The OF Blog: Is "traditional" SF really better than "literary" SF?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Is "traditional" SF really better than "literary" SF?

A few days ago, Steve Davidson of The Crotchety Old Fan wrote an article called "Why Traditional SF is BETTER than 'Literary' SF". This post was written in response to the kerfuffle involving Adam Roberts' rant against how the Hugo Awards are selected and the resulting commentary. Davidson has long been an active member in American SF from what I've gathered and that experience colors his impressions.

However, I wouldn't be true to myself if I didn't offer a response to his post. Being someone who grew up with very few genre works being read during the formative years and being someone who became an adult in the early 1990s, my perspective on the matter of "traditional" and "literary" SF is going to differ in several key ways from Davidson's. This is not to say that there is not any merit to what Davidson had to say; there is. I just don't agree with many of his arguments.

Good SF fosters the imaginitive powers of the reader. The reader is a participant - not a mere observer. (Yes, this IS an aspect of sensawunda.) Like the Rooney & Garland flicks, the author says “Hey kids! Let’s put on a play!” and they do. The author provides the working script and some of the props, while the reader throws in background and scenery, costuming and a bit of their own creativity.

While doubtless well-written SF can indeed foster the "imaginative" powers of the reader, I would argue that this is not something that is native to this perceived literary genre. There are several genres of literature in which the reader is a participant, from murder-mysteries to the 19th century Romances through Borges and other practitioners of the "puzzle story" down to writers such as Gene Wolfe or Mark Z. Danielewski, among others. Being a participant, however, is not a key, necessary ingredient in crafting a moving story. It merely is a reader preference for a particular style. Perhaps Davidson is trying to make the argument that SF, being purportedly the "literature of ideas," allows writers to paint with broad strokes and leave to the readers the imaginative task of adding their little daubs of speculation to the gaps that remain. There might be something to this, but I would have to wonder if novels such as Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch in English) might exist as a counterpoint to the claim that SF, especially that of the "traditional" kind, has some sort of claim to being the "literature of ideas."

Before continuing, one thing that I noticed that Davidson never clarified in his post was what constitutes "traditional" SF? It might be dangerous to presume that he would include strictly Campbellian and/or Gernsback-influenced tales, but if these comprise the majority of what many might believe to be "traditional" SF, then what would be so special about them, especially for those of us readers who were born when the New Wave (itself a reaction against the sort of stories that Campbell or Gernsback would endorse) itself was beginning to fade in the mid-1970s? There is that chronological/ideological leap that me and perhaps my generational cohorts would have to bridge in order to understand the attraction of such tales. I am not making a knee-jerk reaction here when I state that several examples often cited as being exemplary SF of the "Golden Age" do not appeal to me because of the latent xenophobia, sexism, and casual racism. When I recently read C.L. Moore's collection of Northwest Smith stories that were collected for the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series, I found myself repulsed by the ideas Moore expressed via Smith. While the irony of this is that Moore was a woman, the fact remains that several of the works written before the 1960s (although certain not the whole; there were several reactions against xenophobia, sexism, and racism in stories such as Bradbury's earliest works, for example) contain elements that are rather odious to the newer generations of SF readers. The notion of a jingoistic future full of intrepid souls fulfilling some sort of human-centric manifest destiny is rather odd to those of us whose first memories are of the Iranian Revolution and the tumults of the late 1970s through the aftermath of the 1989 Revolutions.

But the above is ultimately an aside in this critique of Davidson's post. His argument lies in a different realm, one that deals more with directness versus oblique explorations. Consider his point about "old" and "new" cinema and how it relates to his perception of literary works:

The change, and the difference, between old cinema and new cinema is that new cinema no longer relies on or factors in the audience member’s participation. You don’t have to imagine what a battlestation on a spaceship looks like - it is shown to you. (I’m not necessarily indicting this, just illustrating the difference. Given the tools now available for filmmaking, it is inevitable that they’ll get used to show us things we’ve never seen before. But: take Cloverfield as an example. It can be argued that one of the primary reasons for the success of this minimalist movie is its return to old cinematic techniques. Hints, glimpses, shadows - but hardly ever a really good look at ‘the thing’. The viewer is forced to employ their own powers of imagination.)

Literary works are often described as stories that are concerned with conveying intimate detail from the writer to the reader. Characterization - in intimate detail. Setting - in poetical, lyrical detail. Emotion - in excruciating detail. The use of language in uncommon, often experimental and highly granular ways.

On the surface, this sounds like a very good argument. One problem: "literary" works are not monolithic. While yes, several such vaguely-defined stories might contain every single one of the elements Davidson mentions here, just as many do not. Some, like Danielewski's House of Leaves combine elements of both the "old" and "new" cinema techniques - there is a lot of discussion, emotional depiction is very important, but yet the story takes all the revelations, all the exposition, and it creates something that is layered, often murky, like clear swamp water on top of soggy, barely settled peat. In fact, one might argue that a talented writer could take each and every one of the elements Davidson lists in the "literary" category and create something that is vivid, intense, grabs the reader by the short and curlies, and which allows imagination to flourish...without being anything like the "traditional" SF stories that Davidson espouses.

Listen to an interview of an author of literary works and the discussion often turns to the ways that they used language in an attempt to engender a very specific emotional or intellectual response from the reader; they’ll often have had a plan for their use of language as a major component of their creative work.
Language for me, as a reader and as an occasional translator, is paramount. I want le mot juste whenever possible. Language used skilfully creates mood, tension. It sucks in the reader, connects the reader intimately with the text. There is a rhythm, a beat to the onrushing words that creates a narrative flow in which the reader can just immerse him/herself in. Without the various forms of language, text would be just a dull abstraction. So for Davidson to use language as an apparent argument for the estrangement of Story and Reader is a bit odd, to say the least.

Like new cinema, literary works (the ‘many, not all’ is implied throughout here) attempt to show you everything. They seek to engender specific emotions, create characters so rich and full of emotion you ‘know’ them and can empathize, set scenes so rich with sensory impressions that they appear fully constructed within your minds eye.

Like old cinema, good ol’ science fiction places that big dumb, detailless, formless, undiscovered object in front of you and asks “what do you want to do now?”

This is a straw man argument. Davidson fails to account for the presumptions that are built into the very notion of "genre," that being that there are certain conventions that the Reader will understand, at least intuitively, and which the Reader will process according to certain conventions. Yes, he does note that there is no monolithic conception of "literary" works being enslaved to the notion that the Reader must be "shown" or "told" everything, but yet his argument would seem to hinge upon the notion that the "less is more" is a universal for "good ol' science fiction." I would argue that it is not. I remember seeing an excellent Argentine movie, Nine Queens, a few years ago. It is a con-man movie in which everything is shown in front of the viewer. Nothing is withheld. But even when one is paying strict attention, it is almost impossible for the first-time viewer catch all of the tricks, making a reviewing an entirely "new" experience in which the viewer how the ultimate con game was played out before his/her eyes. Many of the newer SF works, including several of the "literary" sort, play with similar tricks, creating illusions before us in the eyes of unreliable narrators. Gene Wolfe is a master of this, as was Jorge Luis Borges, but while each certainly is not "new," neither one is usually tossed in with the "traditional" SF of Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke. So one might wonder if the "good ol' science fiction" might actually be those works that incorporate elements of the "new cinema" that Davidson discusses.

The literary author often has a a goal - a purpose and a specific target - for their work. The science fiction author often has no goal other than the journey itself. (Let me explain something to you - vs - hey, check this out!)

The difference between the two bodies of works (literary speculative fiction and so-called non-literary science fiction - and I use the different terms deliberately) is not one of skill versus lack of skill, not one of hack versus auteur - it is a difference of authorial objective and, in fact, a difference ginned up through an unfair comparison between two completely different literary genres.

Ignoring for the most part the "goals" bit (which I think is so misguided in its presentation and execution as to be almost baffling), Davidson's final part of his essay deals with discussing the actual title of his post, namely the perceived differences between "literary speculative fiction" and "non-literary science fiction." While I will agree with him that the differences deal with intent much more than with the nebulous issue of "quality," I concluded that his rationale was a bit simplistic at times. Let's look at what he argues here:

Science Fiction, in its philosophical, stereotypical, a priori form is a literature in which the art displayed is deliberately minimalist, vague, inconclusive, ephemeral; detail is a tool that when properly constructed, rather than revealing, creates ambiguity, engenders questions and opens up visions of even more uncertainty. Voids are included not through lack of literary skill, but as a necessary component of engendering the imaginative participation of the reader. The picture forms in the reader’s head, it is not displayed on the author’s page.

Deliberately or accidentally, the author of Science Fiction shuns many of the conventions of ‘literature’ as comprising the wrong kind of detail; word play is mostly avoided as distracting to the experience; (with the exception of low-brow puns - deliberately so because high-brow puns would also be distracting); characters are often drawn from ‘cookie-cutter’ molds in order to remain blank canvases upon which reader imagination will draw.

Science Fiction is not ‘bad literature’ - it is actually very good literature of a specific kind that employs different tools and reaches for different objectives than other, more traditional forms - including literary speculative fiction.

At least in this respect the Hugo Award nominees and winners HAVE, for over half a century, reflected the best the field has to offer. They are, after all, the SCIENCE FICTION awards. You can compare those works to anything you want to compare them to and, while it is true that Ringworld makes for a very poor sandwich, it happens to be an exemplary science fiction novel.

First off, SF is not necessarily a "minimalist, vague, inconclusive, ephemeral" literature where detail "is a tool that when properly constructed, rather than revealing, creates ambiguity, engenders questions and opens up visions of even more uncertainty." While elements of this might be true for many SF works written before the 1970s, on the whole, the perceived SF genre contains many, many variations and deviations from this theme. I cannot imagine Gene Wolfe or Ursula Le Guin's works fitting within these strict parameters; I know most of the cross-genre works being published today don't. Davidson's definitions in these final few paragraphs, while ostentiously written to defend the older SF works from attacks that they are not "relevant" or "good literature," fail to do these works justice. It is one thing to note that the older SF works have moments of quality and depth of thought to offer to readers; it is another matter when it appears that Davidson does this by downplaying the elements in newer SF stories that run counter to the qualities of the older text. While I can sympathize with his defense, I just remain unconvinced that his apologia is a good one. There just are too many straw men in his arguments for me to reconsider my take on the issue. After all, if my social 'baggage' (my views on societal relations, historical interpretations, metaphysics, etc.) cannot be carried by the story I'm reading, then there's going to be some sort of disconnect and likely dislike of the stories that spark such a reaction in me. That these things are endemic to Reader/Text interactions is a matter that I wish Davidson would have discussed in his essay. As it stands, it is an interesting defense, but one that fails to sway me. But what about you? What are your takes on his article and my response?


Martin said...

I'm amazed you managed to read it, let alone respond to it, since it is nonsense from start to finish.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

...and so's your mother, Martin.

At least the folks here chose to respond to specific points.

OF folks: the piece was obviously a response to Robert's attack on the lack of "literary" quality found in the works nominated for the 2009 Hugo awards.
In the intro, I did not claim to be making the final argument. In fact, I said that I 'may have found a piece' of the answer and I was only trying it on for size.
The various arguments and posits were not crafted as an academic paper (like genre, they presume that readers are somewhat familiar with the background and prior theory). I could have spent a few weeks researching, citing and crafting an academic presentation but, quite frankly, I spent way too much time in college learning how to bullshit academically to have any interest in doing so now.
Which, tangentially, was another point of that piece: academics and formal analysis have their place, but that place is no more and no less meaningful or important than other informed discourse. Academics have (mostly) agreed upon a set of norms - ones not readily accessible to those in the wider world - ones to which they attach great importance. Placing their standards on a higher pedestal than all others is exactly the same as claiming that the Hugo voting fans' choices are better than everyone else's.
The title of the piece was deliberately provocative and not necessarily the best title for the subject matter.
And, as I admitted previously (and in the piece) I don't present the final theorem, only, maybe, a piece of it. That it has been picked up by so many other blogs and news sites as a topic of discussion I think argues for its limited success in having opened up some kind of dialogue on the subject: there's a kernel in there, one that I touched on however glancingly, and I hope that it will be explored more deeply by others.

Martin said...

Once you've washed out your hyperbole you are left with opening question: what a makes an SF novel good even if it is badly written? To which I can only answer "nothing". Science fiction is just another type of literature, there are no special secret rules that need to be explained.

So as far as I'm concerned there is no point to your piece in the first place. That you then go on a bizarre sidetrack about special effects in film makes it even less paletteable. You make no more sense when you get back to actually talking about science fiction literature itself. Science fiction in its a priori form? This is just madness.

Your comment here seems to admit that you were making no attempt to present a coherent argument
and so it is unsurprising it looks like a mishmash of disaparte thoughts.

Liviu said...

"what a makes an SF novel good even if it is badly written? To which I can only answer "nothing"."

I agree with that but I am not sure me and the previous commenter will agree on what "badly written" means and I think that is one of the main points of the original post - "badly or well written" is a matter of many factors rather than on the wordplay by itself.

If you want only wordplay I would suggest that genre is not for you - this is why I read Nobel, Booker... caliber literature and core genre sff, but rarely the in-between "literary sf" the original poster rallies against; simply put, for those "in-between" wordplay is not good enough, sense of wonder is not good enough, novel meh...

Anonymous said...

I think Old Crotchety misses an opportunity here by going vague instead of choosing a particular book he thinks has been overlooked or under valued by critics and extolling its virtues by way of specifics. Being specific isn't necessarily "academic," it's just giving interested readers an indication as to what you're talking about. Too bad. As it stands, I agree with Martin's summation of the essay. It comes across as loud and empty -- verbal fartage.

Jeff Ford

dcole said...

Not sharing your dislike of academia I can't say it would have been worse for you to stick to the forms of argument. They exist exactly because they are better than other forms and they work as a way to present information, theories, and the defenses of them. It is quite easy to see through academic bullshiting and I am sorry if the college professors you had were not able to do so.

I would be interested in what you consider traditional sci-fi. To me Clark, and Assimov, ARE literary. There characters are well formed and certinly not cookie cutter. Heinlein can be (stranger in a strange land certinly is literal) and is much better when he is. Cookie cutter characters and simple plot lines do make for bad literature though they can be comforting. I don't think anyone would call Nemo an undeveloped character though and that was one of the first sci-fi stories.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

dcole, martin, anonymous, et al:

if you want a novel that was indicted by Robert's initial polemic, you need look no further than Dhalgren.
As an after thought, you can throw in just about anything by PK Dick (who has now become the darling of the literati) and even some of Phil Farmer's more deliberate literary works, though the way he handles his themes and mixes together disparate myths would probably be very off-putting to someone versed in classical analysis.
I don't have a dislike for things academic - I was one myself.
I do think, however, that agreeing on wishy-washy terms in order to have some degree of commonality for discussion, and then agreeing on whether a piece of writing fits those arbitrary definitions is pretty much a waste of effort (except in academia where you have to play with that stuff in order to stay employed and acquire tenure).
All one needs to do in order to put paid to the falsity of academic literary critique and analysis is to look at the long strings of authors were weren't appreciated for their craft until well after they were dead.
If it was really worth anything, it would be a predictive science, not an after the fact mastubatory fantasy.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Another good Article Larry, leaving aside all the elitist bickering that follows.

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