Thursday, June 16, 2005

Half Truths and Speculations

I was talking with another dark cabalist who will, obviously, remain nameless. The cabalist had read this teaser for a column by Nick Hornby. The cabalist had possibly (maybe even probably) actually read The Believer and so read the whole column, but I haven't. We talked about how this cabalist had always thought that while well-written sf could lose readers, that there would always be enough shared understanding of the conventions of writing and reading fiction that non-sf writers would mostly be able to read sf. They might not get some stuff, but there would be enough to pull them through. I, on the other hand, have been wondering if we're not getting to the point where like certain kinds of jazz, certain kinds of sf are pretty much opaque to the majority of readers.

(If you want to tell me that certain kinds of jazz are not opaque, that's fine. You're wrong. Someone said that are posts were well-reasoned but not very energetic and cited Cheap Truth as an example. That's about as Cheap Truth as I get and I can make broad sweeping statements about jazz because I have only the most superficial knowledge of it and no friends in the field of jazz.)

My partner, who has been reading sf for years is now reading, on my recommendation, Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (which has just be re-introduced in a twentieth anniversary edition.) MP doesn't have much of a problem understanding it. But the joys of Delany's work for me, a reader, are watching his deft use of postmodern ideas to shape his universe (I would never have shaped a universe that way) the way his theoretical linguistics and gender politics come together in the construction of his grammar (in Stars In My Pocket all adults are 'women' regardless of gender and all objects of sexual desire are 'men' and pronouns reflect this. The language is heavily influenced by a race whose sexual and social habits most closely reflect spiders.) I want to read Ian Banks and Samuel R. Delany.

Yet I think one of the reasons that sf readership demographics are shifting--that while there is an explosion of interest in sf in movies and games the market for books is not expanding--is because the cool stuff, the zeitgeisty stuff happening in sf is happening in books that its hard for people outside the genre to read. We are rightfully tired of Adam and Eve stories written by people who don't know that a lot of Adam and Eve stories have been written. When my partner heard Michael Cunningham (the guy who wrote The Hours, the book that was made into a movie where Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf) interviewed on NPR about his new book, MP was amused. The third section of Specimen Days is science fiction and Cunningham explained with great pride how he had invented a future where technology didn't always work. It was based, he said, on his experience with his clicker for his television and how it didn't always work. My partner's response was, "Did he sleep through cyberpunk?" Evidently he did. And the television show Dark Angel as well. Having people reinvent the wheel is annoying because usually, somewhere, someone has made a really, really good wheel.

I've been writing about how I want fiction to press beyond expected conventions. To have something that makes it unexpected for me. But maybe the barrier between naive and informed reader is getting very high. The things that are going to make sf good are not more sophisticated extrapolations of societies in the style of Charles Stross (although there is still a place for Stross because some people like that stuff, just as some people like that jazz I find opaque.) The answer is not to write Heinlein juveniles. What was accessible fifty years ago is not in a world where one of the bestselling YA novels is Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis (which starts with girls shopping for lipstick colors to identify partners at a teen sex party called a rainbow party.)

I don't know what to do with this idea. I'm not on the zeitgeist. Part of me really hates the zeitgeist. Flaubert wasn't writing on the zeitgeist. (But Dickens was.) Ian Banks is fucking brilliant, but he's not on the zeitgeist, either. Who are we writing for, a smaller and smaller crowd of people who appreciate our expertise? That's obviously an overstatement, as anybody who has walked into a bookstore and scanned the shelves knows. Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin are not writing for small groups of people. But none of us are writing that or reading it, or recommending it.

Whither goes the field? And should we just abandon it and head for the slipstream?

18 Comments:

Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

What's the complaint then? You'd rather be Louis Armstrong than Charlie Parker? Or you'd rather be Britney Spears than Chick Corea?

4:18 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Fats Waller than Al Jarreau? Ornette Coleman than Weather Report? Buddy Bolden than Kenny G?

Yeah, you can't really read Stross without reading Slashdot, but so what? Read Sterling instead.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

I have to say I've struggled with Mr. Banks myself, and I've been reading this stuff since I was 12.

I think authors need to be aware of the accessability. Not that I'm against alienating the readership. I just think we shouldn't do it unintentionaly...

6:15 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

I think authors need to be aware of the accessability. Not that I'm against alienating the readership. I just think we shouldn't do it unintentionaly...

Bold! Daring!


It might even be worth interacting with if you could define "the readership" in a way that didn't already exclude those who are excluded because of accretion disc of SFnal concepts, tropes, and stylistic quirks.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

The readership varies depending on the project, though. It's not like there's just one.

There's nothing wrong with writing something for a sub-set of all possible readers. If you're doing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, you'll cut out everyone who isn't up on that tradition. That doesn't mean no one should ever write another Holmes pastiche.

If you intend to write a novel for an audience that already has a deep shared context (SF readers or Holmseians), you have to pick between explaining everything (and boring some folks) and assuming everyone's up to speed (and alienating others).

I think Iain Banks isn't where I'd have started someone, just the way I wouldn't recommend someone walking into the lierature section for the first time grab Pale Fire.

On the other hand, I can't imagine Mr. Hornby feeling any cooler or sexier explaining to the girl in line that he was only buying Ender's Game on a lark.

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

"Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin are not writing for small groups of people. But none of us are writing that or reading it, or recommending it."

Ahem. Says who? :-)

Some of us are reading and to some extent writing that.

Yes, and we are part of "the field" you talk about. We may be uncool, but we belong as much as the cutting edge "insert your movement name here" crowd.

10:44 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

There's nothing wrong with writing something for a sub-set of all possible readers.

I should certainly hope there's nothing wrong with it, as every piece of writing ever written was composed for a sub-set of all possible readers.

Thank you, my dark friend, for allowing that civilization should exist.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Onyx said...

Louis Armstrong is quite dead, and there is no one of Louis Armstrong's fame today in jazz. Charlie Parker is also dead. In fact, can any of you jazz lovers name a popular jazz artist whose career started in the last ten or fifteen years? Science fiction as a genre is becoming more and more insular. An extreme version of what that could mean is poetry, where other than Billie Collins, poets publish books by winning prizes (the prize is often $1000 and publication of your book.)

At the same time that the genre is shrinking, science fictional elements are everywhere in the culture at large. So many books have science fictional elements in them that aren't considered sf. And with the publication of books like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the same thing might be happening in fantasy. Certainly fantastical elements are all over television without them being declared genre. (Of course, that's been true from the beginning of tv, which has always been kind to shows like Bewitched.)

Of course, we can explore that and talk about it, or we can say, 'What's the complaint then?' Maybe it is a 'so what' issue. Me, I thought it was interesting. More the fool me, I guess.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Onyx said...

And sorry, Vera. That's why I so distrust sweeping pronouncements, I suppose. Glad you're reading (and commenting.)

10:39 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I dunno...maybe Cunningham slept through Cyberpunk, but thing about cyberpunk is, really, it's all manga. Comic booky, cartoony. From having read all of Cunningham's stuff, I hope (imagine and hope) that Specimen Day's last chapter will bring a more realistic version of that same feeling about technology. I love cyberpunk, don't get me wrong, but I also don't think it's all that, as they say.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

Yes, the use of jazz (which you introduced) is important because jazz was wildly popular and now while it has diffused across nearly all forms of popular music, the original strains are ultimately nostalgia acts of bold experimenters. That most people aren't up on the latest jazz acts (though I'll happily provide a list of new vocalists and musicians if you insist) actually proves my point, not yours.

Yes, of course this is happening to science fiction. Why shouldn't it? Because you like it? Because you want to publish some books and be a millionaire? So what if you do? Britney Spears or Chick Corea? There's no value judgment in the question, but answer it: which would you rather be.

I'd rather be Chick Corea. If you'd prefer to be Britney Spears, go for it. There is certainly room for both on the planet.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

Make that nostalgia acts OR bold experimenters.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

Nick, your last post is both more interesting and a great deal less abrasive than your first.

Yeah, I want to talk about whether sf is a viable art form or mostly nostalgia. If we should think about that. What does it mean? Me, I want to pay September's college tuition bills for my kid, so I guess my interest is far from theroetical. And I'm sorry my choice is only Chick Corea or Britney Spears. Am I a complete sell out for asking this question? Is that why you keep framing the question in that binary? If you think I'm stupid to have posted this or think it worth thinking about, I guess I am.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

Make that your second to the last post. You last post was the brief clarification. Like this one.

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

Me, I want to pay September's college tuition bills for my kid, so I guess my interest is far from theroetical.

It's June 17th. If you sell a novel today you likely won't get a check till September. So how is talking about it on June 17th helping you sell a novel today -- actually it's 4PM in New York now, on a Friday in summer, so the publishing industry has just flooded onto the LIRR to get the Hamptons. Better make that earliest possible date for a sale Monday.

At any rate, anyone who enters any career in the arts with the expectations of a petit-bourgeois income from it is very foolish. Generally, barring the occasional gifted prole scum like myself, petit-bourgeois incomes are what allows one to to pursue the arts, not vice-versa.

Anyone who, upon discovering the facts of a star system under capitalism (star systems exists when more than 90% of the money goes to fewer than 10% of the producers) decides that Something Must Be Done to the genre/art form/society in order to make sure that he is among the 10% is even more foolish, and an egomaniac besides. Even the most awesomely popular genres (category romance) don't provide for Junior's college tuition for most of the published practioners.

Of course, even reading itself is a minority pasttime these days, how about ... say, video games? If you have the skills and don't mind working 90 hour weeks, you too can be sharing a ramshackle Bay Area bungalow with two roommates when you're in you mid-30s, as my friends who work for EA have told me.

If you wanted money, buddy, rather than writing you should have just opened that dry cleaners with your father-in-law when you had the chance!

4:05 PM  
Blogger Paul Dracon said...

So in other words, Darling Nicky WANTS to be a starving artiste for the rest of his life. Sounds to me like he's making excuses for his lack of success. It CAN'T be because his fiction SUCKS, now can it?

10:31 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Actually, it can't.

His stuff's good, and quite well received. He's right that writing is a stupid way to get rich, and a damn hard way to make a living.

11:29 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

See, I'd totally have started somebody on Iain Banks -- well, early Iain Banks, anyway: say Consider Phlebas or Player of Games -- because I don't think you need to know anything about SF to read those that you can't get from a casual viewing of Star Wars and Star Trek.

And it's on record that I think the state of academic poetry is exactly where I think short SF, at least, is going.

Paul, Nick works harder, sells more, and hustles faster than nearly any writer I know. He also is a past master at tearing people new assholes on line, so you might want to watch yourself.

What were we talking about again?

6:49 PM  

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