The OF Blog: VanderMeer on the "Language of Defeat"

Monday, November 05, 2007

VanderMeer on the "Language of Defeat"

Jeff VanderMeer has posted a very apt piece entitled "The Language of Defeat" for Clarkesworld Magazine. Before reading anything else in my take on it, please take the time to read it in full.

VanderMeer touches upon a topic that has been troubling me from time to time (and I know I've written multiple times about "state of genre" topics), that of the petty internecine war of words between various "genre" factions and those purportedly of the "mainstream." Lord knows how many times I've been browsing through blog articles or website commentaries and reading all sorts of "provocative" pieces that pretty much, when boiled down to the essentials, are little more than just restatements of prior whines about how the "genre" is "disrespected" or is "underappreciated."

Then as I almost feel a bit of pity for them, I glance at the TV listings and the movie previews that pop up on the screen and I wonder if we might have things all bassackwards. VanderMeer's piece makes a strong argument that perhaps readers of stories marketed as "genre" have been so conditioned to believe that their works have been dismissed by some secret cabal of the Literati (this is so begging for a satirical novel, natch) that many fail to see that not only have genre sales overtaken "literary" sales, but that even a well-informed reader would be hard pressed to name any recently-released fiction titles that didn't have "pulp" or "genre" elements contained within it!

But there is more to it than pointing out just how stupid the finger-pointing and the hang-dog look of "pity poor, poor me!" that seems to be all the rage. VanderMeer doesn't exactly quite come out and say it, but if one speaks of a "ghetto" in this day and age, then one has to ask just why in the hell that readers (and perhaps by extension, authors) aren't doing a damn thing about breaking the walls? Not by trumpeting one flavor of the Baskin-Robbins' 32, but by doing what the first rappers did: Take, steal, rip, twist, and make it into your own.

I believe that's much of what we're seeing in many recent "mainstream" novels. Those authors, many of whom will admit (often quite readily, I might add) to reading and enjoying genre fiction, are taking elements formerly associated with "genre" fiction and making a meld that's all their own...and it is quite good. Alice Sebold had a hit off of a riff on a ghost story with her These Lovely Bones. Cormac McCarthy does the same with his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road. Others like David Anthony Durham, have "crossed over" and have marketed themselves as "new" writers for the genre audience, while all the time taking elements that they learned from writing in the "literary" frame of reference and making some wonderfully vibrant stories out of that.

And people have dared to bemoan them for their success and for writing excellent stories, just because they weren't "one of us" or because they didn't proclaim the "genreness" of their fiction? Something is very wrong with that picture, needless to say. But perhaps we ought to consider things from a different angle: If said authors are successful in melding non-genre and genre fiction tropes together, then perhaps there might be things contained in these "literary" or "mainstream" novels that ought to be read with the intent of taking and twisting them into something rather new?

VanderMeer's concluding bit with a listing of books that "genre" and "mainstream" readers ought to read of the other's "side" is something that I endorse wholeheartedly. Sometimes I find myself wishing that authors writing today might be influenced not just by a Tolkien or a Lovecraft, but also by a John Updike or a Graham Greene or an Alan Ginsberg. I am curious to see what a Zadie Smith can do with a "fantasy" setting and what a China Miéville might accomplish with a novel that's more closely tied to our here and now (as his first novel, King Rat, has some promise of "wowness" within it).

But I suppose that would mean that authors today would have to be more bold than what they are proclaiming. Too often I've heard of authors saying that they try to avoid reading fiction whenever possible (while reading a lot of non-fiction for possible twisting/borrowing, I might add) so that they don't unconsciously crimp on another's style. I wish those authors would reconsider. A knowledgeable historian writing a study of a period has to read more than just the primary sources. He or she has to be familiar with the research being produced by his/her colleagues. I cannot help but to believe that this ought to be the case with authors to at least some extent. I would argue that being knowledgeable not just what one's genre mates are writing, but also that which the best and brightest in other literature fields are churning out, would lead to all sorts of interesting hybridizations that would make for a more exciting read.

But the "ghetto" has to be cleaned up and out first. Which of course means that the whining and moaning and self-pitying has to stop. There are new vistas out there and the "others" don't bite, or at least not any harder than "we" do.


Unknown said...

Very good post. I will argue a point though.
While genre fiction is clearly more accepted socially than literary fiction--since it sells more not only in stores, but there are more shows/movies/etc. on genre than on literary fiction--the literary academia is still fighting hard against it. Why is that important? Because I want to pursue the study of science fiction as my major and I can't because there are maybe 10 schools in the world that actually teach the subject and I cannot afford the tuition to any of them. So, right now, I'm actually in a college that will provide me with no opportunities to study the literature that is most interesting to me and most important, but if I want to ever be able to study it I have to keep studying stuff I don't care about. So, I have written on my blog a lot of things about this particular issue because, despite society being in love with science fiction and fantasy, the academic world is far from accepting. The first day of my literary interpretation class for my first quarter here at UC Santa Cruz basically began with why science fiction is not real literature and how it is comparable to harlequin romances in complexity and value. So, while I am happy and glad that genre is eating up sales and making its mark, I'm disgusted that the literary academia is still pushing to keep it out of the canon, to keep it out of classes, etc. In my first year here at UCSC I will have zero opportunities to study what I want to. The closest I can get is studying old age classics that are intentionally called literary fiction rather than what they really are (Frankenstein is SF, Dracula is dark fantasy/horror). But I want to study modern science fiction: Asimov, Heinlein, etc. But in a classroom setting. I know I can study these subjects on my own, and I do by reading a lot and doing what I can to find trends and the like, but I want to really study it. I want my degree to say B.A. in Literature with a focus in science fiction. But I'll instead have a B.A. in Literature with Moder Studies or some such...

On another note, I readily accept books like The Road, etc. as SF and Literary Fiction because I don't see what the problem is with crossing lines. Why can't something be both at the same time? It doesn't matter to me if it's very literary in nature. It's genre, and it's good. That's what I think everyone should think when they read any literature. It doesn't necessarily matter what genre it is because all literature should be looked under the same lens. There is just as much crappy literary fiction as straight SF or F.

I'm probably rambling though. I just want to see my genre accepted in the academia :(.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and thought-provoking post.

I always had some problems with seeing "genre" like "science fiction" or "fantasy" as a quality sign and not simply as a description of the content. I don't really think that genre itself matters more than telling a story that baffles, surprises or entertains people. What kind of story you prefer, though, depends on your taste and what you are looking for in a story.

I have found out that it is possible to interest people in genres they would probably not touch on their own, when you know what kind of story they like and what book tells this kind of story, but in a slightly different dress than they are used to. (I hope I could express clearly, what I wanted to say.)

One of my proudest achievements of the last years, in regard to book recommendation, was inciting a friend to reading Terry Pratchett as someone who retells old tales and raises interesting points about our world. She, like you, does not read books for escapism, but for making her think more about the world.

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