War of All Against All: Realism vs Fabulism? Er, No…

J.M. McDermott argues that the non-realistic, near-fantastical approach to crisis in literary fiction bothers him, whereas the non-realistic, near-fantastical approach to crisis in fantasy doesn’t bother him. Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen drinks a little bit of the Kool-Aid by trying to find examples of literary fiction that don’t fall into this “trap”.

I find this discussion bizarre, to be honest. I don’t automatically assume that my life is like everyone else’s life, or that everyone’s reaction to stimuli and trauma falls roughly within the same narrow spectrum of reaction. And there is much that each of us keeps hidden.

But then, I reject the term “literary” fiction entirely as nonsensical and meaningless, just as I find “genre” meaningless. I have to use them sometimes because of common understandings of the terms, but that doesn’t make them any more meaningful. So, the discussion becomes even more incomprehensible to me in that context. Literature is not a binary construction. No one text is exactly like any other fictional text. Writers who interest me have unique ways of looking at the world, and some may use fantastical elements and some may not. Some may use elements of “realism” and some may use “hyper-realism” and some may eschew realism altogether. A hard SF writer may seem mimetic to me in his or her approaches just as a “literary” writer whose subject is contemporary relationships, and who uses no element of fantasy, may seem to me a fabulist.

The act of committing fantasy in a story or novel no more automatically makes that writer a fabulist than makes a unicorn of an accountant who reports hearing the voices of angels.

In an unintentional footnote to aspects of these first two posts, Matt Cheney tackles mimetic fiction.

I am now waiting for my friend Hal Duncan’s five-thousand-word post that will bind them and rule them all.

Of course, I am just stirring up trouble here. I’m mixing literary and realist, fabulist and genre. Just call me contrary. Besides, it all seems like a Mad Hatter’s tea party anyway.

Comments

  1. says

    My post was a response to one specific literary fiction writer and style of literary fiction personified by the unbearably elegantly awful Amy Hempel that’s practically un-readable, to me.

    I believe I mentioned that on the post.

    I would love to move beyond terms of realism and literary and speculative and fabulist. I think it’s much easier for writers to say that than readers. Readers are looking for something specific that speaks to their life experience. Not everyone can change mental hats between different forms as casually as a writer might.

    I prefer to think of it not as two opposing camps, but instead as giant piles of sand. The sand blows around, but the big piles – the really big ones – only shift a little bit in the wind, and basically hold very still in the large centers of where their particular base provides.

    By all means, stir. Maybe the “literary” blog-o-sphere will notice if we make enough noise, and the debate can erode the boundaries between us all.

  2. says

    Well, I guess I should be busy defending what I was doing (segueing, more or less, into something that was of interest to me at the time), but I feel a little Puckish tonight, so time for a throw-down:

    All of the above terms used are but facets of something greater, something that I (channeling my Marxist professors) would call parts of a society’s material culture. How we express our fears, hopes, anxieties, how we make them palatable for others (or try to communicate them to peoples of other cultures) can be expressed in fiction, in poetry, in monuments, street signs, and even how we use the bathroom (witness the Japanese toilets, for example). Material culture is fun to examine and to prod and poke, but without breaking it down and looking at its most picayune parts (the “literary”/”genre” constructed divide), wouldn’t it be more incomprehensible than explaining to our descendants the importance of Michael Jackson’s white glove? ;)

  3. says

    I have to agree with Mr. Vandermeer. Classification is essential only to amateurs and rainy-day readers. If you really care about books and stories, then you should be open to everything, from Pynchon to Bova to Dickens to Joyce (well maybe not that last one, but you get my meaning).

  4. Nick Mamatas says

    My post was a response to one specific literary fiction writer and style of literary fiction personified by the unbearably elegantly awful Amy Hempel that’s practically un-readable, to me.

    The problem there, of course, is that one might have a similar reaction to the single piece of fantasy he or she has ever read, and then write a big ol’ post about the falseness of fantasy which is all about dragons and killer cell phones and the obvious childish wish-fulfillment of the socially crippled nerds who read the stuff.

  5. says

    The thing about classifications, GW, that I think is of most interest here are those which include and those which exclude, since sadly we all seem to develop our own classification schemas (or at least that’s what Michel Foucault would have liked for us to believe at one point). Protean classifications, however, seem to be the “best,” if such a thing can ever be rooted in anything that’s not ephemeral.

    I really am getting this sense that I need a few drinks first before responding, as it might add an extra, needed dose of incomprehensibility to all this…

  6. jeff vandermeer says

    JM–I would just say I don’t assume that about readers. Being one myself. And knowing many. But erm, this barrier is permeable. You’re seeing a paradigm still that is wall and moat when it is skin and arteries. There is no impenetrable “literary”. For example. There are just individuals with prejudices and opinions and preferences. Some are housed by institutions and some are not. Some of those institutions dislike the fabulist side of things and some do not. Your sand metaphor assumes cogs and parts rather than individual minds.

  7. says

    RE: Nick

    Of course, that’s possible. But, it is also true to the experience of that reader. I don’t ever claim, in my post, that this is anything but my impression, to me, and my reaction based on this impression.

  8. says

    And… RE: Grand Weirdinian

    Amateurs and Rainy Day Readers covers quite a lot of people, to whom reading is still important, and to whom genre categories help quite a lot.

    If you really care about books and stories, you probably do so because you find they speak to you. In fact, the more I care about books and stories, the less patience I have for ones that don’t speak to me as anything but a craft study.

  9. Nick Mamatas says

    The problem isn’t your impression, but the conclusion drawn from them.

    “Due to feeling ill after eating these steamed dumplings, I have come to be aware of the fact that Chinese people cannot cook.”

  10. says

    My slant, worth approximately 2 cents, circa 1902: make what you want to make in your own peculiar freedom, and categories be blowed. Genres are for bookstore owners and librarians and academics to puzzle over, and I do not wish to deprive such book-loving people of gainful occupation by taking over their genre-cracking duties.

  11. says

    Re: Nick Mamatas

    I understand what you’re suggesting, but we’re not just talking about some random chef of chinese cuisine.

    Amy Hempel’s five short story collections, each with stories published in numerous respectable places, were pulled together into what is described by the New York Times Review of Books as the literary event of the year, or somesuch (at work, don’t have it in front of me.) Major literary grants and awards and acclaim follow her stories everywhere they go, and Rick Moody writes the introduction. Basically, if your goal was to succeed as a writer of literary fiction, you would do well to emulate the highly-praised Amy Hempel.

    When people do talk about genre as some kind of category, the edges are always fuzzy, but people tend to agree that certain writers are definitely “it”. Amy Hempel is at the center of what I would describe as the literary fiction I’m not really enjoying.

    If I’m going to talk about what I don’t like about Chinese food, talking about the work of a world-renowned master chef of Chinese food is probably a good way to do it. If the other chef’s of Chinese food see that ideal as something to be aspired to, then I am picking a useful way to engage what I, as a consumer of Chinese food, don’t like.

  12. says

    Re: Jeff VanderMeer

    I’ll think on that some more, and read more.

    The point of the sand metaphor is to suggest that the boundaries between the genre mountains are fuzzy and shifting and constantly changing, but there is some united clump of things that are recognizable as a big pile of similarly-placed sand.

    I’d believe your comment about inidividuality of readers if it weren’t for the big piles of sand visible in the metrics of software that recommends things. Amazon buyers who bought this also often bought that. LibraryThing members who liked this book also often liked that. A clump happens, where books show up on each other’s lists, and circulate around to some center artifact or aesthetic.

    Anyhow, I’m out of time for the morning. I look forward to your responses much later this afternoon.

  13. says

    JM–I think it’s each individual writer’s and reader’s approach in talking to other readers about this issue that makes the most difference. If you buy into the sand metaphor then you will interact with that context in mind, and you will continue to reinforce it. If you don’t, then you won’t.

    I don’t know that Amazon’s you’ll like that software metric means what you think it means. In terms of how readers view books. The mechanisms of sales/marketing can influence how readers view books, but I don’t think it’s the evidence you want it to be.

  14. Hal Duncan says

    Heh, funny enough I’m kicking some of those ideas around at the moment. Maybe I can keep it down to four-thousand. ;)

  15. says

    No, goddammit, Hal! I want all fucking five thousand words! That’s why we love you. (I should stop joking about yer length, cause I truly do appreciate someone’s out there actually providing such thoughtful commentary.)

  16. Nick Mamatas says

    JM,

    Except that literary fiction is a wide tent as is, indeed, Chinese food. Hunan? Cantonese? Macanese? Hempel, regardless of any accolades she has received, is not the Alpha and Omega of literary fiction.

    Or, put it this way. Connie Willis has won ten Hugos and six Nebulas, and a few Locus awards. (Plus a raft of nominations for these and other awards.) She has just been entered into the Science Fiction Hall of fame. And yet, reading Connie Willis will tell you pretty much nothing about the work of, I dunno, Jeff Vandermeer or Thomas Ligotti or Otsu-ichi or John Ringo or John Crowley or Hal Duncan or Mike Resnick or Johnny Strike or Octavia Butler or R.A. Lafferty or…

  17. says

    Ditto that, Nick. Exactly. Wasted several minutes trying to improve, no, EXPAND on the point you made, couldn’t. Oh well.

    JM,

    I am pretty sure that Amy Hempel would be *horrified* by the notion that her work is emblematic of ALL “literary fiction.” So her work is not to your liking—great. But Amy Hempel’s perception of reality, and her sharing of that reality via words strung together (ponderous subtext and all) is every bit as vibrant and “real” as the simple “escapist” joy of an old man stringing ten million balloons to his house and sailing up into the sky… or whatever. But more importantly… where is this “us” and “them” mentality coming from, and why should it f—ing matter? Seriously. Brilliance on the page is… brilliance on the page, man! It doesn’t matter what it says on the spine, or what section of the store I found the damn book. If the sentences are written with care and precision and the vision is compelling… sign me up, dude. One last thing: the “literary” crowd is far from immune to the pleasures and sensibilities—and possibilities—of genre. I strongly recommend some of Martin Amis’ short fiction, and the novelists David Mitchell and Steve Erickson. All of them are shelved in the straight-up “fiction” section, all of them dreaming (and dreading) truly incredible and “fantastic” tomorrows. Nuff said. Took me long enough!

  18. says

    Re Nick

    I feel like we’re on the verge of moving to e-mail…

    How can anyone talk about anything then without either a) Reading absolutely everything, or B) Ignoring absolutely everything, or C) engaging in the ancient, tiresome art of proving I’ve read more and wider on the subject than the person I’m talking to. I’ll get back to letter C in a minute?

    What’s the magic number of examples, where we’re allowed to talk about writers inside a genre? Should I list three, four, a dozen? I actually could. Most of us around Mr VanderMeer’s blog could do exactly that. The next step in the debate becomes, too often, a literary book-off where we try to see who’s read more widely. Whether you meant to walk down that path or not, I cringe because I see it happening already when you start listing SF writers. I’ve been to a few Sci-Fi conventions, and that’s usually the next step in this line of debate.

    It’s no more effective as an argument as the “credentials” game wherein someone proves they’re right on a subject by waving their academic degrees around.

    I’m not allowed to speak about a genre with any sort of useful and meaningful specificity because it may or may not exist, and if it does, it probably includes lots of books that are different from this one, or even the numerous ones I could list, that are all definitely not a good example of literary fiction, just because there exists books that are different while still being in the same genre, though again we aren’t sure this genre exists at all.

    There has to be a middle ground for discussion, and your line of reasoning shuts that down.

    You can actually talk about quite a lot of speculative fiction by talking about Connie Willis. She’s a major and influential voice that inspires a lot of other people. You also limit your scope, by mentioning her specifically, to point out that you’re talking about this flavor of speculative fiction. (Connie’s actually a poor example because of the diversity of her work, but the general idea is sound in the case of Amy Hempel, who has done one thing to great acclaim all her career: the literary short story.)Thus naming one writer, (who is – I hope – far above concern over the critique by one fantasy writer with one book from a dead imprint), I am telling you the specific flavor of literary fiction I’m talking about that should be recognizable to all of us because we’ve all read in this genre.

    I actually think the genre of literary fiction exists as a separate entity from other genres, at some point inside the pile of books that seem to hover around familiar audiences and themes. As such, I think it is possible to pick a major voice out of the pile and use it as an example of what I don’t like that happens in a large number of books inside the genre pile.

    Yes, I’m making a grand statement about all of the pile by singling out one writer’s work. I choose just one, specifically, because she’s an excellent example of the problem that I’ve seen in many other books by many other authors.

    It’s also fair to critique a large portion of sci-fi/fantasy for relying on acts of violence for an escalation of conflict. It’s possible to talk about how you don’t like mysteries because you don’t know who the killer is until the end. These are craft choices that are prominent enough in the genre to be major and familiar staples of the prose in question, even though they may not be 100% universal.

    I’m not talking about time travel or the prevalence of unrealistic aliens or all those wooden characters. I’m talking about a craft technique aspired to by numerous and many writers inside the genre, and it is a craft technique, that runs rampant in the aftermath of Hemingway and Carver. I single out one writer, a modern writer is considered a living leader in the pregnant sentence, and I single her out as an exemplar of what I, as a reader, don’t buy into. It exists inside this genre. She’s a banner-carrying leader of this craft technique.

    There are writers inside that genre who don’t use that technique, but – especially in literary short fiction – they are the overwhelming minority.

    And, in discussing whether I have the right to mention this or that writer as an example of a genre that no one, apparently, is convinced actually exists, the real craft and art issue I try to address is lost in intellectual accusations.

    That issue is the presence of excessive and constant subtext is alien to the human experience, often a symptom of some kind of personality disorder, and it has become more an expression of authorial trickery in realistic, literary fiction than truthful expression of life. To me, this is less true than the presence of the unreal.

    Where is the line where we can actually talk about the issue? What do I have to do for you, Nick, before I’m allowed to talk about anything?

    You want me to say something like, “I am concerned about this technique of writing in this very specific scenario but I won’t actually tell you if I think this has anything to do with the rest of the field of letters to whom this person is a leading light and luminary”? What bothers me in her fiction happens all the time. Instead of questioning who has permission to speak, can we talk about what is being said?

    I, a reader, responded to a book I didn’t like, and saw how it related to a prominent trend in literary fiction, and why that didn’t work for me.

    I’m mixing up a couple posts that I’m responding to, here…

    RE: Jeff

    True and dedicated readers, like you and us here at your blog, are a minority of the population. Most readers rely on genre and marketing to feed them books they like. If the majority of readers believe in the existence of a thing called genre, it might as well exist. It’s possible for it to both exist and not exist, at the same time. And, labeling is a useful way to talk about mass numbers of books – even if we know there will be exceptions all over the place. If I can say “literary fiction” and I’m accidentally also talking about 30% of books that don’t quite fit my concern, I’m comfortable still using that term, even if I’m mistaken about 30% of these books that share that label. I’m willing to bet that as we are all readers, we know there will be exceptions, always, to every rule.

  19. jeff vandermeer says

    JM–I’ll let Nick dissect the first part. As for the rest….and with all due respect…yes, you and I are so *special* in being able to see individual books. There’s something ridiculous in these generalizations you throw around like they’re truths every person must acknowledge as true. I also say *you reinforce and encourage such thinking by either buying into it or by passing it along as truth*. I am also tempted to pull out the “young whippersnapper” offense, not to say your opinion isn’t valid but that I’ve seen and experienced a lot more than you. I guess this is why your position bothers me. I don’t think it is based on anything real–just on some shit some other writer fed you and you spieled it out again. And I also think it is cynical, and it buys in to the status quo, and in some fundamental way you are saying most readers are stupid, and I don’t believe that.

    I also don’t think *your own novel, Last Dragon* believes any of this sales pitch you’re slinging. I think your novel is sitting there kind of horrified.

    Piles of sand. Readers enslaved to genre. Blah. Blork. Bleh. We get to decide what world we live in by our words and deeds each day. We have some control over the discussion and how we frame it. We either give in to status quo or we say, no, I don’t believe that’s true, and we help make it *not true*.

  20. jeff vandermeer says

    And I am being hard on you here, but let me pull back and say I hope this discussion doesn’t go to email, and I am a definite fan of your fiction. So, if you can stand the heat….

  21. says

    I think the word of the day ought to be “skepticism.” I distrust almost immediately anything that tends to create group associations and well…seeing group associations being defended is rather odd, especially since there’s nothing but negative connotations being described in your posts, J.M. I just don’t see there being a set group here.

    Of course, I’m just a skeptic at heart, so maybe I’m overlooking something?

  22. Nick Mamatas says

    JM,

    I’m not interested in email discussions, so we can chat here (or some other public venue) or not at all.

    Anyway, there is an obvious an enormous excluded middle between “I read one author and came to this wide-ranging conclusion about some genre” and “I must read everything to say anything at all about some genre.” It’s really so obvious and enormous that I need only point to it. No reason to dissect much further. Your rush to Victimhood — somehow I am not allowing you to speak despite your 976 word rejoinder…it’s just nuts. Really.

    As far as what little other specifics you’ve given…Hemingway and Carver? “[C]haracters have this hyperreal awareness of their own misery, and comment upon it” in stories by Hemingway and Carver? In “Hills Like White Elephants” and “Fat”?

    And then “Our own experience of those crisis and ones like them often don’t line up with the expression of that crisis presented by one writer spewing subtext all over the place.” Well, which is it? Subtext or hyperreal awareness of their own misery…by which you must mean text!

    Have you experienced crises as in Hemingway’s “The Killers”? As in “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off”? Would you say you were embracing subtext when those assassins spilled in to the diner where you were eating, or hypereally commenting on your misery when you built that electric fence with the barbed wire around the pond you stocked with a million black bass fingerlings? Huzzle-wuzzle?

    I’m not at all talking about who has permission to speak. I am disagreeing with you for the simple reason that I have read a lot of literary fiction and frankly, find the techniques you are discussing are indeed not really be a major part of literary fiction at all, and the responses you’ve experienced are at best intersubjective–and frankly a bit defensive, as is most of your rejoinder– and not a part of the text. (Either the text of the stories you critique, or the text of my previous comments using the Chinese cuisine metaphor.)

    Same too with SF — I would argue that it IS unfair to critique SF/F for using violence to escalate conflict because a real analysis of the majority of SF/F would show that to be false. Same with mysteries, at least mysteries in the broadest strokes which must include crime novels in which the criminals are the viewpoint characters, other caper novels, noir pieces where crime emerges from cascades of errors and desires, police procedurals where the criminal is known but some burden of proof must be met, courtroom dramas where the criminal is known and is on trial, etc.

    What you see as a variation of perhaps 30% strikes me as more of a variation of 70%, especially when you’re not even talking about, say, “psychological realism”, or “postmodern fiction” or “nineteenth century British literature” or Hunan or Macanese or Hong Kong food but, amazingly, the whole of the 5000-year 1.7 billion, 40 ethnic group history of Chinese cookery. Uh, I mean “literary fiction”, which includes everyone from Jane Austen to John Jakes.

  23. says

    Nick you just engaged in shutting down discussion by once again attacking the speaker.

    You’re using a variation on the credentials argument that runs like this: “Well, clearly you haven’t read this… or this… or this…”

    That’s a crappy argument chain, whether you frame it as rising from the text or not, because I actually could sit here and list out stories where the opposite is the case, and then we get into the who’s read more and wider book-off that strays so far from the actual point of discussion…

    You’re framing your credentials argument as staying true to a text, like a good academic, and here’s where that’s crappy:

    You are no closer to a full understanding than I am, whether you’ve read a hundred more books than I have or six hundred or six thousand. (I’m assuming you’ve read more by the mere fact that you’re a bit older than me.) As you are well aware, it is impossible to read and know everything there is in a genre as large as lit fic, or any genre.

    Instead of engaging in discussion, wherein we both try to wrap our heads around a different point of view, you’re just stating that everything I say is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    You once again just told me I don’t have the right to speak.

    I’m not being defensive, Nick. I’m talking about your chain of argument. It’s a crappy way to engage in debate. And, it’s not going to change my mind, because you are not talking about what I’m talking about. You’re just telling me I’m wrong. You’re not keyed in to where the divergence in perspective occurs. Any attempts I make to engage in debate with your line of argument comes out as defensive, because you’re attacking me, and not the idea I’m talking about.

    If it’s so obvious and enormous…

    Fuck, man, clearly it’s not. And, the reason it’s not is something Jeff’s keyed into and focusing on. My mental schema of what a genre is varies wildly from what yours and Jeff’s is. Jeff’s managed to engage in discussion about that without throwing his credentials (i.e. but I’ve read this, and this, and this, and this, and clearly you haven’t!)

    Jeff’s engaged in debate keyed in to where the divergence in perspective happens, and engaged in something that doesn’t just attack the speaker, but actually strives to understand why I have this thought in my head, where it comes from, and how that thought can be moved.

    Nick, your chain of argument shuts down debate. It’s a crappy argument chain. It’s all-too-common in any discussion about books to shut down debate with that argument chain or similar. It happens in and out of genre and in and out of the blog-o-sphere and it’s crap. The end result is a lot of smart people are afraid to say anything at all in mixed company because they fear being shamed into silence by someone’s credentials of “but… but, I’ve read all this and you haven’t!” or “Clearly, you haven’t read this!”

    Jeff is engaged in a debate, but he’s doing it in a way that doesn’t shut down debate, because he isn’t attacking me, but instead talking about the idea I had.

    He’s making a similar point, too. I think you guys probably agree with each other on this. However, Jeff’s approach is useful because it doesn’t hinge itself on a “credentials” argument. He’s actually trying to understand why I think the way I do, the way the good teachers in college do it, instead of just ripping me apart, like the bad ones.

    Of course it’s going to sound defensive, when I respond to you – no matter how I respond to you – your line of argument attacks me.

    RE:Jeff

    It isn’t that I’m just throwing around generalizations, it’s that I believe it is possible for both the statement and its opposite to be true simultaneously in anything as complex as books, and for different perspectives and structures of genre to coexist in harmony

    My mental schema of what a genre is cohabitates with the people who don’t believe in it.

    I frame my belief in genre around the belief that even people who don’t read a book a week find this label meaningful and useful. It isn’t about saying this or that reader is not intelligent, it’s saying that all of their – and our – intelligent beliefs about what we experience as readers of books are true, because they are true to our experience of reading.

    I use the label as a shorthand.

    (I’m going to post this so I don’t lose this, but I’ll be back in a few minutes…)

  24. says

    Right… and we’re back…

    It isn’t about choosing which reader is smarter Jeff. That’s not it at all.

    What I’m saying is that the readers who need genre labels because they don’t read as much as we do are smart people who have really found this label that helps them, and it’s not smart of us to push their useful tool aside so casually. By using genre, we’re not labeling people, here. We’re labeling inanimate consumer goods, and arranging them in a way that helps people find books. Yes, those consumer goods carry ideas, but I’ll deal with that in a moment.

    When I read books inside this genre, and see a common trend in many of the books I’m reading, I can use this label and it isn’t an attack against the writers that aren’t guilty of this same point without diminishing those writers.

    Now, the next step is to say that this is obviously going to accidentally create a label that imposes a prejudice upon a book or an author.

    My response to that it is… Well, so what? It’s not a person. It’s a book. And, the way genres evolve is through the build-up of prejudices that help people who like those prejudices find those books. Prejudice is even the wrong word, because it’s too strong of a word, with too many social connotations. Preconceived notions is a better term.

    Then, inside this shifty, useful label, books that don’t fit the preconceived notion are either knocked out of the genre or become the tools by which critics can destroy and rebuild the center of the big pile of sand that is the genre.

    By framing the discussion with the large label, I invite the kind of debate that has erupted, including a post by Hal Duncan – that I haven’t gotten to read, yet, dammit!

    But, by disallowing the label, and disallowing a narrowed frame of that label, we can’t narrow the wide field of letters effectively to engage in useful debate. We end up with Nick’s odious credentials argument where one reader is right simply because they can pull out more examples. If one reader has read a few books, their impressions of those books is true, because that impression can cohabitate with yours in its truth. Multiple “true” readings exist. (And, talking about the way different perceived truths diverge and/or merge is useful while talking about how this or that perceived truth is wrong is not useful.)

    Whether I talk about one book or ten or list out the way this trend in literary fiction arose from Hemingway to Carver to Hempel, to explicate specifically why and how subtext and hyperreal self-awareness arose out of this trend, I’ll never cover every possible book. One book is the same as mentioning ten, because even if I name ten I’m not close. Even if I name a hundred, I’m not close. The numbers are irrelevant. If one reader believes something about a genre, it’s true because belief is all that feeds the genre. If one reader doesn’t believe in genre, that reader is also correct.

    I don’t think tearing down the use of labels, or the belief in them, is useful or helpful to the very intelligent people that rely on the label to find books they like.

    Since we aren’t talking about a solid, rigid, strict label, wherein a single iota of fabulism leads to shelving in the SF/F section, I’m very comfortable focusing on the large points of influence, at the centers of things, where the sand collects. Ultimately, people who stray wide and far from that center do so, often, because they wish to pull the peaks of the sand mountains to a leveler place in between mountains. That’s great, too. It’s a shifty, unstable, evolving thing. And, it evolves because we are able to point at the place where all that sand seems to coagulate and say “There… There is a genre…. Yes lots of sand is flying all over the place, but there is this thing called genre.”

    Really, even Nick’s talking about whether it is “okay” to frame the debate about genre by using a label and an author.

    Debate and evolution happens when we readers and writers and critics shove a pole in the sand and either encourage more sand to collect, or jimmy it around to break it up. The labels help us do that.

    (Jeff, your disbelief in genre is defied by your two landmark anthologies that name two subgenres, and search for their source and meaning.)

  25. says

    RE Drax

    I forgot to add this to the above post, but I was responding to you, as well, when I started “Whether I talk about one book or ten…”

  26. says

    I’m absolutely loving this discussion. I have a love/hate relationship with the concept of genre. I find myself stacking up my books in what might seem like arbitrary piles, like the tense they use or the season they’re set in, or the existence of a secondary character with my brother’s name. But I like most Science Fiction and Fantasy that I read and so I’m glad I have those piles as well.

    One thing that I picked up from this discussion that I particularly like is the idea that speaking about a general concept by talking about an example can be taken as a discussion of the intersection of the general concept and the example as opposed to knee jerk stereotyping. I much prefer to assume the intersection than the stereotyping. I’m pretty sure that most people assume stereotyping … at least people like Nick. (I’m practicing new tools.)

    That said, I’ve not read Hemple. JM, do you think you could find me a good example in the Sci-Fi genre of this whole “characters have this hyperreal awareness of their own misery, and comment upon it.” When I first read your post, my first thought was, wow, maybe I should be reading Literary fiction.

    Anyway, thanks everyone for giving me fuel for my mental fire.

  27. Nick Mamatas says

    JM,

    Simply that you have now followed up your 976-word rejoinder about how you are being disallowed to speak with another 629-word rejoinder saying that the debate is being shut down suggests that you have no real sense of irony, but a rather massive sense of entitlement. You make a claim and insist that any attempt to test it, whether through specific reference to stories or through analogy is an attack not on your idea but on YOU.

    I didn’t bring up the specific examples of Hemingway or Carver, nor did I suggest a simultaneous hyperreality and self-aware commenting from characters AND too much subtext in the same type of stories from these sort of authors. You did. I then TESTED the claim by naming a couple of specific stories and the events within them. Your response is to complain that I’m “shutting down” debate. It’s ludicrous. You’re clearly not interested in debate. You only want agreement, and perhaps a lot of people linking to your blog piece and saying, “Ooh, that JM! He’s so clever! I hate that ‘li-fi’ stuff too! Those fancypants writers are bad because I like zombies better!” *shakes fist in solidarity*

    Your conclusions — that fantasy is better because the crises are novel rather than universal — fall flat because your premise falls flat on pure factual grounds and involves a pretty central contradiction in your description. It does. You’re not pointing at the “large points of influence” or the “centers of things” but at more or less random examples of authors, the stories of whom don’t have characters hyperreally commenting on their misery (as you insist that they do) when they are awash in subtext and aren’t awash in subtext when the characters are hyperreally commenting on their misery (a character making a comment is pretty much text in the first instance).

    When this is pointed out to you, you just claim victim status. It’s hardly my fault that you want to make ridiculously expansive claims about multiple traditions of fiction that you conflate into a single “literary fiction” and can’t be arsed to do more than randomly mention a couple of names that don’t even match your claims. That’s not me shutting down debate, that’s you hitting the limits of your understanding but refusing to even contemplate the alteration of your opinion. If you feel shut down it is because you realize you have little else to say at this point other than to repeat your conclusion and cry of victimhood. You’re right, there’s no room for debate there, because you’d like to make a papal decree and I ain’t Catholic.

  28. says

    Nick, first off let me say that I am not taking this personally, nor do I have any ill will towards you or your fiction, my concern is that your argument chain hinges on something called the “credentials argument”, wherein you are right about this because you have some list of credentials I don’t have. You’re talking in terms of my reading experience, and framing it as if that experience is wrong. So, yes, you’re shutting down meaningful discussion. I don’t believe it’s your intention, but asking me to explain is vastly different from telling me I’m wrong.

    That argument chain of yours hinges on the notion that your reading limits are less limited than mine. This is not actually, necessarily true. You are just as limited as I, because neither one of us has full knowledge. Please do not frame your discussion of an idea around the notion of “I am right and you are wrong”. Because we’re both right, and both are reading experiences are equally valid. And, please don’t frame your discussion of my reading experience by hammering it into yours. That’s not reasonable.

    What I’m trying to engage in is where the breakdown in our communication occurs. You reframe my reading experience to fit inside the universe of your reading experience, and you do so by telling me over and over again that I’m wrong.

    Your framing of your discussion around the notion that the experience of one reader is wrong, is… wrong. That’s never true. If any reader comes out of a reading experience believing something, it’s true and the truth of that experience exists exactly at the same time as your experience exists. Meaningful discussion doesn’t come from attacking people’s experiences.

    You want to test that experience based on your reading experience? Great, that’s wonderful. Don’t frame that desire in an argument that’s built upon the assumption of right and wrong, or having read this or that specific book. So, yes, you’re trying to shut down the discussion that could actually lead to a change of mind and heart by framing it in the “I am right and you are wrong” dialectic, built upon the odious fulcrum of a “credentials” argument, where you seek out limits.

    There’s another way to do this same debate.

    I am not averse to changing my mind or my opinion or reading more books. I am averse to being talked to under the assumption that my knowledge is less limited than yours. You are just as limited as I in your knowledge. Your experience does not devalue mine. The way you’re approaching the discussion is a method that presumes limits of knowledge are the point. That’s the book-off, which I’m trying to avoid, because it presumes that the person who can pull the most examples out of a hat on the fly has read wider and has a deeper understanding of the reading experience and is therefore the winner. That’s not true, Nick.

    A random sampling of authors is not what’s happening here, and I’m happy to engage in a discussion of what I’m trying to talk about. The trend comes down from the minimalist movement to shove into subtext the majority of the story.

    This isn’t bad, obviously. It’s just a technique. But the subtext technique has gone too far. The hyperreal moment of self-awareness – James Joyce called it an “epiphany” – is everywhere. It happens in and out of genre. However, that moment rings false when the moment of hyperreal awareness is framed around a life experience wildly different from what is my experience of life, and how I view the world. The chain of minimalist authors stemming from that extended the push into the subtext, even as the world around us became wildly more complex. The epiphany rising out of the subtext presumes that everyone experiences the subtext the same way. When faced with known worlds, that subtext becomes a murky mess of confusion, and loses readers that do not share the life experience that feeds the subtext. However, when you take the situation out of the mundane, and no one has that life experience, the subtext becomes the place where I learn about different life experiences.

    It’s not just hoo-rah zombies, and I don’t give a shit about attaboys or blog hits. The point is the experience of reading speculative fiction achieves a universality that unhinges me, as a reader, from my comfort zone and the presumptions of my life experiences.

    Literary fiction – realistic, literary fiction – exemplified by Amy Hempel does not achieve that. Without prior knowledge and expectations of this or that cultural experience, the subtext is lost.

    Imagine someone with no knowledge of abortion reading “Hills Like White Elephants”. Imagine “A Day’s Wait” where you don’t actually understand the difference between Celsius and Farhenheit. Even explained to you, the stories lose their power.

    In an increasingly diverse world, with diverse experiences, literary fiction reflects back under the assumption that the subtext and the epiphanic-like moments ought to be apparent. Within the context of a realistic world, all too often they are not, because the life experiences have branched far and wide, and no longer is there only one or two or three ways of dealing with life’s crisis moments.

  29. says

    Wow, there is certainly something to be said of people engaged in fierce discussion who have not yet resorted to using “teh interwebspeak”. It’s like watching a demolition derby featuring Duesenbergs and Studs Bearcats. Sublime in its elegance and destruction. The grammar! The turn of phrase. Hell, even the spelling is great!

    It’s like ballet, with switchblades!

  30. jeff vandermeer says

    Wot the hell happened between when I went to bed last night and now? LOL! Well, JM, I you seem to be speaking volumes.

    Honestly? I can co-edit anthos about subgenres that both codify and subvert those genres. I don’t have any problem treating them as interesting analytical puzzles that one part of my brain enjoys putting together and the writer part says “not for me.” Truly, this isn’t a problem for me. Besides, it seems to me that we’re talking about two different things–I’m talking about something thematic when talking about literary movements, and something organic. I’m not talking about crude associations of texts by a sales metric in Amazon. Those two things are not the same.

    I am both trying to understand you and trying to convince you. I’m trying to convince you because I think your point of view is actually antithetical to carving out a space for your own work for readers. At least, if Last Dragon is any indication. I kinda feel as if someone I thought was more like Cisco or Ligotti started talking as if his aesthetic was more like Robert Jordan. That may just require an adjustment on my part.
    I guess also I was trying to get across that I am not exactly a naive stargazer here–I know the brutal innards of the publishing industry, and I know how it works in defining things for marketing and PR purposes. But those purposes are completely different from discussions of aesthetics and of theme, etc. And I think when we conflate the two, we get into real trouble, because suddenly we’re trying to use marketing/sales terms to talk about literature, and the art and craft of fiction. And that monkey just won’t fly.

    And I do admit that my original post was just meant to stir things up a bit, and get a discussion going. I’d have to take a more careful look at all of this to come up with something more measured.

    I don’t really have a problem with Nick’s argument, JM. I don’t really see how it’s more or less provocative or personal than my own, with regard to engaging you in this discussion.

    And, again, I would argue that there is no such thing as “literary” fiction in terms of marketing categories. If so, it’s still a very vague thing. As a non-marketing term, as a term to talk about fiction, I find it totally useless. I mean, you’d have better luck finding commonality in so-called “chicklit,” and yet I wouldn’t advocate doing that, either.

    You know, part of the role of the writer, I feel, is to reject generalization wherever possible, and to look at the specific detail. That’s also what distinguishes a good writer from a bad one at the sentence level. And so this is also why I reject this discussion of “literary” and “genre”. You know, if readers want to categorize that way, that’s fine. That’s up to every individual reader. But for a writer to buy into that, without some deeper understanding or some more meaningful way of framing the discussion…strikes me as odd. That’s all. It’s as if you want to abdicate your role as a writer? I mean, as you yourself have said a writer who is a reader often sees all of this in a different way anyway.

    What I want to do as a reader and reviewer, who also writes, is to encounter each book in its particular complexity or simplicity and to experience it as the unique thing that it is–in that no two books, unless you’re into the meta of Borges, and not even then–contain exactly the same words. On that very basic fact you can put a great deal of weight. I’m not saying that certain types of books don’t display a self-awareness about a trope in a particular subgenre, but that talking about books in that sense is the *least interesting way* to talk about them. And when we talk about books in more interesting ways–say, even something simple like the commonality of theme between a book by Cormac McCarthy and a book by Connie Willis–we begin to create different kinds of connections between books, and more meaningful connections between books. If we “talk” in this way in blog entries or articles or essays, then we do in fact influence the minds of readers, which, just like the minds of writers, tend to be in flux on these issues.

    Yes, I will buy a book based on an Amazon recommendation after I’ve bought another book. But do I want to accept that paradigm as some kind of dialogue? Um….no.

    At base, the commercial conceit–the impetus for why we buy a book or how we sort books on the shelf in a bookstore–represents a kind of tyranny of thought repression. It’s telling us how we should think about these books, even though the energy behind such decisions is not so much about the individual book itself but in reducing books to a kind of Cliff’s note/movie pitch version of themselves. So this too is why I think we do damage when we buy into these kinds of systems. And why it’s important not to mix marketing/PR terminology and context with our discussions.

    Anyway, it’s my birthday now and I’m allowed to ramble on my birthday, and even ramble in ways that may not address your central argument, but I’m not allowed to ramble *that* long because I don’t really want to spend my birthday on this topic. LOL! But thanks very much JM for being such a good sport. I don’t see this as the kind of argument where someone comes off looking bad for having it, so I hope you don’t feel like you’re getting beaten up or anything.

    And thanks for the happy birthday on the other thread!

  31. says

    The difference between Nick’s argument and yours is the fulcrum.

    Nick is pushing. You are pulling. And, I learn more from you than from Nick, and I think other people learn more, too. The refutation game is quite different from the searching for connections game.

    And, my problem with it is that there are a lot of people who fear engaging in intellectual debate because of the refutation game.

    There is no way to respond to the refutation game without coming across as back on your heels a little bit.

    I don’t disagree with Nick’s point – that’s his experience, after all. I disagree with his method of expression.

    It is a very common way of engaging in debate, though, so I can also see why many don’t have a problem with it.

    I’m bowing out and getting back to work, folks. It’s been fun.

    I love you all.

  32. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Nick, you’ve been a very, very bad bulldog!! Heel!

    JM–erm, okay. I thought we were just getting started.

  33. David Kearney says

    JM may (or may not) be off the mark in terms of his comments re. lit fiction vs. genre fiction, but NM’s approach to the discussion frustrates the debate. Rather than focus on his own alternate take, NM niggles at the logic of JM’s argument and then imagines for us what JM’s agenda is (he just wants everyone to say how clever he is, etc.)–something NM simply can’t know.

    We’ve seen NM do this over and over. To what purpose?

  34. Stu says

    Only on the Internet could some bringing up facts and making an argument for his position be considered trying to shut down the debate. The only way that NM was “shutting down” debate, was by systematically dismantling your arguments as they went along, JM. I’m sorry he didn’t just stop and agree with you, man, but his arguments are much more persuasive. He’s not claiming credentials. At no point did he say, “I know more about this than you.” He just went ahead and demonstrated he knew more about it than you.

  35. says

    Stu, no one can know your reading experience better than you.

    The way to discuss experiences is to search for connections and common ground.

    Refutation works very well in philosophy and science, and the quest for hard knowledge. In soft knowledge, like reader experience, it is a chainsaw where the issue at hand calls for glue.

    Try Nick’s approach on your significant other the next time they talk about what they thought about what they’ve been reading.

  36. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Yeah, but, JM–I’ve responded to your comments and you’ve largely lately sidestepped the points I’m bringing up. I also think you can ignore Nick if you like and still have a discussion. I don’t quite know why this is an issue. I mean, Nick isn’t getting in your physical space. For example.

    When you talk about searching for connections, JM, I don’t actually see you doing that. I see you holding firm to one single solitary position. I don’t see you letting anything in.

    I’m a little baffled.

    Hal’s post, I believe, is here: http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/2009/07/on-mimetic-and-maieutic-fiction.html and in it he notes:

    Literary vs Genre: All fiction is written. All fiction is in a genre. The terms have been appropriated to the historical and territorial discourse of mutual abjection, but abjection is, by definition, a horrified revulsion at that which is recognised as having been (or still being in some respect) a part of oneself. Neither “literary” nor “genre” fiction can ever truly, wholly, exclusively be that which they are derided as or that which they pride themselves as being. On examination of each we will invariably find the features that are the focus of abjection, rendering any attempt to treat these as genres nonsensical. “Literary” fiction will contain the “generic”. “Genre” fiction will contain the “literary”. Otherwise, we would not be identifying them as such.

    Jeff

  37. says

    I will let things in, but I need to think about them some more to avoid hasty posting.

    I want to read all the stuff Hal links to, and I don’t have time for that right now.

    I actually do see what you’re saying and I’m going to respond in depth, soon.

  38. Jeff VanderMeer says

    On the other hand, don’t let me goad you into responding!!

    And it is my birthday, so I might not visit back here for awhile.

    Jeff

  39. says

    Still haven’t finished all the links at Hal’s space – and I’m at work, and need to get back to it, so not until tonight!

    Re: Jeff

    “I don’t think it is based on anything real–just on some shit some other writer fed you and you spieled it out again. And I also think it is cynical, and it buys in to the status quo, and in some fundamental way you are saying most readers are stupid, and I don’t believe that.”

    I was addressing this above, but I’ll try again. The way these labels come about is not based on writers, but on readers. It’s based on the experience that people take away from books, and where those experiences find commonality across other books. As a writer, I have to be aware of what tools lead to those experiences, and study how different writers created that experience for readers. I also have to question how effective the different uses of those tools will be when I look to not just the audience of today, but the audiences to come.

    By wrapping a gauzy, flimsy rope around some group of things, and calling it a “genre”, I am not engaged in a cynical act, or calling my readers stupid. I’m searching for tools.

    By building a mental concept around my own experiences of reading a group of books and rooting out what does and does not work in them, to me, I am not diminishing the experience of people to whom the words work.

    “You know, part of the role of the writer, I feel, is to reject generalization wherever possible, and to look at the specific detail. That’s also what distinguishes a good writer from a bad one at the sentence level. And so this is also why I reject this discussion of “literary” and “genre”. You know, if readers want to categorize that way, that’s fine. ”

    I disagree that we must reject generalizations. I think we create generalizations built around the specific details we choose. From the specific details we select, the larger picture emerges. Talking about books by saying just “literary fiction does this…” is not useful. But, that’s why I talked about a specific example. I don’t think it’s unfair, as I stated above, to choose leading luminaries as a good examplar. Others disagree, and that’s fine.

    “At base, the commercial conceit–the impetus for why we buy a book or how we sort books on the shelf in a bookstore–represents a kind of tyranny of thought repression. It’s telling us how we should think about these books, even though the energy behind such decisions is not so much about the individual book itself but in reducing books to a kind of Cliff’s note/movie pitch version of themselves.”

    I almost buy this. Almost. Inside the evil marketing category of genre, the quest is to help readers replicate an experience they enjoy. Sorting books by their effect isn’t an evil, tyrranical thing. It’s a useful and helpful thing. It’s like how book covers really ought to demonstrate to the potential reader what the content of the book contains. It is, I admit, impossible to do that without providing some frame of expectations about which the experience becomes constructed. However, that’s a useful tool for us to play with reader expectations, and upend experiences in new and exciting ways. It isn’t about tyrrany as much as it is about a false sense of security that we can subsequently adjust. Thus, it is useful for us to permit the continued existance of this imaginary contruct of “genre”, as artists.

    I actually need to go finish my work for the day, and I have, still, much reading to do to continue discussion on the subject at hand, through all of Hal’s links.

    Maybe I bow out of discussion with Nick, but I continue on tonight…

    You’re right, we’re just getting started.

  40. says

    And…

    I also want to add, I buy this:

    “I’m not saying that certain types of books don’t display a self-awareness about a trope in a particular subgenre, but that talking about books in that sense is the *least interesting way* to talk about them”

    Yes. I buy that. I’ll deal with that and adjust.

  41. Emily Leverett says

    This is an interesting discussion! As a book consumer, I like and find useful and pragmatic the idea of “genre.” I wander into the bookstore looking for a book I want to read. If I’ve got no idea or plan, I’ll wander around the “sci-fi/fantasy” section. I won’t, as a rule, stop at the tables at the front of the store.

    On the other hand, as a reader and someone who cares about stuff like this, I agree that genre classifications are, at best, challenging. And the quote above about “Literary vs Genre” is spot on.

    That being said, I disagree with JM in that 1) when one experiences grief, especially immediately, it is not a subtextual experience (my own personal experience suggests otherwise) and 2). that “literary fiction” is “joyless.”

    I’ve read a lot of “literary” fiction (and now I’ll stop using the scare quotes). Some of it, but by no means all, particularly the more modern (large and small “M”) does strike me as nihilistic and joyless. These are things I don’t particularly enjoy. But the conclusion that this is universal or near universal seems to ignore centuries of work (literary work) that is full of joy.

    Not to turn this in to a “credentials” debate, and I’m really really really not pulling the “I’ve read more” card, because I’m 99% sure I haven’t read more than the posters here, but I just don’t buy that particular framing of the genre. And I also don’t buy that somehow the supernatural is more universal. I think it is a matter, perhaps, of skill and taste. A well written piece will move me more than a poorly written one. But, of course, a poorly written one might move me more than a style or genre or topic that I simply do not like. There’s stuff I’ve read that I can see is “well written” that isn’t at all to my taste. This, of course, raises the specter of “what makes something good,” which is, perhaps, more problematic than genre debates.

  42. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Emily–cool, and will respond in a moment. But first, JM’s comment, ’cause apparently I wanna spend my birthday doing this…

    Me from the past: “I don’t think it is based on anything real–just on some shit some other writer fed you and you spieled it out again. And I also think it is cynical, and it buys in to the status quo, and in some fundamental way you are saying most readers are stupid, and I don’t believe that.”

    JM: I was addressing this above, but I’ll try again. The way these labels come about is not based on writers, but on readers. It’s based on the experience that people take away from books, and where those experiences find commonality across other books. As a writer, I have to be aware of what tools lead to those experiences, and study how different writers created that experience for readers. I also have to question how effective the different uses of those tools will be when I look to not just the audience of today, but the audiences to come.

    Me: You can’t really predict anything about audiences to come. We may all look like chocolate tortoises to them or ladles made of ham. You may well have addressed it above and I just lost the thread. Everybody comes away with a slightly different experience of a book. Tools lead to effects, not experiences.

    JM: By wrapping a gauzy, flimsy rope around some group of things, and calling it a “genre”, I am not engaged in a cynical act, or calling my readers stupid. I’m searching for tools.

    Me: I’ll buy that. But it seems like, then, your definition of “tool” is different than mine, because I wouldn’t actually call something at that kind of macro level a “tool”. I might call it an effect caused by tools. But, then, I’d also say I’m only interested in what you call “tools” so I can subvert them–turn them into ham ladles and lobster phones.

    JM: By building a mental concept around my own experiences of reading a group of books and rooting out what does and does not work in them, to me, I am not diminishing the experience of people to whom the words work.

    Me: You’re simply trying to determine what works for you as a writer through the reading experience.

    Me from the past: “You know, part of the role of the writer, I feel, is to reject generalization wherever possible, and to look at the specific detail. That’s also what distinguishes a good writer from a bad one at the sentence level. And so this is also why I reject this discussion of “literary” and “genre”. You know, if readers want to categorize that way, that’s fine. ”

    JM: I disagree that we must reject generalizations. I think we create generalizations built around the specific details we choose. From the specific details we select, the larger picture emerges.

    Me from the future: Maybe we have a different definition of generalization. I think specific details lead to larger specific “truths” or larger specific details. No word is the same as any other word. No person is the same as any other person. No eye is exactly like any other eye. No elbow. No knuckle. No kitchen table. If only due to the context in which they’re placed. Generalization creeps in because we can’t avoid it, but in the best fiction we fight it off for as long as we can.

    JM: Talking about books by saying just “literary fiction does this…” is not useful. But, that’s why I talked about a specific example. I don’t think it’s unfair, as I stated above, to choose leading luminaries as a good examplar. Others disagree, and that’s fine.

    Me from a parallel universe: I don’t think the specific example can be used to make a generalization about realistic fiction, however. It can only be used to make a generalization about the book in question. Not even necessarily the author. I mean, it happens all the time, but it’s not the ideal?

    Me from the radical past: “At base, the commercial conceit–the impetus for why we buy a book or how we sort books on the shelf in a bookstore–represents a kind of tyranny of thought repression. It’s telling us how we should think about these books, even though the energy behind such decisions is not so much about the individual book itself but in reducing books to a kind of Cliff’s note/movie pitch version of themselves.”

    JM: I almost buy this. Almost. Inside the evil marketing category of genre, the quest is to help readers replicate an experience they enjoy. Sorting books by their effect isn’t an evil, tyrranical thing. It’s a useful and helpful thing. It’s like how book covers really ought to demonstrate to the potential reader what the content of the book contains. It is, I admit, impossible to do that without providing some frame of expectations about which the experience becomes constructed. However, that’s a useful tool for us to play with reader expectations, and upend experiences in new and exciting ways. It isn’t about tyrrany as much as it is about a false sense of security that we can subsequently adjust. Thus, it is useful for us to permit the continued existance of this imaginary contruct of “genre”, as artists.

    Me now, reminscing about the past: One of my best reading experiences was buying a little book with a white cover in Left Bank Books in Seattle. It had been misplaced in the magazine section. It had no title. It had no author name. It had no information about what press had published it. It existed totally by and of itself. I could come to no conclusions about it contextually except through the first word, and then the second, and then the third–the first sentence, the second sentence, the third sentence. And so on. It was a very good book about thought crime. If it had come to me in a particular section of the bookstore with all of the accoutrements of context, would I have liked it as much? Would I have given it a chance?…Now, we cannot be context-less in this way or the world would be a confusion of white blank covers and we would never have any idea of whether we were about to be satisfied or frustrated (or would we be confused? wouldn’t it be like having endless unexpected adventures, some good, some bad?)…and there is no good reason not to have divisions in a bookstore. We think we know what we like, after all. But once we take the book out of the context of that sales point, I would still argue that it would be best if the book molted its specific skin and became a blank white cover with no title and no author…I’m being a little silly here, but I find genre less useful than you, especially the divisions in bookstores, because I often find my favorite fantasy hidden in the general fiction section, among other delightful perversities of mimickry.

  43. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Emily–I’m interjecting below…

    Emily: This is an interesting discussion! As a book consumer, I like and find useful and pragmatic the idea of “genre.” I wander into the bookstore looking for a book I want to read. If I’ve got no idea or plan, I’ll wander around the “sci-fi/fantasy” section. I won’t, as a rule, stop at the tables at the front of the store.

    Me thinking back to the last time I was in a bookstore: I tend to follow this pattern, in part because I already get so many books of a genre nature for review…(1) thorough investigation of the trade paper and hardcover new book tables, (2) followed by the new mysteries section, (3) followed by totally perverse quest to see if my Predator book is still offered in the SF/F mass markets, (4) followed by skimming through graphic novels and manga, (5) followed by new offerings in history, (6) followed by quick scan of the SF/fantasy section, (7) followed by the discounted books section, (8) followed by travel books, (9) and ending up in magazines.

    Emily: On the other hand, as a reader and someone who cares about stuff like this, I agree that genre classifications are, at best, challenging. And the quote above about “Literary vs Genre” is spot on. That being said, I disagree with JM in that 1) when one experiences grief, especially immediately, it is not a subtextual experience (my own personal experience suggests otherwise) and 2). that “literary fiction” is “joyless.”

    Me: Re experiences about grief, I agree too. I also think we don’t share our grief one hundred percent with others, thus it is hard to say there is evidence that we all experience grief in the same way. For me, for example, I often close up about a current trauma, and it is only dislodged into grief and mourning when some other trauma comes along. I find there’s a definite subtext, and echo, because of this, especially as I know I am not mourning something in the present, but a ghost. I also don’t think our personalities and our minds are all that set–I think they float over the ocean of our subconscious thoughts and change daily depending on diet and other stimulu. Re joyless–I really have trouble with that because I find plenty of joy on both sides of the aisle. The Elegance of the Hedgehog novel I’m reading now seems tinged with sad, but there’s tons of joy in it.

    Emily: I’ve read a lot of “literary” fiction (and now I’ll stop using the scare quotes). Some of it, but by no means all, particularly the more modern (large and small “M”) does strike me as nihilistic and joyless. These are things I don’t particularly enjoy. But the conclusion that this is universal or near universal seems to ignore centuries of work (literary work) that is full of joy.

    Me: Yep, me too. And I’d also say that in the best “literary” works–and the best “genre” works–that joy is also circumscribed by sadness, which simply means the fiction is not monotone. Joy without pain is as boring as endless tragedy.

    Emily: Not to turn this in to a “credentials” debate, and I’m really really really not pulling the “I’ve read more” card, because I’m 99% sure I haven’t read more than the posters here, but I just don’t buy that particular framing of the genre. And I also don’t buy that somehow the supernatural is more universal. I think it is a matter, perhaps, of skill and taste. A well written piece will move me more than a poorly written one. But, of course, a poorly written one might move me more than a style or genre or topic that I simply do not like. There’s stuff I’ve read that I can see is “well written” that isn’t at all to my taste. This, of course, raises the specter of “what makes something good,” which is, perhaps, more problematic than genre debates.

    Me: This is my argument about the relevance of pitting genre against literary. Or even trying to say that because a writer uses fantastical elements that that writer automatically has more in common with other writers who use fantasy elements. And vice versa. Brian Evenson is always, to me, going to have a world view that is more usefully compared to, just to give a rough hypothetical, Thomas Ligotti than to Rick Moody. (I am flagging a bit, so can’t come up with the best example, but…) Sometimes the foolishness of this opposition becomes apparent in the person of a single writer that others see as a house divided, even though the writer in question doesn’t feel that way. Is Jonathan Lethem a different kind of writer, exploring different themes, when he doesn’t include a fantastical element in his work? Not really.

  44. says

    Emily, you are not engaged in a credentials argument at all. You’re on topic, and you’re raising good points about my original post.

    My concern with litfic comes with how you responded to grief. In no way do I wish to diminish your real experience at all! Your experience is true as both a person and a reader, and I am not challenging that in the slightest.

    You say that your experience of grief was a subtextual one. Not everyone experiences grief that way.

    Now, when you construct a story around the unspoken understanding with your reader that grief is experienced in a primarily subtextual way, you create a fictive dream that reflects that reality. When someone encounters the story whose life experience with grief is different, they aren’t speaking with the same subtext, and do not engage the same way. I view the world quite differently than

    When you take that same idea of dealing with grief, and make it strange such that no one could have dealt with that precise dilemma, in my reading experience, I learn more about the characters involved because I am comparing their actions to what I percieve that I would do.

    Now, I think the real problem I’m facing, after reading Jeff’s comments and more of Hal’s, is that I’m using a term that is, though somewhat accurate in its way based on my conception of what a genre looks like, causing all sorts of trouble.

    I actually like that term “studied” better than “literary”.

    What I’m talking about is the prose about an examined life. And, my point, in my original post, is that people do not all lead examined lives, and do not all share the life experiences reflected in prose that celebrates or operates upon the assumption of an examined life.

    Even this isn’t useful, because my initial post about the term “literary” operates under my experience of the term, which is not a universal, in the same way that my experience of “studied” is not universal.

    Hal does a fantastic job dissecting deeper into the structures of this current debate.

    But what can we do that is reasonable when it comes to talk about books?

    Am I limited, then, in only comparing two authors directly? How can I talk about the book or writer in relation to the larger field without resorting to the non-universally recognizable terms like Maeiutics?

    If there’s one thing the term “literary” is useful for, it’s for being recognizable to a lot of people.

  45. says

    Jeff, Emily

    One thing both of you have mentioned is the mixture of pleasure and pain in the best of prose.

    I do not disagree with you on this point. In fact, I make an error in statement when I made my original post, because I was responding primarily to one half of that equation while both are present, in different portions.

    I just noticed one side, as a reader, because of the particular texts I was responding to of late reading, and because I’m actually quite happy at the moment.

    That mistake leads me to question whether people ever know what actually makes them happy. The examined life, one I try to lead, is constantly trying to find that answer, and never quite making it, as an intellectual. As an experientalist, however, I can find things that create in me a state of happiness. One cannot truly trick oneself into happiness or sadness. One can experience happiness. And that, I think, may be the root of what bothers me. The characters I encountered were being tricked by the writer into emotions, not through actions, but through judicious application of introspective events. That craft technique stemmed from the application of popular craft tools.

    Introspection implies a lack. That lack is not a universal. It’s not even something I feel most of the time, when I am happy.

  46. Ennis Drake says

    It seems to me — and Nick Mamatas, you stay away from me! You scare me, dude (loved Move Under Ground, though) — that the argument shouldn’t be Literary vs. Genre, but Reading vs. Brainless Media.

    How do we, as writers, engage in a war against teens and early twenty-somethings who are willing to text and read text messages (and Twats, erm, Tweets, and blogs) all day, but act as if you’ve doused them with holy water if you should so much as mention a book not penned by J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer.

    Are any of you paying attention to the short fiction markets? Is it so inconceivable that the major publishing companies are going to follow suit? Yes, we are on the cusp of a Depression, but what’s happening in the market right now began before that, and it has everything to do with a lack of consumers. i.e. Readers.

  47. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I don’t believe it’s that clear-cut. I think a lot of thirty-something and forty-something adults have drunk the twitter Kool-Aid, and it’s different among the teens and twenty-somethings. I know that most of my daughter’s friends like to read, and read difficult stuff. And that in some ways they’re reacting against all of this white noise.

  48. says

    I think one of the interested tangents this could travel down is the distinction between Jeff and JM on the nature of genre and shelving. JM seems to be proposing a theory of grouping that is created by the reader; books that share themes, tropes, and other similarities are grouped together in a genre. Books are shelved in that genre not because the bookstores want to control what people are reading, but because it’s the most convenient way for readers to find books.

    Jeff, on the other hand, sees the structure of genre as a limit on creativity. The context in which you buy a book, or how you shelve it at home, or even where you read it (I know I’ll never be able to give Gatsby a fair shake after having it shoved down my throat before I was ready to really appreciate it) can be as defining for the reading experience as the content of the book.

    So, which is it? Is genre a structure of control perpetrated upon readers, or a useful creation of readers themselves that can be used to locate new yet similar work? Is it state controlled radio, or just Pandora.com?

    Since it’s probably both, how do we come to terms with that? Can genre and “kind” be reclaimed by readers from consumer capitalism?

    If genre is a tool for authors, perhaps from a reader’s perspective genre is just what the web of influence looks like. It’s natural then for the structures that control the distribution of media to use and manipulate those groupings for more profit.

  49. Jeff VanderMeer says

    One of the biggest problems with what we call “genre” is that it has been relegated to second-class citizenship by the demands of marketing–of it being a separate section. That’s why a lot of the interesting stuff has fled to the general fiction section.

    I see the structure of genre as a limit on me as a reader, not just as a writer. It’s one reason why I have to be very careful re the covers of my books, because the true audience for my fiction is part the readers who go to the genre section and part the readers who go to the general fiction section. One reason City of Saints did so well is that the protocols of its cover didn’t scream fantasy or realism. So it got its shot on the new books table for non-genre readers, and through Amazon, and then genre readers found it in the genre section.

    But note–when I use these terms here, I am using them in the context of a discussion of book marketing, not a discussion of art or craft. There’s a reason for that. It’s also why I find a book like The Rhetorics of Fantasy utterly useless because it more or less buys into the whole idea of ghetto-izing fantasy as something separate from general fiction–in a sense a book like that, to go off on a tangent, is its own fantasy: a closed vessel in which there’s no cross-pollination, it’s simply defining fantasy by its least interesting attributes; portal here, no portal here, blah blah blah. It’s not the mechanism of the fantasy element that I find exciting–too often the fantasy element in a weak writer’s repertoire is just the get-out-of-jail-free element anyway, all too common even among published authors–it’s the view of the world behind it, and way in which the writer uses themes and characters and language. Similarly, “genre” closed off from the rest of fiction is just a wallow in a stagnant pond. We need to stimulate dialog about books that recognizes there are similarities and riffs between “fantasy” and “non-fantasy” that are much more interesting and alive and relevant than simply checking off “wizard, yes–fantasy!”

    Eh. Tired. Turning into a rant.

  50. says

    Re: Matthew Dyer

    For my money, it’s both, and I think you’ve nailed it. The more I think about it, the more I think what I said this morning, and you mention, is what’s preyed upon by what Jeff mentions, and becomes some kind of cycle. And, I will not speculate on an answer to your questions about what’s next.

  51. Hal Duncan says

    As Jeff points out, I’m not big on the “literary fiction” label. Reflective realism, yes. Maieutic fiction, yes. But “literary”? Meh. Part of what I dislike about is that loaded into that term seems to me to be an acceptance of the awards and academic literary journals (and audience demographic? or *percieved* audience demographic?) as a mechanism of privileging by identifying this or that fiction as “literary” It’s not oxymoronic “fictional fiction”. It’s not actually specifying media — i.e. “literary fiction” versus “cinematic fiction” or “theatrical fiction”. It’s used in contradistinction to “genre” and “popular” / “general” (though with overlap with the latter) to say that this is “more of a work of literature” than that. It’s “literary literature.”

    Compare “more of a man than you’ll ever be”. Or simply “manly man” or “masculine man”. That’s what the term “literary fiction” asserts to me. Literary fiction is to other types of fiction as a masculine man is to other types of man.

    If “literary” is to “fiction” as “masculine” is to “man”, what we’re dealing with in trying to pin it down is, to coin an ugly-ass phrase, literanormativity. Like heteronormativity, but for books. Looking at it in those terms, we can forget treating this as a genre or even as a selection of works. It’s not a matter of whether you’re a man or not, heteronormativity, but of how much of a man you are in terms of conformity with a set of standards with all sorts of loopholes, standards that are constantly changing and dependent on local culture.

    Like, even with cultures with strong imperatives against men showing emotions, it’s OK to be sentimental if you’re all drunk. Or it’s OK — a basic mechanism of homosocial bonding, in fact, and more common the more macho the social environment — to goose your mate as a “wind up”, play-flirt in that weird way jocks do, as long as you both say, “Fag!” afterward and punch each other on the arm. (Is Magic Realism a similar… homosocial bonding mechanism whereby fiction can flick a towel at a naked butt in the locker room, flirt with the strange (the queer) but never be seen as transgressing the bounds of literanormativity, always making it clear that, yeah, we’re gruffty-toughty “literary” literature?)

    Anyway, coming at it from this angle, I think the normativity at stake here actually invites different approaches:

    You can say, “OK, here’s this aspect of masculinity that’s a crock of shit. Macho wank.” This seems to me to be JM’s approach in his initial entry, the thrust of his later justification vis-a-vis Hempel’s awards and influence, that she is a good benchmark of what literary fiction is in the same way any “Manliest Man of the Year” winner is a good marker of what a masculine man is. That this is an aspect of what “literary” means in the culture. Like “masculine” being tied to a recasting of mean-assed belligerence as red-blooded vigour, JM’s pointing to how “literary” is tied to a recasting of maieutic reflectiveness as mimetic relevance. Which is to say, how maieutic reflectiveness is literonormative.

    You can say, “Feh, that’s only one masculine man. There’s a fuckload of different types of men all classed as ‘masculine’.” This is Nick’s stance, as I read it. Hempel’s a drop in the ocean. That maieutic reflectiveness is no more literanormative than a pottery hobby would be heteronormative because a few firemen like making clay ashtrays in between being all masculine. If it’s not the norm and I can give you counter-examples to prove it, projecting this quality onto “literary” is actually prejudice, like saying masculinity involves racism because one red-neck you met was in the KKK.

    You can say, “Bollocks to it all. Masculinity just means being a man. So whatever a man might be, that’s masculine by definition.” This is largely where I’m coming from, and where Jeff is too, I think. Far as I’m concerned, “literary” is an essentially empty word. It doesn’t refer to a certain type of fiction, but rather seeks to act upon fiction, to work as a mechanism by which that fiction is delimited by literonormativity. Like saying “This is masculine,” is really about laying down gender roles. You could see the idea of “genre” fiction as the flipside — paraliteranormativity as a sort of homonormativity, the tendency of gay guys to adopt a whole frickin lifestyle based around… I dunno, bad dance music and hair product.

    Being the twisty bastard that I am, I can sort of see the value of both JM’ and Nick’s positions. I have a similar sense of “literary” as signifying a literanormativity that’s bound to reflective realism to the extent that the *more* reflective you are, the more “literary”. As I say, like masculinity. And most of those normativities make me deeply suspicious — litera- or paralitera-, hetero- or homo-. At the same time, recognising the diversity, refusing to accept a narrowing of scope that could well just reinforce the idea that this is what’s normative… well, that seems a pretty fair response. Sorta like saying, no, sorry I know a lot of masculine men that do actually display their fricking emotions.

  52. Hal Duncan says

    But, OK, all of these positions have weak points — including my own. Denying it won’t make it go away. Jeff and I can try to put a bullet in the term “literary” whenever it pops up, but the damned thing just keeps coming back. I foresee a future for Jeff grabbing passing strangers in the street and muttering at them, wild-eyed as the Ancient Mariner, “Literary just means written. Literary just means written.” I meanwhile will probably end up in some jungle, shaven-headed and obese, sucking on tropical fruit, my last words, “The abject. The abject.”

    The weak point in Nick’s argument comes, it seems to me, in treating literary fiction as a genre and assuming that the diversity proves a lack of genre convention. I’m not sure literanormativity works that way. Actually, I think, like heteronormativity, it is a lot to do with examples: “Now there goes a real man!” “He’s a man’s man!” “He’s twice the man you’ll ever be!” “He’s more of a man than the manliest man since Manfred Mann had his manhood enlarged to the size of a man!” Maybe it’s more about what the key examples are used to signify than the range of qualities all “masculine” men actually have. I mean, is “masculinity” actually a coherent set of normative qualities amongst the group of men labelled masculine or is heteronormativity something more sneaky? Like the shifting set of standards created by picking out certain qualities this person or that has, the discourse shaped by that so these qualities are seen as what it is to be “masculine”? Looked at in that way, the spotlighted figures may well be more important than the actual diversity.

    But that said, the weak point in JM’s argument is whether that maieutic reflectiveness is literanormative, whether that’s really a quality being picked out in that way as a key aspect of being literary. I think you could make a case that reflective realism was literanormative in the latter half of the 20th century, and that the maieutic fiction born of it doesn’t have to be the bulk of “literary” fiction if it’s considered the peak. But I’m not sure this literanormativity isn’t fairly splintered now, being revised by the Chabons and Lethems. Is the maieutic approach really dominant, or is it just one of many now?

  53. says

    Hal,

    I think the word you’re skirting about in your response is “hegemony.” I think that lies near the bottom of a lot of the assumptions contained in the responses here, that there’s this sense for many people of some “dominant force” that projects its own value systems onto readers, critics, writers, etc., shaping the terms of discussion. While I’m not really attached to the notion that such a thing is immutable (I frankly believe it couldn’t be), I think it is something worth considering in a discussion like this.

  54. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Hal: Ha!!!! I will smack down terms like sideshow gophers for the rest of my life if necessary.

    Seriously–my brain is toast and it’s my birthday, so responding in the morning.

  55. Hal Duncan says

    Oh, yes, talking of which, I did mean to say:

    HAPPY BURPDAY!

    Hope it was a good one. :D

  56. Jeff VanderMeer says

    It was. And thanks.

    But…carry on everyone. At the moment, I feel like I’m buildin’ a wall o’ words round myself. In specific detail.

  57. Hal Duncan says

    Larry: I’m wary of a term like “hegemony”, loaded as it is — for me, at least — with connotations of that “dominating force” coming from the top-down and being embodied in an actual set of… well… Powers-That-Be. That way lies “literary establishment” and “literary elite” and “the Academy” and War of All Against All: Genre Rebels vs Literary Rulers. A pox on that. What I was aiming at with “literanormativity” was something that’s not structured, not institutionalised but rather, like heteronormativity, sort of roaming at large in the culture. A notion of “literary” as likely to be defined, like “masculinity” by the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, in casual conversation. Because it doesn’t matter if the MotCO doesn’t even read literary fiction. All that matters is he passes on the meaning he assigns “literary” when he talks to Joe Bloggs Down the Street.

  58. says

    I’m wary of it as well to some degree, but that’s because I came to consider it too easy of a catch-all when I was in grad school more than anything else. But what I meant is that those nebulous whatevers (establishment, haute coulture, etc.) that some seem to cling to as if they somehow “dominated” discourse appear to lie lurking somewhere in all this discussion. But then again, I could be mistaken.

  59. says

    One of the most difficult things about genre for me lately is that what I like doesn’t seem to fit into any particular one. It’s not SF/F/H, and it’s not “literary” fiction (sorry for the scare quotes, but I’m not sure what other word to use; as set forth above, that choice seems to carry baggage of its own). The sorts of things that capture me most completely tend to not fit well on any shelves of the bookstore these days.

    Today I picked up a copy of Peter LaSalle’s Tell Borges If You See Him: Tales of Contemporary Somnambulism. In one of the stories in this collection, busboys turn into hovering angels, promises the flap copy. In the same story, a “troubled guy” “is somehow both himself on a hockey scholarship at Harvard in the sixties and himself a few decades later.” The author is compared to Nabokov and Borges, both of whom I would loosely describe as “fabulists,” if I had to come up with a term.

    I also grabbed a copy of Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish by Richard Flanagan. Sounds pretty weird just from the title, doesn’t it? And I just recently finished The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon — what shelf does it belong on? Where do you find Gabriel Marquez’s works of magical realism? Aren’t all of these books considered by the general public to be “literanormative,” to use Hal’s terms?

    Yes, yes, some things are easy. Hempel writes so-called literary fiction. Terry Goodkind writes fantasy. But isn’t trying to divide things into genres by using these examples rather like the five blind men trying to describe the elephant depending on which part of the animal they’d grabbed hold of?

  60. says

    Terry: How is that metaphor (blind men describing an elephant) any different from JM’s assertion that genres are like dunes of sand? It’s one big desert just like it’s one big elephant, but it’s still useful to say “this bit here, that’s a trunk/dune/western.”

    Things have drifted in a very reader focused direction. What role does genre (and it’s existence/non-existence) play in the writing process? Is it context? Influence and inspiration? Formula? Is a genre a description of a conversation between books?

    I think I need to re-examine my own use of the word genre, because I’ve been giving it a “positive” spin for so long since I enjoy works the word is applied to. If I were to try to describe a book like Hal’s Vellum, for example, right after I said it was literary fantasy I’d probably try to come up with some kind of “painting a novel with genre for paint, metaphysics for a brush and classic literature for a canvas” metaphor. I’d end up just stuttering and mumbling, but I’m pretty sure I could get through the genre paint part. Maybe I’m really looking for a different, less loaded, word.

  61. says

    Ah, but Matthew — the blind men don’t say, “This part here is like a (whatever; a snake for the trunk, a rope for the tail, a wall for the side). They say, “An elephant is like (a snake, a rope, a wall).” They define the whole by the part.

    If I stuck to the SF/F/H sections of most bookstores, I would have missed many of the books I now count among my favorites. And I’m always bemused at what doesn’t get shelved in the SF/F/H section that clearly belongs there — and goes on to become a big hit, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or The Historian. Why were these books marketed differently? They were described correctly, certainly, but something about them caught the attention of readers who normally would deny they read fantasy. Nor are these simply inferior books (or at least, so I can say about the one of these three I’ve read, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I happen to believe is actually a superior example of the fantasy genre).

    I suppose this is one of the reasons I like used bookstores. I have found that in the biggest of them (like Powell’s, say, or Book Buyers in Mountain View, California), booksellers have had the savvy to shelve books in multiple sections. “The Art of Murder” by Somoza shows up in both mystery and SF, for instance (and sometimes in fiction as well). The Angel’s Game shows up in mystery and fiction (and should be in SF, but it won’t be.) Atwood’s works sometimes show up in SF and fiction, much as she would hate that. P.K. Dick has been showing up in the fiction section lately, have you noticed?

    So, ultimately, I’m saying you can’t define literary fiction (again, for want of a better term) by using Hempel as an example, any more than you can define fantasy using Terry Goodkind (thank goodness). I’m saying that the genre boundaries have become extremely porous — so much so that they now seem to me to be nothing but marketing categories. I think I’m agreeing mostly with Hal, who says above, “I’m not sure this literanormativity isn’t fairly splintered now, being revised by the Chabons and Lethems.” While everyone else is speaking in such elegant terms here, I’ll be crass: this is like the old commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” “No, you got peanut butter on my chocolate!” Fantasy and SF and horror have so invaded mysteries have so invaded mimetic fiction that many of the best works out there partake of all three (or more?) of what used to be separate genres. As is the case in nearly any endeavor, the most interesting stuff is happening at the edges, and in this case it’s the edges of the genres.

  62. Hal Duncan says

    Terry: It’s utterly a ploy, and the term is all but meaningless, but I’d love to see bookshops bring in an “Indie Fiction” shelf. In music and movies, the label has slipped from signifying means of distribution — independent labels and production companies — to signifying quirky, oddball approaches that might be realist or strange, might be in this genre or that, might mix them up in all sorts of ways. It’s kind of a non-definition in the sense of targeting those with eclectic tastes, but if I were the King of Borders and the Emperor of Barnes & Noble, I’d apply that to books.

    Practically speaking, I think there *is* actually an identifiable demographic of a market for this kind of stuff, a sort of alt-fiction readership. A quick illustration: There’s a Glasgow indie record shop, Fopp, that turned into a UK-wide franchise in the 90s, made their mark selling pretty much only the good stuff. The ethos is simple. They’re aiming at a vaguely 20-40 year-old market, selling current indie music for the usual price and back catalogue classics for a fiver a pop. You want the Arcade Fire or Bishop Allen or anything that’s happening now that’s kinda fucking interesting and isn’t too obscure, you go to Fopp. You want to pick up that classic you haven’t got round to yet — The Stooges, The Sonics, The Ramones, Radio Birdman, The Beach Boys — you go to Fopp.

    Thing is, a good way back, they also started stocking DVDs and books. Same principle. You’re not going to find Bridget Jones’s Diary there, but you can pretty much guarantee they’ll have the current Murikami, Easton Ellis, Gaiman, whatever quirky, smart, not-afraid-to-be-weird book that might appeal to the sort of people who love The Big Lebowksi and The Matrix and Gus Van Sant and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The people who’re passionate about Lost and The Wire but don’t remotely consider themselves SF/F or Crime fans. Granted, it’s Glasgow, but there’s likely to be a stack of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in between that Tim Burton kid’s book and Kafka’s The Trial. And again, all those old classics — lots of them are being put out for three quid as reprints. So, you want Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, 1984, Pale Fire.

    The only real thing these books have in common is that there’ll always be a market of people coming out of school, going through university, or into work, who… you know, just never got round to The Master and Margarita yet, but they’ve heard so much about it, so when they see a copy sitting there for three quid… well… And American Gods might well be right beside it. Or The Book of Sand. Or Michael Chabon. The weakness of Fopp is, of course, they’re not a dedicated bookshop, so they’re mostly going to stock the known names, but they do *get it*. They understand that the same people who listen to Amanda Palmer might well read Neil Gaiman, but that they might also be listening to Philip Glass and reading James Joyce.

    It would be, I think, not too hard to identify and cross-stock the cult classics, the counter-canon of Hunter S. Thomson and Peter Ackroyd, William Burroughs and Katherine Dunn, stick a copy in general fiction or wherever and a copy in indie fiction. Sod it, just go by the ones that are being put out as dirt-cheap reprints for a start. Those cheap Penguin classics could be made to work for the bookshop. Stick them in the indie section and the person that wants Heart of Darkness is standing right beside House of Leaves. Or vice versa. That’s Jeff’s audience and mine. I dare say JM and Nick would fit in there pretty well too. The publishers meanwhile don’t have to swither over whether to put out that mad non-linear cubist fantasy as SF/F (and lose half your readers) or general fiction (and risk losing the other half). Put it in the same indie section as Slaughterhouse-Five and you’re sorted.

    Of course, I say all this with no real knowledge of how bookshops work. It just seems like if you’re going to be saddled with an arbitrary categorisation designed to target a type of book to a type of reader, Indie Fiction would be a pretty good label for a type characterised by eclecticism.

  63. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Hal–I’m with you re this last comment. Also, you see this done in some music chains that sell books, like Virgin megastores, or what have you. They do have sections of just “strange stuff” basically. And it’s because they know that 20-something demographic likes that stuff. If more bookstores had something like what you suggest, then it’d not only be a lot easier to *find* what I like in a bookstore, but it’d be a lot easier to sell that kind of thing to publishers, because they’d be assured of a section to put it in in the bookstore.

    Thanks, Terry, for those comments.

    More on Hal’s earlier stuff after I clear out some work.

  64. says

    About Indie/Alternative Fiction Section:

    Doesn’t that just legitimize the genre label in the store you hate the most, “literary”, and legitimize the marginalization of the group of books in much the same way referring to any social or cultural concept as “Alternative” helps legitimize their marginalization?

    Alternative/Indie music may be a new word for a branch of mainstream, but it is one that really has become just a marketing label, utterly useless to the audience it proposes to support.

    Re Terry

    Your blind men measuring an elephent metaphor presupposes that anyone can see. There is no one who has a complete view of any elephent. We are all blind, and doing the best we can with what we can measure.

  65. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Argggh. Look, you keep wanting to have sections in a bookstore match up to how we talk about books. They’re not the same. Whenever I talk about a bookstore, it’s with the pragmatic reality in mind that it needs to have sections that make sense. And there is no “literary” section in a bookstore anyway–it’s “general fiction”. Usually. Or “Fiction” and “Literature”.

    But regardless–there’s the brain that deals with the labeling for marketing purposes and there’s the brain that thinks about what books really are, in their individual specifics.

    I think this is the major problem in our reaching an understanding–am I right in thinking you believe the marketing/sales terms are accurate in terms of the *art* of fiction, and the way we should be talking about them? ‘Cause I don’t believe that. They’re artificial constructs created to sell books. Period. A lot of genre critics buy in to them, but that doesn’t mean they’re right.

    JeffV

  66. says

    I’m not against the idea. I do question the creation of an artistic label built around literocontrariness instead of literonormative.

    I’d prefer to create a label that doesn’t depend on some supposed other art. I want the label to reflect what is present in the section, not in what is outside the section.

    Also, I can’t but feel like after creating the term and the section, you and Hal will – five or ten years from now – treat it in the same way you’re currently treating the term “literary”, because no term is static or containable. Sci-Fi/Fantasy doesn’t mean the same thing today that it meant in 1990.

  67. says

    And, to be clear, yes I think the term should reflect the art of the section in the same way any name of an object ought to have something to do with what that object fundamentally is. We can’t escape the creation of marketing terms for consumer goods, even if those goods are art. We can be very, very careful in making sure the term we use is not just marketing.

  68. says

    Jeff: “…am I right in thinking you believe the marketing/sales terms are accurate in terms of the *art* of fiction, and the way we should be talking about them?”

    I think JM is saying that these genre terms already exist, before bookstores get to them. Sure, they get manipulated by bookstores to sell more books, but they exist in libraries too, and probably would even if no bookstores existed. That’s the genre JM is talking about.

    I’m not sure I buy that, since the two have co-existed for so long. I’m not sure I buy the counter-argument either though.

    Jeff is concerned that the way the section was created has nothing to do with art, but rather market forces. JM thinks the section exists for readers with or without book store shelving; in fact, book stores shelve the way they do to reflect reader groupings. It seems a bit chicken and egg.

  69. says

    Re Matt

    I’m also trying to meet Jeff somewhere in the middle based on your prior comment that if readers label a genre, it becomes a marketing category, and we have to be very careful not to give marketing a term that can be turned into a force for evil.

  70. says

    The sections in a bookstore are there to sell books. That’s cool–that’s the way it should be. But it shouldn’t necessarily be the way we talk about books. That’s all I’m saying. To that end, I don’t care what the categories are in a bookstore, so long as they sell books. I’m very pro selling books. Once a book is out of the bookstore, there are more interesting ways to talk about it than the categorization that made you buy it in the first place. We have to have categorization in order to find and acquire books, but I guess again my argument boils down to let’s find more interesting ways to discuss them. That’s all.

  71. says

    Some questions that occurred to me during lunch.

    * Is it more useful to talk about naked mole rats in the context of other rodents or of social insects?

    * Is it more important that a capybara is a rodent, or that it is a mammal? In what context is it more interesting to talk about a capybara?

    The answer to the first one, I think, is: both. And when we talk about “genre” just in terms of other “genre” we leave out other interesting and relevant connectivity.

  72. says

    I think the least interesting way to talk about the capybara is the broadest one (mammal/genre), when you’re talking about capybaras.

    But, the most interesting way to talk about rodents is to talk about what details make the capybara a rodent.

    The fact that the method is least interesting as a way of discussing this animal doesn’t make it untrue that features can be used to provide a unifying force that covers a wide base of creatures (gestational periods in wombs, lactation, milk)

    That said, it’s much easier to do that in the physical world where facts are solid and immutable.

    In books, the solid part is dead and inert until the squishy, fleshy part attaches to it for sustenance. The interplay is the part where the book becomes a meaningful thing, and our labels are not labeling the size or shape of books when we talk about them, but about the experience imparted to the reader.

    I like Hal’s metaphor better, of masculinity, because it is a social construct built around an experience.

    Is it more interesting to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger in the context of other Actor/Political Activists or of other Republicans? Either term limits the scope of how you can describe the experience of meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    I think the heart of what you’re suggesting, Jeff, is that if you were to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger, any term you use to label him based on the experience is more about shelving him into a box than letting him be who he is in the world.

    But, I think to operate in a complex world, though it is not interesting, we have to cull things in the distance, and off screen, to limit the framerate of information that’s blasting our brains. It is the least interesting way to describe someone we’re with, but it is a useful way for me to build a mental construct of the far-away figure of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

  73. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I just threw those out there willy nilly because they amused me.

    It’s possible we’re talking about the same thing, but it’s also possible we’re just going to come at things from totally different perspectives. I still maintain I’m not sure your approach is actually in line with what you write, but…

    Jeff

  74. says

    This discussion just ate four years of my life.

    But… interesting. As both a bookstore owner and a writer it seems to pluck quite a few of my strings. I see both the need for, and usefulness of, genre labels, and their artistic annoyance in regards to the sequestering of both story and audience potential. It’s been interesting to see the different approaches and theories laid out here, particularly as I get to see how genre labels play out in very practical terms every day. Indeed, I participate in that play, as they’re my labels (ever cursed for their imperfections). Part of my job, as I see it, is helping customers navigate between the labels. The genres, or sections, codified in each store seem like islands at times, separated by deep water. People fly in to their island of choice, root around, laze on the beach, check out the local scenery… and then fly out. But, really, the water’s not bad, and all the other islands are close by. Swimming is healthy. And there are miraculous things in the water itself. Living things, swimming from island to island, cross-pollinating, growing, breeding… Sometimes you just have to hand people some flippers and a snorkel.

  75. Nick Mamatas says

    I mean, is “masculinity” actually a coherent set of normative qualities amongst the group of men labelled masculine or is heteronormativity something more sneaky?

    Sure, if you wish to be entirely ahistorical about it. That is, a number of western men of more of less the same generation and in the prole-to-petit bourgeoisie know what “masculinity” means. It just happens to be very different than what it meant among the people of my great-grandfather’s generation when they spoke of palikari, and quite a bit different from what the sultan who ruled over him from afar thought and all quite different from what Japanese bushi though three hundred years and four thousand miles away and it’s all likely somewhat different from what a fourteen-year-old with an AK-47, a cellphone, and a mission to shoot up a nearby mess tent thinks masculinity means, etc.

    And if you wish to be entirely ahistorical about “literary fiction”, which is a bundled set of traditions twisted together like a sextuple helix and cross-interfering with one another– psychological realism, social realism, modernism, postmodernism, women’s fiction, etc. — you can end up making declarations as ridiculous as declaring the eight great traditions of Chinese cuisine (and the dozen-plus smaller traditions, plus the international syncretisms of these cuisines) valueless based on the eating of a dumpling. And then you get to whine and whine about how it isn’t fair because the only alternative to a hasty generalization is apparently to have eaten a bite from every meal ever.

    Or, back to SF (and for that matter, masculinity), you can huff and puff as did Poul Anderson in 1969,
    “[Science fiction] remains more interested in the glamour and mystery of existence, the survival and triumph and tragedy of heroes and thinkers, than in the neuroses of some sniveling fagot (sic).”

    Luckily, Anderson’s slur guarantees that he cannot be taken seriously. Being a bit more circumspect apparently works fine, forty years later.

  76. says

    Hal did a good job of explicating where our breakdown occurs Nick, and has already dealt with this problem, and mine.

    I’m not sure who you’re referencing to in your above post. It starts off as if you’re talking to Hal when you say “You”, but then it looks like you shift in the middle to talk to me.

    I think, Nick, that there’s a confusion between fact, experience, and opinion in your posts. You can dislike someone’s opinion – and you very successfully gave us an excellent example of a really shitty opinion. The fact is the words on the page. The experience is when those words come to life as a reader’s eyes touch it. The opinion is the expression of how that book made one feel.

    Poul’s opinion, however shitty it may be for him to say that, doesn’t change his experience, nor does it change the facts on the page.

    You can’t change someone’s experience, or convince them differently. You can’t tell me what my experience was, anymore than I can tell you what your experience was.

    In discussion, if you engage an opinion the same way you engage a fact, you still don’t deal with the real problem that Poul was having: his experience. You can get the man to admit his opinion is messed up, maybe, but will it touch him beyond the surface level of opinion? If all you change is his opinion, and don’t provide a shape for his future experience, you’re not going to create the sort of lasting change that you want to create. You really have to convince him that his experience was messed up.

    You’re still not giving me a shape, Nick. What’s the shape of experience you want to others to have?

  77. says

    Jeff – I think the only thing that makes up for the difficulty of shelving certain books is that I get to be the one that helps people find them. The problem, of course, is that not all bookstores are staffed by book people. I name no names…

  78. says

    Heh. This does actually speak to the idea of specificity of detail that I’d babbled on about upstream. Within the generalization that is a bookstore with (very necessary) broad categories, you’re the one who provides the specificity of detail. Which means you’re involved in subverting or clarifying those categories, in a sense.

  79. says

    Subverting or clarifying… or stubbing my poor fingers and brain.

    But, yes, I’m very conscious of how I label and shelve things, and how imperfect those actions are. I recognize the necessity (far less books would get to far less people, otherwise) and yet it can be frustrating. My writer brain usually just thinks of story. Big S Story, the broadest of the broad categories – this is what we all attempt to do, to make Story. And little s stories, each specific act of Story-making.

    It’s a bit like thinking about the micro-realism versus fantasy discussion above. To me, they’re the same. There is no recreation of reality. Fiction is, well, fiction. It’s all a manipulation, effects created with words. There’s just different words and different effects. And then the subjective experience of those effects. Micro-realism, to me, seems as fantastic as the fantastic – they’re both techniques, word-coded manipulations. Neither, in that sense, seems any more real than the other. Each one is simply different. I think it’s less about whether they’re true to life than it is whether they’re true to their own internal story logic.

    And I find it does, in my store, often come down to that specificity of detail. It’s often not about the genre connections – that’s easy, it’s a label on a shelf. It’s about the specific connections, the connections from book to book. It’s the interesting and winding path of specific books, the way they speak to each other. It’s the path from Agatha Christie, to Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, to An Instance of the Fingerpost, to Umberto Eco, to Salman Rushdie, to Michael Chabon…

    Admittedly, sometimes I send people off with the wrong book. Mea culpa. But sometimes the wrong books end up being the right books, anyway.

  80. Nick Mamatas says

    JM, I wasn’t talking to you. Sorry, you’re not willing to have an intellectually honest conversation on this subject so you do not rate my attention. Just letting you know here; all other commentary from you on this subject will be ignored.

    My comments were for Hal and a discussion of his masculinity metaphor.

  81. says

    Bryan: And now it strikes me as funny (“boy that’s curious” funny) in a presumptuous way that we’ve been talking about bookstores and the classifications of books in bookstores without any actual input until now from what constitute the brains of a bookstore!!!! That’s fascinating stuff in terms of the connectivity. The connections from book to book to book–and it clarifies and says much better what I was trying to get across.

    jeff

  82. says

    Jeff — “Once a book is out of the bookstore, there are more interesting ways to talk about it than the categorization that made you buy it in the first place.” Yes: exactly! We shouldn’t be using different yardsticks to measure the worth of a book depending on what genre it is. A good book is a good book is a good book. Some are good in ways that are different from the ways other books are good. Turow’s Presumed Innocent is good because of the way it captures the legal system as it operates in Chicago, generates suspense, and tells a good story, while Valente’s Palimpsest is good because of the richness of the language, the strangeness of the vision, the originality of the story — but both are good.

    There are some people who will read only good books of a sort like Turow’s, and others who will read only good books of a sort like Valente’s. These people are the reasons why we call Turow’s book a legal thriller and call Valente’s book fantasy (or perhaps, more specifically, New Weird). They are why there are genres and bookstores are sectioned off. I’m sorry for the person who will read one and not the other, dismissing it as belonging to a genre they do not read.

    JM — “Your blind men measuring an elephant metaphor presupposes that anyone can see. There is no one who has a complete view of any elephant. We are all blind, and doing the best we can with what we can measure.” If you’re saying that no one has read everything, I can hardly argue with you. But I do think that there are people who *do* have a vision of the complete elephant, because they’ve sampled a bit of everything. People like — ahem — me. I am probably not as well read as most people commenting here in SF/F/H; in fact, because I’m so free with my affections, I’m probably not really well read in any single genre. But I’ve done more than just grab a leg and call it a tree in *many* genres because I’ve sampled so widely. And I’m surely not unique. I would like to think that there are many people who can recognize a good book when they read it, regardless of the label it bears.

  83. says

    Bryan: “But sometimes the wrong books end up being the right books, anyway.” Yes! Precisely what I was trying to say, in many fewer words.

  84. Hal Duncan says

    JM: Doesn’t that just legitimize the genre label in the store you hate the most, “literary”…

    What has “quirky” to do with “literary”? I mean, am I reading you right? It’s *not* that by gathering the quirky of the present and the quirky of the past, this indie section would be seen as selection by quality — i.e. that “indie” would just be a cipher for “good” (as defined by hipsters) and therefore a cipher for “literary”. (I actually think that’s an issue glossed over in my post, one I’ve mused on before and consider answerable, but which I’ve elided above. But that’s not your point, right?) Rather, this “literacontrary” fiction validates “literanormativity” in its definitional opposition, right?

    OK, the simple(ish) answer is that that’s like saying an LGBT or queer (i.e. explicitly *non*-heteronormative) section legitimises labels of “men’s” or “women’s” fiction where “men’s” and “women’s” are defined in heteronormative terms. This just ain’t so.

    What I mean is, this is to say that queer section would imply that all else must be considered heteronormative by definition; likewise that indie fiction would imply that all else must be considered literanormative by definition. But the existence of a queer section doesn’t map to everything else being labelled “straight fiction”in the bookshop so there’s no formal legitimisation. Is it informal, implicit? No, the assumption is that all that other stuff is simply not *explicitly and deliberately* self-identifying as queer fiction. Queer is an essential non-normativity the negation of which is not normative but simply not essentially normative, dig? The opposite of indie is not essentially indie. (Just as the opposite of fantasy is not essentially fantasy and the opposite of sf is not essentially sf, which is one reason you have books which are hard to place in those terms because they’re strange fiction but not essentially one or other.)

    Further — and crucially — the heteronormativity would have to be coded into the label such that heteronormative was treated as “having the essential nature of one’s gender”. What I mean is, “literary” isn’t comparable to “straight” which openly signifies normativity: straight = non-bent, non-queer. You could probably say that “general” is close to being comparable: general = non-specific, non-individual, non-distinctive, non-irregular, non-quirky, normative. But even there you can see it’s a path of associations to get from general to normative. You’d really need a label like “standard fiction” to have something which really closed off the options, signified normativity: standard = non-quirky, non-indie. But even this is not enough. This open signification of normativity is not how “literary” works.

    Rather “literary” sets up a quality — “having the essential nature of literature”. Hence the parallel in terms of gender is “having the essential nature of one’s gender.” This applies to all literature — everything which just plain does have “the essential nature of literature” because it’s made up of frickin letters. Just as “masculine” applies to all men — all those of the male gender who just plain do have “the essential nature of their gender” because they have XY chromosomes. But this universal application is actively obscured, usurped. Disregarding the intrinic universality, “literary” is applied as a mechanism of judgement, as a way of distinguishing literature. Just like “masculine” is applied as a mechanism of judgement, as a way of distinguishing men. It is applied selectively and quantitively, this work or that being judged more or less literary, just as this man or that is judged more or less masculine. So it surreptitiously reifies the normativity encoded in the entirely unspoken premises that guide its application. Just as “masculinity” surreptitiously reifies the normativity encoded in the entirely unspoken premises that guide its application. It seeks to delimit this unarticulated notion of an essential nature that literature can fail to conform to. Just as “masculinity” seeks to delimit this unarticulated notion of an essential nature that a man can fail to conform to.

    It asserts that conformity to those delimitations is being true to that essence.

    A label that openly signified literanormativity — like “standard fiction” — would not do this. There is, thankfully, no label that does this in terms of heteronormativity. To construct one you’d need to apply “masculine” and “feminine” to fiction. The nearest we get to this is in the labels “men’s” and “women’s” as applied to magazines. Even that is only heteronormative in the sense of asserting that certain types of magazine are essentially for men or women because men and women are essentially interested in different things. Those magazines would actually have to be labelled “masculine” and “feminine” to parallel the sort of quantifying judgement you get in “literary”. That they’re not is, I think, a good thing.

    The creation of LGBT sections in bookstores hasn’t led to that. Having a queer section, a non-heteronormative section doesn’t legitimise heteronormativity in the slightest. It actively engages with it, challenges it. Every LGBT magazine implicitly asserts that the “men’s” magazines and “women’s” magazines are wrong to assume that men and women each have essential natures that can be catered to in this way, that in the act of essentialising they exclude a significant portion of the population who are no less of a man and no less of a woman than the essentialised, delimited “man” or “woman” these racks are targeting. Wind the clock back — what? — twenty years and ask the faggot standing at the “women’s” magazines flicking through Vogue or the dyke standing at the “man’s” magazines flicking through Easyriders if a queer section wouldn’t just legitimise the notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” they’re at odds with. Tell them that you “question the creation of an artistic label” built around heterocontrariness instead of heteronormativity.

    And then duck.

    I know it’s a loaded gun of an analogy because of the political aspects, but if you get what I mean by literanormativity, how “literary” parallels “masculine” in function and form, you should, I think, be able to see that “indie fiction” would no more legitimise this cultural control mechanism than “queer fiction” legitimises heteronormativity. My point in making this parallel is that providing a categorisation for that which is quirky recognises the validity of deviance from any perceived “essential nature”.

    Which can only be a good thing.

  85. Hal Duncan says

    Actually, expanding on that last point (briefly, for a change), I’d go further and say that not having that sort of category is actually a tacit submission to the status quo in which “literary” has emerged out of the discourse of abjection as an execrable transformation of a negative description of what fiction should not be (“literature” should not be “generic”) into a positive prescription of what fiction must be (“literature” must be “literary”). And I use those modalities — should and must — specifically and pointedly, for the qualitative distinction between them.

    Let’s switch analogies. The discourse of abjection has already appropriated the term “genre” in the same way that the discourse of abjection surrounding race has appropriated the term “colour”. All human beings have a colour, as all works of fiction have a genre. The distinguishing out of a whole host of blackish, brownish, yellowish, reddish or whatever coloured people as “coloured” in contradistinction to that which is pinkish but classed as “non-coloured” or “white” is an exact parallel, in terms of mechanism and social purpose, to the distinguishing out of a whole host of romantic, adventurous, mysterious, fantastical or whatever genred works of fiction as “genre” in contradistinction to that which is realist but classed as “non-genre” or “general”. Where “literary” is derived from the medium itself rather than the distinguishing features of genre, it parallels a term derived from the form itself rather than the distinguishing features of colour. It’s parallel, in terms of race, would be “humanly”. Which is to say extolling a work of literature as “literary” is like extolling a human being as “humanly”. Saying that this person was “more humanly” than that one. Introducing this as a substitute for “non-coloured” in the discourse of abjection, as a way to characterise that which is not marked out as “coloured”, not by an absence of colour but by a presence of more humanity.

    Saying that there are “humanly” people and “coloured” people.

    I can’t actually articulate the horror I feel in the knowledge of how willingly we’ve accepted the appropriations and transformations of meaning that give us “literary” and “genre” in their current usage. Honestly, in the field of fiction the abjection is hardly of a comparable import, but the fact that the underlying mechanics of discourse has led to this type of relationship between the two terms, this restructuring of meaning, chills me to the bone.

  86. says

    Hal – very interesting, and I agree. I’m tempted to put up an indie section… yet there will still come the inevitable selection, the valuations. What belongs and what doesn’t? What are the bounds of this quasi-genre? (or full genre?) I have a feeling it would end up being a sort of “Odd Things I Like” section. Which, in fact, might be okay. It could be a soft-shouldered sort of definition, a genre of blurred boundaries. A thief, really, stealing the shinies from this and that old genre (arthritc and slow to react as they are to such clever fingers). The other, non-indie, books would still be available in traditional categories, and I could try and direct people accordingly… Browsers might be confused, though, the poor wee tykes.

    It’s one of the tricks about being a small little store. I would love to cross-shelve books… but I often don’t have one copy of the books I want, let alone two or three. No Murakami! No Lethem! It would be nice to scatter them throughout the store, twins in constant communication… and yet living in different cities, different environments. One would be hobnobbing with Mukherjee while the other would be hanging with ol’ William Morris.

  87. says

    You’re reading me right, Hal.

    And you’re discussion of the relationship between LGBT magazines and their more mainstream fellow magazines is probably closer to what I’m trying to express. The one label of Queer Fiction depends on the existance of a myth that Queer is somehow fundamentally different from Straight enough to merit a separate section. Now, that may work in the case of something so powerfully formative to a person’s identity, but it also alienates people who don’t share that identity – not by cutting them out from reading these books, but by making it a hurdle to cross over into an experience different from the heteronormative.

    Even if you can see the existance of both simultaneously in harmony, there’s something that you and Jeff are trying to stop: using that label “Queer” and turning the least interesting thing you could use to describe a book into the way that readers select it.

    This duality shapes the magazines such that a “straight” magazine is likely going to look at something LGBT and say, “Hey, wait… No, this ain’t for us. Go over there, to those magazines, ‘kay?” And they’re doing it under this false notion that the audience for straight stuff would not like the LGBT stuff. Not true. Now, the LGBT probably often turn around and read the straight stuff, but that path will run, in the majority, one way, removing an important line of discourse from the majority’s experience.

    That’s kind of what I mean when I say aren’t you legitimizing the ghettoization of “quirky” or “alternative” or whatever labeled fiction you use? Isn’t that ghettoization what you and Jeff are trying to avoid to begin with?

    It is a politically loaded metaphor, and I would love it if we could find a better metaphor.

    But, I can’t help but see the term we choose become a meaningless term just like the term literary, or realistic, or fiction when you look too close at it.

    Queer Fiction is an incredibly different name for a section than “Indie” or “Quirky”, because the identity loaded into the word Queer is massively more socially and culturally relevent than “Quirky”, or something like it. And, I also don’t think it’s a good metaphor because too much of the groundbreaking stuff across genres will fall into this new category.

    What I suspect might happen with an unsound name is that so much of the “writerly” stuff will end up in the “Indie” and “Quirky” section that the meaningless of the term “literary” will bleed into the meaninglessness of a vague term for a bookstore section, if not replacing it. Then people will pick up “Gilead” at the store and say, “You know, they don’t shelve it in the XYZ section, but it sure is good enough to hang with Duncan and Mamatas and Lethem, and bears many remarkable qualities that remind me of them.” You can replace XYZ with “Literary” today, or “Quirky” tomorrow, but your just changing a term of meaninglessness.

    I know I say on the one hand the ghettoization will likely flow one way, and on the other the term you choose risks supplanting the term you hate, but I think what that means is the people who do cross over – the minority, coming from their OddFic ghetto – will not only be alienated from other readers, but also lost their central identity. Isn’t that similar to what happened to the musical label “Alternative”?

    You’re not solving the problem you wish to solve, you’re moving it a little, temporarily.

  88. says

    Bryan, don’t you already have my favorite section of a quality bookstore that already does what Hal proposes, if done correctly?

    “Staff Member Recommendations”?

    It’s not a large section, but it’s a fascinating and useful one to locate people who can guide your selection of books.

    Just realizing it from reading your post.

    And, Hal posted while I was typing, so more reading…

  89. says

    Re: Terry

    About elephents:

    Everytime I see a discussion like this one, I am reminded of how different all of our elephents look, despite all our efforts to embrace them, and I wonder if the shape of the elephent is not just a best guess by a large number of people engaged in collective guesswork.

  90. says

    Good stuff, Hal, and agree re “What I mean is, this is to say that queer section would imply that all else must be considered heteronormative by definition; likewise that indie fiction would imply that all else must be considered literanormative by definition. But the existence of a queer section doesn’t map to everything else being labelled “straight fiction”in the bookshop so there’s no formal legitimisation. Is it informal, implicit? No, the assumption is that all that other stuff is simply not *explicitly and deliberately* self-identifying as queer fiction. Queer is an essential non-normativity the negation of which is not normative but simply not essentially normative, dig? The opposite of indie is not essentially indie. (Just as the opposite of fantasy is not essentially fantasy and the opposite of sf is not essentially sf, which is one reason you have books which are hard to place in those terms because they’re strange fiction but not essentially one or other.)”

    But then I think you might both be taking bookstore labeling too seriously–you Hal because JM is making you do so for purposes of discussion, and because JM is holding fast to this idea that there is no difference (if I read you right) between marketing/sales labels and what I can only call “labels of art”.

    I still don’t think you can map a bookstore’s labeling to the most interesting way to discuss individual books, but I am excited about the idea of a category that is less fencelike than SF/Fantasy because it allows in more readers, and it acknowledges the ways in which “fantasy” leaks into the general fiction section anyway, depending on accidents of luck, birth, and publisher.

    Jeff

  91. Hal Duncan says

    Nick: The above posts should probably (hopefully) make it clear where I’m coming from in… accepting the existence of the discourse but kicking against the unthinking use of it. Yep, “a number of western men of more of less the same generation and in the prole-to-petit bourgeoisie know what ‘masculinity’ means”. And exactly the same people know what “literary” means. And there might well be… interesting links between how what’s “known” about both changes according to class. In the prole environment I was brought up in the two were mutually exclusive. In the boho (i.e. petit bourgeois) environment I’m in now not at all. And, yep, just like heteronormativity, the literanormativity I’m taking about is completely different across cultures.

    However, within that “bundled set of traditions twisted together like a sextuple helix and cross-interfering with one another– psychological realism, social realism, modernism, postmodernism, women’s fiction, etc — ” I do think the bundling and twisting and cross-interfering equals a shared cultural context. “Literary” is part of the binding, I’d say. Like, I would expect to see generational differences (and I think you do), but given your “western men of more or less the same generation…” I think those variant modes are fairly comparable to different types of “guy”. Like, you got the fireman, the policeman, the soldier, the boxer, the gang-kid, the aggressive drunk, the salesman, and so on. One “guy” might treat every woman as an angel. Another “guy” might treat every woman as a whore. What’s of interest to me, I guess, is how far there’s a common idea of “guyness” of masculinity within that culture, how far the discourse of masculinity is about the “right” way to “be a man”. I do think within that bundled set of traditions the term the discourse of what’s literary is about the “right” way to “be a work of literature”.

    I mean, translate the Chinese cuisine analogy into haute cuisine. There’s even more variety in what constitutes haute cuisine, in many ways. “Haute” doesn’t actually signify a genre, a particular regional style or mode. It takes from every tradition and mixes them (hence the emergence of fusion), creates its own. It may well fall into very distinct personal styles between chefs, with those chefs maybe even sharing styles to some extent, but there’s no single approach unifying haute cuisine just “careful preparations, elaborate service, critical acclaim, and, most importantly, obsessive attention to detail” (to crib from ye Great Authority that is Wikipedia). Some of those qualities in themselves seem to map quite nicely to “literary”.

    Thing is, you could take that “obsessive attention to detail” in terms of prose, but I think you might well also apply it to mimesis. In terms of the development of Western literature, I’d say “mimesis is now a Big Thing” is not too wild a generalisation. And mimesis of mind? If “obsessive attention to detail” is part of what makes literature “literary” (like being able to fight is part of what makes a man “masculine”), mimesis of mind seems to me the logical recursion of “obsessive attention to the details of obsessive attention to detail” (like being able to fight a *professional boxer* is going to make a man *even more* “masculine”). The point is, this is not to claim that it’s a generic trait of “literary fiction”. That would be like saying being able to fight a pro boxer was a generic trait of masculine men. It’s not about generic traits at all (far as I’m concerned) but about what’s coded into the definition of “literary”.

  92. says

    Re: Jeff

    I think the creation of the label will shape the debate, whether we want it to or not, in much the same way the label of “race” carries cultural and mental baggage. In that sense, I agree that it is the least interesting way to engage in debate, but once created it is also going to shape the debate, even distantly.

    I think Hal isn’t doing that because of me, but because the way to talk about labeling of things is via the labeling of things: what works and what doesn’t. Whether you use “masculine men” to talk about the labeling of fiction, or “queer fiction” to talk about the labeling of lobster phones, the creation of the section does propose a label of some kind, and the question becomes what labels work and what don’t at the desired goal of *not* influencing the art. It’s noble, and I hope it works. I also don’t think it’s possible to construct a label of anything without also distantly framing the debate, even if that’s the least interesting way to approach the art. I don’t think my POV has anything to do with Hal’s point, though, or is influential upon it.

    That’s wht I’m seeing, anyway. Feel free to correct me if I’m off a bit, Hal.

    Feel free to guide Hal away from it.

  93. Nick Mamatas says

    A couple of notes:

    I once helped run a bookstore, Soft Skull Shortwave, that was dedicated to books by independent publishers. Of course, we meant independent publishers of a certain stripe. The internal organs of the Klan didn’t count. Self-published commercial fiction didn’t count. “Indie” wasn’t just metaphorically similar to indie music, but emerged from the same historical root—punk, fanzine, DIY culture. One of the blowups, for example, was whether we should stock No Logo, which seemed to share the aesthetic but which was published by Picador. Ultimately, we ended up not stocking the title.

    Tower Books, back when there was a Tower Books, has a section called Outposts—it was radical literature, conspiracy theories, music books by Creation, Chronicle, etc. Of course, some of the radical literature had been repurposed a bit: I think Buko had a big publisher by then, and Kathy Acker was at least coming out in hardcover original with tie-in CDs (albeit with music by The Mekons). And, of course, the Illuminatus! Trilogy was published by good ol’ all-powerful Dell.

    Formally, both examples of indie were very chaotic—in the broadest strokes one might call it aesthetic or even political expressions antinomian praxis but of course 99% of the people who shopped in those sections ended up voting for the Democrats and worrying if they could afford private schools for their children. There was not much in the way of a real economic “indieness” either—Dell and Feral House are worlds apart, of course, and even at Shortwave Grove and someone’s fanzine made with stolen office supplies were at least one and a half worlds apart.

    The best way to understand these incidences of “indie” (and we can include the newsstands at Tower too, which always had lots of zines) is historically not formally. Historically, a certain segment of the population: generally white, somewhat declassed and alienated, developed some sense of aesthetic exploration or at least an identity as a consumer of the same, and the indie store/Outpost section emerged to market to them. This is still going on. To wit:

    http://sfbay.craigslist.org/sfc/wri/1259934777.html

    The real issue with trying to map marketing categories to artistic genres is a confusion of consumption and production. Both are best understood, I think, historically, not formally. Literary fiction is that which is produced by those whose most important consumption was literary fiction. It’s a tradition of writing. When you have folks like Lethem, whose work not only often appears in literary fiction bookstore section, but whose explicit SF once published by Tor is now published by Harcourt in backlist and has joined his more recent work as literary fiction, it is because his cultural production shows a bit of twin influences: he went to Bennington, did all the lit things, but he also read tons of skiffy and now stories that might have been in F&SF had Motherless Brooklyn flopped are now in The New Yorker.

    Of course, this also works to confuse the market — someone who has read lots of the Beats and lots of horror may end up writing a Lovecraftian Beat road novel that can be marketed in neither the literary or horror marketing position despite some attention from both. Relatively few books are reviewed by the mainstream “indie” Village Voice, the academic pomo indie American Book Review, and the gorey horror movie mag Fangoria, after all.

    It’s actually an easy enough game to write SF or fantasy that can be accepted into a literary magazine or end up on the literary fiction shelves. You just have to have had the personal history with literary fiction to understand and appreciate it.

  94. Nick Mamatas says

    We crossposted a bit, Hal. I think my previous comment addresses some of your points, but to make things a bit less oblique:

    I think “literary” doesn’t bind so much the disparate traditions I listed but is rather an emergent signifier. That is, the extremes of experimental fiction is a sort of literary fiction, and yet is often explicitly counterposed to psychological realism, historically and individually. Mimesis isn’t a big thing not just in random examples of literary fiction, but in whole traditions of the same, most obviously magical realism (which is a mode of realism, after all). What makes both pomo and social realism “literary”? Well, a few things, I think. In order of importance:

    1. consumption by the middle class
    2. the demographic position of the producer (age, gender, education, class, etc.)
    3. the interest or disinterest of critics (note this attempt by the editors of literary magazine n+1 to get Brockmeier to stop messing around with that fantasy junk: http://www.nplusonemag.com/lorentzen-brockmeier)
    4. cover treatment, pricing, format, and marketing strategy
    5. text content

    Content: mimesis, attention to detail, a privileging of the sentence over the plot, an interest in psychological verisimilitude (you know, the “neuroses of a sniveling fagot”!)…that’s all the minor league stuff. In the end, I think we’re talking the stuff that was published on slick paper versus stuff that was published on pulp paper. Thanks to mass culture, though, a whole lotta people have read at least a smidge of everything and you end up with Kelly Link and Aimee Bender as two sides of the same coin. It’s just that one is more likely to go to Wiscon and the other more likely to attend the NYPL Young Lions dinner.

  95. says

    Re experimental fiction being counterposed to psychological realism–to me, at least, experimental fiction often seems to have more of an affinity with fantasy/non-realistic fiction rather than literary fiction. If we have to use the term. There’s often in the playing around with structure and form a kind of meta-fantasy at work. I’m not quite using the right terms, but…

  96. Nick Mamatas says

    Part of why I like experimental fiction is because it often has an affinity to fantasy as well. And yet, experimental fiction is, for the most part, a species of literary fiction on bookshelves, in critical works, according to hiring and tenure committees, etc. Parallel aesthetic evolution (to a certain extent). Ditto magical realism, which too many people declare by way of diminishment: “fantasy by Latin Americans.”

  97. Hal Duncan says

    JM: Doesn’t that… legitimize the marginalization of the group of books in much the same way referring to any social or cultural concept as “Alternative” helps legitimize their marginalization?

    Indie fiction would only segregate these books out in the same way queer fiction segregates out work where the alterity is attached to sexuality and gender identity. Does that legitimise the marginalisation of these works? No, it actually actively creates a space for them. Literally. We can interrogate the size and location of that space: is it a paltry shelf? is it hidden away at the back of the store? is it difficult to access? is it physically marginalised? But something is better than nothing, and the point of having a queer section is that it creates a something. In practice, in actual reality, the queer section in my local Borders is of roughly equal size and ease of access to most other of the sections. It is larger than the Poetry section. The SF/F section, the Crime section, the Romance section — all of these are alloted pretty much the same consideration. Equal treatment.

    Marginalisation is exclusion. As much as this is a form of segregation, it is not exclusion. On the contrary, it is inclusion, integration. It says, “You, reader-seeking-queer-fiction, have a place here. We recognise your desire. We accept that desire. We cater to that desire.” Hiding the queer section away at the back of the shop? That’s marginalisation. Treating it as you would any other marketing category is not. It’s putting a chair at the table for you. It’s laying out the cutlery, the plate, the glass. If the service is good, it’s pulling out the chair and inviting you to sit, just as they would for any other customer. This is a good thing.

    Now, that may work in the case of something so powerfully formative to a person’s identity, but it also alienates people who don’t share that identity – not by cutting them out from reading these books, but by making it a hurdle to cross over into an experience different from the heteronormative.

    In terms of queer fiction, largely this is just tough shit. If they feel uncomfortable sitting in the faggot’s chair at that table, they can bloody well deal with it. Does the queer section have faggot cooties? Is the reader going to catch gayness? You might say it’s in my best interests to accommodate their squick, make it as nice and easy and safe as possible for straights to step across into my world, but if that hurdle is simply the identification of a work as queer, simply the presence of the word “queer” or “gay” or “LGBT” as a section heading or on the back of a book or in the title of a magazine, well, Behemouth says, Fuck that shit! The alternative to that identification is non-identification. The alternative is to not have that queer section but rather distribute all that queer literature throughout general fiction (or wherever, if queer, as it usually does, includes non-fiction). The alternative is to do this in the naive idea that all of that queer literature will actually still be sold, when the target market has to hunt it down in the vast mass of everything else. The alternative is to do this in the naive idea that the lowered sales of queer literature will not translate into lowered stock. The alternative is to remove the “hurdle” by disavowing sexual identity and accepting a resultant dispersal and diminishing of the space for queer fiction. The alternative is silence. The alternative — that dispersal and diminishing — is marginalisation.

    Now applying that logic to the readers whose tastes would be met by an indie fiction section is nowhere near as important as it is when it comes to readers whose tastes were not catered to historically, until those queer sections started appearing, on account of prejudice. This is utterly trivial by comparison. But as a reader, I’d be overjoyed to see such a section because it would connect me with the books I want to read. And as a writer, I’d be fucking ecstatic because it would connect me with the readers most likely to want to read my stuff. All of them. The label is chosen specifically for that reason, because I’m profoundly confident that it would actively draw the readers of SF/F who would like my stuff and the readers who woud like it but who don’t go to the SF/F section at all. Why not? Because they just aren’t interested in the vast bulk of the field.

    Those who would not check out an indie fiction section because they look at no other section in a bookstore than the SF/F section, because they only want to read SF/F? They’re going to hate Vellum and Ink. They’re probably even going to hate Escape from Hell! because it pulls some poncy shit on them. I’m entirely happy not to have the extra sale from a reader who mistakenly picks up Vellum expecting epic fantasy, despises it and proceeds to vent on the internets, discouraging others from reading it. Those who would not because they only look at other genre sections — Crime, Romance — they wouldn’t buy it anyway. Not a loss. Those who would normally avoid all those genre sections, conditioned to distrust them via the discourse of abjection as “genre”? I seriously doubt many of them would feel the same about an indie fiction section. In the majority of cases, I’d say, it’s going to be exactly the opposite. The knee-jerk, lockstep, mundane Hater of All That’s Strange is not entirely a myth, but the vast majority of readers I know who ignore the SF/F section do so precisely because they have eclectic tastes and are not interested in “more of the same”. If a tiny minority would be so rigidly realist as to scorn an indie fiction section in fear of encountering a hint of a quirk, these are not my target audience.

    It’s far from being an ideological issue in the way that queer fiction is, but an indie fiction section is not going to marginalise the writers and readers of that section. Like the queer section, it would do the opposite and make a space for them.

  98. says

    The one thing I definitely like about your argument here, Hal, is that it is rooted in the reader’s experience.

    I’m sold. Somebody tell Bryan he needs a new section.

  99. jeff vandermeer says

    What I love about this conversation, perversely enough, is that I don’t even care who might be right or wrong. Firstly I love the passion about books. Secondly I love the contrast of opinions. Thirdly I just frankly love the cranky lovely eccentricity of it all. Thanks for that.

  100. says

    It’s called Inklings Bookshop, and is situated in the decaying heart of Windsor, Ontario. You know I have to have a decent spec-fic collection with that name…

  101. Hal Duncan says

    Bryan: I’ll be well keen to know how it pans out if you were to go for it. (I’d help you rearrange myself but I suspect you’re not in Glasgow, no?) Especially with regard to browsers. My suspicion is that any confusion might be mitigated by curiosity, that the term would have a pulling power. But I have absolutely nothing to back that up with. As for the bounds? “Odd Things I Like” sounds like a pretty good starting point. I mean, it is kind of like Staff Recommendations, except with the “odd” as a loose filtering mechanism and made permanent. So rather than the chain bookstore which is just FOS placement *cough* not at all *cough* paid for by the publishers *cough* no siree *cough* with the book being swallowed up afterwards into whatever section it “belongs” in, what you’d actually have is a dedicated space for all those books which are recommended precisely because they don’t really quite belong anywhere else. Which is a mighty browseable space, to my mind.

    Nick: Meaty detail on the indie fiction categorisation idea. I think it is largely about targeting that exact type of consumer and only loosely tying it to “artistic genre” in a sense so broad it’s all but meaningless; as I say, “indie fiction” is as much a ploy as anything. And that sort of pertains to stocking No Logo, The Illuminatus Trilogy and such. It’s the fact that Fopp has succeeded because it stepped outside the conventional indie record shop model of pure alternativity that intrigues me. No muso attitude, huge back catalogue of classics — all from major labels, of course — and no problem with stocking something that might be — horror of horrors — actually quite commercial. That impurity of alternativity is where, for me, there’s a subtle difference between what I’m imagining and the alternative section in the Glasgow Tower Records as I remember it. Indie being… well… not anarcho-syndicalist punk or Wiccan emo kid, you know?

    On the matter of “literary fiction”… Actually “emergent signifier” is a perfect term for what “literary” is in my take on it. And I agree with your historical angle on it 100%; the five features you point at seem spot-on to me. It strikes me as in keeping with the haute cuisine analogy, actually, in terms of:

    1: what class consumes it (haute cuisine upping the stakes here to upper-middle)
    2: who produces it (I’d say education and class are the most pertinent in both, and it’s interesting to note that both chefs and writers potentially shift class substantially in becoming what they are, with education quite possibly part of it, but not necessarily.)
    3: the interest / disinterest of critics (is this higher for restaurants with their Michelin stars and such?)
    4: the presentational strategies (because tha haute cuisine sure do look pretty)
    5: the content

    This all ties in neatly with what I’m driving at in the whole discourse of abjection argument. Where I’m looking at “lierary” as a term that’s ultimately about enforcing literanormativity, the point of course with a field like literature — where it differs from gender and hence heteronormativty — is that the driving force here isn’t going to have an obvious other to abject — men who fuck men, women who fuck women. (I’m glossing over the fact, of course, that the “obviousness” there is an expedient fiction; it’s not actually “obvious” at all, as your ancient forebears would attest, until the abjection has begun; it’s just that sex is a clear locus of neuroses.)

    Still, that discourse in literature did have a fall guy to latch on to: popular fiction in the shape of Gothic Romance, sensation novels, dime novels and penny dreadfuls, and ultimately pulp genres, with all of those five factors as crucial markers of what could be rendered abject (with a different weighting though, maybe, the low-grade commercial presentation on the same level, even conflated with, who produced it). So the sensationalist trash that was read by lower-middle class women at first, then, with mass-production opening up the market, the sensationalist trash that was read by the proles, becomes “genre”. I’d say there’s a sort of an inversion of the historical process you point to for “literary” as an emergent signifier, taking place back between… what… the Victorian period and the 50’s perhaps?

    Similar to what you say about “literary”, but shifting the focus, the actual content of “genre” could well be seen as “minor league stuff” in that context. How much of it is really just about identifying an other to abject on the grounds of class? The social standing of the consumers. The social standing of the producers. The social standing validated by critics. The social standing associated with production/presentation values. Content? That’s just about the social standing involved in having an educated palate. Oh, the romantic dynamics is a perfect marker of difference here because it’s so… naive. And it does tend to compensate, for many readers, for the most botched and blundering bad prose which the learned middle classes can all agree is just not on, knowing their grammar and all. And meanwhile the undereducated prole doesn’t give a flying fuck. (Just like, naturally, many an educated member of the petit bourgeois who’s willing to overlook such matters because it’s such a ripping good yarn, what.) But at the end of the day this is fiction as etiquette. It’s about the impropriety of this “genre” fiction.

    As I say, I think the historical path you trace for “literary” as an emergent signifier is spot-on. I just think that path stands to be analysed — not least because of the way it gets paired with “genre” — with a similar eye to the social function that signifier serves, and how qualities of the content might work as… the details of that etiquette. Part of it is I suspect a good generation of writers have grown up through a period of pulp reclaiming the mainstream (if it ever really lost it in anything but name), with even someone in their late thirties like myself barely remembering a time when the dominant mode of Hollywood movies wasn’t the pulp spectacular, the shameless sensationalism of the SFX schlockbuster. And it’s not just the heritage of Star Wars but of Repo Man and its ilk, the whole cult movie aesthetic. Throw in the geek chic born out of indie music, and the interwebs, and you’re looking at a culture which breeds not just your Chabons but your MacCarthys and Palahnuiks. In that context, I think you can see “literary” emerging as a new signifier of propriety rather than impropriety.

    It works on two fronts. If you take the abjection of genre as persisting at a residual level, the growth of populist approaches in general fiction, in works like High Fidelity or Bridget Jones’s Diary or The Da Vinci Code, means you’ve got a problem with a signifier of impropriety — “genre” — that doesn’t cover the vulgarities of the field one identifies with. One solution? Define new genres — chick-lit or occult thriller — so that even if the stores don’t have sections with those names, well, you can section the trash off as “genre” in your head, not the type of fiction you read. Another? Find a term that segregates out the type of fiction you read from that general stuff. I mean, “general” sounds like “genre” anyway, but “literary”… now that sounds like proper fiction. And on the other front? Amongst those who no longer consider the sensational qualities of genre something to be scorned, the people who’ve read not just Ballard and Vonnegut and Chandler and so on, but Lovecraft and Burroughs (and I’m talking ERB here) and the X-Men and fuck knows what? Well, that doesn’t make them immune to the petit bourgeois angst of being seen as the wrong kind of prole (wrong kind because, of course, not being of the hoi poloi is so declassé these days).

    And so that term “literary” emerges as a signifier of the new etiquette.

    A key question would still be, I think, what markers are there in the content? All the historical/cultural/social factors you bring in here play a huge role in the abjection of “genre”, but all the gnarly class issues are largely obscured by a rhetoric of sensationalism, a rhetoric that latched onto textual qualities as a way to give that emergent signifier validation. Because “literary” does happily incorporate the strangeness characteristic of “genre” and the sensational qualities associated with it, we are looking at a much more inchoate entity, but I think we can identify some markers with similar validating functions with “literary”. Prose seems like a shoo-in to me; shoddiness will always show there. I think mimesis is more important than you’re allowing, and across the variant traditions, but I’m working with a different definition from you, it seems:

    Mimesis isn’t a big thing not just in random examples of literary fiction, but in whole traditions of the same, most obviously magical realism (which is a mode of realism, after all).

    See, I’d say magic realism was highly mimetic, fundamentally so. There’s plenty of tables and chairs in magic realism, plenty of roads and buildings and towns and horses and eyes and cats and pianos and you name it. Mimesis is just, as far as I’m concerned, the representation of events which have an alethic modality (i.e. subjunctivity) of “could have happened”. You can throw in quirks that fuck with that, that breach the strictures of logic, the laws of nature, the details of history or the limits of science. And you end up with various genres of strange fiction according to what kind of quirks you employ and how you deal with them. But that’s just disruption of this weft of mimesis that runs through a work. Magic realism is distinct from fantasy — is a mode of realism — precisely because it has a rich mimetic weft and deals with the quirks it uses by asserting a culturally or individually constructed view of the laws of nature. It asserts that the chimeric quirks (i.e. metaphysical impossibilities) are actually mimesis, to all intents and purposes.

    Modernism, postmodernism and experimentalism, where you get wildly disrupted reality, even pataphysical fiction where logic itself is sliced and sutured — there’s a fair bit of departure from mimesis in terms of detailing the nitty gritty of the daily grind, but the representation of thought counts as mimesis in my book too, while it is not in itself ruptured with illogic. Hell, even when it is, much of the rupturing you see could well, in many instances, be considered part of a grand project inspired by Joyce — a mimesis of the stream of consciousness, a mimesis of the oneiric even, of the unconscious. The contrast between mimesis, as I’m using it — with the classical sense grounded in a technical definition vis-a-vis subjunctivity — and the strange is important with the distinction between general and “genre” fiction, but with the distinction between general and “literary”, the contrast between mimesis and diegesis is what’s important, between representation and telling. The latter being what Dan Brown is actually doing from what little I’ve read of that godawful book.

    Anyway, we’re clearly coming from quite different angles on what mimesis is if you’re picking magic realism as non-mimetic. So if we’re not going to be talking at cross-purposes clearly I need to ask: what are you classing as mimesis, and how is magic realism (or whatever other tradition would serve as a good example) not mimetic?

    (Also, yeah, to all and sundry, I’m finding this fascinating. As should probably be obvious by the verbosity.)

  102. Hal Duncan says

    Jeff: Taking labels too seriously? Nay, I say! Nay, nay, and thrice nay!

    For real though? When it comes to marketing categories, it’s just a brand name, far as I’m concerned. I use a whole nother vocabulary when it comes to actually talking about books.

    Muchly of my own invention.

  103. Nick Mamatas says

    Good points all around. Mimesis I believe is something more than “could have happened” or “could happen.” Magical realism does reflect a certain Weltanschauung but is also heavily influenced by various easily localized literatures (folk tales, jokes, the lives of the saints, the improvised tales we might spin for children — “There once was a boy named Hal who had veeeery long legs and verrrrry long arms, just like you. And this Hal, who is not you, was listening to this story I was telling him and then…”) and the politics of repression. It’s hard to be a middle-class Western bourgeois historical subject when the army shows up every few years to kill everybody for not picking fruit fast enough, after all. Magical realism is a mode of realism (as opposed to Romance) that challenges realism. It doesn’t cultivate the suspension of disbelief so much as tests it to destruction and beyond as part of its project to find a mode of subjectivity that doesn’t form an objective bloc with imperialism.

    I would say that magical realism is distinct from fantasy (though writers of both could point to Poe and even Cervantes as a common ancestor/influence) because it abandons the Romance Adventure/Gothic schema for the most part and instead uses the structures of 19th century realism.

    Readers of hard SF and whodunits are far more interested in mimesis — “the laws of physics” (and shockingly, even the supposed laws of history) in SF and “fair play” for detective/whodunit — than any number of literary fiction readers. And so too are the productive establishment, to the point where excellent stories from the 1950s about, say, the first men on the moon simply cannot be reprinted today because they are “wrong.” This is why absurdist-cum-incompetent mystery writer Harry Stephen Keeler (the original weird-boiled!) is back in print in a) tiny POD editions by Ramblehouse, but also thanks to b) McSweeney’s. Old hard SF violates suspension of disbelief today because the embrace of mimesis needed to swallow the adventures and the themes — wow, a fat slide-rule using nerd like me is going to be important, and it’s not gonna be those Harvard guys and Air Force majors I work for? — has been short-circuited by events. Mysteries that don’t “play fair” fail for much the same reason; the audience isn’t being rewarded for its facility with puzzle-solving and logic games of the sort they may perform at work for their bosses.

    Magical realism can resist any number of metaphysical and factual assaults for the same reason that people all over the world will at certain historical junctures decide that it is indeed a good idea to throw rocks at soldiers with machine guns, despite the very different performance specs of rocks and guns. The great ineffables: solidarity, community, the Revolution, honor, machismo, philotimo, wu de, an anguish that lets one shrug off a lifetime of subservience and live seventy years of what should have been a free life in three days of one of history’s orgasms, whatever, trumps such concerns. Sometimes those great ineffables even win.

    I suppose my objection to centering either mimesis or its lack — ultimately, the content — in this question is because the traditions of literature we are discussing again have enough counterfactuals to point to. The modern Western novel is generally said to have been born with Don Quixote and yet the second book begins with a “postmodern” conceit: metafiction. (Hell, the The Illiad has substantial metaphysical techniques.) Poe is said to have developed the first real modern detective story. The second detective story he wrote doesn’t name the criminal and ends with an outright appeal to metaphysics. The Gothic was an object of suspicion but today The Monk is read mostly in schools and the gothic’s most important living practitioner is arguably Joyce Carole Oates (also one of the most important realists and someone with an academic appointment at an Ivy League university). Lovecraft is reprinted by both the Library of America and Penguin Classics (and of course Oates edited a volume of his work too!).

    And diegesis as a benchmark for “literary”? I think your work suggests otherwise! With another agent and another imprint publishing your work, who knows what college you’d be giving this talk at right now…

  104. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Re this “For real though? When it comes to marketing categories, it’s just a brand name, far as I’m concerned. I use a whole nother vocabulary when it comes to actually talking about books.” Yep, yep.

    Nice discussion here of magic realism, too. I’ve run out of words, myself.

  105. Hal Duncan says

    Actually, as soon as I posted that, as I was toddling off to my bed, my immediate thought was that I was glossing over the way magic realism uses diegesis in exactly that way, to give a sense of a told tale — “there was once a boy” — and for precisely those reasons — influence by folktales, the anecdotal form, all the told tales of a culture. To me what’s really interesting though is the way it weaves the diegesis through what I think of as the mimetic weft.

    What I mean is in the sort of story that starts out, “Once upon a time…” the diegetic vibe, the feeling of there being a narrator, fades as we get into the meat of the story, into the detailing of objects and actions that are present in real-life (tables and chairs and so on). It comes surging back at points, that diegesis, but much of the project of magic realism is to invest the everyday with the quality of the numinous — or rather, as the magic realist in me would say, to point to the reality of the numinous in the everyday (one reason Cavino has a certain magic realist quality even when he’s working in a purely realist mode, in most (all?) of the stories of Difficult Loves). For me, the magic is in the diegesis, the realism is in the mimesis.

    (I’m hoping you’re willing to run with my definition of mimesis here temporarily, as your “something more” reads to me more as a sort of… “mimesis-ism”, a dedication to mimesis that entails No Couterfactuals. Is that fair, or is there more to it than that? Anyway, I can’t really talk about the tensions in magic realism without using these terms in their classical sense, so if you’ll bear with me for now, I’ll address that No Counterfactuals imperative and mimesis in SF (which I agree is a big thing) in a minute.)

    Anyway, I see this as why, apart from the Latin America connection, Borges the metafictionalist gets lumped in with magic realism. Wrongly, I’d say, because his work is much more intellectual than sensational — but the mix of diegesis (from the metafiction aspect) and mimesis (from the representation) creates a smilar flavour in some respects. Lots of strange fiction writers like Bulgakov get lumped in for similar reasons, the term having been debased in meaning. For me, “asserting a culturally or individually constructed view of the laws of nature” is a requisite feature (because this is, yes, part of the political project you identify). But the textual technique of diegesis woven through mimesis (a technique that’s seperable and used outwith magic realism), is more to the point here.

    Annoyingly, the immediate examples that spring to mind in terms of this technique are cinematic (and both are arguable as not magic realism) and they’ve imprinted themselves on my mind so much I can’t see past them to literary examples. But Pan’s Labyrinth and Tideland both have that combination of diegesis and mimesis — though in distinct ways. The former alternates between them, mimesis in the Spanish Civil War sections, diegesis in the fairytale sections. (Arguably it’s not magic realism but anti-fantasy because of the way the ending denies the compensatory lie.) The latter paints over the mimesis with the diegetic storification rendered in visual terms so as to all but obscure the reality of this child of junkies with the corpse of her old man sitting in the living room. (I think there’s a stronger case here that as fantastical as it is, this is the kid’s reality. But the political/cultural purpose is absent.)

    It feels a little to me like cooking/baking is a root metaphor of magic realism. All these ingredients — basic, humble, concrete, real things like flour and sugar and eggs and fruit and rolling pins and tables — are brought together, imbued with the fetishistic reverence of the child watching their mother in the kitchen. That’s hugely mimetic in the rapture of detail, but the procedure of following the recipe is diegetic, storyified to ritual. And the result is somehow both — the sheer magic of the taste of hot apple tart just out of the oven, and yet it’s real, it’s an honest-to-god numen but utterly in and of this world — Todorov’s le merveilleux.

    Is this a political act, “part of its project to find a mode of subjectivity that doesn’t form an objective bloc with imperialism”? Absolutely! Imperialism is rationalist. Which is not to say it’s remotely rational — it’s driven by the most primal imperatives and gnarly neuroses. But it’s about turning the territory into the map. And magic realism says, you cannot map this. You can describe it. Kinda sorta. Detail it. Paint it. In a hyperreal mode that doesn’t just construct a diegetic tale from archetypal symbols, but gives you the taste of honey, the scent of wet dog fur, the smell of pipe tobacco — mimesis. But you can’t delimit a marvel in a map. Absolutely this is arguing with realism, but it’s engaging it with the gun of mimesis in the one hand, the gun of diegesis in the other.

    The structures of realism are part of this. Yup, it abandons the romance form, dives into the realist. In my take on it that’s a scaling up of diegesis and mimesis to a structural level — the artificed/told story structure and the realistic representation of events as they would take place in the real world. Which requires seeing mimesis as taking place on an abstract level — the mimesis of relationships, actions. What I mean is, you can have a diegetic tale of a romantic comedy structure — boy meets girl, they fall in love, there’s a terrible misunderstanding in act three, blah blah blah. It’s a tale retold before it even starts. Or you can have a mimetic novel of an affair between a widower and a mannequin that doesn’t follow that formula but instead reflects exactly the sort of shit we live through in relationships. No matter how impossible it is that the mannequin would get angry at the widower leaving the toilet seat up… the dynamics is an imitation of the dynamics of reality.

    Yet again, we get fabulism coming in to fuck this up. That realistic relationship slips into a fairytale structure here and there. Fates conspire. Lovers surrender to the game of romance. Love is one of those marvels that refuses to follow imperialist dogma of How Things Happen. But, but, but. The project of magic realism disavows the surrender to imperialist rationalism you get if a story is simply a tale, a fancy of how things should be. It has to find a way to say, no, look, under the tale is the truth, under that truth is the tale that creates it, but under that tale is also a truth. And so on. I’m talking in huge absrtactions here, I realise, but what I’m driving at or circling round, I think, is the idea that the way magic realism argues for those great ineffables is precisely to engage with a paradoxical project of mimetically representing them. Of asserting that they are part of reality.

    OK, so that’s how I think magic realism is mimetic as I use the term — even though it is both diegetic and strange too. Granted, this isn’t mimesis as far as you’re concerned, but it’s one valid use of an overloaded term, I’d say, and I’m arguing no more than that when I say magic realism is mimetic. But what about the No Counterfactuals imperative? And SF and such? Lemme post this and deal with that in the next comment.

  106. Hal Duncan says

    Hokay. So for a start I agree 100% that mimesis is hugely important in SF — and both in my sense of the term and yours. The way I understand this, in Duncan’s Unified Field Theory of Strange Fiction, is to posit disruption of suspension-of-disbelief as “warp” created by “quirks”. Quirks come in different “flavours” according to their level of impossibility — logical, metaphysical, temporal and technical — and SF has a strong vein of refusing the metaphysical quirk. Hence the general ascription of a subjunctivity of “could have happened” and a contrast with fantasy as having a subjunctivity of “could not have happened” (c.f. both Delany and Clute). I disagree. SF’s novum are technical quirks that still have a subjunctivity of “could not have happened”. They are however “dewarped” by various strategies I won’t blather on about, having gone on about this on my blog at a fair length and not wanting to sideline the conversation. Mainly it’s about “base-shift dewarping” (relocating the story to an elsewhen in which it could have happened) and “argued dewarping” (using theory and detail of science to argue how it would happen.) (See “Notes Towards a Theory of Narrative Modality” if you want; that’s the boiled down redux version.)

    Anyway, the upshot if it is, the mimetic weft of SF will often be thicker than that of many realist works. Actually, the mimetic weft of epic fantasy, that most “genre” of “genre” forms, makes much of both SF and realism look like a sheet of tissue paper compared to a telephone directory. In the generic strange fiction that thickens the mimetic weft like this, the purpose is compensatory though. It’s worldbolstering and worldbumphing as a means to counterbalance the credibility warp. Alt-history has a similar approach. And all of this is for readers who want the unreal, the incredible, but don’t want it to challenge their rationalism. The mimesis is not an end in itself but a means to an end. It’s a sugar-coating on an ecstasy pill for those who want the trip but can’t stand the taste of the pill. This is a quite distinct approach to mimesis, I’d say, from that which is actually interested in representing reality. The base-shift dewarping is pertinent here because this can sometimes signal a lack of interest. Not always, not even mostly perhaps. That elsewhen may well be a warped representation of our world. But sometimes there just isn’t that much interest in engaging with reality at all. The mimesis is ersatz, the cats and bonsai trees just there as stage props. The belaboured arguments showing how plausible it all is are just so the poor rationalist doesn’t suffer a head-splosion in the face of the incredible.

    The reason they want the incredible is because they want the diegetic. You recognise the type of reader I’m talking about here, right? The ones that want story above all. Hell, that’s part of the system of markers attached to the term “genre”. (Though of course the reality is that the commercial strange fiction genres are no more consistently and completely about that than the traditions we’re talking about in terms of the “literary” label are consistently and completely about mimesis. My point about mutual abjection is precisely that “genre” and “literary” will contain the very things they abhor. (And boy, does your Anderson quote serve as an example of abjection!) ) There’s an extra complication with SF and mystery where oftentimes it’s not a romantic adventure the reader is looking for, but rather an intellectual game of hypothethesis — problem and puzzle-solving. That’s not about diegesis, but it’s not about mimesis either; it’s just… the pleasure of the crossword puzzle. (Some of the huge rifts in SF can be understood as factionalist conflict between those who want diegesis and those who want those mind games.)

    To illustrate how that popular general fiction can also be strongly diegetic, here’s (with apologies for inflicting it on folk,) the opening paragraph of The Da Vinci Code, with diegetic elements italicised:

    “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Carravagio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-three-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.”

    Those two qualities are in the idiom of reportage. It reads like the opening of a sodding feature article: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière (73)…” with information provided that’s sort of… editorialising commentary rather than representation. “Renowned” isn’t a pertinent quality of the person in his current actions. Neither is the age, which is given in a specificity that’s anti-mimetic because it’s given as a symbol of time rather than descriptors (e.g. baldness, liver spots, so on.) But this doesn’t matter if you’re not reading for mimesis but for diegesis. Hell, even the utter illogic of a later sentence — “On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.” — is fine if you’re just throwing symbols together into a telling of a tale. Which speaks to the notoriety of “genre” as a sewer of transparent prose that’s functional at best and often barely that. The inverse holds true, I’d say, if you are reading for mimesis. Bad prose slaps you in the face and says, “this couldn’t happen”. (Fragged or involuted prose, on the other hand, often giving you a mimesis of thought processes.)

    I see a lot of the hostility of diegesis-oriented readers to “literary” strange fiction — that “where’s the story?” reaction — as reaction against the mimetic impetus that drives writers like myself at times to shred the story. Even where I’m going all cubist on their asses and playing with diegesis via metafiction it’s a sort of deconstruction of realism aimed at getting at a truer representation. Cubism had, paradoxically it might seem, a mimetic purpose in the agendas of Picasso and Braque: they viewed it as a way of seeing reality “from the fourth dimension”. This is the sort of approach that puts the lie to the outsider’s view of “genre”. But it’s also notably something that incites fury in many “genre” readers.

    It’s also the type of more twistedly mimetic approach that I’m still calling mimesis in complete conflict with your definition of the term.

    (More to come.)

  107. Nick Mamatas says

    All righty then. I guess the fundamental question is this:

    1. What does your model explain and/or predict that mine does not? That is, why would I adopt it? Or specifically:

    What do you get out of seeing mimesis in almost everything from the get go, even the seemingly anti-mimetic.

    Why do you think, using that da Vinci Code quote above, that the diegetic element is more important than the mimetic, even if the diegetic is more obvious. What do you think of the diegesis here, for example:

    Jim and Irene Wescott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. They were the parents of two young children, they had been married nine years, they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester.

    (Naturally, I’m being a total skootch by presenting the first graf of a story from one of the more prominent literary writers that is also an obvious fantasy — and a satire — and one that was reprinted over and over again in all sorts of commercial venues beloved of the “just tell me a good story” crowd, including Reader’s Digest.)

  108. Hal Duncan says

    Which brings us back to the “literary”, where I think the abjection of genre plays out, in the 19th to 20th centuries in an ever-increasing focus on pure mimesis. As I say, I include reflective realism in this as the mimesis of mind, and place maieutic fiction as a logical end-point of that. The opposition to the diegetic has its complement in the celebration of the mimetic.

    But, the traditions you point to do, I reckon, point up the mistake of taking the dichotomy of the rhetoric as a representation of actual reality. As I see it, it’s not so much that there’s “literary” that’s non-mimetic (and hence diegetic) and “genre” that’s non-deigetic (and hence mimetic). Rather it’s that the two are far from being mutually exclusive (c.f. magic realism). Where you point to Quixote and the Iliad with all their postmodern and metafictional approaches, I say, damn straight! I’d point also to Gilgamesh with its tale-within-a-tale, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass as sutured in a similar way, Tristram Shandy as distinctly pomo, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, and I think you could pick out a fuckload more throughout the history of Western literature. The core tradition of mixing it the fuck up carries on even when the discourse of abjection sets in — actually maybe even with the Modernists because its set in. That discourse of abjection grows out of the Rationalist/Romantics dialectic in part (with the class conflict being a whole big other “in part”), and I reckon you can see the Modernists as an attempt at synthesis.

    The Modernist project collapses though, and pomo stumbles out of the wreckage, crawls away into its ivory tower to lick its wounds. Pulp, I think, takes in some of the survivors too. So in both “literary” and “genre” fiction you have writers who completely put the lie to the artificial dichotomy. On both sides of the fence, they carve spaces for themselves, consolidate their position. Shit, how much post New Wave SF would sit happily in the experimentalist mode of “literary” fiction, and vice versa? And that generational change I was yammering about is on the verge of fruition, if it’s not already there. I think you and I probably have fairly similar views on what these fields actually consist of in terms of diversity, if we differ in respect of how we describe it.

    Where I think I place such focus on what I’m calling mimesis within those “literary” traditions is because I sort of see the term as potentially a symptom of unconscious retrenchment by both sides — i.e. that no matter what the reality is, that signifier is designed to serve the purpose of benchmarking an artifical dichotomy. It’s automatically going to attach to the features through which that dichotomy has been constructed historically. Or rather the features will attach to it. This is, I think, how it’s already used in the SF community because it’s been a modifier there for so long — literary SF, literary fantasy. I’d be very curious to see, actually, how far back that usage goes, whether it might actually predate its emergence as a signifier in the wider field. I mean, if it begins as a signifier of “those qualities that make a ‘genre’ work something other than just a ‘genre’ work”, as part of the discourse of “transcending the genre”, I think we are dealing with a term we can’t unload that baggage from.

    Either way, because of the type of label it is — like “genre” — any function as a descriptor is, I think, secondary to its function as a rhetorical tool. Any of us here can point to the actualities that disprove the preconceptions that consitute the meaning that the term “genre” has in the discourse for all too many. I would happily myself point to writers like Etgar Keret as one disproof (among many) of the preconceptions that constitute the meaning that the term “literary” has for most (very diegetic stories written in a hugely anecdotal style). I just think doing so ultimately feeds into the rhetoric of oppositional advocacies, consolidates its position as a signifier of allegiance. This is partly why, I think, we’ve ended up discussing this stuff rather than a quite interesting idea, in JM’s original post, that maieutic fiction is less functional for some readers than the quirks of strange fiction.

  109. Nick Mamatas says

    I guess, ultimately, I think the “unconscious retrenchment” isn’t symmetrical on both sides. Most literary fiction sorts I’ve met either:

    a. read the occasional genre piece (whether Stephen King or some writers they like in crime fiction)
    b. are not at all genre snobs and read everything
    c. have no idea that genre fiction even exists except insofar as their children might read some of the YA material. They certainly don’t see themselves in opposition to genre fiction but rather their enemies are Oprah’s gurus, celebrity memoirs, movies, etc.

    Genre fans, especially SF people, get very very worked up about the literary, on the other hand. I actually didn’t find JM’s stuff all that interesting, honestly, because it just seemed to be an intellectual version of the same anxiety common amongst genre folk (mostly writers and dedicated readers) that isn’t nearly so prominent on the other side of the barbed wire.

  110. Hal Duncan says

    I agree this is probably coming in large part from the genre side. Thinking of it as abjection of what is or was a part of one’s self is part of the reason I suspect the term gathers a lot of its meaning from its use in “literary sf” or “literary fantasy”. You start by identifying a distinguishing feature of a sub-group of one’s own. Make that marker of deviation. Next step is absenting the abject.

    As for the other side of the fence, I don’t think (c) is too dissimilar from the point I make upthread about seeing it as more of a reaction against general fiction. I sort of wonder actually if it isn’t folk like us, who tread both sides of the fence, who haven’t inadvertantly transferred it over by accepting labels like “literary SF”. That’s why I’m curious as to when it was first used in that context.

    Got another post coming to answer you’re earlier points re mimesis and diegesis, btw.

  111. Hal Duncan says

    1. What does your model explain and/or predict that mine does not? That is, why would I adopt it? Or specifically: What do you get out of seeing mimesis in almost everything from the get go, even the seemingly anti-mimetic.

    Shit, man, where to start? If you take the suspension-of-disbelief as a base-line, a pretence that the reader has going into a story that the events have an epistemic modality of “did happen”, you then have the mimesis as a weft of representation of what “could happen” running through the narrative. Treating Delany’s subjunctivity as alethic modality is a key thing here.

    First, it opens up the question of levels of possibility. Suvin’s novum becomes completely understandable as only one of four flavours of quirk: the novum that breaches the limits of science, the erratum that breaches the details of history, the chimera that breaches the laws of nature and the sutura that breaches the strictures of logic. (Sorry. Blame Suvin for my poncy coinages; he set the tone.) The first three are obvious in SF, Alt-History and Fantasy. The last of these is something that’s rarely considered in the discourse of such, but it predicts and explains the techniques of pataphysical fiction that emerge in SF during the New Wave and how specifically it is comparable to modernist, postmodernist and experimentalist works outside the genre. It’s also deeply pertinent when it comes to slipstream. If you can’t actually predict readers tastes, you can certainly articulate precisely where and how and why non-sf is likely to appeal to sf readers because you can look for quirks.

    Importantly, allowing that alethic modality is not consistent within a text but rather that one sentence “could have happened” while the next “could not have happened” only for the sentence after to be in the “could have happened” modality again, and that suspension-of-disbelief is (usually) maintained throughout transforms the whole subjunctivity notion into a model of the tension between the epistemic and alethic modalities — credibility warp. AKA sense-of-wonder. Further, this raises the question of how suspension-of-disbelief is maintained. Is credibility warp simply accepted by the reader or do writers employ strategies to cancel it — to dewarp the quirk? Without going into it in detail, the often radically different strategies adopted by strange fiction writers both inside and outside the field — even the concomitant factionalism of fans — can all be articulated in precise technical terms of what kind of quirks are used and how dewarping is achieved or consciously rejected.

    Those same strategies are evidenced in the historical strange fiction of traveller’s tales and myth in forms predictably different, given an assumption that some readers will require dewarping, in accordance with the pre-Modern worldview in which base-shift dewarping did not need to posit an elsewhen — a future, parallel or ordinate reality — because the known world was sufficiently limited that the narrative could be relocated to an elsewhere. The projection backwards in time found in myth is a logical derivation. Not using base-shift dewarping at all is a distinguishing feature of a certain modern approach, on the other hand, that would have been published as SF during the New Wave, is now published as fantasy, but could often easily be published as general fiction. And in fact is.

    Back in SF, the “One Impossible Idea” rule and what I call the Paradigm Shift Caveat are comprehensible in terms of how readers want the incredible but in a rationalised form. You can explain precisely why magic is rejected by many SF fans and yet breaches of fundamental physics are glossed over. Taking the mimesis as a weft explains the sheer mass of detail involved in worldbuilding in epic fantasy as worldbolstering a constant reinforcement of the “could have happened” alethic modality. It explains the distinct difference found in the approach to “metafiction” where far from pointing up the artiice of a text ironically, the inclusion of faux-documentation within a genre work, (from Tolkien through Dune and every book that starts with a quote from an invented tome,) serves as mimesis of a textual artifact of that elsewhen — worldbumphing.

    The rearticulation of subjunctivity as alethic modality and the idea that it is present at the same time as alethic modality, in tension with it, also opens up the question of whether other modalities — epistemic, deontic and boulomaic — function similarly. Taking a rough set of modalities (based on the informal articulations of these in the nine core modal auxilliaries), the model predicts quirks that are not to do with possibility but to do with determinacy (limina and lacuna), authority (rupturae) and affect (numina and monstra). Fantastique and mystery are highly open to description in terms of determinacy warp. Authority and affective warps are deeply pertinent to tragedy, horror, epic and romance. The tendency of boulomaic modalities of “should not have happened” to be articulated as “could not have happened” bears on the uncanny. The understanding that all of this is in tension with the mimetic weft goes no small way to describing how the domestic is used to emphasise the fantastic, why slipstream works often have the feel of horror but would not necessarily be classed as such.

    Granted, I’m obviously biased here, but this approach, viewing a narrative in terms of a tension of modalities, with mimesis as a crucial weft in many forms that are not even remotely realist, rips down the entire terminology of artifical divisions between SF and Fantasy and “mainstream” and offers, I think, a coherent and comprehensive model of a dynamics of strange fiction solidly grounded in the most basic aspects of the text. Or it will do once I’m finished. As I say, see blog for details.

    Still, OK, this doesn’t deal with your diegesis point. I think I need another post for that. Oh well.

  112. says

    Nick,

    Not sure I can really buy your ABCs. Well, I can buy B, but I have trouble with the interpretations of A and C. Or, at least, I see further interpretations of A and C.

    A) Yes, some will read the occasional genre piece. But very often “just for fun” as a “guilty pleasure”. There’s a distinct valuation taking place here that I think supports Hal’s notion of the dynamics involved in the “literary” label.

    C) Yes, there are those who have little idea of genre’s existence, but mostly because they have dismissed it. It’s a nebulous thing beneath notice, something they tell themselves is different from what they do, from what they read. Such a dismissal is a statement in and of itself. It’s a landowner’s acknowledgment that merit is a property of owning land. And thus it’s easy to ignore those without land.

    And I think this latter dynamic is what helps formulate that genre retrenchment, which I often see as an outcry against that dismissal. That sort of marginalization is a powerful thing, and easily internalized. How many genre writers have I met who feel slightly guilty they write genre? Quite a few, and it’s often those ones who end up applying that “literary” label before their genre of choice. As Hal said, there’s a danger in genre writers accepting and acceding to such an internalized value structure. And I think it arises from this desperation not to be dismissed, this desperation for people to understand (to see) their attempt at art. I think people pull that dangerous label onto their work because of those As and Cs, because of that dismissal, because of that sudden induced blindness occuring due to genre choice.

    So, to me, there does seem a mutual retrenchment, and they seem mutually supportive in that they operate somewhat cyclically.

    And I’d jump in the warp drive discussion but, you know, I’m having Star Trek flashbacks. Plus I have to go watch the Tour de France. Those crazy fellows climb up mountains. On bikes. As if no one ever explained to them that gravity, when applied to wheels and weights, makes a bike roll downhill.

  113. Hal Duncan says

    So why do I think the diegesis in TDVC is more important and what do I think of the diegesis in the quote you give. I’ll freely confess that most of my thinking on this is very broad, and I’m thrashing it out here to some extent. The theory I’ve been working through recently has mostly focused on the modality stuff as above. But I’m thinking that TDVC immediately strikes me as an unconscious diegesis born of a functionalist approach where the quote you give immediately strikes me as entirely conscious, a deliberate adoption of a storytelling style that immediately says “fabulism”. The syntactic structure bears comparison to classic children’s fiction and to the sort of voice-over you get in Pushing Daisies. I think it speaks of an interesting aspect of how the reality is far more interesting than the artificial dichotomy would have us believe. And to some extent it’s even a logical outgrowth of the history of that 20th century victory of mimesis.

    What the fuck?! I hear you say.

    Well, the way I see it is you have mimesis becoming more and more dominant in realist modes, with reflective realism growing out of that as the mimesis of mind. This is where Joyce comes in, and other such modernists, with stream of consciousness at first and then the full-on dream shenanigans of Finnegans Wake. Mimesis of the oneiric. He’s not alone. You’ve got surrealism too, all those writers and artists influenced by Freud, seeing the unconscious psyche as an unexplored terrain to discover, to describe. Of course, this creates a complete paradox, because the only way you can describe the fucked-up illogic of the unconscious is with quirks. You have to be non-mimetic to be mimetic.

    Ullysses, at the textual level, is a case study. The mimetic weft virtually wouldn’t be there if you read it as straight representation. You’d have to say, this just isn’t mimesis. If you see it as mimesis of mind though, as a representation of flow of thought it’s all in the alethic modality of “could have happened”. But this creates a sort of layered weft because, sure, the stream of perceptions could have happened, but what about the actual reality that it is a representation of, what about the events? All of that has an epistemic modality of “might have happened” because, as we know from “The Turn of the Screw”, narrators can be terribly unreliable. The entire novel becomes, in effect, an epistemic quirk — a limen in Duncan’s Patented Parlance of the Strange. The whole narrative is in a state of determinacy warp. What would usually be the backbone of certainty, the mimetic weft as direct representation of reality, is entirely shrouded in the epistemic modality of “might have happened”.

    That’s only the start of it. In that liminal state, the doorway is open to all the strangeness frowned upon as sensationalism. Joyce plays a wildly fascinating game of testing the boundaries, not least by throwing in the sutura — the logical quirk — by fucking with the text itself. Pastiche and parody. The Circe chapter written as a play. Which sort of brings back that old tried-and-tested technique of the tale-within-a-tale. He uses a classic myth as the very sub-structure, weaving diegesis through it, though it’s totally translated into this mimesis-of-the-mind. And then Finnegans Wake? Fuck. Full blown mimesis of the oneiric where nigh on every word is a sutura in and of itself, and (un)consciousness is understood as an ocean of diegesis built out of mimesis. I think.

    Point is, you’ve got this grand project of mimesis turning to the mind and its artifacts because, as they say, “the true science and study of man is man himself.” Dreams and art. Mimesis of the oneiric + mimesis of the text = mimesis of the story = mimesis of diegesis. Et voila: postmodernism and metafiction. Ironic and distanced at first as the proper mimeticist should be, but of course, once you start playing with diegesis, story is so seductive. You can stitch your patchworks of story together into collages which are meant to be seen as such, where the reader isn’t meant to take the diegesis at face value, but sooner or later it starts to cohere, and someone using that technique is going to start wondering, well, what if we took those sutures out? This diegesis isn’t so bad after all. It has its uses. Actually there’s some pretty cool effects you can achieve using these idioms of low art. Aren’t we meant to be pomo anyway and seeing all these idioms as equally valid, without all that high art / low art bullshit? How can I use the fairytale style of narrative to good effect?

    Truth be told, I don’t think this metanarrative even needs to be seen as anything more than a story of the developing awareness and acceptance of how writers from the start of the 20th century on reintroduced diegesis by the back door in a complete subversion of a petit bourgeois and ultimately crude philistine idea that “proper” fiction was not just mimetic to the core but downright maieutic. But you could probably see some rough development, I’d say, from modernism through pomo and metafiction and magic realism to a literary culture that no longer sees diegesis in the mould of that quote you give as something that’s only acceptable as an ironic pastiche, a mimesis of diegesis. I don’t recognise the quote, I admit, but I don’t think it’s begging to be taken as an arch affectation of that voice.

  114. jeff vandermeer says

    Bryan–interesting theory, but am not sure it always applies. I for example make no excuses for writing non-realist or fabulist fiction, but I do try to be aware of the language of the subculture I am communicating with. If I am outside genre, I am perfectly willing to substitute terms like surrealism, magic realism, or whatever if it allows a better dialogue or entry point for my audience or a particular set of gatekeepers. And I have no cringe about using fantasy as a descriptor when running in genre circles. I get more readers this way, and more gigs, and since none of these labels properly describe what I am doing anyway, and I come from a background that includes running in genre and non-genre circles, and liking many different kinds of literature, it doesn’t strike me as an issue or giving up anything. Hell, in City of Saints I wrote a fantasy in which nothing fantastical, strictly speaking, happens. Thus again preferring to shade my terms and adapt to the terrain. But I understand the point because you’re talking about something almost instinctually ingrained in some writers.

    There’s also this: In talking about Finch with general readers at parties and whatnot–“oh, what do you do…you’re a writer…what’s your latest book?”–if I say “it’s a fantasy” they say “oh like harry potter”. If I say it’s a kind of mystery thriller about a reluctant detective who is damned if he solves a murder and damned if he doesn’t, they get it immediately and I don’t have to have a long conversation trying to tell them what fantasy actually is. And, in fact, this description is a more accurate depiction of the book anyway for their purposes. So I feel like being situational about how one defines oneself and one’s books is really just a reflection in part of how complex a book is anyway. It’s never just one thing. You could say Martin’s trilogy is epic fantasy but it’s as accurate to call it a complex melodrama with near Shakespearean twists of plot and character. etc.

  115. says

    Hal,

    This is slightly off-topic (but only slightly, I promise!), but José Saramago last week on his blog said something very interesting about that moment when “the moment” is being “translated” from feeling/thought and into verbalization (words, especially of the written variety). I wonder if that “translation” has something to do with what you’re describing. If you are patient (if you’re not asleep that is), I’ll have a full translation up shortly. I think it and another piece of his that I’m working on for tomorrow will provide more grist for you and others to discuss topics that are ancillary to this one.

  116. says

    Jeff – I’d agree with that, and say that it certainly doesn’t apply all the time. But it might be important enough that it applies some of the time. I probably say some of this from my own experience, my own attempts to answer “What are you writing?” It’s a question I answer a lot, as I do most of my writing at work, so customers are always curious. Now, some of the time I answer much as you do, and the shifting language of my description is simply a necessary adjunct to the shifting nature of the project itself. But, I admit, sometimes it’s an attempted escape from condescension (or at least the possibility of that condescension). Tar and feather me, I know.

    But I think there is an element of what Hal was talking about, with that “literary” label not simply as a designation of style, of certain tropes, etc., but of value itself. I think there’s often an implied meaning of, say, “literary” fantasy designating itself as “good” fantasy. Like, “You write fantasy?” “Oh, yes, but it’s literary fantasy.” “Oh, okay.” I’m guessing I’ve probably done it. Dark side of the force and all that. The implication is that, yes, it is fantasy, but my fantasy has meaning, it’s “literary”. Ergo, the normal, non literary-connoted fantasy does not. Which is likely bullshit. So I think there’s something to be said for Hal’s idea about how it’s unfortunate we let this kind of loaded term slip in without contention.

    I think my aim is to approach things like you do. Simply put, this is what I write, and there are many ways to describe it. And I’ll stand by whatever it is. I like that, and I think I do it best when I start negating a lot of the genre labels and just think about story. It’s all a variation on story, in the end. I write stuff fairly straight fantasy, stuff that’s fairly straight literary, stuff that’s more magical realism or surrealism… But how much difference, really, is there in those tasks? Techniques change, but not all that drastically. Words, effects… a story. Makes it easier for me to ignore some of those internalized value structures.

    And 300 comments… my head might start hurting. And we’ll probably kill Hal. Or at least give him one mean bloody case of carpal tunnel.

  117. Nick Mamatas says

    Bryan — people who read genre fiction all the time also have their guilty pleasures within genres. See Jo Walton’s recent review of some Hornbloweresque space opera for the same.

    As far as dismissiveness, I just don’t see it nearly to the extent that that I see it in genre. The Poul Anderson quote that waves away all of literary fiction as the portrayals of “sniveling fagots” for example, came right out of the Nebula Awards anthology in 1969.

    If you can show me an O. Henry antho or a BASS antho introduced by a leading author who valorizes literary fiction by diminishing fantasy as the precinct of “fat kikes” or “semiliterate niggers”, I’ll be ready to change my mind. (And no, terms like “nerd” and “geek’ aren’t the same as “faggot” “kike” or “nigger.”)

  118. Nick Mamatas says

    Hal,

    Ah, here is the crux of our disagreement then.

    I don’t take the suspension of disbelief as the baseline, certainly not with experimental fiction. Enjoy this image from my friend Lily’s books Parabola:

    I can’t see how this remotely depends on the suspension of disbelief to work as a page. Indeed, it works with hardly any interaction with the text at all.

    I also don’t buy Suvin’s elementary particles or the supposed divisions in readership that might follow. Many “chimerae” — say the magic within fantasy, for example — are just as easily understood as novae. Lots of magic in books, for example, does follow the laws of nature: a higher dose of magic is more efficacious than a smaller dose. It can be exhausted and then replenished. Compare this to real world “magic”, like say homeopathy, where the law of dosage is utterly reversed. Or a concept such as chi which refers to a universal energy, personal breath, leverage, the unity of muscles working in concert, the connection between intention (yi) and spirit (sun), an outright supernatural energy that can heal or harm, and the end physical development of the flexibility of the hip crease, among any number of other things.

    Many chimerae are novae in disguise. Magic works the way some third grader might think electricity works. What this allows me to explain is that many people are happy to read SF and then fantasy, often in the same magazine, or by the same authors. I’ve found that people who like SF but not fantasy may object simply to the sameness of fantasy (Tolkienesque, paranormal romance, whatever the big things is) or its politics or because they don’t like to read about horses. It’s not the warp and the quirks, it’s something else.

    A personal example: I like crime stories but I just won’t read anything that involves the police as protagonists. I say this even as I realize that it would be trivial to turn some PI, or even some criminal, into a cop with MS Word’s find/replace, but I still just don’t like it for a complex of political reasons and some aesthetic reasons. (For example, I loathe the term “…on the streets” as in “And we had to let him back out on the streets.”)

    What this all leads to is, I guess, definitional. I just find your vision of mimesis totalizing and I think it ends up damaging your own theory (which I realize is tentative.) When you use words like “quirk” but then point to a novel that is somehow all quirk I think you end up adding epicycles to your theory. How large can a quirk be? As large as it needs to be to keep the concept of quirk intact. I don’t see that any of this predicts what you say it might predict or explains what you say it might explain, because the categories are sufficiently plastic as to take whatever shape as is necessary to preserve the theory and the historical model that emerges from it. (i.e., mimesis of the mind given the rise of modern psychology leading to postmodern techniques such as metafiction does not explain why metafiction is present and occasionally crucial in The Illiad, Don Quixote, etc.

    And now, two comments in one:

    On the question of “literary fantasy” or whatever; to me that is simply a category of influence. Does it assign a value? Sure. It assigns two! I’ve heard literary said with a sneer as often as I’ve heard it said with admiration. Hang out in horror circles a bit and try to produce anything that isn’t Movie 1 mashed together with Movie 2 with some “un-PC” asides to prove that you’re not afraid of the liberal establishment (here come those sniveling faggots again!) and “llllllliterary” is what you’ll hear.

    Or, another example. There is such a thing called “science fiction poetry”, which is odd of course as using a fictional category for an other-than-fiction literary form makes little sense. Anyway, many of the SF poets I’ve spoken to proudly have no read any non-SF poetry published since, say, the 1920s. Some of the poets I’ve talked to have actually become upset at the suggestion that they might benefit from reading poetry written over the last eighty years.

    Unlike SF prose, SF poetry has had no New Wave, no real innovations, and hasn’t followed any sort of parallel evolution as regards the rest of poetry. I have no problem saying simply that it is less literary than other forms of poetry, including the more interestingly SFnal Flarf (which uses found texts from email spam and such) movement. One doesn’t need a complex formalist theory for this: these poets write light verse for the most part because that is what they learned in school and from popular music, and that is what the micromarket of SF poetry valorizes with sales.

    Where does literary fantasy come from? It’s not a reader response, it’s a production process. Those “indie” shelves Hal wanted are alive and well in Jeff’s home, for example, and in Hal’s. In the homes of writers who write fantasy but not “literary” fantasy, the bookshelves often look different. Aesthetic explorers are aesthetic explorers in both consumption and production. There hardly seems to be any danger in noting this, except that the genre ghetto is no such thing. It’s a bantustan. There is little in the way of war between “literary” and “genre”, but gatekeepers within the genre like to say that there is in order to keep genre readers IN the artificial homeland.

    Luckily, they’re not all that effective.

  119. Hal Duncan says

    Collaged text? It’s too small to read, but are those sections narrative in nature? If so, we’re talking suturae in my model, the shredding of logic — c.f. Delany’s embedded notebook sections in Dhalgren, Davenport’s segue from Ancient Greece to the American Civil War in “Idyll”, Burroughs’s cut-up and fold-in, and pretty much anything pataphysical. That’s my favouritest quirk of all actually. Quite possibly because it does actually break suspension-of-disbelief. It’s the nearest I think you can get to abstract in fiction. There comes a point when you start engaging with that sort of work as a textual object of art, where you’re not engaging with it as a work of fiction, but that’s just the same as with painting that ceases to even try to represent, where early Mondrian becomes late Mondrian. I mean, with that example, do you engage with those separate sections as text or narrative? Is there a fiction coded into the sections, the way they relate — the way there is in my examples (or Vellum and Ink for that matter) — or is it something more purely abstract? Personally I’m all for the idea of abstract fiction, and I’m not about to deny it as a possibility because of a model aimed at covering narratives that take narrative as being a sequential representation of events.

    Many “chimerae” — say the magic within fantasy, for example — are just as easily understood as novae. Lots of magic in books, for example, does follow the laws of nature: a higher dose of magic is more efficacious than a smaller dose. It can be exhausted and then replenished. Compare this to real world “magic”, like say homeopathy, where the law of dosage is utterly reversed.

    That would be argued dewarping then. And most likely an arcanum rather than a chimera.

    It’s not the warp and the quirks, it’s something else.

    Sometimes, for sure. A lot of SF readers have a preference for the novelistic approach of (some) SF over the romantic approach of trad Fantasy. Or just don’t like horses. Others are pretty big about the fact that the speculation within SF must be completely within the limits of science and moreover explicitly shown to be within the limits of science. When they say, in a terminology of metaphysical versus technical impossibility, that it’s about the warp and the quirks, I tend to take them as meaning that it’s all about the warp and the quirks.

    When you use words like “quirk” but then point to a novel that is somehow all quirk I think you end up adding epicycles to your theory.

    I like epicycles. Seriously, though, quirks are just a way of treating shifts in modality in more graspable terms. I switch between warp and quirks precisely because modality is something that requires, I think, the same sort of dual model you have in physics with waves and particles. You examine a quirk and you find a structure of warp. All I’m saying in pointing to a novel that’s all quirk is that it has this sustained modality throughout, a constant tension of — in this case — indeterminacy.

    mimesis of the mind given the rise of modern psychology leading to postmodern techniques such as metafiction does not explain why metafiction is present and occasionally crucial in The Illiad, Don Quixote, etc.

    I wasn’t trying to explain that though. I was throwing out a rough theory of why diegesis is happily out there in the present literary culture, in the context of recent history. It’s not meant as an explanation of how metafiction comes to be, but of how it played into the shifts of aesthetics in this instance. I already said upthread that the story-within-a-story goes back to Gilgamesh. Mostly, with a technique like metafiction, I’d say why shouldn’t it be present at any point in a tradition of literature that has the tale-within-a-tale from Gilgamesh up through Apuleius and on? If you want a pressure for that and pomo techniques in history, you can look at the episodic structural form of the rhapsodes, the stitchers-of-songs, who were weaving together all sorts of bits and bobs on a coherent theme for fairly logical reasons in context. Or the Milesian Tale. That sort of approach to storytelling is actually pretty neglected, I’d say — possibly because it was seen as low art in comparison to Tragedy and Epic.

  120. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Literary fantasy is a kind of bullshit term, Bryan, but reviewers/interviewers have applied it to City of Saints & Madmen in the past as a way, I suppose, of saying “This isn’t Harry Potter.” But then it also begins to seem like it’s also saying “this is fantasy that isn’t as entertaining as that other stuff.” LOL.

    Ekaterina Sedia and I joke about being “literary fantasists” all the time.

    Jeff

  121. Nick Mamatas says

    Are the Parabola texts narrative in “nature”? Well, who can say! I’m sure some readers have found narrative there and others have not and others find some meaning (narrative or not) in the arrangement even when the text is obscured. (Indeed, that small pic is used as an example, in an interview of what Parabola is after all; reading the actual text is a secondary concern in that particular attempt to reveal the book’s “nature” anyway.)

    There are certainly readers who like their SF hard hard hard. Given how little SF actually is hard hard hard though and given my own experience with these readers, they seem to read more widely than all that. And why not? I like hard SF too. When I’, in the mood for it, I seek it out. When I am in the mood for something else, I seek that something else out. The last few books around here have been Henry Miller and Ryu Murikami. I’m done with transgressive orgies for now and what’s on deck is a fantasy by Lisa Tuttle and some short crime fiction written by non-crime writers (Black Clock’s noir issue).

    Of course, there are people who ONLY read hard SF and ONLY read Twilight or, as I think Jeff discovered once, only read John Saul. So what? Most people in the US only read nothing not assigned to them after, say, the eighth grade.

    I suppose I don’t like epicycles. I prefer theories that simply acknowledge being partial or contingent to ones that create arbitrary patches. Further, my interest in pre-postmodern metafiction and such techniques has much to do with a political suspicion of claims of the postmodern condition. It strikes me that pomo was a way of certain sections of the middle class dealt with the failures of 1968 and the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism. Their turn at radical bat ended up not leading to transformation, the Marxian project created slaughterhouses and so pomo was a great way to retreat into a castle in the sky and pull up the ladder after themselves. This has little to do with the Suvin-Duncan hypothesis of course, but in general it just strikes me as more efficacious to explain stuff like metafiction and cut-ups and whatnot by drawing some straight lines across eras, rather than by suggesting that today’ metafiction has an utterly different origin than yesterday’s metafiction. (Especially when today’s metafictionists are exposed to the old stuff in school.)

    I think we may have finally run down things here, as I’ve dug myself down to the axiomatic anyway. Will Jeff’s dream of 300 comments come true? I suppose it depends how much juice we can get out of “But the sniveling fagots ARE TOO oppressing us! And we valorize their oppression when we admit to writing well!!”

  122. Hal Duncan says

    On a tangential note, I can just about see the notion of fictive poetry, cause narrative started out in verse form, after all; and there are works like Tony Harrison’s “Prometheus” which fuse poetry and drama pretty neatly. But that doesn’t make it anything other than a poem. And when you’re just using sfnal images, you’re just using… um… images. Like any other poem might do. If I refer to Orpheus or Dionysus in my poetry that damn well doesn’t make it fantasy poetry. (“Yes, well, clearly the fantasy poetry tradition goes back to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and Yeats’s Celtic Twilight period! Meh.”)

    That science fiction modifier? It wouldn’t lead me to paint it as less “literary”; it’s still written. I might on the other hand describe it as filk without music.

  123. Hal Duncan says

    It strikes me that pomo was a way of certain sections of the middle class dealt with the failures of 1968 and the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism. Their turn at radical bat ended up not leading to transformation, the Marxian project created slaughterhouses and so pomo was a great way to retreat into a castle in the sky and pull up the ladder after themselves.

    Interesting take on it. I generally see it as an aesthetically-motivated retreat rather than a politically-motivated one, a way that those same people dealt with the failures of the modernist project. Their turn at aesthetic radical bat ended up flirting with fascism, creating a backlash against abstraction (brutalist architecture, atonal music and so on), with kitchen sink realism seen as the only way to be socially relevant; and so pomo was a great way to retreat into those ivory towers and excuse one’s ludic abstraction as not meant to be relevant. I’m not sure the political and aesthetic perspectives aren’t just sides of the same coin though.

    My own interest in earlier metafiction techniques comes from seeing them as *not* ironic distancing techniques (sometimes, maybe,) but instead as more comparable to metafiction as used in the commercial genres and their antecedents (e.g. The Manuscript Found in Saragossa), as techniques of drawing the reader further in, by placing them in the imagined position of being a reader in the fictive world, reading that fictive text. Of course, the fact that it can be used those two opposite ways kind of implies that you’d have to look at each historical instance in context of its era (though with an understanding that it might be at odds with its era) and ask which of those strategies it was applying. Or if it was doing something else entirely.

  124. says

    Yeah, I’ve been thinking of that “literary” label sort of like a lever, something being used to push a meaning one way or the other (depending on which side is operating the lever).

    I think it ties in with what Nick was saying about the vitriolic nature of some of the genre folk in response to “literary”. Which I agree with, to some extent. But I think the ABC thing puts too much of a benevolent spin on the lit folk side, as if they are so internally focused on their own task that they have no attention left for other forms. A benevolent ignorance… but I think it’s much more of a muddle than that. I think some of that genre vitriol comes from the nature of the interactions. That is, with a baseline of literary = valuable why would those on the value end of that judgement be vitriolic? Why would the rich landowner sipping champagne go out of his way to heap abuse on the homeless fellow in the street? He is dismissed as beneath notice. “Let go of my cuff, good fellow, before I become annoyed.” The poor chap, though, might be wondering why he has nothing, and why people think it’s deserved. Viva la Revolution! He might have some pretty harsh things to say about the landowner, and a few ideas about the redistribution of assets. The different responses (from the different ends of the genre/Lit spectrum) arise, at least to my mind, because of the different processes that created them. It’s a different in kind rather than intensity, as disdain can be as prevalent as anger (though generally less overt).

    So I think a lot of that venom comes as a backlash against artistic dismissal. It comes in different forms, too, I think. One is the attempt to adopt the literary, to try and apply some of that literariness to things that do not traditionally hold it. So, you get literary fantasy, literary thrillers, etc. It is, in one sense, a “look at me” sign to push before readers. Partly for practical reasons, with the idea of more completely finding an audience that will appreciate a specific work, but also for value reasons, because of that desire to not be dismissed. I think another response is to define an aesthetic in opposition to that overarching appraisal of value implied in “literary”. So you get a dismissal response as backlash, and you have genre people denigrating “literary” as effete and poncy shit. The Anderson comment Nick quoted is doing this. And, as with that comment, some of the responses are sort of childish. A sort of “No, you suck!” and “Your mother!” scenario builds up.

    The benefit, I think, is that it allows different aesthetics to be built and used. “Value” becomes something with greater breadth and complexity. Instead of a single locus, it might now have multiple focal points. The downside is that this can create a sort of polarization, with two aesthetics defining themselves in opposition to each other, which is what we get at times now. As opposed to a synthesis, a continuum of values varying in type rather than merit. I agree with Nick, though, in that “war” is too strong a word for Genre vs Lit. I think it implies too much of a conscious conflict, too much of overt political goals. I think the power dynamic, the struggle for the interpretation of value, is generally more subsurface. It appears, as Hal suggests, in loaded terms like “literary”, unconsciously rewiring value systems.

    So you get that “literary” label placed on City of Saints and Madmen, and the valuation of that term varies according to who is hauling on that lever. On one side, it’s someone saying “Look, this is better, this has meaning and depth and value.” And on the other it’s someone saying “Don’t read this effete and boring stuff.” Lol, you gotta love labels. I think it ‘s why I like the idea of just saying “Hey, it’s a book. Read it. See it for itself and only itself. What is it trying to do, and how well does it do it?” And then you can (inevitably) start making connections, but instead of Fantasy Novel to Literary Novel you get City of Saints and Madmen to An Invitation to a Beheading. (Had to put two of my favourite book titles together there… figured you wouldn’t mind :))

    Personally, I just want to write good stories, and don’t give much of a shit what it is. It will operate on its own internal logic (at least if the story works). Like with Finch, I’m guessing. You could talk about it as fantasy, you could talk about it as Noir… but likely the best way to talk about it is as Finch, as this thing in and of itself. (When does it drop in stores again? Particularly Canadian stores…) I often don’t think much about what a story I’m writing is (in a definitional sense) until I’m finished it and start toying with the idea of publication. Where to send it? A lit mag? A fantasy mag? Which, I guess, takes us back to that tension between artistic classifications and marketing ones. Hey, now we can start the whole conversation over again…

  125. Hal Duncan says

    Of course, there are people who ONLY read hard SF and ONLY read Twilight or, as I think Jeff discovered once, only read John Saul. So what?

    Honestly? I’m just interested in it. I mean, OK, what attracted me to sf/f initially, and then to the New Wave as I realised it was there, and into experimentalism and modernism as I expanded my horizons, and genre literature, and literature in general, was this strangeness I’m trying to articulate in that theory. From an escapist point of view at first, then from an intellectual and emotional interest. Having connected with the community via a writer’s circle of folk with highly varied tastes, with nobody trying to impose their agenda, I’ve always found the factionalism of fandom strange in its own right. My immediate response to that factionalism was pretty much to ignore it, or mock it, or occasionally — back a ways, when I realised that with Vellum and Ink I was going to be stuck in the middle of it — to let rip against it on the blog.

    But the more I thought about, the more, for me, there’s a notional overlay of strange and queer. I mean, this tension in genre between wanting “more of the same” and wanting “something different”, in a very abstract sense, speaks to general social patterns of response to the strange. Does it challenge certainties? Is that threatening? Is it interesting? Do people adopt ideologies around that? How do those ideologies clash with each other? How do they treat individuals that represent opposing ideologies or the underlying source of the conflict — the strange? Here’s this huge field of literature which, when you look at it from the modality point of view is all about deviance from expectations, and there’s a whole host of attitudes surrounding what kind of deviance is acceptable and what isn’t.

    To some extent, I suppose it’s sort of a queer theory of literature, looking at how readers desire the strange (as in orientalism?) but want it delimited in identifiable genera (as in families, as in races?) to the extent of othering “enemy” genres on the basis of signifiers of deviation that can, in fact, be found within the genre advocated as one’s own (abjection). But it’s a way of approaching such mechanisms in a media where that strangeness isn’t intrinsically to do with sexuality or gender or race or class or whatever, so you don’t have quite the same ethical loading of terms. But at the same time exploring those mechanisms with an eye to audience does open up paths of interrogation that you *might* explore.

  126. Nick Mamatas says

    I don’t believe literary fiction and its defenders/practitioners are “rich landowners”, especially not part of a dynamic in which rich landowners imply the subsequent existence homeless people. Certainly, lit people see themselves as homeless people compared to The Secret and Dr. Phill and Paris Hilton’s My Life As a Dog or whatever.

    Literary fiction is the property of an emergent middle class, and the middle is always in an odd position. Intraclass unity is nigh impossible, and the punishment for being too uppity is exile into the lower classes. At the same time, the ruling echelons is just out of reach. Ultimately, literary fiction is heavily subsidized in its production, which certainly makes it seem a bit glamorous: easy teaching gigs, retreats and sabbaticals, grants and prizes from every level of government and from non-profit foundations. And yet the end result of this culture industry is a scam and a star system: it’s a way to get people working in publishing for peon wages and writers working in the university as adjuncts for $1200 a credit.

    (For genre, publishing’s solution for writers was simpler. Starve ‘em out and make them write three books a year. Control the bylines, produce stock covers and sales information. It’s proletarianization—the genre writer is on an assembly line. The literary writer is someone’s dumb nephew doing makework and paper shuffling.)

    Or, to put it another way let me ask how many people here read a lot of romance novels. Do you closely follow romance news in order to find that genre’s best, or at least the best examples of that genre? Why not? Likely, it’s because it just doesn’t interest you, and yet I doubt anyone here feels like a rich landowner vis-a-vis the homeless romance author.

  127. Nick Mamatas says

    Honestly? I’m just interested in it.

    Okay. :)

    I suppose I’m not all that interested in it, not anymore than I am deadly interested in why some people like Pop-Tarts and other people like yoghurt mixed with fruit. It is much less fraught than race, class, sexuality, performativity of these, etc. so to me just doesn’t even really rate the use of the same tools to examine. I suppose that I am ultimately only interested in the people who would appreciate that “indie” or Outposts section of a bookstore, which is why I make very little money with my writing. But I’ll live. For a while, anyway.

  128. says

    Nick, I see where you’re coming from, but it still seems a little too innocent and kindly to me. Yes, the literary writers might see themselves as homeless in comparison to Celebrity Memoirs… but only in the sense of monetary reompense and attention. Certainly not in any sense of “value”. If they’re angry, it’s because the money is going to things without any inherent value.

    I own a bookstore, and while that doesn’t do much for me, it does let me observe a very large number of readers and how they view books and genres. Let’s look at that Romance notion. I think it’s kind of benevolent to say that the lit folk don’t read Romance because it’s not their thing. It might not be, yes, but I see a vast majority who, often without reading any of it, will denounce it as formulaic crap. They wouldn’t be caught dead with a Danielle Steel novel, let alone a Harlequin. That has to do with value judgments and the resulting issues of image, taste, etc. And so a class structure comparison seems fairly apt to my eyes. I think both systems are operating, the personal taste system entangled with the underlying value structure. I mean, I admit I’ve made such value judgments. I’m guessing most of us have. I’m not happy about it, and try not to. But I’ve done it. Hopefully, though, thinking about and trying to understand some of those underlying value structures will help me from jumping to too many stupid conclusions.

  129. Nick Mamatas says

    Right Bryan, but my question was: do YOU read romance? Do you seek out its avant-garde or its virtuosos?

    Some growing number of academics do. http://iaspr.org/membership/

    I doubt it is, ultimately, possible to go without value judgments in a world full of books. For the most part, unless someone starts ranting about “sniveling fagots” in the front pages of a major anthology, I have no problem withholding my own value judgments and looking for the most benevolent interpretations of the actions of literary folk. This has become easier, honestly, having met a very large number of them through AWP, FC2’s workshops, working for Grub Street, going back to grad school, etc. The snootiness SF people often tilt at just isn’t there very often, and when it is it is usually from the least of the litfolk there (annoying students and whatnot).

  130. says

    Nick,

    No, I don’t. Partly, as you suggest, because it’s not my thing. And partly, as I frankly admitted, because I occasionally succumb to such value judgments. And very typically, I think. At least, however, I try to understand and assert myself against such internalized values. Which, I should add, is atypical in my experience.

    I think offering benevolent interpretations of actions is good in any specific sense, in any sense when talking with a particular person. But on the larger level I think it’s also a little dangerous. I mean, it’s wonderful that a few scholars are taking Romance seriously and studying it. More of this should happen. But I don’t think it negates that subsurface structure of value pervasive in the culture. I think they co-exist, with stuff like the iaspr operating in tension with the dominant norm, those underlying judgments.

    Even then, I might be exaggerating in using “dominant”. It’s like your ABCs… I agreed with B (there are people happily reading everything), and in a sense with A and C too – but only with the understanding that there are other interpretations of A and C as well. So, “dominant”… it’s hard to say, because it’s hard to measure the prevalence of such amorphous cultural patterns. What’s the ratio? Especially since that ratio will change (helped on, likely, by such things as the iaspr). But I don’t want to gloss over the fact that it’s there. It is. I see it all the time. And I think an awareness of that can be important, if only to counteract that unsightly class tension. And I think taking a benevolent view, at least in specific (personal) cases, is probably a good way to start (as it’s more likely to breed dialogue than conflict).

    Of course, I doubt anyone’s taking me seriously anymore after the squid costume thing…

  131. says

    “Personally, I just want to write good stories, and don’t give much of a shit what it is.”

    And this is where literature is these days. Joyce Carol Oates is writing Zombie, one mean horror novel crossed with an unsolved mystery (unsolved in the world of the novel, that is; we, being in the mind of the murderer, know exactly whodunnnit). Michael Chabon is writing in a different genre every time he picks up his pen, from horror to pirate stories to mysteries to SF. Straightforward fantasy stories are being published in The New Yorker.

    Looks to me like there’s been a true return to STORY. We’re done with the cute little stories and novels in which nothing at all happens, but we learn a lot about a character. We’re interested in plot again (it had gone out of style for a while). We’re bored with stories that are nothing but word games –which doesn’t mean that we don’t want our work games — oh, yes, we do! — but it means that we want more. We want a book we can disappear into on a single level only, if that’s what we choose — reading Chabon’s The Final Solution just for the Holmes pastiche, for instance — but we also want the opportunity to read more deeply if the opportunity presents itself (and we expect that it will). But we once again want a beginning, a middle and an end. If we get to argue endlessly over what the beginning, the middle and the end all mean once we’re done with the book — well, that’s why book clubs are so popular these days, and book blogs, and all the rest.

    Part of this is because we no longer have authority to rely upon to tell us what’s good literature and what isn’t. The newspaper is dying, and with it the tastemaking it used to go about with its dedicated book section. We have to look to book clubs and book blogs and all the rest in order to know what to think about a book — but the people in these book clubs and writing these book blogs are just PEOPLE, they’re not Michiko Kakutani, so we can actually have an argument or a discussion with them.

    My guess is that more people are talking about books in more ways these days than was true 20 years ago, before the internet. And more people are finding out about more books they’re interested in. True, this isn’t translating into more sales of new literature overall — not yet, anyway — but it does mean that there’s a greater market for used books than there ever was. And more people are writing than ever did when they had to do it longhand and no one would read it. It’s kinda fascinating, ain’t it?

    Having been singled out as the sole female voice around here, I am reluctant to but must now bow out. I’m leaving for eight computerless days on vacation tomorrow. I expect to find 150 new posts on this thread for me to read when I come back, so get busy.

  132. says

    I’ll fully admit to not having read all of the above comments, but what I DID read sent me into the literature section of the bookstore last night in search of Wonder Boys by Chabon. (reading Terry’s post above right before posting this is a happy coincidence)

    That’s really all I had to add, hearing the literature vs genre debate gave me an urge to branch out a bit in my reading. That and I’m rabidly excited to return to my TagShadow project, which is totally relevant to the discussion if I can ever make it work.

  133. Scott Bakker says

    The problem can’t be an attitude of superiority, Nick, because that’s something we all do all the time. You don’t have to be snooty to think you’re right. Everybody thinks they’ve magically lucked into the one true yardstick, especially if they complain about it all the time like me. The problem is the way ‘story-telling values’ have been institutionalized. Too many smart, incredibly talented people are spending too much time writing for people who pretty much agree with pretty much everything they say, when what we should be doing, it seems to me, is aiming our provocations at readers who can actually be provoked. How many Bush voters have read the Rabbit tetrology, I wonder? Like Adorno and Horkheimer predicted, ‘literature’ seems to have become high-end intellectual entertainment, branded and marketed so as to avoid reaching readers who might actually be challenged or engaged. Which is just to say that there’s no such thing as ‘literature’ anymore, isn’t it?

    It’s genre all the way down. Blokes like us, just going through the self-congratulatory motions. Pretending to change the world, one semantic drip at a time, when really we’re just passing the hand cream to other members of the choir.

    Which is shitty because the next George Bush might not be so harmless.

  134. says

    Scott,

    I’d agree with you, but only to a point. The way your comment is structured seems to become so generalized that it makes it hard to examine it in detail. While I’m not disputing there are “yardsticks” or “institutions,” I think the more important questions would have to be how such things arose and if they truly are monolithic in their nature. Your comment on writers “spending too much time writing for people who pretty much agree with pretty much everything they say” may be true for some writers and some audiences, but can it be tested and verified? What lit journals or book imprints would you hold up as being examples of this “institutionalization?” I subscribe to Conjunctions now and I can’t say there are any real dominant styles or story motifs there, perhaps in part due to the journal utilizing themes for each issue and for there being a wide range of authors being solicited for stories. Not for sure if I can see it in The Southern Review either, the little bit I’ve read of it. Curious to know which journals/institutions you have in mind.

    As for the “literature” being branded/marketed in an exclusionary fashion, where’s the breaking point there? I’m not quite seeing it, unless you want to delve into cultural divides in the literary superstructure? I think your argument would be stronger if you could at least explore the fissures a bit more than noting that the fissures exist and that it’s all a shell game in the end.

  135. says

    Scott: What I’m wondering is how can you challenge ‘conservative’ thinking, which hinges on isolating its worldview from outside influence. I mean, fundamentalists want to burn Harry Potter, for the sake of Cripes. HARRY POTTER. So, let’s just pretend for a second that Harry Potter contained potentially subversive values, unorthodox thought about culture or politics, or even really deep philosophical questions. Those conservative thinkers (hereafter ‘the unenlightened’) would be a million times more scared of the IDEAS contained in that book, and a million times less likely to really read it with anything approaching an open mind.

    I think what I’m getting at is this: the only people who allow themselves to be challenged are those who are seeking new insights, new perspectives, new IDEAS. A ‘liberal’ thinker. The truly liberal thinker is also very rare. Because we aren’t just talking about the mind that would read Updike in contrast to the reactionary Bush supporter. We are talking about the mind who would read also the Turner Diaries and would still have no fear that they would poisoned by harmful IDEAS. An exceptionally rare sort of mind that doesn’t mind going outside of the box to make its decisions about reading or anything else.

    People preach to the choir because it is easy. The choir is usually willing to pay for what it wants to hear, too, which ain’t half bad. But the minute you stop and really ponder how to recruit new members into the Choir of the Enlightened Thinker, you realize you can’t. They have to volunteer. You aren’t going to trick them into accepting radical notions by changing your marketing strategy (how many anarchists has Chumbawumba converted?).

    Even if you are simply talking about notions of Art commenting on Art, the unenlightened mind isn’t going to care. Keep shining a flashlight in their eyes and you’ll find yourself passing Rowling on the top of the fearmonger hitlist. Or, worse yet, simply ignored.

  136. Nick Mamatas says

    Everybody thinks they’ve magically lucked into the one true yardstick, especially if they complain about it all the time like me.

    Garsh, I’ve managed to say things like “I have no opinion on that” a whole bunch of times, when asked about some music or some book I’ve never listened to or when passing by a restaurant I’ve never entered. My yardsticks have changed over time even about things I do care about as well, but then again reading is my major hobby — really, messing with my aesthetic yardsticks is my major hobby. It’s not a popular hobby, but what of it?

    It’s no news that people tend to read the literature (or the news) they already agree with. I don’t think the tippy-top of superstructure is the best place for provocations. If my own work contains politics, it is because I find politics interesting, not because I’m recruiting for The Revolution. Mere exposure to ideas is hardly enough anyway. Bob Black’s reminiscence may be handy here:

    “When I was in junior high school, in the 60’s, we were assigned Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience.’ Spontaneously and as one the students (I was probably one of them) rose up — this was in a public school in a middle-class liberal suburb — to denounce Thoreau’s anarchist madness. The teacher didn’t train us to react that way. It came naturally to adolescents habituated to hierarchy by schooling and the family, even if (as was the case) they believed in civil rights and soon smoked pot and opposed the Vietnam War. The teacher had to play Devil’s — that is, Thoreau’s — Advocate as no student would. Now Thoreau’s essay is as good an introduction to constructive anarchism as any. He is no revolutionary. He has the added advantages of being a native-born Yankee, not an immigrant and/or Jew, and enjoying consecration by the curriculum as a classic American author. He does not even use the stigmatizing word ‘anarchism.’ If he met with unanimous dismissal it is because his ideas were unpopular. They still are.”

  137. Scott Bakker says

    I think the old lines ARE blurring and breaking down, that less and less talent is being directed at the literary choir and being smeared across culture as a whole. I’m just afraid it isn’t happening fast enough.

    This issue is somewhat more pointed for Canadians, I think, simply because of the cultural domination of American media is so complete. ‘Canadian Literature’ is institutionalized through a number of agencies similar to the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA, which gives many Canadian genre writers pretty direct experience with the kinds of institutional forces involved. The ‘Canadian content’ requirement is a pretty obvious criterion. Okay, I get that. It’s the ‘literature’ criteria which I find so problematic. Anything ‘generic’ is automatically excluded, the idea being that popular/commercial conventions are inherently antithetical to aesthetic experience. Anything spectacular is also automatically excluded – note that this does not include the ‘fantastic,’ which is quite alright so long as it fits a more quotidian mold.

    This has been consistently the case for the Canada Council for the Arts for year after year, adjudicatory committee after adjudicatory committee, simply because of the kinds of values held by the people in positions of cultural power – and the dispensation of hundreds of millions of dollars is nothing if not power. I learned very quickly that I needed to stop talking Conan the Barbarian if I wanted to be taken seriously in my literature classes, that I had to adopt the aesthetic values and attitudes of the choir if I wanted to sing.

    Humans possess a hardwired appreciation for conventionality and spectacle – thus Homer, Hollywood, Bollywood, my youthful love of Conan, and so on. I find it hard to believe, since neither conventionality nor spectacle is intrinsically antithetical to art, that the exile of these two components from the ‘serious’ (as defined by literary specialists) is anything more than an example of another human institution developing values that allow it to self-identify over and against some self-congratulatory notion of the ‘vulgar masses.’ The hoi fucking polloi.

    This has produced a system where potentially critical voices go to university and have their values retooled so that they generally AVOID writing for the greater community – because that would require embracing conventionality and spectacle – and instead stick with readers who have had their values likewise retooled. And I think this has been an out and out cultural disaster. DeLillo is always my favourite example. What a waste of critical genius at a time when the world needs it the most.

    If you want to provoke evangelicals (outside the classroom, where you can hammer them with Thoreau or any of the other dead white guys), write genre. Rowling certainly got them clucking and flapping. Use conventions. Use spectacle. And do so better than the apologists, those who have no ambition other than to entertain, and you will reach readers who despise everything you stand for. You have to piss in THEIR soup, not yours and your friends’, if you want to screw with peoples’ assumptions.

    If you take a pragmatic definition of LITERATURE to simply be ‘fiction that challenges assumptions,’ as opposed to ENTERTAINMENT as ‘fiction that reinforces assumptions,’ then I would argue that there’s precious little LITERATURE to be found in what’s called ‘literature’ – that it’s mostly ENTERTAINMENT, and a growing amount of LITERATURE in what is typically considered ENTERTAINMENT, that is, genre. Why? Because you cannot define either literature or entertainment absent what they do to actual readers. You can’t say that DeLillo’s Underworld is literature because it would freak evangelicals out IF they were to read it. Underworld, I think, is an obvious example of the kind of intellectualised entertainment that passes for ‘literature’ nowadays. Shite passed off for gold.

  138. says

    “literature classes”

    I think that’s the problem right there. If we are applying classroom rubric to what we can and cannot create artistically, art would never advance, evolve, or be worthwhile. Maybe things are really different in Canada. Maybe I’m just naive. But is ‘literature’ really being cultivated in the classroom, then fed back into the system for it to reabsorb? If that’s really the case, I’m glad I never took a literature course. Seems like a (not vicious, because that would imply it is potentially dangerous, which implies challenging) cycle without end.

    And yet, literature does change. So what is the impetus that causes it to change? External lit markets bleeding over? Cross pollination with genre writing? Decrees from the Canadian Board of What to Write?

  139. Nick Mamatas says

    Scott, I can’t say I’m familiar with that definition of literature, or why it would be practical. It certainly sounds like an interesting or worthy goal, but as last century’s revolution is often this century’s status quo, I’m not sure how practical a definition of literature it is. (I thought about that a bit on the occasion of Poe’s bicentennary.) It also tends to leave out the power of counter-reading, which is crucial.

    As far as the evangelicals, that’s shooting a fish in a barrel anyway.

    State-subsidized literature will almost always serve the state, and market literature will almost always serve the market. There are little cracks to squirm into, of course, as nothing can ever truly totalize except in that magical, horrible moment, where the territory becomes the map. My own experience with subsidized Canadian fiction periodicals were positive–I had stories in the last two issues of subTERRAIN. One was a postapocyalptic story told in the peculiar cant of a member of the Five Percent Nation, the other a collaboration with Davis Schneiderman in which I shared snippets of old term paper assignments from my days as an academic ghost writer and Prof. Schneiderman responded to them. Plus, unlike “underground” publications on this side of the border, subTERRAIN paid well and the handsome issues were released without delay. Perhaps more subterranean culture needs state subsidy!

  140. Shryke says

    Scot:[i]Humans possess a hardwired appreciation for conventionality and spectacle – thus Homer, Hollywood, Bollywood, my youthful love of Conan, and so on. I find it hard to believe, since neither conventionality nor spectacle is intrinsically antithetical to art, that the exile of these two components from the ’serious’ (as defined by literary specialists) is anything more than an example of another human institution developing values that allow it to self-identify over and against some self-congratulatory notion of the ‘vulgar masses.’ The hoi fucking polloi.

    This has produced a system where potentially critical voices go to university and have their values retooled so that they generally AVOID writing for the greater community – because that would require embracing conventionality and spectacle – and instead stick with readers who have had their values likewise retooled. And I think this has been an out and out cultural disaster. DeLillo is always my favourite example. What a waste of critical genius at a time when the world needs it the most.”[/i]

    I’ve begun to think the whole idea of “genres” is exclusionary. It’s part of the whole idea of “Literary Fiction”, which I think Hal Duncan nailed on the head by comparing it to the phrase “Manly Men”. By it’s very name, it defines everything else as “not REAL literature”. Genre writing becomes “that OTHER kind of writing”. The non-serious one.

    If you include things like, as you mention, conventionality and spectacle, you’ve suddenly put yourself in a genre and are no longer “Literary Fiction” (ie – not ‘real’ literature anymore)

  141. Andrew Cooper says

    “The problem there, of course, is that one might have a similar reaction to the single piece of fantasy he or she has ever read, and then write a big ol’ post about the falseness of fantasy which is all about dragons and killer cell phones and the obvious childish wish-fulfillment of the socially crippled nerds who read the stuff.”

    Yeah, Nick, because the greatest artists have always been incredibly socially adroit.

  142. Andrew C says

    “The problem there, of course, is that one might have a similar reaction to the single piece of fantasy he or she has ever read, and then write a big ol’ post about the falseness of fantasy which is all about dragons and killer cell phones and the obvious childish wish-fulfillment of the socially crippled nerds who read the stuff.”

    Yeah, Nick, because most great artists have been incredibly socially adroit.

  143. Shryke says

    [italic]How is literary fiction not utterly limned with conventionality again?[/italic]

    It’s the ‘right kind’ of conventionality though.

  144. Andrew C says

    Oh, yes, “literary fiction” (what the heck does that even mean?) is intrinsically superior to anything fantastical or exciting.

    Man, when I read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” I was blown away by its epic power. Wow… two people talking about something in a train station. Oh my god… it was about an abortion?? I immediately wept because it was SUCH a powerful statement!

  145. says

    We are talking about the mind who would read also the Turner Diaries and would still have no fear that they would poisoned by harmful IDEAS.

    People don’t read The Turner Diaries because they’re afraid of the ideas? I thought it was because it’s such a terrible book. Niche novels that get their starts reinforcing the beliefs of fringe social movements often are. I got burned on The Celestine Prophecy; somebody with more reputation for taste than Tim McVeigh or the James Byrd murderers is going to have to make the case if I’m going to put my hand back in the fire.

  146. says

    “People don’t read The Turner Diaries because they’re afraid of the ideas? I thought it was because it’s such a terrible book.”

    Well, obviously there is more than one reason not read The Turner Diaries, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the best test for an open mind is to see if someone has read that particular book. As, of course, the 2nd half of the sentence you quote clarifies quite nicely. The corollary being something like this: I wouldn’t call anyone a liberal thinker who refuses to read subject matter which they may disagree with, even when that subject matter itself may not represent liberal thought. I’d also like to add, I’ve never read The Turner Diaries, but I have read bits of Mein Kampf. Rest assured, I still think Nazism is a really bad idea.

  147. Nick Mamatas says

    And then there was this book about a midget trying to throw away a ring but some black people wanted to stop him, and occasionally people would break into song haw haw!

    Anyone can play “silly summary” with anything, as we’ve seen by the abuse of “Hills Like White Elephants” above. It’s just not something to take seriously, and as Jeff keeps hyping this convo as an interesting thread, I wonder if anyone can do a little better than “Waaah, waaah, imaginary people might make fun of the stories I like!” and “Here I am, an actual person making fun of stories other people do like!”

  148. Ilya Popov says

    It might be helpful to remember that genre designation (this includes ‘literary fiction’) is contingent upon the marketing team and respective marketing campaign. And considering the conscious and subconscious influence that marketing campaigns can have upon people (award panels included), the qualities & criteria defining literary fiction are quite loose & vague.

    As someone who spent many a year locked with the academic institution, and having asked many a time (to no ultimate answer from any number of professors) “When does a work of fiction enter the canon and what makes said work ‘literature’?” Four universities later, no one has provided a satisfying answer. Many a conversation later amongst people asking the same question, the best answer that we’ve been able to find is as follows: Societies seek to express/present values and tastes that they think are of a superior quality, and they seek to express that in their art. Thus, literary fiction. So there’s an in-built desire to reflect society’s standards and tastes. Though a few gatecrashers are allowed to the party, per generation.

    Though I like to think things are slowly changing, as economic success becomes a larger validation than social acceptance by the would-be gatekeepers of our society (as one of my professors once called his fellow professors). And the internet is certainly breaking down the importance and influence of the academic guardians of taste even more; a greater variety of sub-genres and sub-niches are obtaining the kind of exposure that would not have been possible even ten years ago.

    All this is good for fiction, and bad for literary fiction, which will, I guarantee you, find itself become more and more socially and economically irrelevant in the coming years.

  149. says

    Nick,

    I can do better, but I’m stuck having to get a bunch of paperwork done in advance of a state inspection of my workplace on Thursday, so my thoughts might be few and far between until then. I’m a fan of Naturalist writing longer than I’ve been a fan of speculative writing, but something tells me not too many people are interested in discussing whether or not Zola ought to be “literary fiction” or not…

  150. Nick Mamatas says

    I’m a fan of Naturalist writing longer than I’ve been a fan of speculative writing, but something tells me not too many people are interested in discussing whether or not Zola ought to be “literary fiction” or not…

    Indeed no, they’re not. I guess I’m also not interested in discussing literary fiction (whatever that may be) when the rhetorical tactic is shaping up to be “It’s st00pid, haw haw. Neeeeeerd!” which doesn’t strike me as much different than what folks are rubbing their butts and complaining about. “I went to college…and and I said that *snif snif* the Pern books were awesome..and THE LAUGHED AT ME!!!” *BURSTS into tears*

    If there’s a difference, I find that many of the bad experiences one might have had with people pooh-poohing SF either didn’t actually happen after all or wasn’t representative of the entire literary/academic establishment (whatever THAT is), but the empty comments over HLWE is happening right now and right in front of me.

  151. says

    Yeah, the Hemingway comments seem a little unfortunate. I rather love Hemingway’s short fiction, and often think it’s better than his novels. His style of surface and submerged content seems more effective, to me, in the shorter works. And of his novels, my favourite was always Old Man and the Sea, which is really more of a novella. I can’t remember how many pages it was… but it wasn’t too many. That story, to me, seemed both luxurious and beautifully tight.

    But you still haven’t convinced me, Nick, that there isn’t a strong value ratio at work in our culture. It still seems pretty pervasive to me, with value judgments leading to artistic dismissals, which in turn lead to reprisals. The problem is that some of the reprisals seem pretty ineffective. “Your mother!” “No, your mother!”

    Really, I think the best reprisal for any such perceived value disparity is simply to do what Jeff is doing, and Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem are doing. What a host of interesting writers are doing. And that’s simply to write great stories irregardless of genre typing. Write great stories that blur those boundaries and make that genre typing ever more difficult, or even impossible. Now, as a bookstore owner, that’s sort of making work for myself. Where do I shelve the bloody things? But I like having that problem if it means lots of interesting stories are being produced. Because if it’s a great story I can usually hand-sell it wherever it might be shelved. Readers, in the end, usually want good books more than anything. Or maybe I’m just suave…

    Nah, I think they just want good books.

  152. says

    Skimming through this, there seems to be a striking reversal of what you’d expect about the notions of genre as literary form and the notion of genre as marketing. You’d expect people to argue that literary forms are as objective as things get in fiction and marketing terms are the meaningless terms. But it seems that people want to argue the nonexistence of literary form. Yet, the logical implication, that therefore all marketing categories are justified by the interests of the publishers, somehow seems to be argued. Really, if genre is a false concept, then there is no justifiable criticism of marketing other than bleats about how it affects you personally.

    Speaking as a reader, the common tendency to mash together science fiction and fantasy in one set of shelves, while simultaneously throwing some select titles of both into young adult or general fiction or possibly even “classics,” makes it hard to find titles that might be interesting. Marketing that actually took account genre forms would actually be much more helpful. So there’s my bleat about how marketing affects me personally.

    As for the notion that there is some sort of literary genre, I suppose you could make a case that the epiphany is a genre, being a sort of fiction that might reasonably be argued is not a series of actions by characters, i.e., a story. And it seems to be real popular in academia. Vignettes seems to be real popular too.

    But the various commonly accepted genres are something like tonal music. You expect, at the end, a certain kind of relaxation of tension, a certain king of emotional payoff, that final chord in the proper key that sounds The End. And there’s serial or other atonal music, where you don’t. The very common feeling that genre works are somehow inferior seem to me to be exactly the same feeling that leads people to take nonfiction more seriously than fiction. Playing with genre tropes, dialoguing with genre expectations, variations on genre formulas have the appeal of play.

    But play is generally regarded wth less respect that the weighty, the solemn, the ponderous and, oh, yes, surely that occasionally slips in as well, the true. Works that don’t try to please their readers with the novelty of their variations on the genre, or surprise them with a shock of recognition when they disguise it, are making a different kind of appeal. It may not be any truer to life, no wiser, no more an epitome of the human condition. But it is written differently. Here too, marketing is not very helpful. Many books listed under general fiction are just widely accepted genres like rags to riches, or widely popular authors of specific genres. It may be public relations to dub it literary, but it is roughly identifiable.

    Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a nice example of the kinds of issues that arise. It happens to follow the basic conventions of alternate history rather well. So, it’s science fiction. But it is basically Philip Roth’s fantasy of himself as a persecuted Jew. This led to omission of the African American experience from the novel. This kind of personalism just is not part of the commonly expected interest of the alternate history genre, which is why it wasn’t terrribly popular amongst fans of this particular genre. Still, much of its pleasure lay in the superficial plausibility of the alternate history. Most of the reviewers I saw seemed oblivious to the very question of how well Roth imagined his imaginary history. I gather the academic critics don’t really know what to make of the novel. (I suspect that Mr. Roth had actually read some alternate history. But maybe his critical acumen led him to realize how important the appearance of rationality was, that to ignore would have been unstylish.) How is the book marketed? General fiction. If he hadn’t been famous I never would have found it, like I wouldn’t have found Mailer’s Hitler fantasy.

    I enjoyed it so much that I tried his next novel, also a personal fantasy (in the daydream sense, not the literary sense.) Without the pleasure along the way of the alternate history, it was too tedious for me. Regardless of my personal reaction, that one too was marketed as general fiction. Surely Philip Roth is literary if anything is. He is taken seriously, and his books are regarded as somehow weightier or truer (though I imagine the consensus will be that Plot is a lapse from grace.) Claiming that Plot isn’t alternate history doesn’t add to understanding the novel. Claiming that the notion of genre categories like alternate history is wrongheaded just confounds confusion further. Complaining that the book might not have been properly marketed is venting.

  153. Nick Mamatas says

    Really, I think the best reprisal for any such perceived value disparity is simply to do what Jeff is doing, and Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem are doing.

    Bryan: this is rather strong evidence, I think, that the “strong value ratio” that concerns you isn’t nearly so strong as you believe it to be. Were the value ratio all that powerful, the New Yorker wouldn’t be running stories about minotaurs or alien invasions or <a href="http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2009/05/04/090504fi_fiction_hareven&quot;.futures in which humans are part of nature preserves. (These three examples are from 2009 alone, which is hardly half over.)

    (Of course, one can complain about the quality of these stories, but the same is so for the stories that appear in the three major SF digests as well. It’s not like the huff’n’puffers are submitting their stories to The New Yorker.)

    The huff’n’puffers are fighting the last war, the one that–not to put too fine a point on it–better writers have already won.

  154. says

    Nick, I’d agree with that, to an extent. I think the perceived values are starting to shift. And they’re starting to shift because writers are following this program. Great cross-genre stories have received public acclaim and have started making it “okay” to do this. That is, a re-examination of value is starting to take place, at least on some levels. But the very fact that it’s shifting shows that it’s there, in some senses. You’re noting the New Yorker for the very fact that it’s somewhat unusual for them to do this. The fantastic has not been high on the list of their values over the decades. So, yes, a shift is taking place. A sort of critical popularity allows this: stories that impress readers… and critics, too.

    But I think that such a value shift starts with the success of certain stories and writers (Chabon and Lethem are good examples). This is picked up by some who have influence in shaping those value ratios (the New Yorker). But it takes awhile to filter down through other levels, through Academia, through readers on the street. And I talk with dozens of readers everyday, and I still see examples of these attitudes pretty firmly entrenched. Hopefully the shift continues, and these different (and more egalitarian) values continue to drift down and take root in the general consciousness. But it’s quite possible that it could be derailed. A return shift, say, to micro-realism, a reaction against the leaking in of the fantastic. Hopefully not. I’m thinking some of these forms have gained enough momentum to push through and continue on. They’ve kicked some doors down, and entry is going to be a little easier from now on.

    And as this filtering process continues I’m guessing you’ll also see a reduction in some of those genre-defensive comments you’ve rightly noted. Because I still often see these as rooted in emotional reprisals cued to the sense of dismissal and artistic devaluation that people see around themselves. And the more that shift takes place, the more that genre forms and techniques are given a place within the value discussion, the less we’ll see those overly aggressive reprisals. There will be less to bark at, then.

    Unless, of course, the ASL (Anti Squid League) takes over. Doom upon us all, then…

  155. Nick Mamatas says

    I tend to think that we will actually see MORE overaggression (whether they are reprisals or not).

    SF in particular has a large number of Kings of the Shitheap who don’t want academic attention, don’t want women involved, who don’t want the sort of qualities in stories that people interested in literary fiction may enjoy, who see any change to the genre as a personal affront and a threat to their own perceived power.

    I have absolutely no problem saying that as much of a hothouse as academia is, the hardcore of SF fandom is worse, and that it attracts the socially handicapped to a greater extent than academia (at least the humanities, no go on mathematics) does. Pretty much any of the ranting of Dave Truesdale is a good example of what I am talking about, and that someone like Trusdale can actually be a somewhat significant voice in SF shows how dessicated the community is.

    (Not surprisingly, Truesdale, nearly forty years after Anderson, is also worried about those “sniveling fagots” as can be seen here. The end result of such babble was that the editor of a major SF/F magazine gave Truesdale a column.)

    Complaints about the lit world is also a convenient excuse for any personal career failures a writer might experience as well.

    Again, I’ve offered up any number of links. All you have, frankly, are unattributed attitudes from bookstore shoppers that you only casually describe. Like I said, show me a major literary fiction anthology in which SF writers, fans, or characters are called “sniveling fagots” or anything on par with such a slur.

  156. says

    Well, again, I think the tone of the comments (reprisals) differ because of the different processes that have gone into creating them. I think one of the underlying attitudes (and the “one of” is important here – this isn’t a blanket statement) of the “literary” is to dismiss rather than to insult. They’ve dismissed it (often without reading it), and simply ignore it. It’s not worth criticial engagement. And as a response to this dismissal of their chosen genre some people get mighty angry. And part of this dynamic, as I mentioned before, will often be valuing a counter-aesthetic, an aesthetic developed in specific contention with another and defined against it. Your “Kings of the Shitheap”, as it were.

    Now, I agree some of this genre response is childish and vitriolic. (Though the bit about attracting the socially handicapped seems a dangerous generalization.) And I’ve never heard of Truesdale, so I can’t speak about him specifically. But there will always be individuals who stand out for their loaded opinions, and I’ve heard enough literary writers tearing into the “crap” of Dan Brown or Stephanie Myers to know that his ilk exist on the other side (I mean, lots of them haven’t even read Dan Brown or Stephanie Myers).

    I guess what I’m saying is that I entirely see your point about genre responses. I just can’t agree that these responses are coming out of a vacuum and are totally self-generated. There is, in my view, an ongoing and often unconcscious play of culture going on, a back-and-forth with aesthetic value on the line. I don’t think you can look at the genre folk crying “snivelling faggots” without looking at some of the roots of their dissatisfaction (outside the occasional moment of outright madness and cultural dementia). I don’t think those verbal actions can be isolated.

  157. Nick Mamatas says

    I don’t think there are worthwhile excuses for calling people “sniveling faggots.”

    Especially not, “Some time, somewhere, a sniveling faggot was dismissive of me because I was so awesome and not impressed with his faggotry.”

  158. says

    Though this also brings to my mind the idea of actual demographics and what the readership of the different forms consists of. Makes me wonder about class divisions and how they might inform the debate on aesthetic value. I’d be interested to see statistics on that. I wonder if anyone has done that sort of study, breaking down social information on readers in connection with genre choices? Might be interesting.

  159. says

    Hmmm… a root cause does not indicate a “worthwhile excuse”. Two wrongs, obviously, don’t make a right. But because the second wrong is, well, horribly wrong, it doesn’t mean the first wrong didn’t exist. I mean, genre folk have lots of different options for response. The “snivelling faggot” response is a poor one. Really, it’s quite beyond poor. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on that’s worth a response… hopefully, though, just a better one. I don’t think you can stop such ridiculous “snivelling faggot” responses without understanding some of the reasons they’ve come about. The bigotry of that particular response might be rooted outside the discussion, but there are still the artistic aspects of the argument. Nothing excuses such comments… but they generally don’t arrive out of a vacuum.

  160. says

    “SF in particular has a large number of Kings of the Shitheap who don’t want academic attention, don’t want women involved, who don’t want the sort of qualities in stories that people interested in literary fiction may enjoy, who see any change to the genre as a personal affront and a threat to their own perceived power.”

    Nick has a point. There seems to be an almost ethnic comparison that can be made (thus genre ghetto) where each faction has its own culture and leadership. The tinpot dictators of each genre and sub-genre fear The Literary Man taking away their best and brightest followers or changing the rules of the game they are used to playing. Neither dictator nor the Man really pay any attention to what the 3rd world subjects are really crying out for. And neither really really trust guys like Chabon, or even gals like Lauren Groff, because their loyalties have not been engraved on a recognizable monument.

    Contrariwise, Chabon and his ilk interest me a great deal more than most writers who are easier to pin down. So, I feel that butterfly collecting and pledging allegiance are both worthless endeavors at the end of my day. I’m going to continue to seek out and buy what I like. Others will do the same, despite how much institutionalization anyone may claim restricts our literary wills.

  161. says

    G.A.B,

    I’d agree with that. And I’d agree with that aspect of what Nick is saying, too. I just can’t say “bad bigot” while at the same time pretending all literary folk are wearing lily-white robes. I think it comes back to those responses to the value structures in the culture. Are you going to dismiss genre? Or diss literary with “snivelling faggot” comments? Or maybe do something more constructive? I think in the end it’s beneficial to try and move beyond the classification system, to simply concentrate on good stories. I see signs that this shift is underway, that value systems are changing and growing together. But that’s a slow process, and I’m quite sure there will be a lot more snobbings and namecallings before (if) such a thing occurs. And, yes, I think people on both sides will occasionally want to wear paper bags over their heads.

    And I’ve made a personal resolution never to say “snivelling faggot” ever again after this. Curses to Anderson for ever spouting that phase. (or, you know, prayers for mercy and redemption)

  162. says

    “I think in the end it’s beneficial to try and move beyond the classification system, to simply concentrate on good stories.”

    True. Great idea. But too idealistic, really. Let’s posit for the sake of argument that every genre, general fic, and lit fic all contain examples of great stories. When I go into the bookstore, there is no Great Stories section. There is no way to pick up a romance novel and know off the bat if it is one worth reading or one worth burning to keep warm after the ice caps melt and drop Maryland’s temperature significantly.

    So, we go by rules of thumb. We seek out tropes we readily identify with some aspect of life or of struggles we find interesting. I have a fairly useful idea of how to find Great Stories in the SF/F section. Somewhat less so in the Horror and General sections. No idea in the Thriller/Crime, Romance, Western sections. Is there a way to really integrate literature back into a whole without sacrificing understandability to the consumer?

  163. says

    I think that takes us back into the early part of this discussion, the difference between artistic goals (and classifications) and marketing ones. As a bookstore owner, I have the difficult task of trying to shelve things (to provide customers with what they want). As a writer, though, my job is to write a good story. I have a specific story, and must employ whatever techniques are best for furthering a specific end (from whatever genre or classification). It’s the marketers and store’s job to shelve it. Which is not easy, and, I think, will always create a certain tension. And it will always be what makes that shift to a more equal and open value structure difficult. Money, success, critical discourse, art… things will intersect and contend. The art of the popular and the art of the difficult (and of the small audience)… there’s going to be tensions there. There’s going to be competing aesthetics. But I do see signs of a shift towards more openness. How far will it go? No idea. But I like the idea of that shift, of boundaries breaking and falling away. As a store owner I’d rather have a ton of great books that are difficult to shelve than a ton of mediocre books that are easy to shelve.

  164. Nick Mamatas says

    Ultimately, I reject the idea that “sniveling fagots” is caused by the dismissal of the literary establishment. In my experience, I’ve found that the more aggressive the SF personality, the less interaction they’ve had with literary fiction or literary people, outside of, say, some junior high school teacher who took away their comic book.

    That there is some dismissal is beyond dispute, but the outrage and horror is so much larger than any sort of dismissal anyone can point to. Ultimately, lots of fans LOVE being victims and they see oppression everywhere. A few years ago I was on a panel at Arisia in which a woman bragged about going into her local bookstore and taking the Kim Stanley Robinson climactic change trilogy books out of the Fic/Lit section and restocking them in the SF/F section. She did this repeatedly, and found the idea that KSR might actually benefit from his not-very-SFnal books being in a section that isn’t SF ridiculous. She knew where those books belonged and she was going to make sure they stayed where she wanted ‘em. Anything else was an ATTACK on science fiction!

  165. says

    Interesting conversation since this morning. One thing I remember from my grad school days (12-13 years ago) in cultural history is just how willing some of the profs were at utilizing “popular” fiction (penny dreadfuls, Victorian quasi-erotica, and later comics and “Golden Age” SF) to examine cultural values at particular points. When I attended a social studies teachers’ workshop a few years ago at my alma mater (UT Knoxville), one of the presentations was on how to use graphic novels/comics as a way of illustrating the values of the 1950s in a way the students would understand the period better. I’ve used Howard Zinn’s graphic novel adaptations, for example, as a supplement in my classroom teaching. So I don’t think it’s “academia” that’s the problem in these sorts of discussions.

    The “Kings of the Shitheap” is as apt of a description for Truesdale and his ilk that I’ve read in some time. It dismays me to see people of any sort pushing for any sort of an impermeable boundary between this or that. Like I said way up there several days ago, I cannot help but to conceive of literature and the motives for writing (and reading), as well as the symbols expressed in both the engendered writing and the interpreted reading, as being parts of a material culture that ought to be examined for what values are cherished and which are condemned. It certainly is baffling at times to see the arguments of the 1950s played out in this weird, bizzaro world for that time period.

  166. says

    Bryan: “the difference between artistic goals (and classifications) and marketing ones.”

    It rarely occurs to me to write to a genre. It frequently occurs to me that I don’t know how to market what I write, though. There is quite a bit of conflict there. (People ask me what I write, I say, “Um… Fantasy, I guess?) However, against the advice of many HOW2RITE books, I will not buckle down and write something with conventional tropes to get my foot in the door. This probably means I will wallow in obscurity, but I care more about writing a worthwhile story than seeing my name on list of books that sell very well. So if that puts me in some camp or other, you can call that my credo. I’ll gladly starve to further the Great Story cause.

    I don’t see genre or literary as any more or less committed to Great Stories at this point. A lot of the clearly successful examples we can point to in any lit category are pabulum, but they each house great writers doing bold and challenging things, too. If anything, I agree that non-genre is becoming MORE accepting of what would previously have been shelved genre than vice versa. So, maybe we’ll yet lived to see Edgar Rice, Augusten, and William S. all shelved next to each other. Who knows?

    Nick: “Ultimately, I reject the idea that “sniveling fagots” is caused by the dismissal of the literary establishment.”

    Yeah, the dictators want to beat on their tin pots as loud as they can to feel important. They don’t want to be lost in a sea where they have to compete with people who are willing to make use of foreign ideas. That means, you know, like, they’d have to be really good writers, and stuff. See: French Canadian Nationalism as a correlation in socio-political conflict.

  167. says

    Nick,

    We seem to disagree more on the intensity rather than the nature of the dynamic. And the example you offer does show some of the ludicrous behaviour involved. But haven’t you met any, say, magical realists who would be appalled to find themselves shelved in “fantasy”? I certainly have. I mean, Johnathan Franzen was willing to shoot down Oprah at the mere thought of the possibility of being lumped with commercial fiction, let alone outright genre. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have been too opposed to moving his book to a shelf with better company about it. :) Or maybe Alice Hoffman urging her fans to harass a book reviewer on account of a believed lack of literary taste (the reviewer, apparently, wasn’t a highly regarded enough writer to be reviewing her work…)

    But I won’t convince you, it seems, so I’ll desist.

    I do wonder, with the sniv. fag. comments, how much of that is aesthetic in nature and how much of that is simply ingrained bigotry. That is, how much is that comment directed at the literary form and how much is it directed at a class of people? Which is why I was thinking about demographics and wondering about how various cultural views might overlay with aesthetic views. Any sociologists or statisticians hanging around? I’d be curious to look at demographics of different genres, and see if they might be changing. Do aesthetic and genre lines coincide with various class lines? Would these current shifts in value coincide with changing demographics? I’ve read a few opinions about how some of these popular writers (of the blurred genre variety, like Lethem, Chabon, Diaz, etc.) resulted from a generation more immersed in popular culture, a literate generation that grew up with Superman as much as it did with Shakespeare. Sort of interesting… but I’d love to see if there were relevant numbers to support such a hypothesis.

  168. says

    Bryan,

    All I’ve seen is anecdotal evidence for the past few years (then again, I’m more interested in the longue durée than in the most current trends, I suppose), but I seem to recall that there have been quite a few additions to university curricula on works of a speculative nature, plus there are more books coming out that deal with elements of this. This one in particular has piqued my interest, but something tells me quite a few fantasy readers will not enjoy this sort of research ;)

  169. says

    Larry,

    Interesting… except from the book description I’m wondering if he’s using a more generic than genre sense of “fantasy”. But I think you’re right in thinking he’ll have a narrowly focused audience. :) Not the next Oprah pick, I’m guessing.

  170. Ilya Popov says

    Apropos of nothing, but the thought wandered through my skull and I cannot recall having seen it be mentioned above (given just how big this thread has gotten, after all…), but wouldn’t it stand to reason that the spec-fickers out there who deny their spec-ficy nature (Atwood, Roth, McCarthy, et all) are simply people who are self-loathing spec-fickers? Sort of a Terry Goodkind “I don’t write fantasy!” complex, but with a sheen of intellectual prestige.

  171. Nick Mamatas says

    Alice Hoffman’s issue with the review was simply that it was negative and that it contained “spoilers.” That has little to do with the issue of the fantastic or, for that matter, literary fiction. Certainly a concern with plot and some twist that might ruin the book if known about beforehand is one of the major concerns of commercial fiction. Further, Hoffman is likely best known as a fantastic (Practical Magic is likely her best-known book.)

    Franzen, like many literary types, is very wary of Oprah Winfrey. I mentioned that about 120 comments ago. Again, nothing to do with the fantastic — indeed, Franzen traffics in SF/F himself a bit, especially in The Corrections!

    Basically, Bryan the two examples you gave actually support my positions, not yours. Neither of these are examples of strict literary realists pooh-poohing or dismissing the fantastic or genre at all.

    As far as the repeated homophobic slams within science fiction fandom, it is perhaps no surprise that many nerdy kids like SF and many nerdy kids who are boys are also frequently harassed and teased with homophobic slurs. I see the decades of gay panic simply as the work of arrested adolescents who wish to get in a little bullying of their own now that they are Kings of the Shitheap.

  172. says

    Nick,

    I used them as examples of the divide in literary acknowledgment. Both are generally shelved in the literary section, and both have reacted in some dismay to being placed in lower company – Franzen in terms of fellow Oprah books (who he outright scorned), and Hoffman in terms of a low reviewer (not one of the great writers who once reviewed her, as she stated). I think it shows that underlying value judgments are alive and well. Writers overtly aware of how they’re classified… and by who. It’s operating on these ideas of what is “literary”, what has value. As I said before, there’s different responses. You can embrace a counter-aesthetic, you can claim the literary label for yourself (Hoffman), you can break boundaries… But these all seem to come into play because of what seems to be real valuations within the culture. Lots of tension, lots of assertion and counter-assertion. I was going to say I don’t see how you can put it all on one side, and leave the other blameless… except you said you did think there certainly was dismissal. And that’s what I’m getting at. Obviously we disagree on the intensity of that dismissal, and how much of a causal factor that is in certain responses.

    As for the homophobia in fandom… I wouldn’t presume to know enough to respond on that. But isn’t there a danger in conflating the aesthetic conflicts with the social conflicts? I mean, if there is a homophobic and bullying response, isn’t it possible that this is only tangentially related to the aesthetic concerns? I mean, this seems like a whole new topic to me… but one I’m not very familiar with. It’s why I was curious about demographics, about how various social beliefs might coincide with various aesthetic ones. So, if you see strong connections between the two, lay it on me. I’d be very interested to hear how you think these strong genre responses are shaped if you discount any influence from the literary side. You’re suggesting a sort of social inadequacy theory, if I get you right (“attracts the socially inadequate”, “arrested adolescents”). But how does it develop? If you discount the reprisal element, what feeds the responses that you suggest are so vehement? And are those responses more socially oriented or literature oriented?

    Curious to hear what you say, Nick. I’ve been enjoying this conversation. Can’t say you’ve convinced me, but certainly lots of interesting food for thought.

  173. says

    G.Arthur Brown: Actually, the very reason I generally avoid bookstores is the sections. The boring slickness of the whole thing. The certainty that I will find only what I expected to find.

    This idea of constantly breaking things down is a modern sickness. Everytime I stumble on the msn homepage or Yahoo I am assaulted by it: The 10 best haircuts. How to give your hubby a hard on in 5 minutes. 6 ways to eat an orange.

    People are so blind and insecure that they need to feel like they belong. That they have likes which fit them into a model that seems satisfactory to their TV numbed brains.

    Corporate nitwits have taken books and art and globalised them, cleansed them of any stench of anarchy that might have made them beautiful so they can afford to drive around in BMW 4 wheel drives and eat mahi mahi burritos.

    Take away the labels and yes you take away a lot of the profits. And certain illiterate folks might get lost. But the world would be a . . .

  174. Nick Mamatas says

    Hoffman is shelved in a number of places, especially as she has written a number of children’s books. Her complaints about the Boston Globe were many and varied — that the reviewer wasn’t famous (not that she was “low”) was the least of them. The spoiler thing, again a hallmark of commercial/genre fiction, was the largest complaint.

    At any rate, Roberta Silman isn’t any lower than Hoffman anyway, as she has gotten the grants, the publications in the major slicks and lit journals, etc.

    As far as the conflation of the aesthetic and the social, what else is new? The two-party system and the made-much-of red/blue state divide is largely aesthetic and only secondarily actually political. One of the major complaints of the “sniveling fagot” brigade is non-“transparent” fiction. That is, fiction which is often called by a feminized, homosexualized adjective:

    flowery

    What feeds the responses in the SF world is fandom, which is unique to it. Crime, romance, and the other popular genres certainly sell more books than the SF segment, but only SF has a highly organized decades-old fandom, and a fandom which remains on the paths to eventual prodom. In SF, social misfits get to create their own bohemia with its own tummlers and opinion leaders and central committee members etc etc etc. It’s a social hothouse that depends partially on us-vs-them.

    The sniveling fagots versus the lovers of the universe and wonder.
    The real authors of alternative history verses pretenders like Philip Roth who didn’t write a correct alt. history.
    The real writers, who are craftsmen, versus the beret-wearing “artistes” (I’ve written about this divide before)
    The real audience who reads for “a good story” versus the people who only read books to put on airs and feel superior.

    Plenty of us v. them right in this thread, actually.

  175. says

    To be clear, I personally didn’t think Silman was “low” – but I certainly think Hoffman did, even if she wasn’t right. It seemed a complaint against grouping, about where she was placed – about the value being assigned to her work. She was more literary and valuable than that, and so deserved a more recognized literary evaluator. Because she had other problems with the review doesn’t dismiss this one, I think.

    Anyway, I found your fandom breakdown interesting. So you’re suggesting that the responses are derived from the nature of the fandom’s internalized power structure? Bashing outward forms is a way of staking internal territory and prestige, a way of delineating aesthetics that properly orders fandom along certain lines? I mean, I can see that in a way, but it seems too large for what breaks down, in that sense, as a sort of logical manipulation. How does that explain the vehemence that so worries you? It seems to provide even less reason for that extreme anger that crops up. I guess I’m just trying to understand the dynamic, and it doesn’t seem clear. Certainly it seems there’s an element of this at play, but it doesn’t seem to provide a root, a sense of propulsion that would drive these actions.

    I found the post you linked to interesting, though I would have interpreted Jaylake’s garret comment quite differently. I’ve known a lot of writers who have bought into the garret as a myth. They have this romantic ideal that to be a good writer they have to be poor, they have to live in a garret. They might have a huge trust fund, but to write they have to go live cheap and poor in paris and hang out in bistros. It’s about denying who they are and trying to adopt this romantic ideal of “writer”. Which is, in my opinion, a silly myth. Which is not an attempt to deny that it’s perfectly fine to live and write cheaply in a garret if that’s what you have. Good writing isn’t bound by any socioeconomic or cultural status. So I don’t think that garret comment is an attempt at socio-economic compaction and the enforcement of middle-class ideals, but rather just pointing out the pretense of the garret ideal as a necessity. It’s just as easy to write in a suburban office or a garret or a Manhattan penthouse.

    The feminine/masculine/homophobic construction is interesting, though. Do you see it as a construct of manipulation, of political control, or merely as the manifestation of underlying social views? Or both?

  176. Nick Mamatas says

    Bryan, I think your strong belief in your premise is literally warping your conception of of what Hoffman actually said. It was an old variation on “critics are failed writers” and had nothing to do with who was low and who was high. Really, what you are saying happened just didn’t.

    The same with the beret/garret thing. I’ve been working in publishing on all levels — from salesperson and warehouse clerk to senior editor — for over a decade. I’ve worked with dozens of magazines, ten publishers, etc. I’ve taught at writing centers, hold an MFA, have been a visiting writer art MFA programs, and will be teaching at one starting next month. I’ve published far outside genre circles too — experimental fiction, mainstream journalism, etc etc.

    The number of writers or even aspiring writers I’ve met over the past dozen years who can be described as holding a “romantic ideal” of the garret I can count on one hand. For the most part, as far as I can tell—and frankly there are few people who can tell better than I in this discussion or within SF—the garret isn’t the myth, the poncy wannabe bohemian pretending to write and spending all his time in cafes and garrets is the myth. It’s specifically a bete noire, something to rail against and to position one’s own self against. It is an invisible, nearly non-existent enemy.

    Small, dysfunctional sub and countercultures often depend partially on such “enemies” for social coherence. The less the enemy actually exists, the MORE vehemence is necessary in order to keep people hepped up and worried. That’s how betes noire work, after all.

    As far as the conception of “flowery” language as homosexual or feminized, I suppose the root is simply that the novel form emerged out of the middle class and increasing leisure time for middle-class women. We certainly don’t encourage boys or men to read or write in the US or UK.

  177. says

    Maybe our experiences are simply different. I also have a few creative writing degrees, have worked as an editor, own a bookstore, etc, etc, and I’ve met lots of young writers with just such a conception of the artist, some of whom also fall in with the drink and drugs mythology too. And lots of them don’t actually write much, and are more caught up with the idea of being a writer than with actually writing. Certainly they’re not uncommon, in my experience. I went to school with a bunch, I see them online, I talk with them in my store. Now, some of these may get over these hangups, and get to some actual writing. But I’ve seen many who at least pass through a stage of this, caught up with an ideal of writerhood.

    Now, I’m not claiming it’s extensive, or a majority, or that masses of young writers are tooling up with these false conceptions in mind. But at the same time they are most definitely out there. A minority, perhaps, but they certainly exist. So to call them “an invisible, nearly non-existent enemy” seems somewhat dismissive. I mean, yes, others can use this idea to push their own political agenda, “to keep people hepped up and worried”, as you say. But that fact doesn’t necessarily mean that the minority doesn’t exist, nor that it’s unacceptable to speak to that minority. I think you can speak to that minority about that myth without promulgating a counterculture agenda, without using some sort of manipulative hysteria. They exist quite easily side by side.

    Frankly, I find it a little puzzling you haven’t met more of these people. Are you really saying all the writers (particularly young writers) you meet are all serious, dedicated and pragmatic writers not caught up with the images and cultural stereotypes of the writer persona? Really? That, to me, is a little mind-boggling. It seems kind of foreign to my experience.

  178. says

    “We certainly don’t encourage boys or men to read or write in the US or UK.”

    Well, we sure as frick don’t encourage women to write. And the other strange part of the schemata – while women are ‘supposed’ to read, I find they still tend to read more male authors than female. Especially when you get into the more ‘academic’ readers. I dated a girl briefly who was quick to tout Murakami, Amis, and Alexia as great writers that I should be reading. She then lamented institutionalized sexism (somehow in every aspect of life except literature), while ignoring every female author I mentioned being any good.

  179. Nick Mamatas says

    Are you really saying all the writers (particularly young writers) you meet are all serious, dedicated and pragmatic writers not caught up with the images and cultural stereotypes of the writer persona? Really?

    No, I’m saying that the romantic ideal of the garret and the beret and the cafe is rare. There are plenty of ways to be flighty, to be undisciplined, and to have one’s head in the clouds without being a pre-war bohemian transplanted in time.

    Most of the flighty weirdo writers I’ve encountered are interested either in Hollywood or the New Age. They’re not reading Henry Miller or Knut Hamsen or the other writers that did inform the romantic vision of the writer prior to the dominance of television. None of them are at all interested in the garret or suffering for their art or doing anything other than changing the names in either Harry Potter or The Secret and making their zillion dollars.

  180. Nick Mamatas says

    Well, we sure as frick don’t encourage women to write.

    Sure we do. Just not “well” and not “important” stuff. Thus romance, chicklit, and other genres that surely have their own virtuosos but are denigrated and massified just as SF is. (Well, except that these sections of the publishing industry have a much larger audience than puny little SF.) And when they do write publishing tries to sexualize them greatly, which is another example of institutional sexism, of course. The domestic scale versus the social scale has ever been a gender split.

  181. says

    Nick,

    I’ve met some of them, too. Quite a few of both types, really. But can’t you talk to them in an attempt to dispel some of their illusions without propagating some form of conformist, middle class ethos?

    And, just for clarification with the homophobic stuff: You’re suggesting that, as we don’t encourage men and boys to write, there’s a femininization of writing forms, which results in labels, etc., being placed on those who do write. And then the genre homophobia is a sort of backlash against this, a sort of masculine and straight assertion which partially defines itself through style (say a very direct, transparent, non-flowery prose) and partially through pushing the feminization onto different receptacles, ie. literary writers with their flowery snivelling. Or am I misinterpreting? I was wondering about demographics again, and how the typical social classes of various aesthetic forms might play into this idea of yours. Correct me if I’m barking up the wrong tree in my summary.

  182. says

    “High Art” has long been associated with aristocracy, and consequently with frivolity, decadence, and homosexuality (or homosinuality, if you are from Middle America). Those lily-skinned fops surely can’t have done a days work in their life if they have time to learn how to write all fancy-like. Why I bet they can afford normal ballpoints but still spend money of oldfangled quills to increase their art factor 69-fold. Literature is fruity, flowery – and fruit and flowers are not for the working class. (contrast: meat and potatoes)

    Sci-Fi, though, is crafted by hand from wood or stone, and can be used as a weapon if need be. Surely no queer-types would be caught dead writing it, reading it, or crafting a costume based on it for a convention. In fact, at the Sy-Fy Con they still do public executions for those caught engaging in buggery in the bathroom stalls. It’s all symbolic now, of course because of the liberal media and their control of the legislature, but these staged executions symbolize the need to appear really, really straight in an environ that is 99% guys getting buddy-buddy over a copy of the latest Sexy Vampire volume.

    My costume was by far the straightest. I was an oiled, bare-chested barbarian with perfect Cindy Crawford/Fabio hair. I kept sticking my sword straight out from my crotch and screaming my non-verbal war cry. When I tired of that, I would hide behind the statue of Gene Roddenberry and wait till some random dude passed by. Then I would jump out and wrestle him to prove that I was a real man. We then ceremonially burned literature including Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Beckett, Nabokov and Joyce, because they make my head hurt.

  183. Nick Mamatas says

    Interest in Hollywood and the New Age tend to be, happily, self-solving problems I’ve found.

    As far as the use of anti-gay slams and slurs in the genre, I think you pretty much have it right.

  184. says

    Funny, re. self-solving problems.

    Also funny, re. Gene Roddenberry statue.

    Still wondering about the garret thing, though. I mean, yes, they’ve lost the berets (well, most of them), and they’re less concerned with pure bohemianism circa early 20th Century. It’s been updated a little. But I still see the intentionally poor crib (garret), the drinking and drugging as artistic inspiration, the aesthetic posturing, the embrace of the struggling artist image, happy discussions on the difficulties of the muse (usually laziness, I find). I mean, there’s a place a few blocks away from my store that sells absinthe to basically cater to this whole crowd. This is modern day marketed bohemia. And it sells because people still buy into that ideal. Follow the money, as the old saying goes.

  185. says

    I don’t know about writers, but there was a sure a scene of musical and artistic bohemians in Baltimore in the early 2000s. They all worked in clubs as bartenders, talked about art and music and philosophy, and produced nothing of any note. They all hated whatever they had caught wind of the ‘mainstream’ promoting, even when it was something they would on all principles have supported moments earlier. They all hated me and my band because we were not actually from Baltimore proper and we didn’t work in clubs or in tattoo shops, and because we actually wrote catchy music that someone who didn’t know better might enjoy. They also called us pretentious because we pretended to be entertainment robots designed by a Japanese corporation. I found it tedious. I found them bland and unpalatable. I’m sure some of them wrote. In fact, I remember one chick in particular who was a ‘writer’ who never got around to finishing anything in the years I knew her.

  186. Andrew says

    “My costume was by far the straightest. I was an oiled, bare-chested barbarian with perfect Cindy Crawford/Fabio hair. I kept sticking my sword straight out from my crotch and screaming my non-verbal war cry. When I tired of that, I would hide behind the statue of Gene Roddenberry and wait till some random dude passed by. Then I would jump out and wrestle him to prove that I was a real man. We then ceremonially burned literature including Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Beckett, Nabokov and Joyce, because they make my head hurt.”

    Stereotype alert. Never actually been to a Sci Fi convention, but by your comment I doubt you have either.

    “I have absolutely no problem saying that as much of a hothouse as academia is, the hardcore of SF fandom is worse, and that it attracts the socially handicapped to a greater extent than academia”

    Can someone please explain to me why this is relevant? It may be true, but since when are social skills indicative of anything worthwhile? Wasn’t Albert Einstein socially handicapped? Wasn’t Edgar Allan Poe? Wasn’t pretty much every great artist (-note the “great”- modifying adjective)?

  187. Andrew says

    Not to mention Robert E. Howard, who struggled with feeling isolated among people. But I guess he doesn’t count since he didn’t write stories about how a piece of cardboard caused a 40 year old man to have a midlife crisis.

    Trust me, these “socially crippled nerds” who prefer genre aren’t alone. I have talked to regular readers (Casual and avid) who are quite socially capable (since that seems to be indicative of artistic quality). Someone just recently told me the other day that they’d prefer to read an epic saga than a story about a midlife crisis. And he was not one of the socially crippled nerds. Who, by the way, could never write a book as well as one of the popular kids who have such a larger range of emotional experience, and such a deeper understanding of life.

  188. says

    “Stereotype alert. Never actually been to a Sci Fi convention, but by your comment I doubt you have either.”

    Hi, Andrew. Nice to meet you. Thanks for being completely opaque in your online dealings with me. I’ll lay all my cards out on table: I wasn’t being serious. I was illustrating how you can put a homoerotic spin on anything given a little imagination. The ‘class struggle’ of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy nerd versus the Literary nerd isn’t rooted in some particular homophobic tradition that accounts for the image of ‘sniveling fagots’ that was alluded to much earlier in the post. Now that that is all cleared up… it’s a lot less fun isn’t it?

  189. says

    Opinions are fine. You are too quick to react, perhaps. It’s like you are searching for a buzzword to pounce on. Like your race subsists on buzzwords, which would simply flitter off if not outpaced by immediate violent action. Does their buzzing not cloy in the end, though? Would you rather I take up a contrary stance: Nay, I did oil my toned physique at a con, and I did force my manhood upon the unsuspecting? What’s it to you, Andy C? I’ll punch you right in the face, and then I’ll probably kick you. Being a strong fellow, as I am, it will be hard to refrain from causing you grievous bodily harm. I am, however, studied in my arts. I think I can leave you with only bruises about the chest, easily covered by an oxford style shirt. If you are interested in purchasing a new collar–perhaps yours is stained with blood–I have a whole drawer full. But don’t tell me you wear a flowery pirate shirt, or I shall have to suspect that you may read non-genre writing. This will cause me to summon the power of my primeval god, Klotkigu, and you don’t want that, now do you?

  190. says

    I spend ten days at a summer residency in Maine, with limited web access, and people are still at it?

    Man, I’ve got some reading to catch up on in this thread…

  191. jay sheckley says

    um i’m owned by a bookstore [dark carnival] and you can make any kind of sections you like. We do. the idea is just to interest people who see themselves as sorts of people or types of interests. or interest ourselves: are there many fun novels about ass-kicking children? Find out, and while youre at it, fan out the newest award winning fiction. Hey how bout the 1000 best books you never read. These divisions don’t prove anything about the books themselves or their authors.
    It’s only a display, move along, nothing to see here folks…
    Boy that DaVinci Code prose makes me shudder! Ack!! I hate hate hate it!
    The man writes with shovels. Ick. pweh blechh
    ::phew:::
    Ok you were talkin of manly men & big name big-game mainstream. Which brings on Uncle Ernie, Papa Hemingway, showing a crisis:
    When his manliest man narrowly avoids becoming a body count casualty and “survives”, that was _supposed_ to be the crisis. And a lot of action it was.
    But to Hem the crisis is in feeling.
    you can train a man and make him run fight shoot obey- but you cant give back what war takes even from survivors. \
    When a healthy young man’s relationship to the world dissolves, Hem sez, that’s yer crisis.
    Maybe it’s just me but I love the line from Hem’s short story “SOLDIER’S HOME”. Everybody’s acting like it’s Thanksgiving, waiting for the kid to snap out of it, get over the war, and resume his pleasant boyhood. The family thinks adjusting and being okay is natural….But the kid, though at “home” now, aint quite with ‘em.
    Hemingway reveals all in pretty much just this one 9 word sentence of the kid’s POV:
    <>
    With restraint Hem shows us senselessness. Is it our turn to try and make meaning? Make no difference. His youth, his willingness his energy fed into that basic staple of manliness.War squanders bravery, churns men into
    meat and will power in battle comes into peace in eternal abject terror.
    “Whats the matter, son?”
    There’s no saying.
    And that, my fiends, is the way it is

  192. jay sheckley says

    the 9 word sentence of the kid’s POV was sposed to appear where i typed it between those sideways chevrons.
    But it’s gone! I cant recall SOLDIER’S HOME eponymous kid’s name, but I’ll fake it.
    I t’s meant to read like this:

    Nick watched the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

    That’s all… and enough

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