The Language of Defeat…on Clarkesworld

Jeff VanderMeer • November 11th, 2007 @ 6:01 pm • Culture, Writing Tips

A short essay of mine on Clarkesworld that might be of interest. It includes two lists as well–a list of books for genre readers to check out and a list of books for mainstream literary readers to check out.

Read the latest Clarkesworld fiction and other features as well.

In most cases using this kind of language leads to a bemoaning of the lack of acceptance by the “literary mainstream.” It also leads to a certain resentment on the part of “genre” writers, especially centered on the idea that some “mainstream” writers get away with writing “genre” books. We’ve seen this attitude a lot lately–focused on writers like Margaret Atwood for her Oryx & Crake, Jeanette Winterson for The Stone Gods, Cormac McCarthy to lesser extent for The Road, and even the work of Jonathan Lethem in a general way, once accused of abandoning his “genre” roots. The negative attitudes toward these books and authors have three layers or premises: (1) that it is somehow inherently wrong and rude for these writers to write in what is so clearly a “genre” milieu (without asking first?), (2) that these authors’ cliché comments disavowing their books as “Science Fiction” or “Fantasy” somehow reflect negatively on the quality of the actual texts, and (3) that these forays into forbidden territory are written with no regard for or knowledge of “genre” predecessors.

4 Responses to “The Language of Defeat…on Clarkesworld”

  1. JP Davis says:

    Interesting article. Maybe I just don’t go to enough cons or read enough blogs, but I haven’t experienced much of the language of defeat from the side of “genre writers.” On the other hand, I frequently see the type of automatic prejudice from the so-called “mainstream” side, in the media as well as in personal contact. This latter does a great disservice to quote unquote genre fiction; people have a hard enough time taking you seriously when you tell them you write about elves and starships to begin with, we definitely don’t need the media (thinking most recently of several pieces I’ve seen in Slate) fanning the flames of literary pretension. Especially given the fact that “literary” seems to be de facto defined as “anything that a person with mainstream cred likes” and genre is “everything else.”

    To the extent that we do, though, it’s silly for those of us who write speculative fiction (or any other genre) to engage in reverse discrimination, eschewing successful literary works with genre elements simply because they don’t fall into traditional patterns. Instead, we should use these works as a bridge to increase our own readership. Whenever I try to explain what I write to people who clearly don’t read speculative fiction, I usually say something along the lines of “Did you like The Time Traveler’s Wife? George Orwell? Kurt Vonnegut? Then you like speculative fiction!”

  2. Colbie says:

    I’m curious as to how you came up with your list of books for ‘genre’ and ‘mainstream’ readers.

    Of the five for ‘mainstream’ I’d read – Banks, Peake, Bishop, Robson, Harrison – I have recommended or passed on to non-genre readers. These are clearly accessible and sophisticated works whatever your preferences; they are also widely recognised as being the best of their kind. But of the for ‘genre’, the five I’ve read – Krauss, Safran Foer, Auster, Amis, Byatt – leave me a little puzzled. Krauss and Safran Foer are stylists whose books tend to divide readers into either lovers or haters of their work; Amis is another writer whose writing throws up strong reactions either way – I have met few women who can stomach him, for example, and the men are split down the middle; Byatt’s Possession is generally celebrated so fits well with the purpose of encouraging new readers; yet Auster’s New York trilogy, which toys with genre to the extent it effectively is both literary and genre, seems a curious choice since it hardly requires a leap of faith and is widely recognised as such.

    My tastes are irrelevant, but I wonder what in those books do you see that would encourage genre readers to dip further into the mainstream? (I can’t comment on the other halves of your lists since I’ve not read them.) It may also be that living in the UK, there is quite a different perception of these writers. Good article, all the same.

  3. Paul Jessup says:

    JP:
    the so-called “mainstream” side

    You realize, calling it “the so called” and putting mainstream in sarcastic quotes, is in itself part of the language of defeat? Why be condescending towards mainstream? What is the mainstream? Does it exist? I’m starting to think it doesn’t….

    Anyway, I’m all for cross pollination. And I’m all for breaking down doors. My favorite genre writers are ones who read a lot of many different things, never limiting themselves to imaginary walls that they helped erect, but exist only in their own mind.

    I still keep going back to the beginning of the first Elric book, where Micheal Moorcock mentions Brecht’s Three Penny Opera as an influence on the work. That sort of thing- that is what genre needs. That is what all fiction needs.

  4. JP Davis says:

    Paul,

    You’ll also notice that I put “genre writers” in quotes. And that Jeff does the same thing in his article. The purpose of that was to show that these distinctions are really self-imposed fictions, not to reinforce them or be condescending.

    JP

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