Evil Monkey on “You Like Us, You Really Like Us”

Evil Monkey:
You can relax now, “we’ve” won the culture wars.

Jeff:
Huh? Who’s “we”?

Evil Monkey:
Ya know—SF, fantasy, horror. We’ve won!

Jeff:
Okaaaaayyyyyy. I thought we either didn’t care about that or were fighting to be included at the adult table, with the grown-ups who’ve been having the same kinds of serious discussions being had at the kids’ table all of these years, not just waiting to be subsumed into the pop culture zeitgeist?

Evil Monkey:
But, there are serious discussions—like in the Wall Street Journal.

Jeff:
Nothing against Grossman—seems like a nice guy, and Ann said she really enjoyed him on a panel at WorldCon—but he’s inferring

    implying

not only that Stephenie Meyer is a good writer but that there’s something about her writing that we should encourage just because it sells well.

Evil Monkey:
A compelling argument, though, don’t you think?

Jeff:
Let them read John LeCarre, then. He sells a ton of copies, so clearly he’s filling a void for someone, too, and he’s at least an extremely skilled writer.

Evil Monkey:
But he’s not part of the culture war we won! He won years ago! Or something! Too much with the vodka this morning to really understand much of what’s going on, but I’m still talking!

Jeff:
Just sayin’—you want examples of popular writers who can actually write as opposed to sit at a computer and type…

Evil Monkey:
Do you think it’s all a plot? Yes, I’m still talking!

Jeff:
No. I think what some people do when they have a book out is, they find religion. In this case, someone has a fantasy book out, so he’s expressing his allegiance to the genre religion—“I am one of you, do not be afraid, Earthlings. I will not hurt you or lay waste to your crops.” It’s not really about a life-long, thought-out position—it’s more about “let’s-try-to-put-together-something-topical” related to the fact they’ve genuinely been immersed in that subgenre or mode of writing for a bit—and I do think think Grossman genuinely likes fantasy. He sure as hell named-dropped enough of it in his novel. It’s like meta-fan fic on one level.

Evil Monkey:
But the main point is: he likes us! He really likes us!

Jeff:
Speak for yourself. But, yes, in general he does—the sunshiny and not too difficult or too surreal or too out there parts of us—so as a tribe, genre likes him back just fine. If, on the other hand, you’re crotchety old Cormac McCarthy and you’ve written a flawed but genuinely moving and serious SF novel, but you don’t really give a damn about expressing an opinion on genre, genre doesn’t give a crap about you. Or, if like Margaret Atwood, you actively diss genre while writing a genre book, the tribe dumps all over you, unless, of course, you’re someone who understands they’re a member of several tribes, like Ursula K. Le Guin, and then you get something more like balance. (Although, several people apparently think this is just a piece where Le Guin stomps all over Atwood for not embracing genre. I don’t.)

Evil Monkey:
Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? Tribalism?

Jeff:
In a somewhat weird world, maybe.

Evil Monkey:
What the hell does that mean?

Jeff:
Well, I mean, you don’t like me but I still read and appreciate your journals. And I don’t like you, but you still read and appreciate my scribblings.

Evil Monkey:
I don’t care whether you like me or not.

Jeff:
And I don’t care whether I like you or not.

Evil Monkey:
Wait a minute. That sounded wrong.

Jeff:
The admittedly awesome Michael Chabon wins a genre prize, it’s just dandy, because Chabon has already validated genre—he’s stamping tribe-members’ valet parking slips right and left. Murakami wins a genre prize, it’s just puzzling to the tribe because Murakami has never really expressed an opinion on the subject—he’s not expressed his loyalties. “We” have no way of telling if he’s one of “us”.

Evil Monkey:
What if people just dig one writer’s books more over another?

Jeff:
Yep, that’s fair enough, and Chabon truly loves all kinds of fiction, and his enthusiasm is, as they say, infectious…but I’d argue that the context in which the tribe approves or disapproves also has a lot to do with that writer’s position on the subject of genre. Their oath of loyalty, so to speak. Otherwise, look suspiciously at the damn furriner.

Evil Monkey:
There’s nothing wrong with tribes, or tribes picking sides. You’re part of the tribe of curmudgeons. For example.

Jeff:
And you’re part of a tribe of feces-flingers.

Evil Monkey:
And there’s nothing wrong with that, either! Want some vodka?

Jeff:
Erm, no and no, I guess. But the point is, you’re not just a feces-flinger. You’re an erudite contrarian with a foul mouth on ya. You’re also a member of—although most people don’t know this—the professional cello players tribe. You are part of the cigar subculture. I could go on and on.

Evil Monkey:
Fair enough, although you left out the Tribe of Those Who Hit Others With Big Sticks.

Jeff:
How could I forget about that? Another case in point. The Guardian It’s Not the Booker shortlist. Several people expressed disappointment that it had no genre fiction on it. Except, it does, but those authors aren’t members of the tribe, so it doesn’t count. Except, they are actually members of tribes we should recognize—

Evil Monkey:
And we all should acknowledge we belong to multiple tribes anyway.

Jeff:
More or less. Otherwise the filter we use on the world renders it in binary colors, and we’re back to the language of defeat, in a different context.

Evil Monkey:
So what’re your tribes?

Jeff:
Maybe one tip-off is I don’t belong to SFWA and I don’t belong to the Literary Guild, either. In fact, I don’t belong to any writer organizations. I like dealing with individuals, not group minds. And I tend to like and enjoy the heck out of books that a variety of tribes have laid claim to. I just want smart and savvy and, yeah, I veer between wanting simple and wanting complex, of loving and appreciating a novel that gives me traditional pleasures and then loving and appreciating a novel that has no interest in giving me those traditional pleasures but something else just as pleasurable instead (to avoid using false oppositions like “entertainment versus literary”) and there’s nothing pretentious or pulpish about that. What I do not want are listings of writers of varying talent, from crap to excellent, passed off as evidence of a winning of the culture wars that would mean having won a war against ourselves.

Evil Monkey:
You’ll have to excuse me, but I didn’t hear any of that over my chugging of the vodka. War against ourselves?

Jeff:
Yes, because genre fiction isn’t all one thing. It’s not all serious literature or all trad-plot entertainment, if you want to make a pointless distinction (see Le Guin’s review for why that’s stupid). So if you say we’ve won the culture wars: in what sense? What part of genre won the culture wars? And should we be unambiguously happy about that fact, if true?

Evil Monkey:
It means Stand on Zanzibar is cool again! It means Joanna Russ and Samuel Delany are “in”. It means Tiptree and Cordwainer Smith are our new pop culture heroes. Theodore Sturgeon is gonna be on t-shirts! Heck, Ursula K. Le Guin is a hipster now.

Jeff:
…I think I need that vodka after all….

Evil Monkey:
Sure! A toast: Gawd bless, the tribes. Every single bleedin’ one of them. They’re the glue that binds together the spines of…the spines of…

Jeff:
Shut up. But, yes, gawd bless ‘em, and let’s just hope they don’t come a’huntin’ in these parts and take away my genre passport or my literary visa, because I need both of those things, and I love everybody. Just, you know, not in huge groups or nothing. Those group hugs are awful.

Evil Monkey:
You’re sure loving that vodka now.

Comments

  1. says

    Nice piece, but how would a Borges or Cortázar have viewed all this? Sometimes, I wonder if the genre/”literary” divide is much more of an Anglo-American conceit and not anything that’s global in nature or scope.

  2. Chris Robbins says

    The only problem I have with Chabon is that he’s a pretty boy and if it’s one thing in a writer I can’t stand is prettiness. Unless it’s a female writer, of course.

  3. says

    Larry–well, they’re both dead so we can’t ask them their opinions on this particular subject, but perhaps you could look over some of their nonfiction and get enough of a sense to blog about it. As much as I’d like to read in other languages and be a part of those tribes, the best I can do is read in translation and keep track of Anglo-American conceits. I think you’d agree that even with more and more communication between tribes of all sorts, “Anglo-American” is a big huge chunk of discussion and fiction written in English.

  4. says

    I’ll join Teresa in nitpicking: “Stephenie Meyer”. There is not a single ‘a’ in her name, nor a final ‘s’.

    because genre fiction isn’t all one thing

    Reactionary!

  5. says

    Larry: The Book of Fantasy was an anthology of favourite stories that Borges put together in the 1940s with friends Silvina Ocampo and A Bioy Casares. It ranges very widely and in my expanded edition from 1988 includes an intro by Ursula Le Guin and stories from Ray Bradbury and JG Ballard (The Drowned Giant). There are also two pieces in there from James Joyce who in that Grossman piece is included in the “anti-story” camp, despite Ulysses taking its story from one of the oldest ones there is, The Odyssey.

    That Borges’ anthology inspired another great collection, Alberto Manguel’s Black Water. Julio Cortázar’s House Taken Over is in both books while the latter includes a Le Guin story (The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas), and is prefaced by a quote from Joyce… Yes, this fighting over labels does often seem like an Anglo-American neurosis.

  6. says

    John,

    I have that book and was thinking of it when I wrote my response (which I should have clarified was a musing and not a direct comment to Jeff). I also have a book due to arrive by Tuesday that deals with Borges and Science Fiction, Borges y la ciencia-ficción, that looks promising. Cortázar’s been published in OMNI, so I know he had nothing against being associated with the genre back before his death in 1984.

    Will have to read the Manguel sometime, as my curiosity is now piqued – thanks! :D

    Jeff,

    I think I’ll see what I can do about it, although I think I touched upon this in passing in a few posts a couple of years ago. But I certainly will review that book I mentioned above when I read it later this week.

  7. says

    Yes, definitely seems like a musing/tangent to the potential discussion of this actual post. Also, I know from talking to some of my foreign language editors, now that I think about it, that it’s not really an Anglo-American issue, possibly in part because that Anglo-American hang-up tends to influence other countries. Luis and Fabio, among others, can correct me if I’m wrong.

    Jeff

  8. says

    That raises another interesting question about the effects of cultural imperialism on “emerging markets,” in this case, SF publications in non-Anglophone regions of the world. But that’s very much along the tangent and not directly related to the points you and EM raise here.

  9. says

    Yeah, I don’t know how big that effect is as opposed to just the localized effects that follow similar patterns. I know my books have been marketed as mainstream or genre in various countries but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

  10. says

    I’ve noticed some interesting intermingling of narrative style and plot development with local color/setting in two recent books I’ve read, Philippine Speculative Fiction IV (anthology) and the recently-released English translation of Issui Ogawa’s The Lord of the Sands of Time. Going to write a review of the Ogawa shortly and the Filipino anthology sometime in the next couple of weeks. The differences in approach were sometimes startling, but then there were elements that felt a bit grafted on as well.

  11. Daemon says

    Interestingly, most of the people I know (expressly including english majors) define “literary fiction” as a genre in which boring people do boring things for boring reasons, that you read only because other people seem to believe it’s good.

    As opposed to “literature”, which we define entirely as “any work of fiction that is good”.

  12. says

    I thought it would be impolite of me to link to this post without also commenting; but I find that I don’t have much more to say than: yes. And: thanks for a great post!

  13. says

    “Maybe one tip-off is I don’t belong to SFWA and I don’t belong to the Literary Guild, either. In fact, I don’t belong to any writer organizations.”

    So, does this mean I have to wait until you are dead to actually buy one of your books at a Barnes and Noble?

  14. says

    “Cortázar’s been published in OMNI, so I know he had nothing against being associated with the genre back before his death in 1984.”

    And Borges was first translated in to English for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1948

  15. says

    I don’t know…I like what you’re saying, but if I don’t align myself with a tribe, how will I know who to hate? Structureless hate is anarchy. And exhausting.

  16. Evan says

    Borges has an essay, called “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader” in which he almost directly addresses this issue. Three pages long, and it’s life changing, really.

    He has another essay, on detective fiction (he also mentions SF) where he predicts that, like medieval monks preserving knowledge through an ignorant age, science fiction and mysteries would preserve traditional narrative forms for when they were willing to be taken up again. I wish I could remember the title of that essay …

  17. says

    I agree with this post. I’ve always had a problem (going from the lit fic tribe to the SF tribe) with people who stand on opposing sides and refuse to recognize they’re all trying to do similar things. My thing is it has to be good–plot, style, sincerity, everything–regardless of where it is shelved in the bookstore. Because of this I’ve never felt 100% comfortable with a tribe, and I like it that way.

    Also, The Road has flaws?

  18. says

    Interesting discussion, as always. I’m a little surprised that no one has (at least in the stuff I’ve read) noted the possibility that Grossman seems to be looking to validate his own novel to the literary establishment. It seemed like maybe he was worried that people would think the Times book reviewer was slumming, so he wrote a whole article trying to establish his plotty genre story as the new “literary”. Sort of beat the lit reviewers to the punch by pre-structuring the argument, a task fraught with difficulties. A lilttle too much rudimentary psychoanalysis on my part, there, but I think the gist of that can be discerned from the article taken in context with the arrival of his own book (which so conveniently fits his new structure definining literary value).

    I’ve always kind of liked the idea of a book standing on its own two feet. It is what it is. Engage with it on its own ground. Reconstituting the history and nature of Modernism seems a little beyond the pale.

    And I didn’t see any flaws in The Road, either – but then his prose usually makes my head whirl with delight, so I might have been blinded.

  19. says

    Yes. The Road is a rare and wonderful book. But I see Jeff’s point. Actually, I thought after it came out, it would open some doors for genre. But I suppose it wasn’t so much his plot as his timing and Oprah endorsement. If she hadn’t jumped on, I’m not sure it would have sold as well as it did, regardless of Pulitzer.

  20. says

    After too many minutes spent bouncing from site to site regarding this topic (Lev Grossman, WSJ, everything, blaah), it was a pleasure and a balm to come back and re-read this post.

  21. bartkid says

    >You can relax now, “we’ve” won the culture wars.

    Um, not really.
    I blame Discordianism for the teabaggers, the birthers, the deathers, and all the other right-wing foolishness which shrieks #44 = Adolf.

  22. says

    More nitpicking: You might want to look up ‘Infer’ and ‘Imply’ in the dictionary because they mean very different things and you’ve used the one when you meant the other.

  23. says

    Sorry if you thought I was being rude; I didn’t intend to be. I thought in my clumsy didactic way that I was being helpful. Ah well, the road to hell etc.

    The post you link to was put up after your “fuck you very much” reply and I cannot see what there is in it that should cause you such offence.

  24. says

    No, it’s fine–and, actually, apologies on my part. I think I’d confused you for the guy on that thread who somehow thinks I live my life in a hellpit of seething envy. LOL!

    Still, I would prefer if someone comments for it not just to be to point out a copy-edit, but that’s no reason for me to be abrupt back. “infer/imply” is one of my blindspots for some reason. Had to correct Booklife for that, too. I do appreciate it being pointed out. Seriously. Cheers, Jeff

  25. says

    I can see that. Must be annoying to have comments just pointing out typos when the intelligentsia are beating down the doors telling us how wonderful we are and we’ve been rescued from whatever it is they’re rescuing us from. It will pass. They’ll find something else to gush over soon. They won’t take your passport away. After all, when it comes down to it there are only two kinds of books: good books and bad books.

  26. says

    Michael Carrick should definitely be heading to the World Cup after his form for United this year. Good luck to him and England – they’ll need it!

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