trying to reinvent the wheel here. Style is a vital and necessary requirement, but so is true imaginative speculation and substance.
Here is what I mean. The following quote is by one of the great short story writers of our genre. It is taken from a story that appeared in a 1955 issue of Galaxy. It codifies, in a general but very real sense, what I believe applies to the New Wave Fabulist/New Weird/Literary Fantasy proponents in general (and not just to the majority of new work showcased in Paraspheres):
"One of them, a fine critic of modern art, said after staring slack-jawed at a painting which Morniel had insisted on giving me and which, in spite of my protests, he had hung over my fireplace: 'It's not just that he doesn't say anything of any significance, graphically, but he doesn't even set himself what you might call painterly problems. White-on-white smudge-on-smudge, non-objectivism, neo-abstractionism, call it what you like, there's nothing there, nothing! He's just another of these loudmouth, frowzy, frustrated dilettantes that infest the Village."Call the stories in Paraspheres and those in other venues of like persuasion anything you like: New Wave Fabulist, New Weird, Slipstream, or even Literary Fantasy (the debate still continues among its proponents), but in far too many of them the Idea is sacrificed, or better even, surrenders itself (to greater or lesser degree) to the Style, the Structure, the different character points of view, and Method of telling the story: the structure and style take precedence over the storytelling (and hence the story) itself, rather than the style and structure flowing from the story. And this is what differentiates these stories on a primal level from the genre science fiction story, whose primary purpose is storytelling.
I have also voiced protest about the lack of originality in a lot of current short "spec-fic." My reading of the majority of the new efforts in Paraspheres only reinforces this protest. R. A. Lafferty was one of the most brilliant and original short story writers we've ever produced. While frustratingly uncategorizable, his work fell well into the SF community's open arms. His bizarre imagination enthusiastically used genre story-telling techniques to bring us his genius. And we ate it up with delight. Here's what he had to say about originality, from Damon Knight's essay "1973: The Year in Science Fiction," from Nebula Award Stories 9, ed. Kate Wilhelm (Harper & Row, 1975):
"R. A. Lafferty may have summed it all up when he said, in an interview in The Alien Critic, that he is one of his own favorite writers 'in spots.' He explained: 'A spot is really a blot, a stain, a blemish. The spots I like do appear to be those things, and in addition they slow down and break the rhythm of SF. But they are necessary. They are the generative spots, the original bits, and they will be less awkward every time they are borrowed and reworked. . . . There are clear-as-a-crystal writers of great reputation who will always remain spotless in this sense. There is not an idea or notion to be found in them that is not first found in others; none that would have been lost forever if they had not been pinned down. But some of us are spotted like sick leopards and we repel a little."Make no mistake, Lafferty is speaking about the originality of idea, not style. He says as much when he writes, "There is not an idea or notion to be found in them. . . . " The few original stories in Paraspheres that can lay legitimate claim to being SF, are spotless stories. Where to be found an original story in Paraspheres that even comes close to exploring an idea such as Nancy Kress did with the original, short version of "Beggars in Spain"? Can we realistically expect to run across the sort of imaginative insight that led to Vernor Vinge's concept of the Singularity, which has altered the way many now write SF, in a story or book of stories of New Wave Fabulism? The evidence indicates strongly toward the negative. And here lies at least a part of the problem when trying to reach out, to devise some sort of bridge, a "cross-genre" fiction that will appeal to both a mainstream-oriented audience and the SF audience. There is not sufficient speculation (in the science fictional sense of the word) to please the SF audience, and an over-reliance on style and inner character conflict with, as Budrys describes it, "use of an intellectual resolution for a statement of idea, as distinguished from plot-resolution or a story" (familiar mainstream tropes) which doesn't really give the mainstream-oriented reader a sense of what the SF experience is truly all about.
There are writers in the SF community today who feel the genre restricts their work, that SF is too hidebound or "old-fashioned," for what they want to write. They wish to strike out in bold, new directions to pen a "sort-of" SF, a pseudo-SF for a mainstream audience they are positive is there awaiting them and their work. I think they have it backwards. In times past, we (the SF community) believed our literature was really something. We shouted it from the rooftops for people to come and see what we were writing. Many have trickled into our house over the years; some have stayed while others took a look around and left. They preferred their (literary) house better—the mainstream mortuary down the block. Rather than their having to get hip to what was going on all around them in the world and what we were saying about that world, it would appear that a small, but growing minority of SF writers are willing to compromise, by trying to pen a sort-of SF that appeals to mainstream critics and readers on their terms.
But you know, by doing so, these New Wave Fabulists, or Para-streamers as I glibly dub them, aren't really writing SF anymore, are they? They use the writing techniques of the literary establishment: plotless, internally character-driven musings dealing with, more often than not, small or mundane (i.e. contemporary, narrow) ideas or concerns. They exhibit a pronounced tendency toward the mimetic, which is then thinly laquered with either a surreal or magic realist veneer. And the preponderance of them are so serious, not to mention rather dreary and bleak of outlook (think New Wave, which borrowed much from the Literary Establishment of the early 20th century).
If genre SF writers today think they are being stifled in their manner of expression and that by writing more to the taste of the literary mainstream (and some vast, untapped audience) will garner them the recognition, a much wider audience, and (not to mention the cash) they feel they warrant, then I ask them to consider the following, written by Judith Merril, a life-long proponent of "spec-fic" as her preferred definition of SF:
"It is a minor miracle that a serious philosophical and speculative work should be written so colorfully and so lyrically. There is, happily, no way to categorize the book: it has elements of science fiction, of pure fantasy, of poetry, of historical fiction; it is sharply critical and marvelously gentle; very serious and irrepressibly funny; profoundly symbolic and gutsy-realistic by (unexpected) turns. A first-rank speculative work."This is taken from an inside cover blurb from a book by none other than R. A. Lafferty. He crossed, bent, mangled, and tortured just about every boundary one can name, or that has yet to be invented. And he did so by writing "genre-style" SF. No, one may not become rich by writing short SF (or any other kind of short fiction), but trying to convince a mainstream readership in large enough numbers that they will really like this "new" sort-of SF—when it walks, talks, and quacks like a pale hybrid of literary technique sprinkled with the sparkly sands of magic realism—won't work. I predict that it won't find a sustainable audience large enough to leave the small press. Or, that if a publisher with deep pockets underwrites a regularly scheduled magazine featuring New Wave Fabulism, or the New Weird, or Literary Fantasy (pick your own tag) that it will not last very long. It's unfortunate, but history has proved that the readership just isn't there.
The large circulation popular magazines running all sorts of short (mostly mainstream) fiction folded in the '50s and '60s. The New Wave experiment failed aesthetically and commercially in the '70s. Respected SF writers and critics/historians have pointed these facts out repeatedly to those who would hear.
At least one of the spokespersons for Literary Fantasy/New Wave Fabulism/the New Weird (and we are not referring specifically to the editors of Paraspheres) decries the use of labels of any sort, which is fine I suppose, as far as it goes. I bring up the subject of labeling terminology because it is an important aspect of this discussion, relevant to what follows, and offers a different perspective on the whole issue of categorizations in the first place. Please go to the footnote below.1
Some editors and writers of this new weird fiction, by their words (book introductions, essays, etc.) make it clear in any number of ways—when speaking to those they want to win over as their potential "wider" audience—that what they are writing really isn't SF as it is commonly known, so give their stuff a try. They'll give them a sort-of SF they'll like (rather than the real deal). They thus distance themselves as diplomatically as they possibly can from straight SF (or even some forms of "straight" fantasy), while at the same time wanting the SF community to embrace them—while freely admitting they're not "really" writing SF, but something else. They want their "spec-fic"/New Wave Fabulist/Literary Fantasy "sort of" SF/F to be included with all of the other sub-groups of fictions whose terminology SF has allowed to be incorporated into its family. Evan an orphanage holds only so many beds. They get upset with those in the SF community who don't care for what they write, but how can they honestly turn around and blame them for this? They still want to be recognized within the community, and don't tell me they don't. They'd love to receive any of its major awards (some already have). Yet they promote their genre-melding or cross-genre or para-genre work as cutting-edge, easily accessible to a mainstream-oriented audience that can't, or won't, take the time to look up what FTL stands for.2 Forgive the SF reader's long-held misconception that SF, at its best, writes up to the intelligent reader. This inherent contradiction is puzzling at best. They claim they don't write SF, not wishing to be labeled as something they are not, but want to be recognized and admired by the SF/F community as "one of its own" when addressing "us." I don't understand how they can expect to have it both ways.
I do entertain a theory—and this is all it is, a theory—of how the genre-crossing, New-New Wave/Fabulist/spec-fic experiment might finally be regarded, or, if you prefer, accepted by the perceived general audience they hope will buy their imaginative fictions; you know, those not willing to read SF on its own terms and who are the very ones they are seeking to embrace. And it's not a pretty picture.
There is a literary movement called "Oulipo." According to the Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, it is "A term standing for L'Ouvroir de Litterature Potentialle, which might be crudely translated as 'workshop of possible fictions'. Oulipo is an extremely selfconscious international literary movement founded in 1960 by the French authors Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais; its official membership was originally limited to 10 but eventually expanded to the present 25. Over the years Oulipo's members and proponents have included many internationally known fabulists and magic realists such as Harry Mathews (1930-2004), Georges Perec (1936-1982) and Italo Calvino (1923-1985)."
A brief explanation of Oulipo follows (re Clute/Nicholls): "Oulipo's tenets are radically high-Modernist. Inspired by the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussurre (1857-1913), its members consider "literature" a game of language rather than a means of representing the world, a perspective foreign to most but not all sf writers. By designing artificial "constraints" and "structures," Oulipoeans try to make prose-writing difficult in the same way that metrical schemes make sonnets and sestinas difficult. But, in order to manufacture complicated products, it is necessary first to manufacture complicated machines. It is the friction generated by the author's imagination working against such formal constraints, Oulipo contends, that produces great art."
Two examples of this theory of Art are represented by Thomas M. Disch's 334 (1972), and John Sladek's Tik-Tok (1983). Both authors are closely linked to the New Wave literary movement of the '60s and '70s. There is much more to relate for a full understanding of Oulipo3, but suffice it to say that it has literary ties to post-modernism and fabulism. So what's the possible connection between Oulipo and the so-called New Wave Fabulists? According to the various attempts at defining this new . . . movement . . . those doing the explaining use many of the identical terms with which Oulipo is associated—whether they are aware of it or not. To clarify: I am not saying that New Wave Fabulism consciously or unconsciously models itself after, or constructs its stories on the Oulipoean model. What I am saying is that many of the technical constraints used by Oulipoeans (in terms of style and structure) to execute their fictions are also (coincidentally) employed by many of the New Wave Fabulists. At various times one can see stylistic aspects of both in the final product, the final product being the only thing the reader sees. In other words, both the Oulipoeans and New Wave Fabulists use many of the same literary techniques in their fiction, though the Oulipoeans use these techniques as part of a structured game. The end product of both movements is therefore structurally similar, and to this similarity is attached similar end-product labels such as post-modernist and fabulist. To the Oulipoeans the style and structure of a work is literally a literary game (as per Clute and Nicholls); hence, the reader is of lesser importance to the game. If something works out and is praised or given recognition, then so much the better. But the reader is not their primary concern.
To those to whom style is of paramount importance—many times at the expense of idea, or plot, or the " generative spot" as Lafferty calls it—don't ever forget the reader, or take him for granted. He should always be the underlying, primary concern (assuming one wishes to sell one's work). If not, the writer will not continue to sell (with rare exception), and will, as the saying goes, find himself writing for his friends.
I now pose the following question, a legitimate one given the number of those members, or if not members then proponents of Oulipo—which at latest count totalled a minuscule 25—as well as to those writing New Wave Fabulism (or whatever term they choose to describe it). Given everything laid out above where it concerns the history of the marketplace for such fiction, the failure of the New Wave, the perceived audience to be gained by this dilution of both types of fiction (literary mainstream and genre SF), and the mainstream SF audience which, in vast numbers won't purchase it in any meaningful cash figures (if history is correct), what do you hope to gain with this new/old hybrid? Artistic freedom of expression? Good luck and godspeed, but if history is any indicator then it won't put any bacon on the table.
You have every right to write and promote anything you desire in hopes of finding as large an audience for your work as possible. And who knows, maybe all of the variables and dynamics preventing such an audience from supporting this type of fiction have altered over the intervening years. Maybe you'll strike gold, and more power to you. But please, don't use those of who love SF as the most stimulating, imaginative, and yes, rebellious literature possible—and from which you've coyly disassociated yourselves when it suits your purpose—to help you find your market with our endorsements (whether through reviews or the occasional genre award). SF seeks as but one of its purposes to "domestic the strange." New Wave Fabulism (whether it knows it or not) seeks to "estrange the domestic," which is in direct opposition to the major intellectual and commercial appeal of SF. Good luck finding a permanent home.
If New Wave Fabulism, Slipstream, or Parastream anywhere down the long road it is traveling, ends up with more than a proportionately factored 25 members outside the SF community and as a legitimate genre of its own comes close to anywhere near SF's audience, and SF's influence on our society through various media (some of whom will read and enjoy it, and will give you a head-start in core readership), I will be greatly surprised. I fear, however, that in the long run you might find yourself sharing a single cup of cold coffee at an all night diner with the only surviving member of Oulipo—trading tattered, unpublished manuscripts from the old days, and sad, depressing stories about how you know it should have been—if only the readers could have appreciated your beautiful prose, and the unique perspective your fiction brings to the gloriously thrilling minutiae of the world.
Those who have read Paraspheres and have found it as uneven as I have, might wish to argue that it is not a representative example of New Wave Fabulism or the new Literary Fantasy, or whatever one wishes to call this cross-genre experiment. Okay by me. But other examples of this type of fiction already exist, and whether they are "better" or more even in quality, and regardless of how they bill themselves, by their very nature they will be written using the same general techniques and literary sensibilities as those found in Paraspheres. Their underlying literary assumptions—their core approach will be the same.
I don't imagine certain writers are going to like the words written here, and will disagree vehemently and in every way possible to them. That's fine, and fair. All I can say to them is that I'd then call us even.
1 Since genre labeling nomenclature is difficult to define precisely, especially since hardly any two people agree precisely on what any term means and there are many terms used (more or less) interchangeably here, it would do well to note that we attempt to use terms as best as we can understand their definitions in a broad context (remember that it took the editors of Paraspheres some thirteen pages in attempting to define their concept of New Wave Fabulism alone). One might therefore quibble as to the definition (and therefore our interpretation of, and opinions expressed therefrom) of Slipstream, New Wave, New Weird, New Wave Fabulism, and Literary Fantasy. Many of these terms are still under construction, and their meanings debated in newsgroups and chat rooms, on blogs, and various views have been proferred in interviews, articles, and essays, at least as far back as 2000 with some of the newer labels. Few among their respective proponents would claim a consensus view encompassing what each means when they point to these terms, though most of them have shared characteristics. What these defining characteristics are have yet to be fully determined and agreed to by any valid consensus of their respective proponents, and so we have been forced to generalize and have used most of these labeling categories somewhat interchangeably, relying on their many shared characteristics rather than their still undefined and nuanced differences. So we beg forgiveness if we have misunderstood particular elements of a totality which has yet to be defined to any great degree of satisfaction among proponents of any individual category, cross-genre, or label. If they have trouble getting a handle on their "new" sort of fiction, then imagine the hurdles others of us must face in attempting to analyze it.
When it comes to the broader question of labels, movements, or manifestos used in conjunction with such terms, or any of the new cross-genre appellations if you will, there has been one predominant voice, or spokesperson whose name has continually cropped up in numerous places and venues over the years; that of the multi-talented Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer has expressed time and again his unwillingness for his fiction to be categorized or labeled. We do not take issue with his personal decision, as it arises from a noble principle. But we do question its efficacy in the real world marketplace. VanderMeer's views on this subject can be seen from the following excerpts:
VanderMeer says his "hope is that someday there will be no artificial borders, that someday we will be able to fly over the world of fiction and find that those totalitarian, utterly meaningless demarcations between the SF, fantasy, horror, and the mainstream have fallen away before the very ludicrousness of their own existence . . ."
And from an interview in 2003:
"To me, both 'New Fabulism' and 'New Weird' are coffins and since I'm not yet dead, I'm not particularly interested in being interred. With both New Fabulism and New Weird, I'm perplexed. Fantasy fiction is on the verge of entering the mainstream and here we are trying to create sub-ghettos. What's the point?' "and
"My work and the works I promote happen to fall into the category of 'cross-genre' or 'literary nonrealistic' fiction. There's no real unified vision. A unified vision would imply limitations and limits. I'm not interested in creating movements."VanderMeer here follows in the footsteps of Borges and Harlan Ellison, who did not wish to associate themselves with any "movement" (Borges with the after-the-fact fabricated term "magic realism" coined in trying to define what he and others were writing, and Ellison, who did not wish to be a part of the "New Wave" movement, though his Dangerous Visions books reflected much of the New Wave aesthetic).
And, when speaking of labels and categories VanderMeer says they are:
"largely meaningless distinctions."
VanderMeer's idealistic views to the contrary, he is smart enough to realize he lives in an imperfect world. Thus, he can categorize (i.e. label) his own work as "cross-genre" or "literary nonrealistic," and even invoke the term "Literary Fantasy," to describe and promote what he and others are writing, again realizing that one can't get away from labels as necessary tools in the real world, much as he might dislike them. While his ideal vision may be a noble one in principle, it remains an impractical way to conduct business.
No marketing, labeling, or categorization strategy is perfect, but if I were a writer and had to choose between no marketing labels on my books and no system for finding my work in a bookstore (assuming a reader who may not know my work but who knows he or she likes a particular kind of story—be it SF, Romance, Political Thriller, etc.), and a system which led readers to my door, I know which one I'd choose.
The April/May, 2007, 30th Anniversary Double Issue of Asimov's SF includes a stimulating Books column by Norman Spinrad, where he addresses "hard" SF's own dwindling audience, the increasing scientific illiteracy of SF's newer generation of readers, mainstream authors' "pallid and primitive" attempts to write SF (among other issues pertinent to the SF market) and how such authors as Mary Rosenblum, Peter Watts, David Louis Edelman, and Howard Hendrix are now writing "hard" SF-Plus to make their novels more accessible to a wider SF audience. This thoughtful column has been reprinted, and can be found at:
The Oulipo Home Page, where anything and everything you ever wanted to know about Oulipo, can be found at:
April 30, 2007
Dave Truesdale began the short fiction review magazine Tangent in 1993. Since then, it has been honored with 4 Hugo nominations and 1 World Fantasy Award nomination. For several years in the 1990s, he was deeply involved with the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and in 1998 was a World Fantasy Award judge. He edited the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1999-2002. Tangent Online can be found at www.tangentonline.com.
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