Friday, June 17, 2005

Genre as non-text?

Folks may have already seen this (I saw it on coalescent's livejournal), but I think it's pretty interesting:

With Philip Roth writing alternate history and Atwood actually starting to publicly admit she's an SF writer, it's going to get harder to tell which of us is in the ghetto and which on the hill.

So if we're addressing the same subject matter as the mainstream, why aren't we mainstream? If they're writing about aliens abducting hitchhikers to ship off world as a delicacy, why aren't they science ficion writers?

I think the defining issue is turning out to be less what (or how) we write and more what our relationship is to the fannish community.

Now, I'll cop to being pretty new at the game here, but the practice of having conventions where writers and readers spend a lot of time talking together, eating together, breathing each other's air and generally being part of the same community isn't something I've heard of in mainstream literature or the other genres (mystery, say). If the subject matter that made science ficiton and fantasy its own separate genre has penetrated into the culture so deeply that it no longer really defines "us" from "them" maybe the sense of being in community with the folks who read our work is what we have left.

I'm also thinking about Chuck Palahnuik. He's a mainstream writer (as far as content and marketing) who appears from all I've read and heard to have a strong relationship with his fan base. Nothing in the interviews I've read from him shown contempt for his readers -- he seems to really like them. And I think of him (with no basis -- I've never met the man) as "one of us" in a way that I don't think of Philip Roth.

I'm not sure what the implications are of a genre based in an "externality" like the writer's engagement with a community. It's a little unsettling to think of the defining characteristic of a body of work being so removed from the text. I think that's what we're seeing, though.


Blogger Brickworks said...

This may not having anything to do with anything, but here goes.

I've recently been getting in touch with my fannish roots. Yes, all through high school I went to conventions in costume and waited in line to see William Shatner. I am now a pro SF/fantasy writer. And you know what? I miss the costumes.

Within SF, there are many circles of sometimes mutually exclusive fan bases. Worldcon and Dragoncon happen the same weekend (usually). Both are filled with SF fans.

So who are we writing for again?

With all the talk of audiences, ghettos, literary movements, SF v. mainstream (or not, as the case is increasingly looking like it may be), I find myself growing less worried about it all. Mainly because none of this has changed the kinds of things I write.

Iain Banks was brought up in another thread (count me as another big fan of his). It seems that he's managed to write whatever he wants. Sometimes he puts an initial in his name to signal what sort of thing it is he's written. (the Culture novels, for example.)

But like I said, I don't find myself wanting to change how I write for any of these reasons.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Brickworks said...

To wrap up the whole point of my previous post, which seems kind of rambling:

Which fannish community?

Does it matter, because do the fans/audience really care about our musings on the subject?

12:33 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

I don't think they care about our musings, but I'd be amazed if they didn't care about our behavior.

My experience of people is that, by and large, we can smell contempt like a fart in a car. That's part of what got people's back up when Atwood swore she wasn't writing science fiction.

And I'm not going to try to differentiate between something soft and cloud-like as "which community" -- like they don't all flow into each other. I think we can agree that fannish community exists, and you can set that to any granularity you like. :)

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Palahnuik--you're talking, in part, about a pop culture phenomenon, which is also something SF/F draws on (or can draw on), in addition to the fannish community. And which only somewhat overlaps the literary mainstream.


6:44 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Maybe that's what I'm reaching toward with this.

I was at lunch today with some writerly folks, and the question came up whether SF could have become as culture-permeating if it had been the same subject matter, but marketed as literature. My gut reaction was that it couldn't have.

Pop culture was what spawned fandom (and continues to spawn fandoms -- the Big Lebowski conventions, for example). I'll have to chew on this some more.

I also wonder, if high culture continues picking up and assimilating low culture the way it has hard-boiled mysteries and science fiction, if we will eventually see a Margaret Atwood manga.

6:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That would kick ass. Well, maybe more a "Margaret Atwood graphic novel."

7:20 PM  
Anonymous mouseworks said...

I don't know if the fandom is exclusive to s.f. -- the poetry world was pretty much being involved in reading, writing, publishing, going to readings and parties, and even going to summers at Naropa (I didn't, but I knew people who did). If anything, it could be more intense than s.f. fandom.

If you read accounts of writers before the 80s, fandom was important to maybe half of them. LeGuin, Delany, and Phil K. Dick didn't appear to have been that involved in fandom in the sense of going to conventions and participating in that culture before becoming s.f. writers.

I find fandom as the model for s.f. readers to be problematic. The joys of being fannish seem to be insular, like not being mundane. Yet, compared to the poets, most s.f. people are closer to mundane than the folks hanging out at St. Marks Church in 1970.

Fields work for a non-elite in-group don't have the pull that an elite in-group has which is a strong as well as a strange attractor for people who want to be connected to those elites.

The best thing that could happen to science fiction would be to lose the fan community entirely. Poetry broke out when people like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote in ways that attracted a non-poet audience to the field.

The interesting thing about s.f. is that it wasn't an elite form, that it was for and by people whose promised lands were in the future, who learned technical skills or science to get out of being working class. Imagining the parts of that or imagining something that wasn't the mundane present or the past trying to gobble us up was the charm.

If that's a dated charm for people in the West now, then the writers need to figure out what's next.

I worked for the SFBC in NYC for a while when I was in my 20s, but never went to s.f. conventions then. I only went after I'd sold my first sf story.

I don't think being a s.f. fan has anything to do with writing science fiction, but more and more of the s.f. publishing world seems to rotate around s.f. fandom.

I guess it could be worse -- it could rotate around writers as poetry tends to do. But I'd like to have more sense that what I was doing was going to be read by people who are intelligent readers of s.f., poetry, various other forms of fiction -- and some of the best readers of s.f. don't consider themselves fans and never go to conventions.

I miss the 60s and early 70s.

I know this is a minority position in the field.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:58 PM  

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