The OF Blog: Famous writer talks about being classified as a "science fiction" writer

Monday, April 20, 2015

Famous writer talks about being classified as a "science fiction" writer

For many readers and even some writers of science fiction, debates on who is or is not "mainstream" writing in the field may seem to be a relatively new development, or at least one that has developed new branches.  However, fifty years ago there was this author, Kurt Vonnegut, who seemed to be astride all sorts of these literary "fault lines" that are all the rage these days.  In his 1965 essay, "Science Fiction," it is interesting to see how germane his observations are in relation to what various puppies, kittens, roadkill, and other sundry SFnal groups want to argue about in regards to the "soul" of science fiction.  Below are some selections from this 3.5 page essay, reprinted in 2012 by the Library of America for Kurt Vonnegut:  Novels & Stories 1950-1962:

Years ago I was working in Schenectady for General Electric, completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.  (It was called Player Piano, and it was brought out again in both hard cover and in paperback.)  And I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer.

I didn't know that.  I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now.  I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer label "science fiction" ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.

The way a person gets into this drawer, apparently, is to notice technology.  The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works, just as no gentleman wears a brown suit in the city.  Colleges may be to blame.  English majors are encouraged, I know, to hate chemistry and physics, and to be proud because they are not dull and creepy and humorless and war-oriented like the engineers across the quad.  And our most impressive critics have commonly been such English majors, and they are squeamish about technology to this very day.  So it is natural for them to despise science fiction. (p. 781)
In light of scores of similar commentaries from other writers and readers over the intervening half-century, Vonnegut's opening statements sound very familiar.  Perhaps there is already this image of an ivory tower doing battle against the unwashed heathens of "popular fiction" floating in some readers' minds now, but the next couple of paragraphs derail this apparent train of thought, as Vonnegut veers into another topic, one that I think can still sting those who become so invested in "their" field of reading/writing:

But there are those who adore being classified as science-fiction writers anyway, who are alarmed by the possibility that they might someday be known simply as ordinary short-story writers and novelists who mention, among other things, the fruits of engineering and research.  They are happy with the status quo because their colleagues love them the way members of old-fashioned big families were supposed to do.  Science-fiction writers meet often, comfort and praise one another, exchange single-spaced letters of twenty pages and more, booze it up affectionately, and one way or another have a million heart-throbs and laughs.

I have run with them some, and they are generous and amusing souls, but I must now make a true statement that will put them through the roof:  They are joiners.  They are a lodge.  If they didn't enjoy having a gang of their own so much, there would be no such category as science fiction.  They love to stay up all night, arguing the question, "What is science fiction?"  One might as usefully inquire, "What are the Elks?  And what is the Order of the Eastern Star?" (pp. 781-782)
Now this, this puts in words my own feelings in recent years when it comes to SF:  why is it so damn important to belong to a created "community" in which there are some seemingly oddball customs and traditions whose purpose seems more to categorize and exclude, all in the name of some nebulous "essence of science fiction," while leaving those who tinker and dabble, mix and match, all on the outside, being a sort of pariah or leper to those who are in the club?  What is the sort of mentality that fuels such desires to belong and to exclude?  Vonnegut continues with a discussion of taste and desire that span several paragraphs.  Below are two segments from paragraphs that cover nearly half of the essay:

[...]The people in the field who can be charged fairly with tastelessness are 75 percent of the writers and 95 percent of the readers – or not so much tastelessness, really, as childishness.  Mature relationships, even with machines, do not titillate the unwashed majority.[...]

I taught for a while in a mildly unusual school for mildly unusual high-school children, and current science fiction was catnip to the boys, any science fiction at all.  They couldn't tell one story from another, thought they were all neat, keen.  What appealed to them so, I think, aside from the novelty of comic books without pictures, was the steady promise of futures which they, just as they were, could handle.  In such futures they would be high-ranking noncoms at the very least, just as they were, pimples, virginity, and everything. (pp. 782-783)

Yet this is not a blistering attack on "immature" readers, but rather an acknowledgement of just who, in the so-called "Golden Age of SF," read those early SF pulps.  There is something of that attitude, that desire to recapture, if not outright replicate, that initial burst of excitement, of being able to place one's self, just as we are, into stories of derring-do and heroism.  This sense I suspect underlies part of the protests of those who claim that SF has moved into realms in which they cannot participate as much.  It is never easy dealing with a sense of exclusion, especially after a period in which those with similar views were doing much of the excluding, implicitly as well as explicitly.

But this sense of inclusion also encompasses particular interests.  Sometimes readers (and occasionally writers, critics, and editors) feel the need to draw in "outside" interests to make everything nice, tidy, and all of one piece.  This can be seen in attempts to include certain literary works as SF (or inversely, to deny that certain other works cannot be viewed through other, non-SFnal perspectives).  Vonnegut addresses this in the following paragraph:

Most of them did graduate from high school, by the way.  And many of them now cheerfully read about futures and presents and even pasts which nobody can handle – 1984, Invisible Man, Madame Bovary.  They are particularly hot for Kafka.  Boomers of science fiction might reply, "Ha!  Orwell and Ellison and Flaubert and Kafka are science-fiction writers, too!"  They often say things like that.  Some are crazy enough to try to capture Tolstoy.  It is as though I were to claim that everybody of note belonged fundamentally to Delta Upsilon, my own lodge, incidentally, whether he knew it or not.  Kafka would have been a desperately unhappy D.U. (p. 783)

Vonnegut wraps up his article with a prediction, one that can be seen today.  Somehow, I suspect that if this essay could be updated with references to recent events that the substance would still stand:

The lodge will dissolve.  All lodges do, sooner or later.  And more and more writers in "the mainstream," as science-fiction people call the world outside the file drawer, will include technology in their tales, will give it at least the respect due in a narrative to a wicked stepmother.  Meanwhile, if you write stories that are weak on dialogue and motivation and characterization and common sense, you could do worse than thrown in a little chemistry or physics, or even witchcraft, and mail them off to the science-fiction magazines. (p. 784)

Something tells me that Vonnegut might take a dim view of self-professed "geek culture" advocates, or at least view them as being merely yet another iteration of a long line of those who conflate material details with subject essences when it comes to discussing the components of a cultural artifact.  But that is more likely my own interjection into some interesting thoughts initially published in 1965.  Hopefully by the time I am truly an old man that even this latest "lodge" will have dissolved and the literary circles of exclusion/inclusion of readers, writers, and ideas will have either been broken or at least transformed into something else.







4 comments:

David Soares said...

Hello, Larry.

Great post, many thanks.
It impels me to contribute with some thoughts of mine on those issues, but in no order or importance, whatsoever.

I'm sure that some things in the US and in Europe (at least, some things in the US and in Portugal, from where I stand) diverge considerably; notwithstanding, the sense of community adressed by Vonnegut, concerning the sphere of SF penmanship. My own observations of the SF/Fantastic world -- some of them totaly armchaired observations, I admit -- impressed on me the feeling that community is much more important to fans, but not that much overriding to authors. So, I'm at a fault to understand just what Vonnegut saw that made him say that the social group made up of the SF writers of his day worked internally like some proto-esoteric lodge (despite the fact that some authors might be, for their own sake, very esoteric indeed). The core of Vonnegut's view doesen't escape me -- but, in the other hand, it is something that could be said about the mainstream, as well. The mainstream can be very hermetic: both in the sense of cryptic and in the sense of exclusive, airtight and invulnerable to outside observations and inhabitants. I feel that some SF readers and authors fear and loathe the mainstream, as much some readers and pundits of the mainstream abhor and look down on the SF/Fantastic world.

Nonetheless, I have the emotional conviction that some works and authors, despite being labelled SF or mainstream by the SF or mainstream themselves -- descriptive terms or epithets vary in kind, according to the market or the consensus of a particular time -- manage to come forth and persist longly (wearisomely, some might say) in a special place, preserved from the labelling effect. No one can control this, since time, the great devourer, does this singlehandled.

In the end, I could not disregard more the question if some work or some author are "SF" or "mainstream": what I care for is if the book or author are good. Some SF books are awful and some mainstream book are negligible, too. And in both these apparently "non-overlapping magisteria" (après-Stephen J. Gould) there can be found sycophants and people that are only interessed in making a buck, with no regard for the literary form whatsoever. Some said mainstream books are just, let's say, not restricted by any sense of shame, in the fact that they are callously conceived to be marketable -- in the most elementary way possible. In the other hand, there are marvelously writen SF/Fantastic books, which prose really deliver.

Time will tell.

Squirrelly affections,
David Soares

RFYork said...

Have you seen Ursula K. LeGuin's gentle and knowing retort to Ishiguro?

She also did a follow up.
Here's the link:
http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Blog2015.html#95Ishiguro

Iyul Zulfandi said...

I haven't seen this and I really can't say it's going to end up on any to-watch list of mine, but the whole thing sounds strangely and appealingly literary for an original property.

Bill said...

Hey Larry, what do you think of the Shirley Jackson nominees this year?

Bill

 
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