Confession. I don’t like science fiction. Not in books. Not in the movies. Not on TV. Never have. Goes back to when I was a kid. I don’t know the cause. Maybe I was terrified by an episode of Jonny Quest.
Actually, I was terrified by an episode of Jonny Quest, now that I think about it, but I’ll keep that between me and my therapist.
At any rate, I’ve just never liked science fiction…as a genre.
I have liked particular books and movies and TV shows.
Generally, though, put your characters into bubble helmets, decant them into a metal tube hurtling through space, make the heroes’ adversaries machines or strange beings from other planets or dimensions, and you’ve lost me.
Now, you’d think I’d have been a natural fan, given I liked superhero comics, which are essentially science fiction with more male and female pulchritude on display, and rip-roaring tales of high adventure with knights and pirates and damsels in distress, and war stories, which many science fiction stories basically are but with cooler weaponry and license to violate the laws of physics and biology as we know them here on earth. But, nope.
I think it’s because my imagination gets in the way of itself. I spend so much effort trying to conjure up the world in my head or trying to take it in if it’s been conjured up on the screen for me that I lose track of the characters and the stories.
Or maybe it’s just that I don’t like it for the same reason I don’t like salmon.
It’s a matter of taste.
My best friend growing up, Sandy Weissman, loved science fiction.
But he wasn’t that keen on war stories and mysteries and spy novels and rip-roaring tales of high adventure with knights and pirates and damsels in distress, which, again, is odd because so many science fiction stories are rip-roaring tales of high adventure with knights and pirates and damsels in distress, a truth George Lucas made a fortune proving.
You might think this divergence of taste would have put a crimp in our conversation. Just the opposite. It gave us lots to talk about, and I don’t mean we had any literary arguments.
We spent long hours and had great times telling each other the stories we were reading.
I told him The Guns of Navarone and Ice Station Zebra and all of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies.
We started in fifth or sixth grade and continued through high school. Through Sandy I got to know the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Frederick Pohl and Robert Silverberg. From me, Sandy heard the stories of Pip and Raskolnikov and Temple Drake and Billy Pilgrim.
Oddly, I was the Vonnegut fan.
I don’t know what I thought Vonnegut was writing but it wasn’t science fiction.
Or it wasn’t like science fiction to me.
It was the same with Star Trek.
Sometimes, I enjoyed what Sandy told me so much that I went and read those books for myself.
Sometimes I liked them. Sometimes I thought Sandy did a better job telling the stories than the authors did themselves.
Even so, although I still read some science fiction novels from time and have seen a few movies and been a fan of at least three sci-fi TV shows besides Star Trek I never developed a taste for sci fi in any medium. I still miss Stargate SG:1, I really liked the new Battlestar Galactica until it stopped being science fiction in the usual sense and turned into Lost with Toasters, and I’m getting a kick out of Warehouse 13. Several fairly well-known science fiction writers read this blog. Interestingly, I don’t think Scalzi is one of them. Which is ok. Busy man. Means I’m in no hurry to read Redshirts, so there, Mr Whatever. But you other guys? I have read and enjoyed your stuff. There was no way I was going to see Prometheus, even if the reviews had been better (or worse. I think I was more put off by the advance hype than the critical let down. Our Mannionville Daily Gazette correspondents, Young Ken Mannion and the blonde---Oliver gave it the skip along with me---were divided. Ken gave it a thumbs up, the blonde a meh). But what was The Avengers if it wasn’t science fiction and Men in Black 3 counts…doesn’t it?
The point is that although I don’t like science fiction, I don’t look down on it. And---this is the important part---I don’t think of it as something different.
It goes back to Sandy and me telling each other those stories. Between us, there was no difference except in who was doing the telling between Dostoevsky and Ray Bradbury or between Crime and Punishment and The Martian Chronicles. It wasn’t a matter of literature versus genre writing. It was books I liked and books Sandy liked.
Over time my taste for mysteries and spy novels turned into a love for Graham Greene and John Le Carre. Rip-roaring tales of high adventure with pirates and swashbuckling heroes led me to Joseph Conrad. But here’s the thing. I still don’t distinguish. You know how Hemingway said it all begins with Huckleberry Finn? For me, it all began with Treasure Island and at the back of my mind where the ten year old me still lives and reads, everything I’ve read since---everything—gets judged against Captain Billy Bones standing on the bluff with his spy glass on the lookout for the return of Captain Flint’s crew.
There are no genres. There are only stories.
So I’m surprised people are still arguing about this. Which is better, “literary” fiction or genre writing?
I guess they are or why would Ursula Le Guin feel she has to waste her time essentially making the case on her own behalf (modestly and self-deprecatingly) that she and other writers of science fiction and fantasy are good and real writers?
I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who discusses the literature/genre divide and while seeming to make light of it does a pretty thorough job of perpetuating it.
He uses Chesterton’s phrase, “good bad books,” for genre novels, and calls reading them a “guilty pleasure” — a phrase that succeeds in being simultaneously self-deprecating, self-congratulatory, and collusive. When I speak of my guilty pleasure, I confess that I know I sin, but I know you sin too, nudge nudge, aren’t we sinners cute?
Let me put it in here that I’ve always thought of what’s called literary fiction as a genre itself, with its own rigid conventions and rules for keeping readers entertained, and in some ways it’s a more limited genre and limiting genre because its first rule is Write What You Know and most writers working in the genre don’t know much at all and don’t bother to educate themselves. The result is a lot of books about people very much like the authors. Also, it’s a club and the club rules require that members believe that someone like Jonathan Franzen is a better and more important writer than someone like Ursula K. Le Guin.
Back to Le Guin herself:
The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game.
Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. It’s good to see that Mr Krystal can laugh at Edmund Wilson, if only at a safe distance. English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure.
And there you go.
I don’t remember if Sandy ever told me any of the Earthsea novels. If he did, I’m sure he did it beautifully. Even so, it’s probably one of those cases where the author did it better herself.
Read Le Guin’s whole post, Le Guin’s Hypothesis, at the Book View Cafe Blog.
(The New Yorker piece Le Guin’s responding to, Easy Writers by Arthur Krystal, is behind the pay wall.)