Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reading SF/Fantasy, Part Two

Ted Gioia (Dana's brother) has written a piece asking "Did sci-fi writers from the 1940s and 1950s anticipate the future of serious literature better than the so-called 'serious writers' or, for that matter, the highbrow critics?" (The site doesn't have a permalink so if you're trying to find this much past the post date you may have to poke around a bit.)

The one thing I would emphasize is he's talking about "future of serious literature" not The Future in general. One thing people unfamiliar with SF tend to latch onto is how well it's predicting The Future but that's never been the point of SF. Writers weren't really trying to determine if there would be flying cars or ringworlds or generation ships or what have you - they're playing with ideas. Gioia tends to go a bit too far in the other direction, knocking hard SF since it "always prove[s] to laughably wrong-headed" without quite realizing that even here it's the "F" in SF that's important.

And I can't help but point out that what Gioia is calling "conceptual fiction" pretty much everybody else calls SF & Fantasy. True, he's trying to be more inclusive and pull in magical realism, faux allegories, quasi-fairy tales, some metafiction, etc but nearly all that really is SF&F just not labelled that way. Trying to be helpful with this marketing issue many writers and critics have taken to calling this other stuff "slipstream" though so far it's nearly all SF&F-derived writers who do so.

Still, Gioia's piece is decent but the big problem is it doesn't seem very effective. For me and the few people reading this blog he's preaching to the choir and doing so as somebody who just converted so excuse us for being a tad dubious. But it's even harder to imagine the "serious" critics/readers he mentions deciding hey they should give these books a try and maybe the foundation of their aesthetics is really just sand after all. After all the Library of America recently admitted Dick, Lovecraft and that fantastic tales anthology while publishers like Vintage or NYRB Classics push Bester, Wyndham and a few others. That could give the impression of being open-minded but we know it's not really true.

Maybe it would have helped if Gioia pointed out that the current conception of realism/naturalism that dominates "serious" fiction is pretty much a historical anomaly. The idea didn't even quite exist until about the 19th century or at least rarely as anything more than grace notes. Even what we have today as realism is fairly narrow, deriving in the "serious" lit world from Joyce/Chekhov quiet observation and epiphanies or from Joyce/Faulkner language play and regionalism. (I know this is a very abstracted and peculiar view but for one sentence I think it's basically correct.)

To me it boils down to something Christopher Hitchens wrote back when Harpers did its Annotated column: "Read widely and read deeply." Easier stated than done of course and for those of us with decreasing amounts of time it's not likely that we're going to experiment too much. But how much you really claim to know an art form does depend on this just as I can't take seriously a film critic who couldn't tell you a thing about, say, Ulmer, Fuller, Kiarostami, Wiseman, Trinh, Dwan, Gehr, Rollin, etc.