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April 21, 2009

“But this is good!” “Well, then, it’s not SF.”
Posted by Patrick at 08:18 AM * 327 comments

From the New York Times obit for J. G. Ballard:

“His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction,” said Robert Weil, Mr. Ballard’s American editor at Norton. “But that’s like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984.”
It just never gets old, does it?
Comments on "But this is good!" "Well, then, it's not SF.":
#1 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:20 AM:

(Hat tip to Moshe Feder for spotting this.)

#2 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:50 AM:

No, he has a point. JG Ballard never wrote about talking squid in outer space. He wrote about talking squid sitting listlessly by empty swimming pools, as the silent jungle grew remorselessly over the rusting hulks of their squidcars.

#3 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:51 AM:

I can see that line in the next Ansible, for sure.

#4 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:51 AM:

Ow, ow, ow.

#5 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:08 AM:

Perhaps in Huxley's and Orwell's case, you could kind of half-way defend a "non-SF" classification on the grounds that they had so little contact to anyone in the field. (Additionally, in the case of 1984 you could say it's more a collection of political essayistic writing (good political essayistic writing, IMO) than a novel anyway.)

But that obviously doesn't work for Ballard.

#6 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:08 AM:

His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction

We wuz fooled!

#7 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:10 AM:

ajay #2: Fortunately, I'd just put my cup down, and my mouth was empty.

PNH, no, it never gets old. To classify a work as genre means that it can't be real lit'rature, not even a work manifestly set in the future like Brave New World, with science fictional apparatus like people being born in factories, and serious socio-political extrapolation.

And, of course, Ballard wrote Empire of the Sun which wasn't SFnal, and therefore could never, under any circumstances, have written SF.

#8 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:21 AM:

Gah! I am sick and tired of pretentious gits dissing genre fiction. Do not get in my way if you happen to see me approaching one of those venal slackwits with an axe handle.

#9 ::: punkrockhockeymom ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:29 AM:

Oh my God. I have to go home immediately and take Brave New World and 1984 OFF of the bookshelves with the other spec fic and put them on the bookshelf with the "mainstream lit."

I had no idea. Eek! I must stop categorizing my books according to their content.

#10 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:33 AM:

2: He wrote about talking squid sitting listlessly by empty swimming pools, as the silent jungle grew remorselessly over the rusting hulks of their squidcars.

Was this before or after they experienced a dark cephalopod frisson of ecstasy by means of high-speed squidcar collision?

(Calling all squidcars, calling all squidcars, be on the lookout...suspect has committed genre and and may be dangerous...)

#11 ::: Zeynep ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:00 AM:

1984 wasn't SF? Makes sense, I guess, I mean, my 12, 13 year old self read that and automatically classified it as something belonging more to the Asimov side of the bookshelf than the John Steinbeck side. I was rather new to speculative fiction then, and in relative isolation as a reader. But what would my young instincts know, compared to Mr. Norton Editor?

Doesn't the fact that he has to use as convoluted a phrase as "fabulistic style" make him have a twinge?

It may never get old, but in a few more iterations I think it will become self-parody.

#12 ::: Michael Walsh ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:14 AM:

I"m not surprised by Weil's comments. Consider this from Philip Roth writing about his alt-history novel The Plot Against America:

"I had no literary models for reimagining the historical past."

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9500E7DB1338F93AA2575AC0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2

#13 ::: Sarah W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:19 AM:

punkrockhockeymom #9:

Arrange 'em by color. It confuses visitors and makes a great conversation starter.

#14 ::: punkrockhockeymom ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:22 AM:

Sarah W, I am just obsessive enough about alphabetizing that the thought of rearranging my books by color creeps me out a little bit. Hee!

#15 ::: David Dvorkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:23 AM:

Or one could say that it got old a long time ago.

#16 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:27 AM:

ajay @#2: WIN.

Fragano Ledgister @#7:

And, of course, Ballard wrote Empire of the Sun which wasn't SFnal, and therefore could never, under any circumstances, have written SF.

Ah, yes, the one-book rule...

#17 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:28 AM:

Sarah W @ 13...

"And in this corner are all the pre-1984 DAW books."

#18 ::: Michael Walsh ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:45 AM:

#17: "And in this corner are all the pre-1984 DAW books."

Would that be yellow journalism ?

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:46 AM:

You can plausibly define "SF", not as a particular group of literary characteristics, but rather as the joint project of a particular group of people over a particular historical period. By such a definition, Brave New World would not really be "SF," despite its obvious similarities to works that are "SF," because Huxley had little or nothing to do with those people and their work.

However, as Raphael points out in comment #5, even if you do define "SF" that way (and I don't), J. G. Ballard was an SF writer. He published in SF magazines. He read and associated with other SF writers. SF, specifically the British "New Wave" of the 1960s, nourished and encouraged him. SF lines kept his backlist in print. He had a sometimes fractious relationship with the rest of the field, but for heaven's sake, if that means you're not inside the SF world, then Jerry Pournelle isn't either.

Most to the point, the rest of SF is a great deal of what Ballard's work is (to use an overused critical term) "in dialogue" with. As Henry Farrell observed in his Crooked Timber post, Ballard's work is pervaded by a sense that we live in the aftermath of classic science-fictional futurity. It is certainly true that his most famous and best-selling novel Empire of the Sun isn't formally a work of science fiction, but if there was ever a mainstream autobiographical novel with the SF sensibility all over it, Empire of the Sun is such a book.

#20 ::: Johan Anglemark ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:52 AM:

Actually, by two of the more useful LitSci definitions of science fiction, Broderick's megatextual definition (loosely: SF is a literary form where the depicted deviations from the author's contemporary world (what Suvin calls nova) are part of the institutionalised array of themes, motifs, gadgets, and situations specific for this type of literature, used consciously by the author in a dialogue with the reader) and Määttä's paratextual definition (loosely: SF is a type of fiction that constitutes a separate marketing category, identifiable by the title, the cover, an imprint, or the name of the publisher's series, principally distributed as mass-market literature), 1984 and Brave New World aren't SF.

However, no reasonable definition in the world can exempt Ballard's pre-80s work from being SF.

#21 ::: Michael Walsh ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:58 AM:

His memoir Miracles of Life make it pretty clear his early relationship to SF.

#22 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:06 AM:

The whole reason I picked up 1984 off the dusty shelves in my family's summer house was that I needed something to read and it was clearly science fiction, unlike most of the other books on the shelf.

#23 ::: MichaelC ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:11 AM:

Meanwhile, this on the front page of the Los Angeles Times website today: "J.G. Ballard dies at 78; British science fiction writer"

So, it looks like a cage match between the L.A. Times and the New York Times. Pass the popcorn.

#24 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:11 AM:

For a lovely defense of genre in all its forms, read Michael Chabon's essay collection Maps and Legends. I'm sure he was delighted to have won the Hugo and Nebula; the Edgar (for which The Yiddish Policeman's Union was also nominated) would have made it a trifecta.

#25 ::: MorganJLocke ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:18 AM:

WAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!

#26 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:19 AM:

MichaelC (#23): Actually, the NY Times acknowledges him as a science fiction writer in their article. It's Norton editor Robert Weil who's quoted here.

#27 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:19 AM:

Patrick @ 19... Ballard's work is pervaded by a sense that we live in the aftermath of classic science-fictional futurity

One very revelatory comment he made when I met him in 1987 was that exploration was a primitive urge.

#28 ::: Sarah W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:28 AM:

punkrockhockeymom #14: Blue, Green, Indigo, Orange, Red, Violet, and Yellow?

I'm a librarian, and some of us are threatening to arrange our resources by color, or at least put a hue-based keyword in the catalog records, since that's how many of our patrons ask for 'em . . .

Serge #17: I'll take your word for it---I'm not sure any of my pre-1984, well-loved DAWs still have covers . . .

#29 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:33 AM:

Adam @ 26 - I wonder what he did to piss off the NY Times. They treat SF like it was VD.

#30 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:40 AM:

The problem with defining SF in terms of content is that eventually you're stuck with Michael Crichton.

The problem with defining SF in terms of merit is that eventually you're stuck with Dan Brown.

#31 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:42 AM:

Adam 26: Good point, and I'm certain he pronounces his name in proper German fashion, with the 'w' pronounced as we pronounce 'v'.

Even if he doesn't, I will.

#32 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:46 AM:

MorganJLocke @25: Evelyn or Alec?

#33 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:05 PM:

Obligatory: "They're just jealous of our jetpacks".

#34 ::: Doug Faunt ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:05 PM:

#18 "and the older Gollancz editions".

I was interested to discover that the CBC did TWO dramatizations of "The Dead Astronaut" as well as of several other of his stories. Not what I'd expect from them.
Here's one of them:
http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/asithappens_20090420_14557.mp3

#35 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:10 PM:

The CBC's "As It Happens" comes down on the "J.G. Ballard, British Science Fiction Writer" side.

Also, Michael Walsh at 12, my immediate reaction to Philip Roth's disclaimer of knowledge of other fictional futures was to remember that Stephenie Meyer had read no other vampire books, nor watched any TV nor movies about vampires before she wrote Twilight, which should be a caution to us all.

#36 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:14 PM:

At least the fuggheads still think we're dangerous. I don't think I would wish sober, safe respectability on any art form I cared about. (Be nice to get paid better, though.)

#37 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:15 PM:

Good God. Are they still on that one?

Ajay @ 2: I think I love you.

Michael Walsh @ 12: Where is the Department of DIsingenuousness when you need it?

#38 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:15 PM:

Johan Anglemark @20, Actually, by two of the more useful LitSci definitions of science fiction, Broderick's megatextual definition (loosely: SF is a literary form where the depicted deviations from the author's contemporary world (what Suvin calls nova) are part of the institutionalised array of themes, motifs, gadgets, and situations specific for this type of literature, used consciously by the author in a dialogue with the reader) and Määttä's paratextual definition (loosely: SF is a type of fiction that constitutes a separate marketing category, identifiable by the title, the cover, an imprint, or the name of the publisher's series, principally distributed as mass-market literature),[...]

This made me think of Mark Rosenfelder's old comment "He borrows this method from academics, who love to begin by defining their subject. Generally you'd might as well skip to Chapter Two, where they'll forget about their own definition and start to actually talk about things.", in a post that's perhaps loosely related to this definition question (it's on April the, 14th, if the "#" part of the link doesn't work for you).

#39 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:16 PM:

25: what is it good for?

#40 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:33 PM:

Waiter, I'll have the Sturgeon.

#41 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:45 PM:

Norton has a Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard coming in September.

The product description invokes Calvino, Borges, and Kafka. I added a "science fiction" tag and submitted "science fiction" as a search term for the book, since Norton forgot to.

#42 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:51 PM:

My natural and unedited first reaction to reading this was to bite back an out-loud "Are you shitting me?" -- only bitten back because I'm in the grad student office with lots of other people.

And then I bit back an out-loud "AAAAAAAAAAAAA."

#43 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:54 PM:

Mary Dell (#41): That's an excellent idea! I've seconded that tag.

#44 ::: Scraps ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 12:55 PM:

Remember who J.G. Ballard called his favorite writer? Isaac Asimov.

#45 ::: Zed Lopez ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:00 PM:

A bookstore in San Francisco really did (allow someone to) arrange their books by color.

Theophylact @24: For a lovely defense of genre in all its forms, read Michael Chabon's essay collection

For a while, I've been cranky about Chabon implying that genre fiction was dead (i.e., saying it needed reviving), but it's probably high time I got over that.

#46 ::: Rob Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:04 PM:

By the by, has the NYT nixed their SF column Across the Universe? I have been keeping an eye out and I haven't seen it for a while....

#47 ::: Johan Anglemark ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:06 PM:

Raphael, @38: Good post. He's right of course when it comes to laymen (although I confess I find defining things amusing). Academics have to define what they talk about to be able to talk about it, though.

#48 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:09 PM:

James Fallows has a nice set of pictures of Ballard's childhood house in Shanghai:
http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/04/jg_ballard_in_shanghai.php

#49 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:13 PM:

Regarding the endless defining-SF debate, Chip Delany pointed out some years ago that definitional arguments by their nature always wind up focusing on edge cases and neglecting the core. His suggestion was that SF scholars need to spend less time trying to define SF and more time working to describe it.

This was a talk at a Readercon which was later reprinted in the New York Review of Science Fiction. Thinking of all the scholarly essays with titles that begin "Notes Toward...", I suggested to Chip that he publish the talk as "Notes Away From a Definition of Science Fiction." Alas, he did not.

That's the trouble with transcendent geniuses--they always gotta go having their "own ideas" and stuff. I tell you.

#50 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:13 PM:

Zed Lopez @ 45...

The Dead Collector: Bring out yer dead.
Large Man with Dead Body: Here's one.
The Dead Collector: That'll be ninepence.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I'm not dead.
The Dead Collector: What?
Large Man with Dead Body: Nothing. There's your ninepence.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I'm not dead.
The Dead Collector: 'Ere, he says he's not dead.
Large Man with Dead Body: Yes he is.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I'm not.
The Dead Collector: He isn't.
Large Man with Dead Body: Well, he will be soon, he's very ill.
The Dead Body That Claims It Isn't: I'm getting better.
Large Man with Dead Body: No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment.
The Dead Collector: Well, I can't take him like that. It's against regulations.

#51 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:30 PM:

Zed Lopez @ 45: There was a used-book store in Kingston, Ontario, that had part of their stock sorted by colour back when I was living in that city. Not as a stunt; that's the way the owner liked it. I suppose that some of her customers did buy books to match their decor, or whatever, not for their content.

#52 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:46 PM:

punkrockhockeymom @14,

I recall a brunch where the host had
1. books regularly shelved
2. a bench filled with books not so regularly shelved: too-be-reads, just-reads, just-boughts, and similars.

In that way of bookish people, three of us urgently & telepathically decided to color, hue and size code the 7 stacks, all without the host noticing, because of asthetics. It was needful, and much, much better once done.

The host didn't notice for at least two weeks, because the pattern was beautiful.

#53 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:54 PM:

Kathryn from Sunnyvale @ #52

You...you...you rearranged someone's books???!!!

#54 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 01:59 PM:

Quoting myself from 2006, because it is still true.

"For this thread, I could work up my standard SF rant #4*: the sins of omission of the NYTimes:
When they review SF written by non-genre writers, the reviews generally
1. Don't mention or quickly dismiss the SFnal nature of the book
2. Don't mention any genre context-- earlier books exploring the same themes
3. Don't suggest any related books

This cheats everyone.
- It lets the reviewer be lazy.
- It gives credit for originality to the non-genre writer where none might be due.
- It doesn't credit the SF writer for ideas.
- It keeps the reader from knowing what else exists.

Similarly, I once wrote about Margaret Atwood:
"In 2003 she directly said Oryx and Crake wasn't science fiction. Around then she'd been using (not always consistently) an elaborate 3-category definition** of SF that allowed her to claim this. Her 2002 review of LeGuin's Birthday of the World is one example.

See this interview in New Scientist, the source (I think: the full article is dollarwalled off) of:
"Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Speculative fiction is when you have all the materials to actually do it. We've taken a path that is already visible to us. In 1984 and Brave New World, you could see all the elements that were farther down that particular path. I don't like science fiction except for the science fiction of the 1930s, the bug-eyed monster genre in full bloom."

A response to that from 2003:
'When I read the interview I think of an alternate musical universe, where Atwood the composer is saying... "Jazz is New Orleans and sometimes is done nicely, but often is done in bars. My music is Improvisational Syncopated Classical. Jazz is trumpets and the blues. My music is mixing new rhythms and chords with the musical materials we have now. I don't like jazz except for ragtime."'

------------
* longer version available

** In retrospect, it was the type of elaborateness that signifies a broken paradigm that ought to be replaced. She replaced it. That she replaced it quickly, and thoughtfully, and in the face of all sorts of snarky fandom sniping* shows she has class***.

*** or however I can phrase the complement without sounding snarky or condescending. It isn't easy to go back on a claim you've made and say you were wrong, no matter how trivial the claim. Much easier just to find new justifications.

#55 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:04 PM:

Kathryn, #54: Atwood is odd. She uses these variant definitions where "science fiction" = "space opera". She calls her own stuff something else, I forget what. She'd never think of doing that with any field whose scholarship she took seriously. It's quite bizarre--an echo of the old-time sf writers who were convinced that their ideas of literature trumped all previous literary scholarship.

#56 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:19 PM:

I think Margaret Atwood is a good writer, but that doesn't mean she isn't also an asshole. I think she's an asshole.

#57 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:26 PM:

wrt shelving books: There was a mathematics professor at NYU's Courant Institute who shelved the books in his office by publisher. And he seriously thought that the library should do it that way.

#59 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:27 PM:

Patrick writes in #19:

You can plausibly define "SF", not as a particular group of literary characteristics, but rather as the joint project of a particular group of people over a particular historical period. By such a definition, Brave New World would not really be "SF," despite its obvious similarities to works that are "SF," because Huxley had little or nothing to do with those people and their work.

Is there a tribe of people who do this? Where can I read their stuff? Might be interesting.

I am soaked in very traditional views of SF, because I have mostly heard the standard voices, and it sometimes does me good to consider a new point of view. Or two.

#60 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:28 PM:

Long, long ago Fred Lerner described to me a cataloging, classification and shelving scheme for a private library that he developed for a library school class project. He called it the Lerner Spiral-Spectral System, and it involved shelving the books by color on a single long shelf spiraling up(or down) a round tower. I can't remember how it accomodated non-spectrum colored bindings -- possibly shelving them at the end, or rebinding them. I remember thinking it could work, assuming an extremely good catalog.

#61 ::: Sarah W ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:29 PM:

Kathryn from Sunnyvale #52:

My FIL's grad students organized the contents of the wall-to-wall bookshelves in his office by color when he was away at a week long conference.

He came back, laughed, took some photos, and made them rearrange the books until they were as he had left them. Since none of the students had bothered to map the original order, it took them a looooong time.

#62 ::: JM ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:33 PM:

Caroline, #42 -- It would be odd to suddenly swear aloud in your grad student office? What sort of nutty program are you IN?

#63 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:33 PM:

I'd like to hear a knock-down, drag-out debate between Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing on the topic of "Genre Denial Syndrome: Threat or Menace?". heh.

#64 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:37 PM:

PurpleGirl (57): I've been in at least one bookstore (in London, iirc) that arranged its books by publisher. Extremely annoying.

#65 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:45 PM:

Mary Aileen @64: There's also the (very not-mobile) "New England Mobile Bookfair" on the outskirts of Boston that does that with theirs (and then by title within that!). Their reasoning is that it saves them lots of trouble in that they just get the box from the publisher, take it to the right aisle, and shelve it all right there. Their reasoning for subjecting the buyers to this is that they offer cheaper prices and can carry vast amounts of inventory by doing things like this; they're sort of a brick-and-mortar Amazon.

(Oh, and they also have a labyrinthine other half of the store that's remaindered books; those are sorted approximately by subject.)

Why, yes, this does make them a dangerous place to visit. Why do you ask?

#66 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 02:55 PM:

Science fiction asks: what if this were possible?

#67 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:03 PM:

Nice to see you do regular comments again, Scraps!

"Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Speculative fiction is when you have all the materials to actually do it."

Since, as everyone knows, we don't have rockets and chemicals at the moment. And, of course, on the other hand, we already have what would be needed for the Brave New World.

#68 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:07 PM:

In the latest iteration of our library, I gave up on sorting fiction from nonfiction. Books exist in a general population that's shelved in two parallel groups, tall and short, sorted alphabetically by author.

As a classicist, I'm pretty conscious that a lot of what, frex, Virgil considered nonfiction has migrated over since his death. And recent events make me want to shelve 1984 with nonfiction.

#69 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:16 PM:

abi: Someday I will have the luxury of hauling all my books out of storage, and then I shall have to devise a means of ordering them. I suspect some of it will be locational. Cookery near the kitchen, referene near the computer (the computer somewhere near the kitchen), and the difficulty of edge case... where does this book fall?

And then I will never want to move again in my life.

#70 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:20 PM:

Indirectly connecting 1984 and books sorted by color, here's something from Orwell's short article "Book Shop Memories": Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who ‘wants a book for an invalid’ (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.

#71 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:24 PM:

(marginally on topic)

There was some nice discussion of the distinction between s/f and fantasy on the most recent episode of CSI. One of the lab techs was explaining that Mr. Ed was sci-fi because it posited an alternate reality where horses evolved larynxes, but that any show that believes in FTL travel is fantasy...

#72 ::: Rob Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:24 PM:

@54 Actually, Kathryn, when you talked about jazz being "improvised syncopated classical" that reminds me of Wynton Marsalis. Unfortunately, neutering your genre to fit your expectations doesn't always work out very well IMHO.

#73 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:25 PM:

Terry @69:
We had the majority of our books in storage from 1999 - 2007. It was only when we were setting into our echoingly empty rental house that we finally put them all back on shelves.

Moving them and the shelves the half mile to the new house wasn't that bad. But we're not planning on shifting again any time soon.

Well, apart from needing to get the floor refinished...

#74 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:32 PM:

About Ballard:

a) Is Moorcock the only English new wave writer left?
b) I was sort of expecting a RIP thread, and got this, and a side note. Can this be an RIP thread?
c) I think that Ballard is interesting, because of course a lot of it is SF, but I do not think that Crash is, for example, or Super Cannes, or Cocaine Nights, or the Atrocity Exhibition. (Pornography, Comedy of Manners, Drawing Room Mystery, Avant Garde experimental)
d) In fact, one of the great things about Ballard, is his deconstruction of the optimism and joy of certain SFers who cum endlessly to images of a utopian future that would never exist.
e) I am not sure that one should be judged by the company one keeps, that he was published in New Waves is mostly because who the else would publish him. He was a cult writer, some of his cult were SFers, some of them were new urbanists, some of them were perverts, and some of them were none of these things.
f) There keeps being a kind of victimhood obsession in SF, that they get off when people ignore there genre significaitons, they want SF to be litertature, which it can be, which it often is, but it is also pulp and trash, and there is something great about that, that Ballard knew about and which some of the fandom ignores.
g) What is lost if Ballard is not considered SF, what is gained if he is?
h) this is not a critical position, but Ballard spends time in the sf camp sometimes for me because of his technolust, his isolation, how he constructs first contact tales (fundamentally his memoirs of shang hai have that kind of vibe for me), and the feeling i get from his work--this intangible dread about monsters, this (in the most classical sense of the word) uncanniness that unsettles most readers. In this way he is less like Asimov (but I have not read a hell of a lot of Asimov yet) and more like Capek or Lem, who are SF.
i) atwood is not an asshole, she is a crank.

#75 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:34 PM:

For a couple years after college I had my books in *strict* chronological order, i.e. not by author or anything, just date, so that all the 1954 books (e.g.) were together regardless of who wrote them. While it created some fun juxtapositions (I recall Les liaisons dangereuses (1782) right next to Critique of Pure Reason (1781)), it was on the whole rather impractical. Also, no solution to collections/anthologies was satisfying.

So then I had strict alphabetical by author -- no categories, nonfiction & fiction mixed -- for a while. Not as much fun, and while more practical, it was not fun enough to make up for the degree to which it still wasn't very practical.

If I had the time energy & patience I'd try chronological again...

#76 ::: Wyrd ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:39 PM:

Oh, a work can be SF and be good, it just can't be "SyFy" and be good.

--
Furry cows moo and decompress.

#77 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:40 PM:

anthony @ 74... Would Aldiss qualify as a New Wave author? I saw him a few times at the Boston worldcon in 2004 and I remember thinking he looked like someone who should be working for George Smiley's Circus. And I mean that as a compliment.

#79 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:43 PM:

Here is a small part of our library.

#80 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:45 PM:

re bookshop memories: My family owns a used bookshop (which is how, oddly enough, I come to have had,and lost over time, so many wonderfully odd/semi-rare books. i.e. rare in the sense of small runs, or non-mass market titles).

I recall, on a number of occasions, phone conversations like this:

C: I'm wondering if you have a book.
M: Ok, what's the title?
C: I don't recall.
M: Ok, who wrote it?
C: I'm not sure.
M: What kind of book was it? Mystery, Romance, History?
C: Oh it was a romance:
M: Series Romance, like Harlequin, or a General Romance?
C: Oh, it was a general romance?
M: When did it come out?
C: I'm not sure, in the past year, or so.
M: Can you recall anything about it?
C: Well, there was a woman in a flowing gown on the cover.
M: (Of course): Ok, anything else? A first name, last name, some bit of the the title?
C: The cover was purple.
M: Was it, "X"
C: YES!

What, still, croggles me is that, when I was working regularly, I could do that about half the time.

#81 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:48 PM:

Serge @79:
Here is the bulk of ours (there are shelves here and there throughout the rest of the house as well.

#82 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:51 PM:

Abi @ 81... Your library looks so neat. Eeriely so.

#83 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 03:58 PM:

anthony 74: i) atwood is not an asshole, she is a crank.

I would respectfully submit that the two categories are not mutually exclusive.

She's an asshole crank.

#84 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:05 PM:

My library is currently divided into fiction and non-fiction, with fiction MMPs having their own shorter shelves. Within that, I've recently divided things into read & unread, to make it easier to progress through new stuff, and resist the temptation to reread until I've caught up a bit. I mostly have the non-fiction grouped by subject, but with fiction I just try to keep stuff by one author all together.

Also I shelve books that are not appropriate for other people's children on the high shelves; that way when I turn young guests loose in the library I just have to tell them "if you can't reach it, it's not for you." And I have a shelf that's half antique books and half things that have been signed by their creators (definitely out of reach of little hands).

God help anyone who isn't me and wants to find anything in my library.

#85 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:10 PM:

xopher

why do you see her as an asshole, acknowledging that the two often coexist

#86 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:12 PM:

PurpleGirl (57): Given what I've seen of math book design, that would be almost the same as organizing them by colour!

#87 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:12 PM:

One of the French newspaper's obit I read said he was a writer of "anticipation sociale" - I'm suspecting it was copypasted directly from wikipedia - a classification I always found somewhat problematical myself not to say irritating* (it gets me climbing atop the closest hills, on grey mornings, raising my pointless fist to heavens that won't rage; by the time I get back home, the coffee's cold , and I realise it's high time I get rid of those Care Bears pajamas).


* All the more since I think it does have a point. It's just that I too often see it used as a self-aggrandizing tool... "Well of course, I do not read SF anymore, I'm way past that. I read social anticipation."

#88 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:16 PM:

Boy, I go off to a meeting, and only now get to see the brilliance that is ajay @2.

As for personal libraries, all I can say is, just wait until I get enough shelves to de-box more books. Until then, I have only what I'm reading, shelved by author, and what I'm not reading, boxed for shipment to a friend.

#89 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:25 PM:

We have a rather idiosyncratic home library organization.

Nonfiction is by topic. Books purchased for college courses are shelved with other books from the same course. Cookbooks are together, shelved with other food and wine reference works. Dictionaries are shelved together (including foreign language dictionaries). Other nonfiction is grouped vaguely by topic. Nothing is alphabetized.

Fiction is by size (pocket paperback, or otherwise). This is because of the sizes of our various bookcases. Once sorted by size, they are grouped in rough order of acquisition. Books by the same author are grouped together (if we have some pocket paperback and some larger-format books by the same author, they are split into two groups). The author clusters are ordered approximately by when we started reading and buying that author, and sometimes placed by importance or frequency of re-reading. They are not alphabetical. (For example, Palahniuk and Murakami are shelved near each other because Keith and I, respectively, started reading those two authors around the same time. All of the Discworld novels are front and center because I re-read them constantly whenever I need a break.) Within author groups, books in a series are placed in the appropriate order. Otherwise they are placed in rough order of acquisition, or sometimes in chronological order of publication if it is different from order of acquisition and makes more sense.

Of course we have only one book by some authors. These are usually placed in rough order of acquisition, except when they are not.

Graphic novels get their own shelf, with the art books (art history, design, and photography). These follow the same author/order rules as other fiction.

The idiosyncratic book placement used to be a lot more rigorous. Keith had a particular mental model of where each book was, and couldn't find it if it was misplaced (I have literally seen him unable to find a book that was two slots away from where he expected it to be). He's become significantly more flexible with the ordering. Now he can find something if it's within the general author group, or within a shelf or so of its acquisition-date order.

This is because I am the kind of person who is doing well when I can get books on shelves, rather than stacked up near every available couch, chair, bed, and toilet. Well, I know where they are (because it's the last place I was reading them).

So I've learned to put books on shelves -- in some approximation of order, even -- and he's learned to be a bit more flexible in his search algorithms.

Odds on anyone who is not either me or him being able to locate a specific book: unknown.

(I am the daughter of a librarian. Her home library is quite similar to mine. WIthout call numbers, we're sunk.)

#90 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:34 PM:

anthony @#74:

g) What is lost if Ballard is not considered SF, what is gained if he is?

Accuracy in reporting?

f) There keeps being a kind of victimhood obsession in SF, that they get off when people ignore there genre significaitons, they want SF to be litertature, which it can be, which it often is, but it is also pulp and trash, and there is something great about that, that Ballard knew about and which some of the fandom ignores.

I believe most if not all of SF fandom is familiar with Sturgeon's law. But since you refer to us as "they" I take it you don't consider yourself part of SF fandom?

Leaving aside the more fan-baiting parts of your argument, the issue in this case is not whether SF is literature, but whether Ballard wrote books that fit any of the common definitions of SF.

Are you saying that High Rise, The Crystal World, The Wind from Nowhere, and Vermilion Sands, to name just a few, are not Science Fiction?

What do you gain by classifying them as something else?

#91 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:42 PM:

And lots of "literature" is pulp and trash (which I think was a subtext in a recent thread.

SF can be both, it (as with "literature" mystery, romance, etc.) contains multitudes.

I, for one, resent that, when a book is, "good" it ceases to be SF, and becomes "Literature" which means SF somehow can't be both.

#92 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:42 PM:

I'm sure I've described by book-archiving quirks, if not here then on RASFW...

I have large picturebooks and art-book grouped together, for size reasons. I have some non-fiction categories grouped (logic and puzzle books, science books). Hardbacks and paperbacks are not intermixed (again, size-packing efficiency).

However, within those categories (and mass-market-sized paperbacks is a *big* category), I don't sort books. Some authors are grouped together, generally imperfectly. Most often, when I need to find a paperback, I have to look through *all* of my paperback shelves. Including the several rows packed into old Ikea drawers. If my eyes aren't sharp, I might miss the book entirely.

Every time I do this, I think "I'm so glad my books aren't sorted in any consistent way. If they were, I'd never get to do this."

No, I've never lived with anyone in a bookshelf-sharing relationship.

#93 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:43 PM:

Heading back up to the original post:

In other news, comics aren't just for kids anymore.

#94 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:43 PM:

anthony @ 74... the optimism and joy of certain SFers who cum endlessly

Lucky folks.

#95 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:44 PM:

i take the groucho marx view of fandom.

i am not referring to pulp and trash as bad things, as part of the 90 per cent. i am saying that when you elevate the high you forget the low.

#96 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:56 PM:

Serge @94: Inexhaustible supply of energy?

#97 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 04:58 PM:

anthony @#95: Neither of those is an answer to my question.

i take the groucho marx view of fandom.

Contempt, theoretically made amusing through self-deprecation?

i am not referring to pulp and trash as bad things, as part of the 90 per cent. i am saying that when you elevate the high you forget the low. i am saying that when you elevate the high you forget the low.

I don't see anyone here arguing for a narrow view of SF that excludes the not-bad things you refer to as "low" and "trash." We're simply saying that the SF genre includes much of Ballard's work--and I note that you haven't answered my questions about how you classify Ballard's speculative works.

You seem to be defining SF & literature as genres delimited by quality, not by subject matter, which is exactly what infuriates many fans of SF. If you read a book in which a detective investigated a murder, and ultimately revealed the killer at the end, would you call it a mystery? Or would that depend on how much you admired its literary qualities?

#98 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:05 PM:

Our books are divided into fiction (all - but subdivided into normal paperbacks and oversize); poetry & plays; natural history, veterinary and associated (my reference books); general reference; historical reference; esoterica/ wacky; dictionaries, encyclopaedias etc.; manga and other graphic novels (shelved separately due to size differences).

Fiction, poetry and plays, manga and graphic novels are sorted by author, most reference books by subject. Then we each have our "to read" section...

We did think of labelling the rooms they are in: "Fiction C-H" etc.

#99 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:07 PM:

Summer Storms @ 96... Either that or an inexhaustible supply of clean underwear.

#100 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:18 PM:

Something can be written as SF, marketed as SF, bought as SF, and read as SF. These things are not the same. If Brave New World and 1984 were not marketed as SF, and maybe not written as part of the SF community project, nonetheless they are essential SF texts. What of Frankenstein and The Time Machine? Neither author went to Clarion, or even to a con. Their work was marketed as literature, not as SF. Does that mean it isn't SF?

#101 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:22 PM:

Xopher, what, Atwood is an "asshole" just for coming up with her own classification scheme for fiction? I'd like to see more people come up with heterodox genre classification schemes, and stop pretending that everything with a spaceship in it is identical. There's a lot in common between Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, and Isaac Asimov's Foundation books, but I can't imagine recommending one of those two to someone who'd just read the other and asked for more like it.

#102 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:27 PM:

Andrew Plotkin @#92, you are me, except that instead of merely not sorting my books I keep track of them in a Tellico database, and one of the things I track is current bookshelf location, updating it when I take books off the shelves or put them back on.

(I suspect this wouldn't work if Tellico wasn't a few keystrokes away at all times.)

#103 ::: bartkid ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:42 PM:

>Stephenie Meyer had read no other vampire books, nor watched any TV nor movies about vampires before she wrote Twilight
What a great idea.
I don't plan to write any vampire books or screenplays.
I just plan to never read any more now that Ms. Meyer has written Twilight.

>I must stop categorizing my books according to their content.
Simpilify, simplify.
I have two categories for my books. Those I have read, and, sigh, the much large group, those I will read, someday.

#104 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:46 PM:

I am not making literary notices here. I do not find literary distinctions useful. I am using trash like Pauline Kael did:
Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.

Ballard did not only write SF, if we are going to be accurate about definitions, we might as well call him a pornographer, a mystery writer, a writer of anglo noveau roman, a memorist. All of these are legitimate categories, most of these were first viewed as trash, some still are. Ballard recognized his trash roots and moved thru them with out ever forgetting them.

I am arguing for the expanding, polysemic use of language and genre.

I am sorry if this came across as contempt.

#105 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:47 PM:

http://www.paulrossen.com/paulinekael/trashartandthemovies.html

#106 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:49 PM:

No, Avram, Atwood is an asshole because she wrote a science fiction novel and then found some hokey, half-assed way to invent reclassifications to avoid admitting that The Handmaid's Tale is science fiction, because ick, genre, and she insists on thinking she's so much better than us.

Atwood's self-deluded splitting of hairs visible only to her reminds me powerfully of guys who insist that no, they only did it in prison or they never kissed or they thought about women the entire time, so they're not really queer.

That's why I think Atwood is an asshole. It occurs to me that if you want to be specific about the kind of asshole she is, I can suggest a term: genrephobe.

#107 ::: Chris Eagle ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:50 PM:

@103: Pierre Bayard (In How to talk about books you haven't read) has a more fine-grained system: there are books he has read but forgotten, books he has heard discussed, books he has glanced at, and books entirely unknown to him. It's not clear if there are any books he has read and remembers; he certainly doesn't talk about them.

#108 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:52 PM:

As for the rest of your comment, Avram, I rather agree.

#109 ::: bartkid ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:53 PM:

Typo:
much larger group

Sigh.

#110 ::: Sarah W ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:56 PM:

Caroline #89:

My personal library is also arranged in ever-circulating piles according to where I've been reading.

My husband looks at my varied accumulations and mumbles things like "No human would stack books like this. . ."

#111 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 05:58 PM:

bartkid, I can't tell whether you think Twilight is the absolute apotheosis of vampiric fiction, and therefore you never want to read any other vampire stories, or whether reading it has so disgusted you that all vampire stories will be forever tainted by the sheer ickiness of Meyer's writing.

#112 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 06:02 PM:

anthony@104: So, to be consistent, you ought to object to the disavowal of Brave New World and 1984 as science fiction, right?

#113 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 06:09 PM:

1984 is a:
a) political essay
b) a speculative fiction
c) erotic text (how come everyone forgets how hot the fucking is in that book)
d) media satire
e) linguistic essay
f) cautionary fable about human nature.

so parts of it can be used by sf critics for their purposes.

Brave New World is a:
a) an essay about pleasure
b) media satire
c) speculative fiction

it is more likely to be used by sf critics for their purposes.

#114 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 06:13 PM:

My sorting categories:

SFF MMPB, sorted alpha by author and chronologically within a series.

SFF MMPB anthologies, sorted alpha by title. (Collections and single-universe anthologies are shelved with their main author or series.)

Mystery MMPB and MMPB anthologies, sorted similarly to their SFF counterparts. (SFF mystery books, like the Lord Darcy series, are filed with mystery just to free up space on the SFF shelves.)

SFF hardcovers (for which I'm completely out of space at the moment).

SFF trade PB and chapbooks, which would be filed with the hardcovers if I had the space.

Mystery hardcovers and trade PB.

Graphic novels, filed in no particular order but grouped in series where applicable.

Reference -- textbooks, encyclopedias, holy books, folk-myth collections, etc.

Language reference -- dictionaries, thesauri, Strunk & White, etc. Software manuals also go here, mostly because they fit.

Art books, not oversized.

Art books, oversized.

Arthurian reference & fantasy (pulled out from SFF to clear space on those shelves).

Star Trek hardcovers & trade PB.

Star Trek MMPB.

Romance MMPB (mostly Regency).

Language trivia and humor.

Classical literature and poetry.

TBR, sorted into MMPB, trade PB, hardcover but not otherwise.

A few oddities that fit into random small slots here and there.

Note that this largely reflects the number and arrangement of bookshelves available to me, and is far from what I would consider ideal. It also means that there are a number of things which have been "rationalized" away from the SFF MMPB shelves in particular, and which I know where they are but someone else might not guess.

My partner has one large bookcase in the bedroom, plus a small tower of plastic milk crates for oversized stuff. He also culls much more vigorously than I do.

#115 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 06:29 PM:

anthony@113: 1984 is a erotic text (how come everyone forgets how hot the fucking is in that book)

I... serioulsy ? I remember it as a rather sad thing myself. An act of rebelion agaisn't, failling at being satisfying/fulfilling or at generating genuine positive connection between participants.

Book I have read but forgotten ?

#116 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 06:59 PM:

I just read the Atwood article on LeGuin that Kathryn linked to, and I have to say that I agree with it more than not. "Science fiction" is a grab bag category, with "science fiction proper" (what Gernsback meant when he named it) being only one strand. It is kind of a shame that the curious general reader is presented with this grab bag as if it were a monolithic genre, with little information to help tease the various strands apart. I might not divide the grab bag exactly the way she does, but her scheme is not indefensible, and that seems like a quibble anyway. In any case, the article is a defense of SF, not an attack on it, and certainly not an attempt to claim LeGuin isn't a science fiction writer.

And of course Atwood is exactly right (even if the "rockets and chemicals" line shows some confusion) that once a technology is realized, writing about it becomes at least optionally non-SFnal. Otherwise every John Updike novel involving air travel would have to be considered SF because Kipling wrote "With The Night Mail."

Lastly, as I've written before, I think the claim that The Handmaid's Tale is non-SF is defensible (I think the claim that it is SF is also defensible, but saying "Heinlein wrote a religious dystopia" is not enough). It's true that some people protest the SF tag out of prejudice (although I haven't seen convincing evidence that this is true in Atwood's case--every time I've heard or read her on the subject, she's defending SF), but it doesn't logically follow from that that fandom's maximalist definition of SF has to be accepted by everyone.

#117 ::: John Hawkes-Reed ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 07:38 PM:

anthony@104: Pornographer? I have read Ballard obsessively (is there any other way of reading JGB?) since I was a teenager, and I have to say that both hands remained on the books at all times.

(Whatever I'll end up writing about JGB will make me sound like a right tosspot, so I think I'd better just say that he was/is as much of an influence on my life as John Peel and Tony Wilson, and then shut the hell up.)

There's this, of course. Genius.

#118 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 07:46 PM:

I have read a lot of de Sade, and never masturbated to it, that doesn't mean it wasn't pornographic, and I cannot imagine where else to place Crash.

#119 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 07:49 PM:

Sarah W @ 110, before I shared a bed with another person, I tended to pile the books in the bed. I would have a little nest to sleep in, surrounded on three sides by books. When Keith is out of town for any length of time, I revert to this behavior.

I'm home now, and looking at our shelves, 1984 and Brave New World are shelved in the "things we read in high school" area, but that's because it's so strongly weighted by acquisition date and not by genre at all. They're both clearly SF.

#120 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 07:54 PM:

caroline:

i also sleep with books in the bed, and even when sleeping with other people, books snuck in. i love reading in bed.

#121 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:18 PM:

Tim Walters@ 116, Xopher @106 and earlier,

In 2002-2004 Atwood was claiming she Didn't. Write. Science Fiction. How she made these claims was by using an increasingly complex definition of it--the equivalent of coming up with a jerrymandered definition of jazz--and I recall being annoyed by these definitions. I thought they cheated her readers in exactly the ways I list upthread in #54.

I recall writing back then that "She isn't the same as a reviewer or editor who refuses to read, review or understand anything about SF: witness the LeGuin article. Hers would have to be an active, deliberate ignorance of today's science fiction- "Modern SF" would be a known unknown to her, not an unknown unknown."

That said, by 2005 she admitted that she writes SF. In this article I read an implicit statement that she previously was wrong. I'm glad she wrote it.

#122 ::: Wyman Cooke ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:22 PM:

#106 Xopher: I agree with your classification. I read THE HANDMAID'S TALE back when it was chewing up the New York Times Bestseller list. It used a trope that went back to REVOLT IN 2100, if not earlier. And then I heard her remarks about SF and I never read another book by her.

#123 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:22 PM:

Xopher #83: Might I suggest that an "asshole crank" is a mechanical device for cranking assholes (e.g., for getting them started on cold mornings)?

#124 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:23 PM:

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, #49: Regarding the endless defining-SF debate, Chip Delany pointed out some years ago that definitional arguments by their nature always wind up focusing on edge cases and neglecting the core.

Just to tie this thread together with the book organization thread...

It's been a decade since I had enough shelves to hold all my books, but to the extent that I'm able to organize them I sort books by size--mass market paperbacks, oversized books, otherwise oddly shaped books, and everything else. Within those categories the only organization is alphabetical by author (anthologies and multiple-author series get their own sections).

This is because I don't want to have to make decisions about edge cases. If I tried to organize them by topic I know I would waste far too much time wondering where to draw the line between "history" and "politics/current affairs," or where to slot some ambiguously genred novel.

The problem is that I think of most books as belonging to multiple genres and subgenres, at any and all levels of granularity.

Even a straight "fiction" vs. "nonfiction" divide is trouble. Where do I put the Library of America volumes collecting Mark Twain's stories and essays? Where do folktale collections go?

#125 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:44 PM:

Fragano @ 123: You're my hero.

#126 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:44 PM:

Anthony writes in #95:

i take the groucho marx view of fandom.

"Inside of fandom, it's too dark to read."

#127 ::: kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:44 PM:

Sarah S. @53,

Sorry, let me be clear that we rearranged the unshelved stacks, not the ones on the bookshelves.

We were wicked but not barbarians.

We also had the tacit approval of the friend's lifepartner.

#128 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:53 PM:

Fragano #123:

Might I suggest that an "asshole crank" is a mechanical device for cranking assholes (e.g., for getting them started on cold mornings)?

I'm almost curious enough about what Google Ads will do with that phrase to turn off my ad blocking....

#129 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 08:57 PM:

Ballard's work isn't science fiction, because for that you have to have an editor who doesn't glaze over when science enters the picture. There, that was easy.

Except for certain specialties, I like my books loosely categorized. It's easier to pick things up and put them back, and find things I wasn't looking for. Win-win-win.

Where has all the FuteFic gone?

debcha @93: You forgot "Bam! Pow! ..."

Wesley @124: It's not always this easy to adjudicate, but in the case of Mark Twain, just call it all fiction. He has almost certainly improved the facts, and we're all richer for it.

#130 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:05 PM:

I have two shelves of non-SF/F/fandom-related books. One shelf of fandom-related things. Three shelves of SF/F anthologies. Then there's 49 shelves of mostly SF and a bit of F all alphabetized by author, and if part of a series, put in that order.

#131 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:17 PM:

Xopher @106, and I'm sure those guy think you're the asshole for insisting that they are queer.

I'm sure that both those guys and Atwood are motivated in large part by a desire to avoid being sorted into a cooties-bearing minority category. I'm sure that, if you look upon them as potential allies in the fight to de-cootify a minority category, they look like cowards. And yet, I can't help but think that the very act of enforcing these category boundaries involves some degree of forcing square pegs into round holes, and I can't blame the square pegs for complaining.

As Clay Shirky wrote about #amazonfail, "sorting is a political act", and one that nobody ever gets entirely right.

As far as whether something really is or isn't SF, I don't think the categories always follow the content. Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon feels like SF to me, even ignoring the hidden fantasy element and reading it as a straight story about computer nerds and cryptography. I haven't read Cold Comfort Farm, but I suspect that wouldn't feel much like SF.

#132 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 09:32 PM:

Patrick at 19:You can plausibly define "SF", not as a particular group of literary characteristics, but rather as the joint project of a particular group of people over a particular historical period. By such a definition, Brave New World would not really be "SF," despite its obvious similarities to works that are "SF," because Huxley had little or nothing to do with those people and their work.

See, I'd dispute that --- Huxley (and Orwell) were responding and in dialogue with H G Wells (specifically Men Like Gods) and if reactions to Wells aren't SF then the term is meaningless.

Claim back your roots: SF was a reputable literary form in the first half of the twentieth century in Europe; just because there's a High Modern narrative where serious literature becomes retrospectively defined as Bloomsbury and friends is no reason to give up on the heyday of political involved sf.

#133 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:06 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @7:

And, of course, Ballard wrote Empire of the Sun which wasn't SFnal...

Scraps @44:
Remember who J.G. Ballard called his favorite writer? Isaac Asimov.

But by the same reasoning, Asimov wasn't stuck in the SF ghetto either: he wrote popular science, with occasional slumming in mystery -- when he wasn't actually teaching courses and writing textbooks, that is.

#134 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:08 PM:

re 131: Actually what I think is happening (having read the Atwood review on Le Guin) is a yet another C. P. Snow moment. Speculative fiction which touches the humanities or social sciences is more acceptable than that which touches physics. All that dystopian stuff gets a pass because there's no risk of equations (which is also, incidentally, why Asimov's Foundation books are "bad" SF).

There's also the point that the boundary between fantasy and SF is delineated by Clarke's Third Law.

#135 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:27 PM:

Sigh. We have: nonfiction, humor and maybe miscellaneous fiction in the parlor on the first floor. Science Fiction books, by author but separated by hard/trade and small paperback size. Then the SF magazines and miscellaney are on the third floor. We each have our personal, daily use and new books in our office/bedrooms.

I thought we were a bit disorganized, we're not. I'm helping a seriously ill friend organize his SF library and it's a total pile. They (his wife has passed) were packrats of the first rate, of the 20 or so boxes I have opened so far, most did have some books in them, but also a lot of junk like broken electronics, parts of games and toys, etc. Yikes. But I'm going to do my best to carry it out because he really needs to have his stuff in order so it can be appraised/analyzed.

#136 ::: Pyre ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 10:28 PM:

I think it works a bit like that scene in Heinlein's Job, on board the bus in Heaven, where our protagonist [1] is stuck in the back of the bus with the ordinary run of souls. Suddenly his halo is enlarged to Saintly proportions [2], and everyone insists he move to the front of the bus, as a sign he is no longer of the common ruck.

[1] (who is, let us say, an ordinary writer of mostly SF)

[2] (no doubt due to a posthumous Pulitzer for a non-SF work, á la Ballard's Empire)

#137 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:00 PM:

The new thing in the world is "realistic" fiction, not speculative fiction. Is Utopia realistic fiction? I think not. How about Gulliver's Travels? No way (of course it's satire, but it's a satirical fantasy).

Kathryn 121: Oops. Yeah, she did, didn't she? My knowledge of her opinions was seriously out of date; thanks for updating me. She seems to have gotten over her genrephobia enough that I'm no longer willing to consider her an asshole. My apologies to anyone I may have offended by saying that about her.

Avram 131: 1. See above and 2. Forcing pegs into holes is one of my favorite

#138 ::: Summer Storms ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:15 PM:

Xopher, at least we got "asshole cranks" out of it. I really needed that laugh today.

#139 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:19 PM:

Personally, I'd like to see Margaret Atwood invited to be GoH at WisCon.

I find it odd that the revulsion towards sf has persisted longer than the revulsion towards any other genre form. Heavens, some critics rank us below pr0n! I wonder why.

#140 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:20 PM:

Raphael @70 -- that would have been Wet Magic by E. Nesbit, most likely.

One of the wonderful things about the BBC obit on their 5-minute top-of-the-hour news was that they quoted Ballard from a 2003 interview saying that of course what he wrote was science fiction, and he was quite proud of that. It was interesting for him to be growing up when England was changing, and he wanted to be part of that.

I think that what the author thinks has some relevance.

#141 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:32 PM:

I find it odd that the revulsion towards sf has persisted longer than the revulsion towards any other genre form. Heavens, some critics rank us below pr0n! I wonder why.

You joke, right? Most everyone accepts sf nowadays -- part of the wonderous post-modern thing (the ones that don't tend to be hidebound fogeys or journalists, not exactly well known for accuracy.)

Secondly, er, um, romance gets it much worse than sf.

#142 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:16 AM:

Let me see... I have (this is going to sound like a Borgesian list by the time I'm done, I fear, and the motivation behind much of this is that I cannot possibly fit enough shelves in this apartment any longer to hold all these):

paperbacks I've read more than a few years ago, in alphabetical order by author, in stacked cardboard boxes that are themselves in order but their piles jump here and there inside the apartment

paperbacks I've read fewer than a few years ago, in alphabetical order by author, in alphabetized floor piles (plus a small segment of A that got misfiled when I got to one end of the boxes, oops), waiting to be sorted into the boxes correctly - currently on N going towards the end of the alphabet, reading the 18 Andre Norton / Norton+someone paperbacks that had accumulated. This sorting is never-ending, as they accumulate behind the sorting point in either direction.

some small stacks of new paperbacks on and around my computer area, waiting to be read and sorted into the above piles

not-very-new paperbacks I haven't read yet, in alphabetical floor piles

hardbacks in alphabetical order by author, in piles in the walk-in closet from A through N, and on shelves from O through Z, plus a pile or two of as-yet-unread ones

oversized hardbacks in alphabetical order by author, in two tall floor piles

role-playing game books on a set of shelves in my bedroom and piled in three very tall piles at the foot of my bed

books containing cartoons of various sorts - newspaper comic strips, editorial, etc. - in alphabetical floor piles, divided into paperback size, oversized, and that in-between size that Garfield collections used to be

(This doesn't count newspapers, or magazines of any sort, or the collected NEA/UFC copyright books for a couple decades, or etc.)

If I ever buy a house (which seems unlikely) it'll have to have enough room to unpack and shelve them all. It'd have to be a fairly large house. Windowless rooms would be a plus.

--Dave

#143 ::: PurpleGirl ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:17 AM:

#86 Ralph Giles -- I agree, especially when you consider topic series, for example books published by Springer Verlag. They all were yellow, iirc; hundreds, maybe thousands, of yellow books each and every year.

#144 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:18 AM:

@141: Secondly, er, um, romance gets it much worse than sf.

Which is just how romance likes it.

#145 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:25 AM:

A hand crank is operated by a hand.

Wouldn't an asshole crank therefore . . .

#146 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:25 AM:

Xopher @#137:

"Realistic" fiction's not new either...The Tale of Genji predates More's Utopia, and if non-novelish forms of fiction count you have an endless array of tiresome ballads to choose from in the Western tradition. And I recall the Canterbury tales being mainly realistic, although over-the-top (I haven't read them for ages, so my memory of them is fuzzy).

Fictions that speculate about cosmology, of course, predate nearly everything, except possibly comix about hunting. If the physics and astronomy of the time suggest that the sun is eaten every night and birthed every morning, then stories about that cycle naturally would fall into the "hard SF" subgenre.

#147 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:27 AM:

anthony, #113: Hot sex in 1984? You're kidding, right? I read it at age 13 (which is to say, with little or no experience of erotic fiction) and got the very clear impression that it wasn't especially satisfying to either participant except as an act of rebellion, and (from a plot standpoint) put there primarily to set up the scene in Room 101.

Wesley, #124: I hear you about edge cases -- that happens to me with music too, especially where I have categories that partly overlap. Generally there's one category that "feels" more right to me than the others, and that's where it goes. Other people may feel differently -- but it's my books/music, and my shelf arrangement. :-)

Randolph, #139: CWAG: because porn is "adult" and they identify SF with adolescents. The same kind of problem faced by graphic novels, because "comic books are for kids".

#148 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:53 AM:

Interesting -- I don't think of 1984, Brave New World or A Handmaids Tale as being science fiction, possibly because I classify dystopian literature as separate from science fiction, modulo certain other factors (Gibson writes about dystopian worlds, but his major classification for me is Cyberpunk).

Then again, I also think of urban fantasy as being distinctly and clearly different from swords-and-sorcery, even if there are swords and sorcery in the city.

#149 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:57 AM:

Kier #132:

Patrick at 19:You can plausibly define "SF", not as a particular group of literary characteristics, but rather as the joint project of a particular group of people over a particular historical period. By such a definition, Brave New World would not really be "SF," despite its obvious similarities to works that are "SF," because Huxley had little or nothing to do with those people and their work.

See, I'd dispute that [...]

I see there was absolutely no point to my noting, as I did in #19, that I don't actually buy this argument. Carry on.

#150 ::: Ellen Asher ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:00 AM:

Mary Aileen @64: The London bookstore that used to shelve books by publisher was Foyle's on Charing Cross Road. Some years ago, though, they saw the light (possibly because too many of their customers had been deserting them for the more plebeian but more navigable Waterstone's) and began shelving books like everyone else, by topic.

#151 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:13 AM:

Hmmm? You said that you could conceive of an institutional definition of sf, and that would rule Brave New World out of sf, to which I responded that in point of fact your institutional definiton wouldn't rule Brave New World out.

That that definition isn't even plausible is rather the point.

(And I have an aesthetic revisionist argument against it, viz. that by letting Brave New World etc out of sf, sf loses some really important work and loses a politically engaged European tradition that I think is really important to reading European sf, esp. the New Wave. And using the institutional theory to read it out is a way of defining a certain narrow type of sf people as a norm.)

#152 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:02 AM:

Xopher @137, sure, but square pegs...?

I think "realistic" is the wrong adjective for non-genre fiction. Romance stories (in the modern sense), westerns, and murder mysteries are all theoretically "realistic", but they're all genres.

I've seen the alleged non-genre genre referred to as "psychological fiction".

#153 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:05 AM:

Mimetic fiction is the term I've come to prefer.

#154 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:24 AM:

Keir @ 141, Micah @ #144: other than Larry McMurtry, westerns probably fall even below romance these days. Possibly because there are fewer readers of westerns now then in, say, Louis L'Amour's lifetime. (I own a bunch of them, because some authors were so prolific. I suspect they all started in the pulps and made a living that way. I can't think of one I own that's been published after about 1985.)

But where would Shane be classified?

#155 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:39 AM:

Fragano Ledgister @ 123: I am glad I finished my tea before reading your comment and that is all I will say on the matter.

Randolph @ 139: "I find it odd that the revulsion towards sf has persisted longer than the revulsion towards any other genre form. Heavens, some critics rank us below pr0n! I wonder why."

and

Keir @ 141: "You joke, right? Most everyone accepts sf nowadays -- part of the wonderous post-modern thing (the ones that don't tend to be hidebound fogeys or journalists, not exactly well known for accuracy.) Secondly, er, um, romance gets it much worse than sf."

I would say that romance as a genre gets less respect than sf, but that sf fans are mocked far more harshly than romance fans. I think it's because sf fans take their fandom far more seriously than romance fans--it's not too hard to find an sf fan who will tell you, with emotion in their voice, about how important Star Trek is to their faith in humankind, or how Ellison or Zelazny or Delany is just as good or better than any Hoity-Toity Literary author today. Taking something as silly as rocketships and chemicals (!!!) seriously is, well, really quite silly. Romance fans, on the other hand, tend to have a sense of shame about their fandom*, which by mainstream literary values is right and proper. Because romance fans know their place, they get a pass on the more brutal mockery/status quo enforcing.

On the other hand, sf does have those irritatingly respectable "bordercases" like 1984 and Brave New World and The Handmaid's Tale that one has to deal with, and more importantly, sf fans keep lobbying and arguing on its behalf, so as a genre it does have something--not a lot, mind you--going for it in the literary respectability department. Whereas all the respectable romances were written centuries ago, and romance fans don't make any noise about their ghettoization, so literary types feel comfortable assuming that the romance genre really doesn't have any merit. The uppity and model minorities respectively.

Does all this have an air of sexism about it? I think it does!

*Though that's changing. Still, I don't hear even the loud and proud romance bloggers making claims of great literary merit on their genre's behalf.

#156 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:47 AM:

Avram, #152: It's time to recognize that "literary" is now a genre as well. To some extent it's the umbrella term for anything that doesn't fit another slot, but it's also developed its own customary tics and tropes.

#157 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:47 AM:

I think that a great deal of the steam driving the Great Genre Debates will fade away as computer databases become the typical way people interact with books. They are far more amenable than bookshelves to the simple truth of genre, which is that books can belong to any number of different genres simultaneously, and forcing books into single impermeable categories is gross oversimplification. Bookshelves force one-dimensionality by their physical nature, and then that gets reified into the book itself: "No, this isn't romance, it's fantasy! See, it's on the fantasy shelf! QED." Once a book can exist simultaneously in the romance section, fantasy section, feminism section, and historical lit section, the need to determine its One True Nature isn't nearly as pressing.

#158 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 03:10 AM:

Lee @156, why do you think I called it "the alleged non-genre genre"? (Perhaps "allegedly" would've been clearer.)

It's had its own customary tics and tropes long enough that I could read a sixty-year-old Jorge Luis Borges essay about them earlier today.

#159 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 03:10 AM:

Lee @ 156: "It's time to recognize that "literary" is now a genre as well. To some extent it's the umbrella term for anything that doesn't fit another slot, but it's also developed its own customary tics and tropes."

Good lord, yes. "Middle-aged literary type has affair with younger wom(a/e)n" alone could practically have its own room at Powell's. (The Salt and Pepper Room, if you're curious.)

#160 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 04:18 AM:

Kathryn @ 121: Thanks for the info on Atwood's change of heart.

Keir @ 132, 151: If I were to define SF the way Patrick outlined (which I might for some purposes, but not for determining what "really is" SF), I would start with Gernsback, not Wells. Excluding 1984 and Brave New World would then be reasonable, and indeed part of the point if one were trying, for example, to examine SF as a publishing category, and assess the differences between books published therein and books with SF tropes published as mainstream.

C. Wingate @ 134: Actually what I think is happening (having read the Atwood review on Le Guin) is a yet another C. P. Snow moment. Speculative fiction which touches the humanities or social sciences is more acceptable than that which touches physics.

To demonstrate this, you'd have to decorrelate science aldentitude from literary style. Who out there is writing hard-science fiction with literary flair? Gregory Benford on the SF side, Richard Powers on the mainstream side (with whom the literary establishment has no problem, despite the biology in The Gold Bug Variations being rather more difficult than the science in most SF novels), and... that's pretty much it.* Whereas there are lots of soft-science fiction writers with traditional prose chops.

All that dystopian stuff gets a pass because there's no risk of equations (which is also, incidentally, why Asimov's Foundation books are "bad" SF).

Or maybe literary readers find his writing wretched, as I do even while enjoying the trilogy's SFnal aspects.**

Lee @ 156: It's time to recognize that "literary" is now a genre as well. To some extent it's the umbrella term for anything that doesn't fit another slot, but it's also developed its own customary tics and tropes.

Then why is The Handmaid's Tale--in which the literary tics and tropes vastly outnumber the SF ones--"really" SF, so much so that SF fans are vehement about it? You can have "literary is just another genre", or you can have a maximalist definition of SF, but I don't think you can have both. I don't love either, but I like the former less; literariness seems to me to be more about the way in which a story is told rather than what content tropes it uses.

*OK, I've just guaranteed I've missed someone. Or two. Or several. Clue me in.

**Admittedly, less than I used to. As I grow older, I find myself less willing to tolerate prose that has no music in it. It doesn't have to be fancy music--rock and roll or country is fine--but it can't be the equivalent of a MIDI file played on a web page, just getting me from story point A to story point B in a plodding fashion (however interesting, in theory, point A and point B are).

#161 ::: anthony ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 05:14 AM:

Peter Watts, hard sf and crystaline prose

#162 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 05:28 AM:

Tim Walters @ 160: "You can have "literary is just another genre", or you can have a maximalist definition of SF, but I don't think you can have both."

Sure you can, as long as you're willing to allow for genre overlap.

#163 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 05:30 AM:

I would say that romance as a genre gets less respect than sf, but that sf fans are mocked far more harshly than romance fans.

Comity. Also relative popularity plays a part, I think.

Keir @ 132, 151: If I were to define SF the way Patrick outlined (which I might for some purposes, but not for determining what "really is" SF), I would start with Gernsback, not Wells. Excluding 1984 and Brave New World would then be reasonable, and indeed part of the point if one were trying, for example, to examine SF as a publishing category, and assess the differences between books published therein and books with SF tropes published as mainstream.

If you read Wells out of SF, you don't have SF, you have American engineer literature. (I mean, if your definition of SF doesn't include Wells, something is wrong with your definition. It'd be like defining Ingres out of Academicism.)

I.e, it is a given that Wells is SF, so your institutions have to include Wells; I could see a plausible institutional theory of SF but it wouldn't be one that assumed the institutions of SF were those of American fandom. (See prior rant about SF not cutting itself off from European roots.)

Wells certainly had genre self-awareness and all that.

#164 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 05:40 AM:

I find the talk about where to draw the line between fantasy and SF a bit weird myself, since I still don't completely get why SF and fantasy are usually seen as being closer to each other than any other two genres. If you'd tell me that fantasy is usually mentioned together with one specific other genre and I wouldn't already know that this other genre is SF, I'd probably guess it's either historical fiction or horror.

MD² @115, anthony@113: 1984 is a erotic text (how come everyone forgets how hot the fucking is in that book)

I... serioulsy ? I remember it as a rather sad thing myself. An act of rebelion agaisn't, failling at being satisfying/fulfilling or at generating genuine positive connection between participants.

Book I have read but forgotten ?

and Lee @147 anthony, #113: Hot sex in 1984? You're kidding, right? I read it at age 13 (which is to say, with little or no experience of erotic fiction) and got the very clear impression that it wasn't especially satisfying to either participant except as an act of rebellion, and (from a plot standpoint) put there primarily to set up the scene in Room 101.--

My impression is that this might be anthony's idea of hot sex.

heresiarch @155 I would say that romance as a genre gets less respect than sf, but that sf fans are mocked far more harshly than romance fans.

Are you sure about that?

I think it's because sf fans take their fandom far more seriously than romance fans

I'd say that depends on what, exactly, you mean by "fans" in this context- it's been pointed out before in various places that there are a good deal more readers and viewers who- either sometimes or often- like reading SF or watching SciFi, but aren't "fans" in the sense of being active in fandoms, than people who are active in fandoms. (Allthough personally I think that if you like something a lot, it makes sense to call you a fan of it even if you aren't into any fandom.)

Romance fans, on the other hand, tend to have a sense of shame about their fandom*, which by mainstream literary values is right and proper.

I find it kind of strange that some people who like to think of themselves as very sex-positive and would never want to guilt-trip themselves or others over what they do in their beds (or elsewhere) at the same time routinely talk of some of their favourite entertainment as "guilty pleasures".

Lee @156, Avram @158, heresiarch @159, Word, Hear Hear, and Amen! And at least some people seem to think that the literary value of a work can be determined by checking how many of these tropes it covers (and by how many of the "proper" (by their own standards) messages it sends). Avram, is that essay available somewhere?

#165 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 06:07 AM:

What genre is "The Da Vinci Code" in? I've tried to read it (so as to have a book in common with family members to discuss) but I couldn't get through more than a few pages of it before tossing it aside.

#166 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 06:09 AM:

punkrockhockeymom @ #14:

I (briefly) had my books alphabetised not by author or title, but by the contents. It was, admittedly, done specifically to throw people off, but it produced strange co-loctaions of books.

#167 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 06:22 AM:

What genre is "The Da Vinci Code" in? I've tried to read it (so as to have a book in common with family members to discuss) but I couldn't get through more than a few pages of it before tossing it aside.

Tripe?

Nah, it's the seekrit conspiracy revealed! meets action genre -- with added tripe. I think specifically it's got a lot in common with modern paganism?

#168 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 06:54 AM:

re 165: Bulwer-Lytton winner.

re 160: Well, as far as style is concerned, there are a variety of reasons why I may not be the best judge. If nothing else, my taste is different/corrupted by being part of the generation for which The Bible plays in RSV rather than KJV prose.* Prose that calls attention to itself is not to my taste either. But my admittedly decade-old recollection of Handmaid's Tale is that it isn't a stylistic tour-de-force.

OTOH, Clarke has his moments of stylish writing, again in a perhaps unfashionably limpid prose. But there are no people in his stories.**

*Well, except for the parts from Messiah.

**Except for the Rama Commission members, and they are all pretty clearly analogues of the author.

#169 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 06:58 AM:

Of course, Ballard never met any SF folks. Charles Platt writes in NYRSF 236:

At the end of February, 1965, I threw a party in my tenement. Science-fiction fans came from as far away as Liverpool. Former school friends showed up. Mike Moorcock, Langdon Jones, J. G. Ballard, John Brunner, Graham Hall, and other New Worlds contributors were there. The lowlifes on the ground floor were smoking hashish (a novelty, in those days). A couple of them were shooting heroin, which was even more of a novelty. On the floor above, there was heavy drinking and vigorous dancing, making the floor flex disconcertingly.
After a couple of hours someone on the top floor vomited into an empty punch bowl, and someone else dumped it out of the window onto the heads of people who were arriving on the steps outside. I knew, then, that I had succeeded in my goal of hosting a truly memorable event. Anyone who gets vomit poured over his head while arriving at a party just has to know that he’s going to have a good time.

Ballard lurked in one corner, looking uneasy, clutching a copy of my fanzine that I had thrust into his hands. Much later I realized that I had made the mistake of reading his work far too literally. Despite his traumatic childhood in Shanghai, he was an upper-middle-class family man who lived in the suburbs and preferred an uneventful life. His books were clearly labeled fiction, but I half expected him to discard the trappings of civilization and go wandering in search of his own Terminal Beach.

#170 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 06:59 AM:

micah @ 144... Romance likes being below SF in terms of respect? Should I mention that to my wife the romance writer, it'd come as a great surprise.

#171 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 07:06 AM:

Mary Dell @84:
You remind me that the kid-inappropriate books (illustrated forensic science books, for instance) are on a top shelf as well.

There are thematically challenging books, such as Sandman shelved within reach of kids (the graphic novels and RPG manuals have their own niche), but if they read them and have questions, we'll talk. (Besides, discovering my dad's stash of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics was a crucial developmental step for me. I don't want to rob my kids of their own equivalents.)

#172 ::: Robin Z ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 07:40 AM:

(drive-by comment, sorry)

Barbara Hambly published her first novel in 1982. But A Free Man of Color, 1997, had dust-jacket copy declaring it was a marvelous "debut novel" - it being a murder mystery set in New Orleans of the 1830s, and therefore not-SF.

(vanishes in a puff of school-related obligations)

#173 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 08:09 AM:

Raphael @ 164: "Are you sure about that?"

Not terribly, but it is my impression. If you have a different experience, then do share please! I wrote that hoping for feedback.

"I'd say that depends on what, exactly, you mean by "fans" in this context- it's been pointed out before in various places that there are a good deal more readers and viewers who- either sometimes or often- like reading SF or watching SciFi, but aren't "fans" in the sense of being active in fandoms, than people who are active in fandoms. (Allthough personally I think that if you like something a lot, it makes sense to call you a fan of it even if you aren't into any fandom.)"

First, by "fandom" I meant "their self-identification as being a fan," not "their sense of belonging to a larger community of fans." This was deeply unclear, and I probably should have been using "fannishness" or some other word.

Second, doesn't that kind of prove my point? Contrast the wide-spread comfort with sf tropes of movie audiences with the utter horror many hold for the "chick flick." As a genre, romance catches more flack. However, I see a lot more mockery of sf fans than romance readers. I think that's largely because romance readers keep their fannishness quiet, so they're harder to target, but still: the D&D/Star Trek nerd is a stock character of mockery in a way the romance reader isn't.

"I find it kind of strange that some people who like to think of themselves as very sex-positive and would never want to guilt-trip themselves or others over what they do in their beds (or elsewhere) at the same time routinely talk of some of their favourite entertainment as "guilty pleasures"."

Romance readers catch it coming and going: if they ascribe to mainstream values, then they're doing something terribly girlie and feminine, ugh. If they run with more feminist crowds, then ugh, how can they read something that portrays such regressive gender roles!

(Warning: I'm not a romance reader, and am therefore probably profoundly ignorant of important facts about the community. Reader beware.)

#174 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 08:15 AM:

abi @#171:

Books that will be inappropriate for my kid once he's mobile is a much smaller set of my library than books that are inappropriate for other people's kids...I shelve most of my art collection, my figure drawing reference stuff, my history-of-sexuality collection, and the violent or sexy graphic novels up high, because we have a lot of young guests over.

My kid...the Victorian porn collection is kept under lock and key, because they're not very nice to women in those books. If junior is eventually interested, he can read them after he's made his way through the history-of-sexuality section, so that he has the right context. Otherwise, I'm not too worried about nudity although I'm likely to still be uptight about violent graphic novels (including Sandman, because of the diner scene early in the series.)

#175 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 08:21 AM:

Patrick@149: what you initially said is that you didn't accept the premise. Keir was arguing that even if you grant the premise the conclusion doesn't follow.

Keir@163: there's a venerable practice of calling Gernsback 'the father of science fiction'. To me (in Britain, in case that's relevant) this seemed utterly weird when I first heard it, precisely because it excludes Wells, whose work I would regard as definitive of science fiction. (Verne, likewise.) But for those, and they do exist, for whom relation to a community is central to the identity of science fiction, this makes sense, since when Wells began writing there was no such community.

#176 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 08:48 AM:

Our library has veins of organization surrounded by vast tracts of complete disorder. A large part of the problem is that the equivalent of 25-30 six foot bookshelves isn't enough to hold everything. We've also received whole chunks of two other people's libraries, including the Fred G. Best collection of SF. (It, however, stands aloof from the chaos in its own book case.) When my eldest was in kindergarten, one of his tasks one day was to make a tick mark on a piece of paper for every book in the house. After my wife and I stopped laughing, we decreed that it would be sufficient for him to make a mark for each book on one shelf in his room. Even then he had something fifty-two books on that shelf. My back-of-envelope calculation comes up with something over 3000 books now.

#177 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 08:50 AM:

Trying to catch up:

Comparing the ghettos of SF and romance: Sounds like a classic pecking-order negotiation, operating on the mass (genre) scale: "Romance" accepts its subordinate status, so it gets "good girl" and a pat on the head. SF challenges the status, so it gets flak -- but it's been doing pretty well in the fight, so it's been continuously rising in the pecking order.

Re: genre definition, it's worth saying that any such definition is a map, and "the map is not the territory". Just to list off the main definitions we've seen by type:

tribal (institutional): Defined by what "we" do, -- authors get included by exchange of concepts and tropes, starting with "tribal ancestors" such as Wells and Verne. It's a significant question whether to include Orwell and Huxley among those founders.

taxonomic (megatextual): Works are included or excluded by comparison to a central corpus of previously-categorized works. Again, it matters a lot whether you accept or reject 1984 and Brave New World as type specimens! (I'd say that later developments in the field warrant their inclusion anyway, by transitivity.) Edge cases are an intrinsic problem.

commercial (paratexual): Defined by marketing categories and bookstore shelves. Authors and readers may well hate this system, but it can't be casually dismissed, because it involves money.

Kathryn @ 121: Cool, it's nice to hear that Atwood has woken up and smelled the plotnik soup! ;-)

Marilee #130: Sounds much like my collection. I've got 3 heavy-duty shelving units (6x36"x15"), bought when the Vorpal Bunny ate my previous setup:

Top shelves are oversized books, including photo & art books, large-format cartoon collections, hard science, phone books, and what's left of my FRP stuff.

One shelf for mythology, one shelf for non-fiction with soft-sciences (some of which really should be moved to the prior shelf ;-) ), and one shelf that bundles graphic novels and humor. Each of these is double-shelved -- that is, two layers of books.

The remaining 9 shelves are SF/F, mostly triple-shelved paperbacks. (I avoid hardcovers these days.) They're mostly alphabetized by author, but the sorting is lately suffering a bit, especially with my recent library-sale purchases.

When I moved down here a couple of years ago, I sold off (or gave away) about a third of my book collection, plus discarding many crates of back magazines. Given I'm running short on free space, I really should do another purge one of these days, or at least join a book-swapping site.... (I do have another, lighter bookshelf upstairs by my bed, but that's meant for temporary residence, and currently almost empty.)

#178 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 08:52 AM:

hersiarch @ 173... Your assessment is quite accurate.

#179 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 08:55 AM:

Serge @ 178... but my spelling sux.

#180 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:12 AM:

re 175: Well, he could be considered the father of SF in the second sense way above (that is, stuff published by SF publishers).

#181 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:12 AM:

Serge @170: Romance likes being below SF in terms of respect? Should I mention that to my wife the romance writer, it'd come as a great surprise.

Sorry, not at all. I just giggled when I read the line, immediately applying innuendo to, "Secondly, er, um, romance gets it much worse." I meant nothing other than amusement and expounding on the innuendo with, "and that's how romance likes it." Mayhaps nobody else noted the same double entendre that so amused me.

#182 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:31 AM:

Micah @ 181... Heheheh. I should remember to be awake before I read something.

#183 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:36 AM:

Lee @156: It's time to recognize that "literary" is now a genre as well. To some extent it's the umbrella term for anything that doesn't fit another slot, but it's also developed its own customary tics and tropes.

It has always been my opinion that "literary" is not only a genre, but should be taken as a derogatory term.

The general characteristics that I have seen focused on by people claiming things are "literary" or "genre" is on how the work deals with its own writing. As a genre, that makes the purpose of the writing to be well written, which is a wholly egotistical existence. By contrast, "genre" fiction has an outside purpose other than being well-written. If the "genre" fiction is well-written, it will serve that purpose well. By contrast, literary fiction that is well-written may still serve no purpose.

The analogy I usually use is that writing fiction to be literary fiction is like designing a car without taking into account the existence of roads, or even the existence of terrain of any sort. No matter how good the engineering of the machine, whether it actually has any use in the end is a fluke, not a result of good design.


Raphael @164: I find the talk about where to draw the line between fantasy and SF a bit weird myself, since I still don't completely get why SF and fantasy are usually seen as being closer to each other than any other two genres. If you'd tell me that fantasy is usually mentioned together with one specific other genre and I wouldn't already know that this other genre is SF, I'd probably guess it's either historical fiction or horror.

I'd say that their overlapping fanbase is the cause for their clumping. Both genres require the reader to accept things that clearly do not exist and likely could not exist, but still require that the world be realistic and functional. People who can understand that thing that are nonexistent are not necessarily unrealistic tend to be open to both genres, so many people who are fans of one are fans of both, particularly in the field of space-opera SF rather than speculative-fiction SF.

By contrast, historical fiction does not require anything nonexistent to exist and horror does not require that the world be realistic. In fact, either of those elements could be very problematic, which is a massive distinction from sci-fi and fantasy.

#184 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:57 AM:

re 181: If there were a romance publisher beginning with the letter D, we could have "Del Rey does D___."

#185 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:03 AM:

Micah@183: Using "literary" as a derogatory term is not any better than using "science fiction" as a derogatory term. Both cases typify an entire genre with a non-representative example.

It's not right when people limit "science fiction" to exploding spaceships. It's just as wrong to limit "literary" to stories about a middle aged man staring at an oak tree during a gentle rain, failing to decide whether he should seek shelter or let the rain wash away his sins.

Not everything tagged as "literary" is good writing merely for the sake of good writing. (This is not to discount reading good writing as a pleasure unto itself.) The reason books we consider science fiction sometimes get tagged as literary is because they are also examples of, by litfic standards, good writing.

My problem is with the implication that because a novel is tagged as one, it can't also be tagged as another. FWIW though, I see much more disavowal of the SF-ness of a novel than the disavowal of the literariness of one.

#186 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:03 AM:

In my opinion, genre is a wonderfully messy series of Venn diagrams. "Is Handmaid's Tale SF or Literary?" "Yes."


Lee @114: You left out, "Those which from a distance look like flies", and "Those belonging to the emperor."

Ah, bugger. Dave DeLaney @142 beat me to the joke.


Keir @167: I think specifically it's got a lot in common with modern paganism?

Argh, no, save us!

So, 'round about October 2001, there was a type of Pagan Mailing List/Bulletin Board Member who insisted that, no matter what Snopes said, Nostradamus rilly rilly DID predict 9/11. "But if there's no truth to it, why are so many people talking about it?" was the entirety of their argument.

This is the same subset of the Pagan community who absolutely believes that Dan Brown is rilly rilly right, and OMG the Catholic Church like TOTALLY murdered all these people throughout history in order to cover up Jesus And Mary Magdelene's Super Sekrit Magic Bebbeh!!! and the whole of their argument is, "Between Dan Brown and the Catholic Church, who do you think has more reason to lie?"

Personally, I lump Dan Brown in with Michael Crichton, a la Rising Sun with its tsk-tsky afterword about how the novel is fiction but the threat from the East is real, reeeeal! PH3AR IT!


O HAI! I AM UR SOAPBOX, GET OFF MEH NAO KTHXBAI *blush*

#187 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:04 AM:

The general characteristics that I have seen focused on by people claiming things are "literary" or "genre" is on how the work deals with its own writing. As a genre, that makes the purpose of the writing to be well written, which is a wholly egotistical existence

I remember this being explained to me in English class (back in the old days) as the result of a struggle between two factions of authors: Jack London and that lot, in whose books things happened, and Virginia Woolf and her lot, in whose books they did not. And the Woolfmen beat the Londoners, and ever since then books in which things (murders, scientific discoveries, wars, exploration, space travel etc) happen have been rather looked down on, while books in which nothing very much (except perhaps a spot of adultery) happens are top of the pile.

#188 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:12 AM:

Mary Dell @ 146:

The Canterbury Tales are (deliberately) a grab-bag of types, from the purely non-fictional and didactic (The Parson's Tale) through various forms of fictional type. At least three types of fantastic fiction are represented: chivalric fantasy complete with Roman (i.e. fictional to the author) gods (The Knight's Tale), chivalric / Arthurian fantasy (The Wife of Bath's Tale) and the beast-fabliau (The Nun's Priest's Tale). Two miracle-stories, The Second Nun's Tale and The Prioress' Tale (the latter rather distasteful to the modern reader for other reasons) are also included, although they stand a little outside the later fantasy genre, blurring as they do a little with what the author might have thought "realistic". There are realistic stories as well -- The Miller's Tale being the best-known example.

#189 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:14 AM:

It's just as wrong to limit "literary" to stories about a middle aged man staring at an oak tree during a gentle rain, failing to decide whether he should seek shelter or let the rain wash away his sins.

Er. I kinda like that image, actually...

But I'm guessing my take on that idea would not be similar to that of whatever story you're actually referring to here. If you are, I mean. Are you? (I'm so confused.)

#190 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:17 AM:

John Chu @185

(standing and applauding)

I'm not a fan of labels at all, but heaven knows that if we must have them, let's have a multiplicity of them. It's our only hope of capturing the complexity of a beloved thing.

The best books, like the best people, defy simple categorization.

Is Shakespeare's Macbeth horror? fantasy? tragedy? comedy? political theory?

At the risk of sounding like Polonius...yes.

#191 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:35 AM:

Last year, at the Denver worldcon, I was having breakfast with my wife and her agent when I mentionned that Casino Royale, while not a Romance as we currently define them, is a very romantic story.

#192 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:36 AM:

re various: I think I would ascribe the self-conscious sense of romance novels as less worthy being attached not to the sexuality, but to the acknowledgment that they are something-- well, it's not really the best word, but "escapist" will do. SF by contrast has from the beginning strutted its stuff about dealing with Important Ideas.

re 173: The "chick flick" problem has everything in the world to do with the gender asymmetry in society that "boy's things" are acceptable for women to want, but not vice versa.

re 183: Alongside your comments, I would add that the tribalism of genre tends to lead Literary Fiction into a transgressiveness designed to elevate its connoisseurs above those who have no taste for the stuff, both in terms of style and content.

A side note here about high school fiction: my high school sophomore son has been hit with a diet this year of Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Frankenstein, Weisel's Twilight, and now they're having to choose between Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. The depressiveness is getting to him-- he'd choose F451 except that he has already read it, because at least it has something resembling a happy ending.

#193 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:46 AM:

Tim 160: I can't even read Asimov any more. His stories are fine, but his prose goes "clunk" too often. And he's overly fond of the "...and horns" ending.

#194 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 11:00 AM:

John Chu @185: Using "literary" as a derogatory term is not any better than using "science fiction" as a derogatory term. Both cases typify an entire genre with a non-representative example.

I was not referring in any way to a sample of the writing being bad. There is no sample of the writing being taken, so it cannot be non-representative. Rather, I was saying that the purpose of the writing is irrelevant.

Similarly, someone might say that writing stories about imaginary futures is a waste of time. That doesn't mean the writing is bad, just that they don't think it's worth pursuing.

My problem is with the implication that because a novel is tagged as one, it can't also be tagged as another. FWIW though, I see much more disavowal of the SF-ness of a novel than the disavowal of the literariness of one.

My issue with LitFic is that, in my experience, the genre is specifically defined by being exclusive. If the writing is good AND designed to be something else, it must not be LitFic. All other genres are willing to share. LitFic is jealous.

If something is written to be LitFic+OtherGenre, I'm fine with that. When something is written to be LitFic alone, I am less accepting. LitFic is a genre that does not stand alone. Instead, it takes other genres and uses them for support, then pretends they are not there, propping it up.

Perhaps I should rise above and accept LitFic, but I still have an involuntary gag reflex despite all the professors who tried to ram it down my throat.

#195 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 11:46 AM:

189@Niki: Thank you. I try my best. However, no one is ever reading that story. At least not my attempt at it. I'm sure "staring at a tree in the rain" is its own sub-genre. (In my defense, I was in high school at the time. It's now juvenalia. I've become better writer. Honest!)

What would make it stereotypically litfic is if that was all there is to the story. (e.g., the denoument is that he walk the five feet over to the shed.) It would then go on to miss whatever opportunities the image implied. You, of course, would take this image as a starting point and do something much more interesting with it than have him yell at the tree about his lost promise and broken dreams for several thousand words. (Yes, this was awfully precious coming from a teenager. Like I said, I've learned my lesson. I've also destroyed almost everything I'd written before the age of 35. Ok, some of that was by accident.)

In particular, it might be interesting if the rain really did wash away his sins. (i.e., another example of SF making the metaphorical literal.)

194@Micah:
My issue with LitFic is that, in my experience, the genre is specifically defined by being exclusive. If the writing is good AND designed to be something else, it must not be LitFic.

Based on the sentence Patrick quoted in the blog post, it reads more like LitFic will claim all good writing and disavow that it can also be something else. (e.g., the odd notion that 1984 and Brave New World are not SF, in addition to whatever else they might be.) I agree with you though that LitFic doesn't appear to like to share and that's not a good thing.

I do think LitFic is a handy moniker for a certain kind of writing. (With no implied value judgment.) What I object to is the notion that tagging a work as LitFic inherently means that it's good (or bad).

#196 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 11:52 AM:

heresiarch @ 162: Allowing for generic overlap is exactly what SF maximalism doesn't do. Instead, anything using SF tropes at all must be called SF, or face accusations of the dread Genre Denial Syndrome.

C. Wingate @ 168: But my admittedly decade-old recollection of Handmaid's Tale is that it isn't a stylistic tour-de-force.

I prefer The Edible Woman myself. Nevertheless, by my even-older recollection of THT, it's written considerably better than a typical SF novel.

Keir @ 163: I mean, if your definition of SF doesn't include Wells, something is wrong with your definition.

I disagree. Wells wrote "scientific romances." Gernsback edited something he (almost) called "science fiction" that was rather different from what Wells wrote. A minimalist definition of SF (what Atwood is calling "SF proper") might not include Wells. It also might not include Heinlein (who was himself uneasy with the term "science fiction" and preferred "speculative fiction"). It's a bit like the subtle difference between "rock & roll" and "rock".

I would certainly concede that this is not, nor should be, the common usage.

Micah @ 183: As a genre, that makes the purpose of the writing to be well written, which is a wholly egotistical existence. By contrast, "genre" fiction has an outside purpose other than being well-written.

Yeah, SF is chock full of essential information about faster-than-light travel, telepathy, and psychohistory.

Seriously, I just don't get this at all. It's being well-written, and nothing else, that makes a work of fiction worthwhile. One might as well say it doesn't matter what a song sounds like as long as the lyrics tell a story.

Xopher @ 160: he can be corny, for sure.

#197 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 11:57 AM:

anthony @ 161: Thanks. I have Blindsight on my shelf, but haven't read it yet.

#198 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 11:58 AM:

There's also a big distinction between the 20th-century's favored Adultery-in-Suburbia brand of LitFic and somebody like Dickens, whose novels were originally serialized as entertaining adventures rather than submitted to the reader as exercises in Serious Brooding. In Dickens, the world tends to be a lot bigger than some dreary neighborhood. (Ditto Tolstoy, in War and Peace mode.)

#199 ::: Noelle ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:28 PM:

I think the edges of all the genres are blurry. I remember I once picked up an Anita Blake Vampire Hunter novel at the library and read the back of it. It was a horror, a mystery, a thriller and a love story set in a fantasy alternative universe. I read the book because I couldn't believe you could pack all of that into one book and have it work in any sort of way.

Whether it worked or not is debateable, but the story did hold together. I'm reading a collection of Connie Willis' short stories (suddenly I'm blanking on the spelling of her last name, I think that's right)where she mentions she loves writing SF because she can set her screwball romantic comedies there.

I always found I differentiated literary fiction from genre fiction by the elevation of character over story. That didn't mean the story wasn't important, but that the character was the focus of most of the authors energy. Books in other genres centre more (to me) on story. Bad characters could still kill a book, but the majority of the energy to me was in telling the story. Which I guess goes back to that London/Woolf debate that was already mentioned, now that I think about it.

#200 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:43 PM:

Tim Walters @196: Yeah, SF is chock full of essential information about faster-than-light travel, telepathy, and psychohistory.

Seriously, I just don't get this at all. It's being well-written, and nothing else, that makes a work of fiction worthwhile. One might as well say it doesn't matter what a song sounds like as long as the lyrics tell a story.

I'm saying it needs to have both, not just one or the other. All reasonable genres claim they need good writing and a good story to excel. LitFic claims to only need the one, and I think that's crap.

John Chu @195: I do think LitFic is a handy moniker for a certain kind of writing. (With no implied value judgment.) What I object to is the notion that tagging a work as LitFic inherently means that it's good (or bad).

I agree with that.

I tend to make weird distinctions in my reasoning that are probably unnecessary and confusing. My meaning is not that being LitFic makes a work bad, but that trying to be just LitFic is pointless. The result might turn out good, but that is in no way due to the effort to make something LitFic. I am bothered by the efforts to make things that are solely LitFic, not all of the results or even the idea of the genre as it coexists with other genres.

Bleh, that even sounds asinine to me, when I say it like that, yet somehow I still find that I mean it, even if the phrasing is awkward. Perhaps I'm up too late to successfully phrase arguments intelligibly, or just up too late to competently form arguments in need of phrasing.

#201 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:10 PM:

Raphael@164:I find the talk about where to draw the line between fantasy and SF a bit weird myself, since I still don't completely get why SF and fantasy are usually seen as being closer to each other than any other two genres.

Because (in my opinion, anyway) sf is that subset of fantasy which has as its ruling myths rationalism and the scientific method. (Note that I am not here using "myth" in the sense of "something not true", but rather in the sense of "informing system of belief.")

#202 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:11 PM:

Faren Miller @ 198 There's also a big distinction between the 20th-century's favored Adultery-in-Suburbia brand of LitFic and somebody like Dickens, whose novels were originally serialized as entertaining adventures rather than submitted to the reader as exercises in Serious Brooding.

Well, there's one important similarity, which is that both are straw men. "Adultery-in-Suburbia" was one tiny sliver of 20th century literary fiction, not "the favored brand," and its chief practitioner, John Updike, was a highly entertaining best-selling author, just like Dickens.

In Dickens, the world tends to be a lot bigger than some dreary neighborhood.

And the tonal range of an orchestra is a lot bigger than that of a piano. Nevertheless, a lot of great music is written for piano solo. Artists often choose a narrow focus; a world where every book was a wide-screen spectacular would be very tedious.

Micah @ 200: All reasonable genres claim they need good writing and a good story to excel. LitFic claims to only need the one

No, it doesn't.

#203 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:52 PM:

Micah @200:

All reasonable genres claim they need good writing and a good story to excel. LitFic claims to only need the one, and I think that's crap.

I'm not sure what it means for a genre, as an abstract category, to "claim" anything, or even for readers and writers of a particular genre to be homogeneous to "claim" a single overarching statement about that genre (including definition of exactly what the genre is, as this thread can attest).

That said, I still disagree. There are many readers and writers of SF, though not as many as there used to be, who claim "good writing" is unnecessary and even detrimental (because it "gets in the way of the story") -- does the phrase "transparent prose" ring a bell? Unless you're setting the bar for "good writing" low enough to mean "most of the sentences are grammatically correct", I don't think you'll get universal agreement on this.

On the flip side, as I think Tim is alluding to in #202, I don't think you'll find many readers or authors of modern literary fiction suggesting that a "good story" isn't necessary -- they may weight writing higher compared to story than it is in other genres, but mostly I suspect it's that they have a different definition of what makes a "good story" than SF fans, focused more on character exploration than on plot.

#204 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:04 PM:

lorax @ 202: Even that is giving up too much. Writers like Pynchon and Barth have plot out the wazoo.

#205 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 03:26 PM:

Tim @197

You're in for a treat. Blindsight has been so far my favorite 21st century SF novel, containing a distilled and dangerous essence of sensawunda*. I do recommend not finishing it at night, but instead in a sunlit hour where you can distract yourself with cheerful thoughts. Keeps his encapsulated memes from hatching all at once.

If I had time I'd make an argument about the definition of SF and great SF, using Blindsight as an example, because it tops my list of novels that can singletentacledly represent exactly what SF is and does and should be. These key features include
- Sensawunda
- Multiple Algernon moments**
- Big reference section†

I'll try to turn this into a coherent essay later.

--------------------------------
* Quoting myself‡:
If a good novel is like a fine-crafted bottle of beer or wine, then Blindsight is a partially vacuum distilled eau de vie from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

** my term for that Sensasmarta you get during a book where for a few glorious pages you understand the science, because the author makes you feel it. Not like a mystery, where you outsmart the author... the book makes you smarter. Until the temporary neural scaffolding built by and for reading the book starts to fade‡‡.

† here, explicit. In much of SF it is implicit.

‡ this entire comment is mostly remixed quotes about Blindsight, because I've written on it before.

‡‡ Greg Egan does good Sensasmarta: within his novels he makes exploring mathematical proofs of Riemann flat space manifolds fun and essential and seemingly doable, by you, the reader. Immediately after you finish the book you think you can do math far beyond anything you ever learned in school, because Egan gave you the temporary memory of having done just that.

#206 ::: Bill ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 03:32 PM:

A minimalist definition of SF that doesn't include at least "The War of the Worlds"? I was going to say that you'd have to pick a definition as narrow as "had to be published in pulp magazines", but even that doesn't quite exclude him (the Wikipedia-that-knows-all-things talks about him as one of the founders of The Science School Journal), though he did also write some books that weren't science fiction. You'll get much farther arguing that Jules Verne wasn't a Steampunk, because his work wasn't retro yet, or maybe that Tolkien wasn't an F&SF author because the marketing genre is defined as "inferior rip-offs of Tolkien". If anything, it makes more sense to argue that Well's writing on Socialism is science fiction, the economic equivalent of the jetpack (sounds really cool, but if you try it in practice it's amazing for 30 seconds and then runs out of fuel because the physics aren't right), but even there he was a Fabian rather than a Marxist, and a lot of his writing was social commentary.


As far as romance novels getting respect, based on the people I know who read them, if you were to accuse the genre of being unrealistic escapist formula writing, they'd respond "Damn right it is, and you'd better not go putting anything on your romance-novel bookstore shelves that doesn't live up to that!" - and most of them wouldn't mind at all if you set a romance novel in some lit-crit-appropriate setting, because the formulas are flexible enough to handle that.

#207 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 05:07 PM:

Well, no sooner do I make my LJ voice-post about Earthlink being down than it comes back up. Go figure.

Tim, #160: The Handmaid's Tale falls squarely into one of the most SFnal slots there is: "Imagine a development that would completely revamp society, and then write about the society that results."

More generally, SF is not an exclusive genre; you can write pretty much any other kind of book in an SF format. Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime, for example, is an SF mystery. I've seen SF westerns, and SF romances; why is it so unimaginable to have SF lit-fic? And exactly what would you say is the difference between The Handmaid's Tale and, say, S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, such that one isn't SF and the other is?

Robin, #172: Well, it was her debut novel as a mystery writer; I've seen that happen to other writers as well when they wrote a first mystery after writing in other formats. Mystery fandom is a bit of an odd duck, and very cliquish indeed.

Andrew, #175: I'm more familiar with hearing Gernsback called "the father of modern science fiction". I think that's done for the specific purpose of not excluding Wells, but at the same time acknowledging that Gernsback made a genre-changing contribution.

John, #185: It has not been my experience that good writing is particularly valued in lit-fic. A surprising number of critically-acclaimed books are turgid, clunky, or both.

(Side note: My nomination in the "writing hard SF with good literary prose styling" category is Robert F. Sawyer. His writing is smooth, flows well, and never gets in the way of the story; higher praise I cannot bestow.)

I remember, several years ago, reading an essay that described one of the major disconnects between lit-fic and other genre fic (and the fans of the respective styles). It said (paraphrased) that lit-fic is primarily about the protagonist's internal journey, while other genre fic may have that as an element but is primarily about things that happen external to the protagonist. This explained very well to me why my normal reaction to lit-fic is, "300 pages and NOTHING HAPPENED!" :-) The essay also pointed out that lit-fic fans have trouble with a protagonist who starts out competent, since that makes them feel that the character has nowhere to go.

C. Wingate, #192: Re chick-flicks -- yes, exactly, thank you for highlighting that.

I don't think that chick-flick films have much of the problem I tend to notice with chick-lit books, which I call "Mikey syndrome". As in, "It doesn't have to be well-written, this audience will read anything." My understanding is that a lot of chick-flicks are very good films in their own right, and only miss being recognized as such because they're over there in the hareem.

lorax, #203: IMO, bad writing is what gets in the way of the story! See my comment about Sawyer, above. This may be definitional differences, but to me you can't call it "good writing" if it calls attention to itself. Note that this doesn't mean it has to be plain or utilitarian in style -- Diane Duane writes amazingly lyrical prose that nonetheless doesn't jump up and down saying "look at me" and take the reader's attention away from what she's writing about.

#208 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 06:24 PM:

I love the term "genrephobe" xopher. I'm gonna use it.

#209 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 06:29 PM:

Lee @ 207... I'm more familiar with hearing Gernsback called "the father of modern science fiction".

What Gernsback basically did was to give the stories a focus place, and thus conventions and expectations.

#210 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 07:27 PM:

John Chu @ 195: "Based on the sentence Patrick quoted in the blog post, it reads more like LitFic will claim all good writing and disavow that it can also be something else. (e.g., the odd notion that 1984 and Brave New World are not SF, in addition to whatever else they might be.) I agree with you though that LitFic doesn't appear to like to share and that's not a good thing."

Agreed--LitFic is a genre that claims not to be above genre. It says it's defined by being "good,"* but in practice it's often defined by the same grab bag of tropes and trends and marketing synergies that define every other, far-less-respectable "genre" piece. I don't mind it, but I wish they'd get off their high horse. We have things to teach them, you know?

*Actually, I don't think it's "good" that LitFiccers claim is the paramount quality, as much as it is "important" or "influential." Thus all these retroactive credit grabs once a work gets any kind of recognition.

Tim Walters @ 196: "Allowing for generic overlap is exactly what SF maximalism doesn't do. Instead, anything using SF tropes at all must be called SF, or face accusations of the dread Genre Denial Syndrome."

This is manifestly not true. Let me demonstrate:

A: This book uses sf tropes. Therefore I, a genre maximalist, declare this to be SF.
B: But it also has all these mystery tropes! And romance tropes!
A: So it does! Therefore I, a genre maximalist, declare that this is also a mystery and a romance.

Tada!

You are conflating genre maximalism (the idea that anything with these markers is part of this genre) with genre essentialism (the idea that each book has One Objectively True Genre that cancels out all other possible genres it might belong to). It's true that the two are often argued in tandem in these kinds of conversations, but I'm not doing so. When I say "1984 is SF" there isn't an implicit "--and nothing else!" I'm happy sharing it with LitFic, political allegory, heck even erotica, if anthony really wants it there. What I'm objecting to is LitFic's pretensions of exclusivity.

Micah @ 200: "My meaning is not that being LitFic makes a work bad, but that trying to be just LitFic is pointless. The result might turn out good, but that is in no way due to the effort to make something LitFic."

I think I get what you're saying. Using the "genre as toolbox" metaphor, you look at the tools LitFic has to offer and see a bunch of weird whirly-bobs and doohickeys, whereas in other genre toolboxes you see relatively straightforward and useful sets of hammers, saws and nails. While it's possible to build something worthwhile with LitFic's tools, it doesn't seem like the genre's equipment is really all that helpful. Is this roughly correct?

#211 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 07:30 PM:

ARgh Editfail. Sentence one should be "Agreed--LitFic is a genre that claims to be above genre."

#213 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:36 PM:

Kathryn @ 205: I'm looking forward to it--it seems right up my alley. I like Egan a lot as well.

Bill @ 206: It's not as weird as it might seem. Turner isn't considered an Impressionist, despite his influence on and similarities to them, and no one claims that the essence of Impressionism is blurry painting and that any blurry painting is therefore Impressionist. This is because Impressionism isn't considered to be just a specific area of style space, but instead a historical movement started by a particular bunch of guys. I'm not saying that SF's purely stylistic definition is wrong, just that it's not the only way to fly.

Lee @ 207: The Handmaid's Tale falls squarely into one of the most SFnal slots there is: "Imagine a development that would completely revamp society, and then write about the society that results."

To me this is like saying that the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor falls squarely into one of the most rock-&-roll slots there is: 4/4 time. Writers were doing that long before SF came along.

I've seen SF westerns, and SF romances; why is it so unimaginable to have SF lit-fic?

It's not, and in fact I'd say that's a reasonable description of THT. But so is just calling it lit-fic.

And exactly what would you say is the difference between The Handmaid's Tale and, say, S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, such that one isn't SF and the other is?

I haven't read the Stirling, but one thing I can say is that in-genre dystopias are more likely to be what Bujold calls "fantasies of political agency"--the dystopia gets overthrown. To the extent that that's part of the SF dystopian mode (which I think is non-negligible), I think THT becomes less definitely SFnal.

A surprising number of critically-acclaimed books are turgid, clunky, or both.

Examples?

In an unfortunate coincidence, Sawyer and Duane are both authors whose books I've punched out of after ten pages, due to disliking their writing style intensely (something I don't do very often--but have done with literary fiction, e.g. Saraswattee by Kit Puran Singh).

It said (paraphrased) that lit-fic is primarily about the protagonist's internal journey,

lit-fic fans have trouble with a protagonist who starts out competent,

I question both of these, unless by "competent" you mean "omni-competent" in Heinlein style. Plenty of lit-fic protagonists are good at something.

Counterexamples: The Sot-Weed Factor to the first (and in a strange way, to the second; there's a nearly omni-competent character, but he's not the protagonist); Passion Play by Jerzy Kozinski to the second.

heresiarch @ 210: It says it's defined by being "good,"

Genres don't talk. Who says this? (As you might be gathering by now, I think it's a good idea to talk about some real books and/or critics; I'm hearing a lot of unbacked-up generalizations about lit-fic.)

the same grab bag of tropes and trends and marketing synergies

What grab bag of etc. pulls the two aforementioned books, Ulysses, The New York Trilogy, As I Lay Dying, Rabbit, Run, Gravity's Rainbow, The Dead Father, etc., etc. into a coherent genre in a way that's remotely analogous to SF or mysteries? Both of those genres can at least roughly be summed up in a sentence; what's the equivalent sentence for lit-fic?

You are conflating genre maximalism ... with genre essentialism

Fair enough. I'll buy that.

retroactive credit grabs

How is saying something is good a credit grab?

Bill Higgins @ 212: With that, at least, I agree.


#214 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:41 PM:

Me @ 213: a particular bunch of guys

And at least one gal. Forgot about Mary Cassatt.

#215 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:07 PM:

Tim@213: To the extent that that's part of the SF dystopian mode (which I think is non-negligible), I think THT becomes less definitely SFnal.

On the other hand, THT employs one of the classic sf devices, that of the frame-tale set in a time and place future to that of the main narrative, in which the main narrative is presented as a surviving artifact of a time now past. We don't actually get to see the dystopia overthrown, but the existence of the frame-tale serves to assure us that it is something safely in the past of the story-universe's timeline.

I've maintained for years that THT would fit handily into the slot of one of the unwritten novels in Heinlein's Future History sequence -- it's very much a story from the Nehemiah Scudder theocratic years, if that story had been told by a late-twentieth-century Canadian feminist instead of an early-to-mid-twentieth-century American Navy vet. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Atwood at some point had a stash of Heinlein novels in the back of her genre closet.

#216 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:22 PM:

Debra Doyle @ 214: On the other hand, THT employs one of the classic sf devices, that of the frame-tale set in a time and place future to that of the main narrative, in which the main narrative is presented as a surviving artifact of a time now past.

Good point--I'd forgotten about that. In fact, now that you mention it, I remember wincing a bit at the cliche.

I would not be at all surprised to learn that Atwood at some point had a stash of Heinlein novels in the back of her genre closet.

Neither would I. In fact, maybe she got the whole spec-fic vs. sci-fi riff from him.

#217 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 11:12 PM:

Tim, #213: To me this is like saying that the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor falls squarely into one of the most rock-&-roll slots there is: 4/4 time. Writers were doing that long before SF came along.

So they were. But somewhere along the line, that particular trope was abandoned to the realm of science fiction. Maybe it had something to do with the pulp influence, but "respectable" (aka "mainstream" or "literary") writers didn't write that sort of thing at all for a long time. At this point, it requires the sort of jockeying-about with definitions that Atwood tried to do to scrape the SF off it.

It's not, and in fact I'd say [SF lit-fic is] a reasonable description of THT. But so is just calling it lit-fic.

You lose a lot of accuracy in doing so, not least because of the strenuous attempts of the lit-fic writers to distance themselves from any vestige of the "sci-fi" ghetto. Why are you so determined to exempt this particular work from multi-classification? What's the problem with acknowledging that it falls into a bog-standard SF category? There may be more to it than that, but there is certainly not less.

unless by "competent" you mean "omni-competent" in Heinlein style

Sorry, that was me not including enough context. "Competent" as defined by the essay meant roughly "having no more than the normal human level of angst, and being able to function effectively when faced with a problem".

In an unfortunate coincidence, Sawyer and Duane are both authors whose books I've punched out of after ten pages, due to disliking their writing style intensely

This suggests to me that we process books sufficiently differently that we're unlikely to come to any agreement on this topic.

#218 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 02:05 AM:

Tim Walters @ 213: "Genres don't talk. Who says this?"

(I'm going with my * from 210 and arguing that the primary characteristic of litfic, as defined by afficionados of litfic, is "importance," or maybe "respectability.")

The comment that started this thread is based on that assumption. J.G. Ballard was published in sf magazines for decades before Speilberg's movie popularized his work. Were there any litficcers arguing for his inclusion in the canon during that time? But now he's widely read and well-respected, and we're reading in obituaries about how he was never really a sf writer--he's too important and popular to be that. Same with Orwell, Huxley, and Atwood--they're claimed by lit fic because they're famous and influential.

"What grab bag of etc. pulls the two aforementioned books, Ulysses, The New York Trilogy, As I Lay Dying, Rabbit, Run, Gravity's Rainbow, The Dead Father, etc., etc. into a coherent genre in a way that's remotely analogous to SF or mysteries?"

*How they're shelved; alternately, the number of dissertations written on them.

*"Literary fiction is fiction that has received substantial main-stream critical approbation (or was written in the hope of receiving such)."

*Tropes that show up in litfic at least as often as robots show up in sf: Suburban settings, intellectual class characters, failed writer protagonists*, failed dreams and aspirations, general sad-sack-itude**, unsatisfying affairs†, masturbation, people with bizarre hobbies and/or personal affectations††, profound self-obsession; I could go on.

Is this a terrible parody of literary fiction, blind to its diversity and talent? Yes and no. There are any number of excellent works categorized in litfic that utterly shatter all of these definitions, and other works that fit them all to a T and are nonetheless spectacular. Nonetheless: you could say the same thing about any given definition of sf.

"How is saying something is good a credit grab?"

Because they're simultaneously arguing that anything good (read: influential, respectable) belongs exclusively to their private LitFic club. They're play No True Scotsman with literary quality, and it's irritating.

*Remember when I said we had things to teach them? Mary Sueism and the perils thereof are among those things.
**Films made from litfic sources are a frickin' goldmine of roles for William H. Macy.
†I always wonder whether this is autobiographical or authorial fantasy.
††This one especially pisses me off. "Realism is boring, but anything fantastical will get me laughed out of the creative writing class! I guess I'll include bizarrely quirky but technically plausible characters instead."

#219 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 02:27 AM:

First of all, I owe Diane Duane and her fans an apology--it was Julian May whose book I gave up on. In mitigation of my offense, it was twenty-five years or so ago.

But somewhere along the line, that particular trope was abandoned to the realm of science fiction. Maybe it had something to do with the pulp influence, but "respectable" (aka "mainstream" or "literary") writers didn't write that sort of thing at all for a long time.

When was this? Forster, Zamyatin, Orwell, Huxley, and Wolfe were all mainstream (and, in the cases of Forster and Orwell, highly respected) writers. Bradbury wasn't, but his dystopia was quickly accepted by the mainstream, precisely because it fit so well into the dystopian tradition they thought of as their own. Books like Wolfbane they saw as very different, and I can't think of any good reason why they were wrong. Why should having futuristic gizmos in the book trump all other distinctions?

Why are you so determined to exempt this particular work from multi-classification?

I don't think I am. In any case, Atwood was brought up, I spoke my piece, and I think I've run out of things to add. (And there was much rejoicing.)

"Competent" as defined by the essay meant roughly "having no more than the normal human level of angst, and being able to function effectively when faced with a problem".

This is every bit as egregious as thinking of science fiction as "that Buck Rogers stuff." I sentence your essayist to read Lucky Jim and The Reivers.

#220 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 03:03 AM:

Sarah W @ 28

Blue, Green, Indigo, Orange, Red, Violet, and Yellow?

The first thing I thought when I read that was, "Wait, they're out of order." The second thing I thought was, "Was I thinking of the spectrum or the color code for resistors?" And then I thought maybe you could make a hierarchical book categorization scheme using the resistor color code:


Black = 0
Brown = 1
Red = 2
Orange = 3
Yellow = 4
Green = 5
Blue = 6
Violet = 7
Grey = 8
White = 9
Resistors use three bands (two digits and the number of zeroes after), books could use three bands as Category, Genre, Subgenre, or something like that:

 Category Band:
   Black = Fiction
   Brown = General Non-fiction
   Red = Biography
   Orange = History
   Yellow = Books with Brown Covers
   Green = Books published in odd-numbered years
   Blue = Books that had a profound effect on readers
   Violet = Parody and Satire
   Grey = Books not intended to be taken seriously
   White = Pamphlets
Add a few more color bands and we can start categorizing the Library of Babel (we can never finish).

#221 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 03:04 AM:

J.G. Ballard was published in sf magazines for decades before Speilberg's movie popularized his work. Were there any litficcers arguing for his inclusion in the canon during that time?

I don't have the quotes to prove it, but, as I remember it, yes. The freakier sort of litficcers, to be sure. (Well, "inclusion in the canon" is going too far, but I hardly think that's a fair standard for a writer in early to mid-career.)

But now he's widely read and well-respected, and we're reading in obituaries about how he was never really a sf writer

Well, an obituary. Many, many others referred to him as a science fiction writer. Yes, there are twits like Mr. Weil out there. That makes lit-fic a genre how again?

Same with Orwell, Huxley, and Atwood--they're claimed by lit fic because they're famous and influential.

No, they're claimed by lit-fic (to the extent that they are--I don't think many literary readers are that into Huxley, and Orwell is probably better known for his essays) because they wrote plenty of lit-fic with an SF book or two on the side.

*How they're shelved; alternately, the number of dissertations written on them. ... "Literary fiction is fiction that has received substantial main-stream critical approbation (or was written in the hope of receiving such)."

These are not remotely analogous to the way SF and mysteries are defined. Besides, I think more people write their dissertations on Buffy and Battlestar Galactica these days. (Only partly kidding!)

Is this a terrible parody of literary fiction, blind to its diversity and talent? Yes and no.

I certainly don't recognize the list of books I mentioned in this set of tropes. I'm not sure how to respond to an assertion of frequency when neither of us has any real data.

Because they're simultaneously arguing that anything good (read: influential, respectable) belongs exclusively to their private LitFic club.

When they do, bust 'em. But more often, in my experience, they don't. Maybe if I were in academia or publishing or just a different crowd my experience would be different, but I hear far more disdain of lit-fic from SF readers than vice versa.

#222 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 04:22 AM:

Tim Walters: You seem quite convinced that lit-fic isn't a genre, and arguments that it is don't seem to be leading us anywhere. So I'd like to ask you: what do you think lit-fic is? It's certainly something--it's widely-enough recognized that we can have a debate about it, after all. If it isn't a genre, then what is it?

#223 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 04:45 AM:

Tom Walters, I have the strong impression that you're at least partly responding to things others aren't saying. Your main disagreement with some of the people you're arguing against here seems to be that you think that something can be literary fiction and SF at the same time and they think something can be SF and literary fiction at the same time.

#224 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 05:09 AM:

heresiarch @ 222: what do you think lit-fic is? It's certainly something

Actually, I'm not fully convinced of that. I have yet to feel, in this discussion, that I'm talking about the same set of books as any of my interlocutors, and I'm really only using "literary fiction" or "lit-fic" because it seems to be the term used here.

But one guess is that it's an aesthetic: promoting language, character exploration, and setting to full partners in the enterprise rather than making them secondary to the payload of plot or idea. It is quite possible to pursue this aesthetic while using (straightforwardly or ironically) the tropes of an established genre; but since genres are defined by the subject matter, any book that puts "how it's about it" over "what it's about" is going to live most comfortably on the fringe of that genre if it does so.

Another, equally probable guess would be "fiction best marketed without a genre tag that isn't some kind of thriller or something."

Do either of those appeal?

#225 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 05:32 AM:

Raphael @ 223: Tom Walters, I have the strong impression that you're at least partly responding to things others aren't saying.

Well, if I knew I was doing it, I wouldn't be doing it, so you're going to have to be more specific.

Your main disagreement with some of the people you're arguing against here seems to be that you think that something can be literary fiction and SF at the same time and they think something can be SF and literary fiction at the same time.

Here's what I think I've been disagreeing about: whether Margaret Atwood was at one time an asshole with Genre Denial Syndrome (my current opinion: maybe), whether literary fiction is a genre in the same sense as SF is (my current opinion: probably not), and whether various derogatory stereotypes are reasonable synecdoches for literary fiction (my current opinion: definitely not).

#226 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 06:17 AM:

"Add a few more color bands and we can start categorizing the Library of Babel (we can never finish)."

No need. It's already been perfectly catalogued, according to a logically impeccable classification scheme.

You just need to lay your hands on the catalogue. I know it's in there somewhere...

#227 ::: Jan Vaněk jr. ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 06:40 AM:

Xopher #193 (or anybody else): What is "...and horns" ending? It sounds interesting, but I haven't been able to google it.

I think even Asimov's plots (by and large, with some exceptions) aren't fine, but far-fetched, artificial and clunky in a way similar to his prose.

Keir #163: If you read Wells out of SF, you don't have SF, you have American engineer literature.

But that's exactly it: When in the mood, I develop the argument that science fiction, certainly the genre SF, is quintessentially American (as founded by the engineer Gernsback and established by JWC) and the social speculations written until 1930es by respected European literary writers were something quite different - certainly in their origin and tradition. However I'm not sure how fruitful such splitting would be.

#228 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 08:18 AM:

heresiarch @210: I think I get what you're saying. Using the "genre as toolbox" metaphor, you look at the tools LitFic has to offer and see a bunch of weird whirly-bobs and doohickeys, whereas in other genre toolboxes you see relatively straightforward and useful sets of hammers, saws and nails. While it's possible to build something worthwhile with LitFic's tools, it doesn't seem like the genre's equipment is really all that helpful. Is this roughly correct?

Basically, but more specifically that the tools of LitFic are not useful on their own, yet the idea that those tools are the only ones that matter seems to be pushed by many people who feel that LitFic is superior. When taken as one set of tool used in tandem with the toolsets of other genres, the problem disappears.

#229 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 09:17 AM:

Bruce Cohen @ 220: Looks to me as though you just need to encode the Dewey decimal system in resistor colour bands.

#230 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 09:20 AM:

Lee@207: I've certainly seen 'father of science fiction', but I can well believe 'father of modern science fiction' is more common. But in that case I suspect one would have to say that there is, even today, science fiction (defined in terms of content) which is not modern science fiction. It just carries on the tradition from Wells. This would include Huxley and Orwell, and probably Atwood as well (though perhaps not Ballard). What I think is hard to maintain is both that something new and distinctive began with Gernsback and that Atwood is part of it.

#231 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 09:49 AM:

I rather like the toolset idea.

Clearly, there have to be overlapping toolsets. It's hard not to use the core toolsets of the language (Riddley Walker comes to mind as a partial exception) but the whole idea is to communicate. Perhaps the distinction is in what is being communicated.

Did Patrick O'Brian write lit-fic? It wasn't quite the same as Forester, Pope, Kent, or Marryat, but can you say they were not part of the same genre?

The toolsets certainly overlapped.

I don't think it's silly for an author to claim to be telling a different sort of story. How many people walk down a particular mean street, and tell the same story? Rogue Herries or Wainwright?

Anyway, I have the uncomfortable feeling that the whole lit-fic thing, both sides, comes out of a long history of second-rate teaching in ordinary schools. I tend to approach 1984 with the tools of a science fiction reader, and run away from Dickens, as a consequence of that.

I learned more about writing a novel, last November, ploughing through NaNoWriMo, that anyone bothered to tell me at school.

I still don't like Dickens, but I have an idea of what he had to do.

#232 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 09:52 AM:

I must confess to having some sympathy with Tim Walters. I don't think LitFic is a genre in the same way SF, crime or romance is. It isn't, in my experience, shelved separately; it's shelved as 'fiction', along with 'popular' works. It can't be defined by the fact people write dissertations on it; people undoubtedly write dissertations on 'genre' works.

However, since there is clearly a degree of overlap in the kind of works people see as falling into this category, there must be something there that people are responding to. What I think it is is, in effect, the works that certain people take seriously, as shown, perhaps most clearly, by the fact that they are nominated for certain awards. However, I think this is a fluid category, and can on occasion include genre works - not just works that are 'really' genre (e.g. those of Salman Rushdie) but works that are quite unashamedly genre and are frequently seen on the genre shelves, (e.g those of Susanna Clarke). I think 'literary' readers are generally more anxious to distinguish what they read from popular fiction (chicklit, and what have you) than from genre.

#233 ::: Sarah W ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 10:03 AM:

Bruce #220:

Nah, I just thought an alphabetical rainbow might make Punkrockhockeymom (@ #14) feel more comfortable . . .

I think there's a library service company that has a 'visual classification system' for non-fiction, using color bands corresponding to different portions of an item's Dewey or LC number. I'm not sure it would help locate items, but it might make shelving easier.

#234 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 10:10 AM:

Sarah W @ 233... an item's Dewey or LC number

If you use the Hewey-Dewey-Louie system, things will get messy - the nature of the mess depending on who else is around, Donald Duck or Bruce Dern.

#235 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 10:28 AM:

re 227; Well, that brings us back to the communal significance of genre. There's one level at which I want to divide genres according to their communities, and another at which I do not. The latter level is essentially what (for lack of a better word at the moment) I'll call the mechanical-- or the literary engineering, if you prefer-- level. This is the level at which I want to lump all the speculative fiction together, and want to make a distinction between fantasy proper and SF while still saying that the latter is a subspecies of the former, in the large. It's also the level at which a work can take on several genres, as the tropes involved don't all work in the same channels. Hence (to take another notorious example) when Le Guin chewed up K. Kurtz for writing one of the first set of Deryni novels, what she was objecting to, in effect, was the mixing of the political thriller and fantasy tropes, because the first was a large part of what, I think, caused the cutting down of the heroic scope of the characters (and thus the language).* When I'm working at this level, 1984 is science fiction.

The genre-as-community level makes me prone to keeping Gernsback and Orwell away from each other. There's a third, rather unkind part of me that wants to classify the Gernsbackian strain as "literature for engineers with Asperger's". But I also have to doubt, if not utterly disbelieve, the notion that there's no connection between classic SF and the Vernian/Wellesian stuff. I think there is a almost certainly a strong historical connection, and I expect that Gernsback's stable of authors knew the older stuff, loved it, and thought that, in some way or another, they were writing in something of the same vein as those whom they though of as their predecessors.

Also, discussion of litfic inevitably brings me around to Florence King's statement, when trying to put together a survey review, that she'd "rather be a human minesweeper in the Straits of Hormuz than read John Updike."

*Not that I'm trying to defend the passage she criticized, mind you.

#236 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:08 AM:

Serge #234: That's exactly why Melville Dewey changed the spelling of his name to "Melvil Dui", and why the standard book on the system still has "Melvil Dui's Introduction" (in his modified orthography).

#237 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:24 AM:

My brain, like my library shelving system, has been too disordered to formulate coherent responses, so I edge forward with a lif fic koan: why is The Beans of Egypt, Maine classified as literary fiction when Sometimes a Great Notion usually dismissed as mere regionalism?

And, second, why isn't Skinny Legs and All ever discussed for its SFnal aspects?

#238 ::: Sarah W. ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:25 AM:

Serge #234:

Odd duck, our Dewey


Fragano #236:

What do you expect from a man who is rumored to have argued that his ten place system had plenty of room in it for all the books that could possibly be published, ever?

Also, this.

#239 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 01:18 PM:

Jan 227: What is "...and horns" ending? It sounds interesting, but I haven't been able to google it.

At least two of Asimov's stories end with the words 'and horns'. One is about seeing the devil in a mushroom cloud (even when I was a child, I found mushroom clouds much scarier than Old Scratch). The other is about the end of the world, which is averted, and then the guy who's been watching it all unfold starts working on bringing it about again, and his shadow on the wall has (OMGWTFBBQ!) horns.

*Yawn*

Asimov's writing has many virtues; that cannot be denied. And "The Ugly Little Boy" is still one of the few stories that makes me tear up when I read it (as in, my ocular waterworks start up, not as in I rend the book asunder). But he was overfond of pseudo-surprising endings that are really more like punch lines than story endings. This is fine if you're writing Feghoots, but not every story is a Feghoot, and a lot of stories in a row that end that way...well, it gets tedious.

So I was using the phrase to encapsulate all that. You couldn't find it because I just made it up. I meant to include things like "Not blood, but high-grade machine oil" and the like as well.

#240 ::: Wyman Cooke ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 01:57 PM:

Lee @207:
"Robin, #172: Well, it was her debut novel as a mystery writer; I've seen that happen to other writers as well when they wrote a first mystery after writing in other formats. Mystery fandom is a bit of an odd duck, and very cliquish indeed."


A friend who worked at The Science Fiction and Mystery Bookshop ran into an example. He recommended one of Garcia's Rex novels to a couple of mystery mavens. Now the Rex novels are hard-boiled mysteries but the premise is that dinosaurs are still around and hiding out among humanity. The mavens put the book down like it was a hot coal. They weren't willing to even give it a try cause it wasn't a straight mystery.

#241 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 02:28 PM:

Fragano @ 236... Because of Bruce Dern?

#242 ::: Keith K ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 04:50 PM:

I'm always fascinated to hear about how people organize their personal libraries. My wife and I are both librarians, so it's either professional interest or deep rooted pathology. probably both.

For those interested, you can see a virtual representation of our library here, on LibraryThing.

As to how we have the books physically arranged, it's... complicated. We have several collections on their own shelves though, most notably our graphic novels and YA lit, which lives in the living room, a shelf full of science fact and science fiction/fantasy in the office, new acquisitions scattered all about, and the to-read piles on our respective nightstands. We don't really bother to separate by fiction or non fiction, except that the occult and religion section seems to have glommed together in the spare closet. One of these days, we keep threatening one another with arranging the books in a more orderly fashion but that would require purchasing at least three more sets of shelves, to avoid double stacking.

#243 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 04:59 PM:

lit-fic as/vs genre:

A local bookseller (Penn Books, a hole-in-the-wall in Penn Station with a good buyer for SF) breaks down its fiction into several categories. General Fiction (includes classics, Penguins etc), Quality fiction (lit-fic? Includes Robertson Davies as well as Patrick O'Brian), SF, Mystery, Action (spy novels and whatnot), Romance, and Oprah's Book Club. So lit-fic can be genre, at least for these guys.

definition of fandom:

This trips me up when talking with my wife, who writes fanfic. Yes, that stuff. (Everyone needs to look down on something). Most SF fans seem refer to "fandom" as the collective of all SF fans, whether or not it includes readers, fanzine writers/editors, etc., regardless of sub-genre. However, the fanfic writers refer to fiction about each individual literary/media source as a separate "fandom." So there's Sentinel fandom, and X-files fandom, and Supernatural fandom, and Jane Austen fandom, etc. For some reason, they don't all want to be one collective, even though many of the better writers (such as my lovely wife) write stories about many different shows and sources (including Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian).

And then there's Media Fandom, which seems to include fans of TV shows and movies, without necessarily feeling motivated to write stories about them. And Filk Fandom, and Costumers, etc. all of whom get more and more sub-specialized, and even run their own cons in addition to the general-purpose regional cons, such that fans of reading even have their own con - Readercon, at which media fandom and filk fandom are not welcome, although individuals who are also still interested in the written word are welcome. We're thinking of going this summer, instead of going to the Floating Northeast Filk Con (how many Boston trips can we take in a month?), haven't been in several years.

#244 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 05:10 PM:

re 242: I am tempted to resort to busts of emperors on the bookcases, except that there's so much stuff piled on top of them that there's no room.

#245 ::: Sarah W ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 05:19 PM:

Serge #241

Please forgive my confused ignorance: Are you suggesting that Bruce Dern has a duck? And that he's bringing it with him to library school?

Keith K #424:

I think librarians prefer the controlled chaos method in their personal libraries. Books unleashed!! And we don't have to put them back!

One restraint I do practice is with my research books: because my office is a very small corner of the master bedroom, the stuff I need to keep close by pretty much lives in the drawers of my bedside table. The oversized books are wedged between baskets of knitting on my rolltop desk.

You know, the house seemed large enough when we bought it . . .

#246 ::: Sarah W ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 05:38 PM:

Oops, I meant #242, not #424, at #245.

-30-

#247 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 06:27 PM:

Sarh W @ 245... Sorry about that. Here is Bruce Dern with Huey and Dewey, or is it Louie?

#248 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:12 PM:

I am in the process of packing my books away, as the bedroom/library will be undergoing renovations this summer.

In general, all the craft books are on one or two sets of shelves, all the poetry is together, all the manga/graphic novels are on one place, and I think I have corralled all the feminist books onto one shelf. Everything else is stacked and shelved and piled with no real rhyme or reason.

#249 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:35 PM:

But that's exactly it: When in the mood, I develop the argument that science fiction, certainly the genre SF, is quintessentially American (as founded by the engineer Gernsback and established by JWC) and the social speculations written until 1930es by respected European literary writers were something quite different - certainly in their origin and tradition. However I'm not sure how fruitful such splitting would be.

I think the problem would be that there was very Gernsbackian European sf (The Flesh Guard frex) that was also respected literary speculation. (Wells was writing things that were recognisably sf and had a defined sense of genre; he didn't call it sf but scientific romance is close enough as to make no odds.) It might be better to wonder why there is an insistence that Gernsback `founded' sf when quite clearly he didn't do anything of the sort; it is like claiming that Pollock invented abstraction.

Distinction between British detective novels and American seems apposite here.

(Again, part of my anti-american-engineer-lit campaign, so take cum grano salis.)

#250 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:36 PM:

JESR @ 237: why is The Beans of Egypt, Maine classified as literary fiction when Sometimes a Great Notion usually dismissed as mere regionalism?

It's been a long time since I read either, but I seem to remember that Notion was a bit more exuberant about the setting (as well as a solid entry in the competent lit-fic protagonist sweepstakes).

I'm not sure calling it "regionalism" is a dismissal, though: for many folks it's something to celebrate.

Jon Baker @ 243: General Fiction (includes classics, Penguins etc), Quality fiction (lit-fic? Includes Robertson Davies as well as Patrick O'Brian),

That sounds like a recipe for disgruntlement. "Whaddaya mean Dan Brown isn't in the Quality section!?"

#251 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:38 PM:

Keith K @ 242, it always gives me a moment of cognitive dissonance to see your posts, because my fiancé is also a Keith K.

Also, I probably should have left my post at "it's …complicated" as well. But I'm interested in library arrangement. I think I get it from my mother -- another librarian who practices organic home library arrangement.

My Keith K. was just rearranging the hardback fiction. I can't tell what he did, but it clearly makes more sense to him now.

#252 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 12:33 AM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @186 mentioned Venn diagrams.

#253 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 01:04 AM:

caroline,

... but i've met keith k.'s wife, so that can't be you...

#254 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 01:07 AM:

Keir writes in #249:

I think the problem would be that there was very Gernsbackian European sf (The Flesh Guard frex) that was also respected literary speculation. (Wells was writing things that were recognisably sf and had a defined sense of genre; he didn't call it sf but scientific romance is close enough as to make no odds.) It might be better to wonder why there is an insistence that Gernsback `founded' sf when quite clearly he didn't do anything of the sort; it is like claiming that Pollock invented abstraction.

Allow me to sketch out Gary Westfahl's account in The Mechanics of Wonder.

A literary genre, he argues, requires two things:

1. A body of literature.

2. A critic. That is, someone to identify "science fiction" and make decisions about its qualities. To point out good examples of the genre, and sort through works that might belong to it.

In Prof. Westfahl's eyes, Gernsback effectively drew a circle around a body of fiction and said, Knightishly, "This is scientifiction." (The actual term "science fiction" came later, also from Gernsback.)

He published SF-like stories for many years in his gadget magazines, and eventually, as we all know, started a whole magazine devoted to SF in 1926. Much of it included reprints of Verne, Wells, Burroughs, and other long-established writers. Thus he identified stories with the qualities he wanted freshly-written scientifiction to have.

He editorialized, too, about what good SF stories should be like.

Everyone recognizes Gernsback's commercial role, bundling up a certain kind of fiction his readers would like (stories one might have found scattered here and there in Weird Tales or Argosy or other magazines) and identifying it as a marketing category.

Westfahl says Hugo's role as an editor, and essentially as a critic (in the sense described above) was just as vital. In this, he was truly the father of science fiction, even if he wasn't very good at writing it, even if plenty of SF was written before he was born, and even if it began to slip away from him as other writers and other pulp publishers (other "critics") began to stir their own flavors into the pot.

If I have not done justice to Westfahl's thesis here, I hope at least I haven't distorted it too much.

It seems to me a reasonable line of argument supporting the notion that Hugo "founded" more than just a new magazine.

#255 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 02:49 AM:

Tim Walters @ 224: "But one guess is that it's an aesthetic: promoting language, character exploration, and setting to full partners in the enterprise rather than making them secondary to the payload of plot or idea."

I'm happy to work with that. (You're absolutely right that my earlier definitions were snarky rather than good, on a level with "rockets and chemicals," and I apologize.) Now, starting with your words as a definition, what doesn't "books that are about promoting language, character exploration, and setting to full partners in the enterprise rather than making them secondary to the payload of plot or idea" count as a genre?

You've mentioned several times that you don't think litfic is a genre in the same way that "science fiction and mysteries are genres," but truth be told, science fiction isn't a genre in the same way mysteries are a genre, and vice versa: mysteries are defined by their adherence to a particular plot structure that has no equivalent in science fiction, and science fiction is defined by its concern for technology--what is mystery's concern for? If you tried to define fantasy by plot, you'd get "quest fiction" or something equally bizarre. Different genres, by the very fact that they are different genres, are going to give different aspects of story-telling different weight. One genre will have strict plot requirements, but next to no attention to setting; another will make setting paramount but have very loose guidelines about plot. This doesn't make either any more or less of a genre.

So why is it that categories of books that prioritize certain styles of plot, or certain settings can be labeled as genre, but the category of books that emphasizes the exploration of language and character cannot?

"Another, equally probable guess would be "fiction best marketed without a genre tag that isn't some kind of thriller or something.""

This gets at one of reasons why lit-fic draws so much hostility from genre people: it gets to be unmarked. If the categories in a book store are Asian Fiction, African Fiction, Latino Fiction, World Fiction, and General Fiction, what does that say about who is normal, and who is privileged? The recent discussions of AmazonFAIL lay out the ways having certain categories going unmarked while others are can work to the disadvantage of the marked in more detail.

Micah @ 228: "Basically, but more specifically that the tools of LitFic are not useful on their own, yet the idea that those tools are the only ones that matter seems to be pushed by many people who feel that LitFic is superior."

Right.

Tim Walters @ 250: "That sounds like a recipe for disgruntlement."

That's my argument in a nutshell, really.

#256 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 03:45 AM:

science fiction isn't a genre in the same way mysteries are a genre

Sure it is. They're both defined by their subject matter (imaginary tech and crime-solving, respectively). Lit-fic isn't.

This gets at one of reasons why lit-fic draws so much hostility from genre people: it gets to be unmarked.

I don't get this at all. SF fans want their genre to be marked. That's why they object when a book they think is SF gets marketed without the tag. Bookstores don't have an SF/F section because they want to mark SF readers as second-class citizens, they do it because SF readers want to find their SF efficiently. I know, and I expect you know, people for whom the general fiction section practically doesn't exist. I was one once.

And "gets to be unmarked" also means "has to be unmarked." The same lack of marking that allows lit-fic to think of itself as default also throws it in, willy-nilly, with the Dan Browns and the Sidney Sheldons (except in Jon Baker's bookstore--but there it's no longer unmarked).

And they don't have a community anything like SF's.

Tim Walters @ 250: "That sounds like a recipe for disgruntlement." ... That's my argument in a nutshell, really.

So... you don't like their getting to be unmarked, and you don't like them having their own section of the bookstore either? You're kind of hard to please. What would be your preferred arrangement?* Perhaps a lit-fic section with an unproblematic name (if we could think of one), or a "Quality Fiction" section that swiped the more literary books out of the various genre sections? I think my preference would be all fiction purely alphabetical by author, but I assume that if that wouldn't have grave consequences for sales, somebody would have done it by now.

*Sorry this sounds like it's leading up to a snarky remark, but it's 12:45 and I really have to get to bed rather than fix it.

#257 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 05:32 AM:

A local bookseller (Penn Books, a hole-in-the-wall in Penn Station with a good buyer for SF) breaks down its fiction into several categories. General Fiction (includes classics, Penguins etc), Quality fiction (lit-fic? Includes Robertson Davies as well as Patrick O'Brian), SF, Mystery, Action (spy novels and whatnot), Romance, and Oprah's Book Club.

Three local systems of classification: a local bookshop (now sadly closed), which had shelf markings including "THE NAM", "HARD BOILED PRIVATE EYES" and "SMOOTHTALKINGJIVEASSMOTHERFKRS" ... the local chain bookshop, which has an entire shelf stack labelled "Tragic Life Stories" (known in the trade as 'misery memoirs', apparently)... and the video rental place that had an unlabelled section that puzzled me for weeks. I mean, what would you say was the common factor between "The Shawshank Redemption", "Much Ado About Nothing", "The Siege" and "Event Horizon"? It took me ages to work out that this was the "Black Movies" section, except they'd defined it rather broadly as "does this movie have a black person in it?"

#258 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 05:49 AM:

Time Walters @ 256: "They're both defined by their subject matter (imaginary tech and crime-solving, respectively)."

Imaginary tech, hmm? You mean like Cryptonomicon? Or All Tomorrow's Parties? Or how about Ted Chiang's "Exhalation?" Actually, that's a great example. Go read it. I'll wait.

Finished? Good. Now setting aside for a moment the fact that it's set among a society of robots whose brains run on pressurized air, what is it really about? I would argue that what it's really about is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is about the least imaginary thing I can think of, and even more importantly, how we, as ephemeral beings whose existence is fundamentally no more secure or eternal than an eddy of gases as the pressure in two mason jars is equalized, deal with that fact. It's no more "about" imaginary tech than As I Lay Dying is "about" transportation infrastructure in the rural South.

So can you really say that science fiction is any more of a coherent, limited thing than lit-fic? And that's just talking science fiction--if you go with the term speculative fiction then definitions get exponentially more difficult. It's just as nebulous and difficult to define as lit-fic.

"I don't get this at all. SF fans want their genre to be marked. That's why they object when a book they think is SF gets marketed without the tag."

No it isn't--SF fans object when books they regard as examples of really good SF aren't called SF because they feel they're being screwed: those who claim that genre is incapable of quality are playing No True Scotsman and retroactively de-genre-ing anything that passes their quality test. If they're going to get stuck with the pulpy majority of SF, they feel they ought to get credit for the good stuff too.

"And "gets to be unmarked" also means "has to be unmarked.""

Sounds like they ought to embrace their genre-hood.

"And they don't have a community anything like SF's."

Which isn't to say they don't have a community--theirs is based in literature departments and writing workshops across the country. Maybe it's not as much fun, but it's much better funded.

"Perhaps a lit-fic section with an unproblematic name (if we could think of one),"

Actually, I'm okay with lit-fic as a term--I'd just like to change how lit-fic afficionados view lit-fic's relationship with genre. They have their own tropes, tics and traditions, their own sacred cows, holy grails, and common fail states, just like any other genre.

#259 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 07:06 AM:

re 255/256/258: Actually, I think the animosity is much simpler, and is in fact another C. P. Snow phenomenon.

Here on the one hand we have a bunch of really bright people (SAT 700+ math, old scale) who like to read, and they are disposed (for whatever reason) to like fiction that is particularly interested in what technology can/will do for/to the world. They are (they think, anyway) sufficiently articulate. Classic SF (and I'll stick Verne in for sure, and Wells is pretty close to this) is their perfect genre. Meanwhile in school they get stuck with reading annoying mopey stuff about annoying mopey people*, and then in college (if they aren't careful) experimental stuff which they may well decide isn't actually meant to be read. But after all, they are destined for well-paying jobs in industry, whereas the English majors are going to be stuck with teaching jobs.

On the other side of the quad, we have a bunch of really literate people (SAT verbal 700+) who aren't that interested in science or math. They have a lot more to be mopey about, as they aren't headed to well-paying jobs in industry; but unlike many of the first group, they are better attuned to nuances of behavior and personality. Also, they are more inclined to think of writing as something that is done other than under duress. They are sensitive to the reality that a lot of SF isn't well-written, and they aren't into it for the techno-geekery.

All of this leads to a lot of cross-quad contempt-- but the second group rules the English department, so they get to determine what's Good.

*Gene Forrester and Holden Caulfield

#260 ::: Tim Hall ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 07:43 AM:

Ajay #257:

the local chain bookshop, which has an entire shelf stack labelled "Tragic Life Stories" (known in the trade as 'misery memoirs', apparently)...

Who on earth actually reads this stuff? Nobody I know will admit to it, but somebody must, or they wouldn't keep publishing them.

#261 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 08:24 AM:

"Time Walters"...Gah. Sorry.

#262 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 10:50 AM:

259: Wow. "really bright people (SAT 700+ math, old scale) who like to read" versus "really literate people (SAT verbal 700+) who aren't that interested in science or math" is an interesting comparison. So people who scored well in math are "bright" while people who scored well in verbal are "literate"?

I would suggest that both types are bright AND literate, and not worry too much about the bitterness of English majors. The cultural bias against teachers (which results in American professionals with lower pay and fewer benefits when compared to the same profession in other countries) has nothing to do with the declared major of the undergraduate degree.

After all, while my math SAT scores were only 550 and my verbal scores were 720, I can still do math and even tutored people in calculus.

#263 ::: Nicholas Waller ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 12:41 PM:

Ellen Asher @ 150: The London bookstore that used to shelve books by publisher was Foyle's on Charing Cross Road.

I remember that - I used to be a publisher's rep in there in the early 80s, with Prentice Hall. Originally, as I recall, most books were shelved by subject with a few big publishers also able to buy a bookshelf with a name headboard; so McGraw Hill and Wiley and so on got one. We also had a dedicated window we hand to change every month. Also, we had to stock-check the shelves ourselves; not just our dedicated shelves, but all over the shop wherever our books might get to. So I spent a couple of days a week in Foyles, but it was a bigger territory as a single shop than all of Scotland put together.

After a while, and seeing it as some kind of money-earner, more and more shelves were turned over to publishers' shelving. One effect was to clear out one of the charms of Foyles; that poor stock control (I remember a set of volumes that had obviously been sitting around for at least 10 years because they were priced in pre-decimal currency) which meant people liked to browse for odd forgotten stuff. With publishers' shelving, the publishers had more reason to clear out old stock.

On the Ballard front, BBC Radio 4's obit programme, Last Word, has just done him (though it isn't on Listen Again, at least not yet). Contributions from Brian Aldiss, Beatrice Ballard (herself a BBC TV exec producer) and David Cronenberg. Plus Ballard himself saying he was perfectly happy with being called an sf writer, as he also says in his autobiography.

#264 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 12:49 PM:

heresiarch @ 258: It is often argued--by SF fans--that Cryptonomicon and ATP are not, in fact, SF. More importantly, of course there are edge cases that can't be summed up in a two-word definition, but they're edge cases because there is a center. With two words ("imaginary science")* you can put your thumb on that center and catch a good 90% (at least) of the genre.

There's no such thing as a lit-fic edge case in terms of subject matter, because lic-fic-itude is orthogonal to subject matter.

SF fans object when books they regard as examples of really good SF aren't called SF because they feel they're being screwed:

The key word here being "feel." When Doris Lessing won the Nobel, someone here posted Harold Bloom's comment that she wrote "third-rate science fiction," several normally careful readers took that to mean that he thought science fiction was third-rate, which he didn't at all.

Similarly, a claim that J.G. Ballard isn't a science fiction writer may be an attempt to avoid cooties, but then again it may not. It's possible to have an honest disagreement about dystopian fiction, and if you don't have the sort of knowledge of Ballard's publishing history that a fan would have, you might make the mistake of putting him in that tradition; he is fairly dystopian.

I find it interesting that no one has felt the need to back up the claim that lit-fic readers disdain SF. Our people just know, I guess. As I've said, my personal experience is exactly the opposite; lit-fic readers read SF, even if it's only the trendy stuff like Dick, and they don't deny that it's SF. (I did get into a discussion once with a woman who wondered why The Man In The High Castle was considered SF; I was all, "Hey, it was published in the mags, won the Hugo, it's a common SF trope even if it's not science exactly, etc." She wasn't completely convinced, but it was honest disagreement, not cootie avoidance. Just to check, I asked her if she thought Martian Time-Slip was SF, and she said "of course.") I did get "I don't like SF because I like fiction about people" once, but it was from a fantasy reader.

SF readers, on the other hand (and again, in my personal experience), are quite likely to disdain literary fiction, often based on a set of bogus stereotypes (an old example, yet vivid in memory: Reginald Bretnor's "let them have their corncob rapes"), while simultaneously being highly concerned about lit-fic's opinion of SF. My guess is there's some English-class trauma going on here. But all the English department gets to determine is a small subset of what some people read for a few years of their lives. This is not remotely the same as getting to decide what's good. History will decide that. Their power is small. And they teach SF, as SF, in pretty much every English department these days anyway.

I wasn't turned off the classics in high school like some people were--a reading assignment was always the best kind of assignment--but I had the same contempt for lit-fic as many SF readers, until one day, desperately needing something to read on a train but stuck in a railway station with a very limited selection of English books, with no SF I hadn't read already. Somewhat dubiously, I picked out three books that looked the least unappealing: Rabbit Is Rich, The Looking-Glass War, and The New York Trilogy. All three blew my 20-year-old mind. Since then I've wanted no part of two-culturism (750/760, so I guess I don't ruin C. Wingate's schema).

*Slightly improved.

#265 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 01:35 PM:

me @ 264: Apparently I mangle syntax even worse when I'm late for work than when I'm short of sleep. Please read generously.

#266 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 01:58 PM:

Tim Walters @ 264. I'll bite. As a professional writer of fantasy it's been my personal experience that many lit fic readers have commented disdainfully on my field. Phrases like "Oh, but you just write genre..." or "but it's easy to get published in genre because no one cares about the writing..." or "when are you going to write something with real meaning?" have all been uttered to my face without the person saying them apparently having a clue that they're insulting. This has suggested to me that such disdain for genre is common among the people they normally talk to. Admittedly, I run in academic circles because my wife is a Physics professor, but those aren't the only places I've heard things like that said.

#267 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 02:05 PM:

Kelly McCullough @ 266: Those are valid examples, all right. Thanks for mentioning them. My own experience is probably skewed by living in (the other) SF, where disdain for pop culture is distinctly un-hip.

#268 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 02:56 PM:

Tim Walters@264:

There's no such thing as a lit-fic edge case in terms of subject matter, because lic-fic-itude is orthogonal to subject matter.

Agreed. And indeed, isn't that why we're having this argument? If litfic people did define their genre (for want of a better word) in terms of subject matter, they wouldn't be trying to co-opt Huxley and Orwell and Ballard, because they (in the works that are in dispute, at least) didn't write about typical litfic subject matter. But on the basis of the way litfic is defined (hard though that is to express) these works do fit the criteria for litfic (which doesn't stop them being SF as well). (And so, probably, do many other books which are still on the SF shelves, because litfic people haven't discovered them.)

Heresiarch@258:
SF fans object when books they regard as examples of really good SF aren't called SF because they feel they're being screwed

Aren't called SF, or are called not-SF? The second - 'This can't be SF, it's about people' - happens all right (as in the obituary which set this thread off), and it's offensive. But the phenomenon of works which are objectively SF being placed on general fiction shelves, marketed without the SF tag, and read by people who don't see themselves as SF readers, is much wider than that, and I don't see anything sinister about it; genre markers exist largely in order to recommend books to a community of readers, and books which have an appeal beyond the community of SF readers will therefore not always be marked as SF.

In illustration of this - earlier someone mentioned Dan Brown. Now, some of Brown's work is unquestionably SF in terms of content. But it's on the general fiction shelves. This isn't a matter of litfic people trying to co-opt it because it's good. It's not literary, and it's not good. It's on the general fiction shelves because it's written for a general readership, not an SF readership.

One thing that may add to this phenomenon, by the way, is the general tendency to group works by a particular author together. Huxley, Orwell and Ballard wrote some stuff that is clearly not SF, so it's not surprising they aren't classed as SF writers. This happens all the time, and I don't think it has any deep significance. P.D James's The Children of Men may be SF or litfic, or both, but it certainly isn't detection, yet it's frequently found on the detection shelves. Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence started out, at least, as straight fantasy, yet it often turns up on the horror shelves. Iain Pears sometimes finds his detective work on the general fiction shelves, and sometimes his general fiction on the detection shelves. And so on.

#269 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 03:36 PM:

Another problem is the artificial category of techno-thrillers which should be shelved as SF.

#270 ::: Brother Guy ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 04:17 PM:

Andrew M@268:

On the other hand, in a bookstore in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago I found Jo Walton's "Small Change" series shelved as mysteries rather than under SF/fantasy. I assume that is because, at least in Scotland, she had not yet established a reputation as solely a fantasy writer.

#271 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 04:18 PM:

Andrew M @ 268: If litfic people did define their genre (for want of a better word) in terms of subject matter, they wouldn't be trying to co-opt Huxley and Orwell and Ballard, because they (in the works that are in dispute, at least) didn't write about typical litfic subject matter.

And if SF weren't defined by its subject matter*, what cause would there be for complaint on the SF side?

*Maybe "trope content" would be better than "subject matter;" I take heresiarch's point that SF isn't necessarily "about" imaginary science.

#272 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 05:04 PM:

259 bringing up CP Snow:

My reaction when I first heard of him (perhaps I was sixteen years old) was to dismiss him because it was obvious there were more than two cultures.

#273 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 05:04 PM:

I hope one or both of these links allow you to hear BBC4's pertinent Last Word:
www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00jvfg2
www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00jvfg2
J.G. Ballard’s daughter Bea Ballard, writer Brian Aldiss, and film director David Cronenberg about the life of writer JG Ballard [sic, that 'dot or not' is direct from the site].
Also covers the trade union leader Jack Jones, Carry On film producer Peter Rogers, former Bank of England governor, Lord George ('Steady' Eddie George), and music from trumpeter Zeke Zarchey.

Soldiering through to the dawn service, in remembrance.

#274 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 06:33 PM:

Erik Nelson@272

My reaction when I first heard of him (perhaps I was sixteen years old) was to dismiss him because it was obvious there were more than two cultures.

I think it was C.S. Lewis who commented that when Snow talked about 'the arts', he didn't seem to know whether he meant the creative arts, or the 'arts' (humanities) subjects in university studies - which are quite different things.

#275 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 07:32 PM:

Another thing to keep in mind is that while the literary status of sf has been rising steadily over the past few decades (whether this is a good thing for the genre or not is an argument I'd just as soon save for another day), there are still a lot of readers who were around and collecting bruises back when sf ranked somewhere slightly higher than porn but definitely well below mysteries on the literary-respectability scale.

It was at about that same time that the writer-in-residence who was teaching the mainstream-oriented undergraduate creative writing class that I was taking asked me why I was wasting my talent writing science fiction stories.

Old hurts go deep, and the resentment can last a long, long time.

#276 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 08:25 PM:

Debra @ 275... sf ranked somewhere slightly higher than porn but definitely well below mysteries

Didn't Rosemary Edghill write a mystery series about a dominatrix? I don't think there were robots in it though.

As for SF ranking higher than porn... At last year's worldcon, some of us took a taxi whose driver didn't have a you-weirdos about the congoers. In fact, she liked us much better than the attendees of a porn con that had been in Denver not long before. For one thing, she said we're better tippers.

#277 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 10:37 PM:

Kelly McCullough #266: [...] have all been uttered to my face without the person saying them apparently having a clue that they're insulting.

Redress of grievances against litsnobs is one of the myriad reason that Ghu invented tasers.

#278 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 10:42 PM:

Heresiarch @ 258: Or how about Ted Chiang's "Exhalation?" Actually, that's a great example. Go read it.

Thank you. I think I'll go find a copy of Stories of Your Life and Others and be happy for a while.

#279 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 10:53 PM:

Tim Walters @ 264: "With two words ("imaginary science")* you can put your thumb on that center and catch a good 90% (at least) of the genre."

With two words ("internal tragedies") I can catch vast swathes of the lit-fic genre, from V.S. Naipaul to John Updike to Toni Morrison--it doesn't make it a good definition.

"There's no such thing as a lit-fic edge case in terms of subject matter, because lic-fic-itude is orthogonal to subject matter."

You're arguing a tautology here: "lit-fic has nothing to do with subject matter, so there are no edge cases in terms of subject matter." But that's a little silly, isn't it? What is any novel about, if it isn't about "subject matter?" And one can easily select a group of novels that, in your words, is about "promoting language, character exploration, and setting to full partners in the enterprise rather than making them secondary to the payload of plot or idea." And unsurprisingly, one finds that these novels are often in dialogue with each other--they are reviewed by the same critics, published in the same magazines, their authors reference each other as influences; they exist not entirely but undeniably within the context of the set. Within that set some are more central (Roth, Updike) and some are further towards the periphery (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and some lie so far towards the periphery that it is debatable whether they belong at all (Bradbury, Atwood, Orwell, Ballard). Of course there are edge cases--that's why we're having this discussion.

"But all the English department gets to determine is a small subset of what some people read for a few years of their lives. This is not remotely the same as getting to decide what's good. History will decide that."

History doesn't just pop into existence all on its own; it's written, just like everything else, by people. "Good?" No, they don't get to decide that. "Influential?" "Respectable?" "Remembered?" Yes, they do. Now, I don't want to sound overly dire, because as you say, SF is getting incorporated into the English Department more and more everyday. But the reason it needs to be incorporated now is because it was ignored earlier. The attitude that led to that inattention is fading, but it's not gone yet.

And for the record, I liked most of the stuff I was assigned to read in high school and college. Even Dickens! It's the modern lit-fic that leaves me cold. Even that, not always--it's just that in my experience it's no less subject to Sturgeon's Law than any other genre, and I'm less forgiving of lit-fic's particular tropes.

(Random Note: I do think your definition of lit-fic is a very good one, but I don't think that any definition of lit-fic can be complete without mentioning its mundanity, precisely because its mundanity is not central to their concerns, and yet is nearly universally present. It begs the question of why, and that question cannot be answered without acknowledging the relationship between lit-fic and spec-fic.)

[So what's that relationship, you ask? Well, if you insist! Let me offer this definition: The purpose of speculative fiction is to expand our understanding of what could be, and the purpose of literary fiction is to deepen our understanding of what is.]

#280 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 11:01 PM:

Andrew M. @ 268: "Aren't called SF, or are called not-SF?"

The latter. Getting upset about someone failing to mention every last element that makes up a book would be hard, and lead to weird conversations: "So, I was reading a speculative romance/mystery with certain elements borrowed from the cyberpunk and western traditions the other day..."

Paul Duncanson @ 278: "Thank you. I think I'll go find a copy of Stories of Your Life and Others and be happy for a while."

You're welcome!

#281 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 11:53 PM:

I remember reading a pro-space magazine where a contributor made a reference to Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey novels as fantasy.

#282 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 12:52 AM:

heresiarch @ 279: With two words ("internal tragedies") I can catch vast swathes of the lit-fic genre, from V.S. Naipaul to John Updike to Toni Morrison--it doesn't make it a good definition.

Well, if we're using my definition, having an internal tragedy has exactly zero bearing on whether a book is lit-fic or not. Associationally, that's equally true--vast swathes of lit-fic, even by Updike or Morrison (I haven't read Naipaul), doesn't have internal tragedies.

Whereas it doesn't make sense, at least to me, to say that having imaginary science has no bearing on whether a book is SF or not; it's pretty close to the usual definition.

But that's a little silly, isn't it? What is any novel about, if it isn't about "subject matter?" And one can easily select a group of novels that, in your words, is about "promoting language, character exploration, and setting to full partners in the enterprise rather than making them secondary to the payload of plot or idea."

You're using "about" in two very different senses here. As I said above, I'd prefer to replace "subject matter" with "trope content" and scratch the whole problematic "about" thing.

And unsurprisingly, one finds that these novels are often in dialogue with each other--they are reviewed by the same critics, published in the same magazines, their authors reference each other as influences; they exist not entirely but undeniably within the context of the set.

This is true, and if you want to base genre definitions on communities, then lit-fic is a genre. But then you can hardly complain about an Atwood novel not being considered SF.

some lie so far towards the periphery that it is debatable whether they belong at all (Bradbury, Atwood, Orwell, Ballard)

It's not remotely debatable whether Atwood belongs to the lit-fic community. She's a leading light thereof. Nor Orwell, really.

"Influential?" "Respectable?" "Remembered?" Yes, they do.

No, actually, they don't. If they did, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, and Ayn Rand would be forgotten instead of crazy popular. They can advocate for their favorites, just as we can, and maybe they have a slightly bullier pulpit, but they can't stop everyone else from remembering the works they want to.

"Respectable" I'll partly grant you, but who cares about respectability?

I don't think that any definition of lit-fic can be complete without mentioning its mundanity, precisely because its mundanity is not central to their concerns, and yet is nearly universally present.

This is just wrong, I think. Mundanity was basically a Modernist fashion (exemplified by Joyce's famous dictum that the novel should concern itself with the everyday and leave the extraordinary to journalism). Current lit-fic is chock full of magic realism, post-modern fabulation, etc. You were just praising "A Tiny Feast" (and rightly so) over on the open thread.

Serge @ 281: "Fantasy" is a highly overloaded term. I would guess he was using it more in the sense of "I'd love to date Angelina Jolie, but that's just a fantasy" than of "they should file 2001 with the elves and shit."


#283 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 01:13 AM:

Tim Walters @ 282... I myself am more partial toward Gabrielle Anwar. Anyway. That person was using the word 'fantasy' to mean 'something not real'. I had a physics teacher in high school who had that attitude toward SF.

#284 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 01:23 AM:

Serge: My high-school physics teacher felt that way about all fiction. He couldn't understand why people wanted to read about things that didn't happen. He admitted that he must be wrong, given the near-universal consensus against him, but couldn't change the way he felt.

#285 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 01:34 AM:

My father, who was perilously close to being an engineer (he was a pilot, AF, test and airline) didn't understand wanting to write fiction. "Aren't all the stories told already?" was one of the things he asked me. I think he also believed what Tim and Serge are talking about, "Why waste your time."

ON the other hand, my first short story, "Kayli's Fire," came out at about the same time the televangelists were ranting about witchcraft. My mom read it, then asked, "is this about witchcraft?" I started to say, "Wicca is not a religion in that world, ..." then sucked the thought back in and simply said "No, it isn't. It's a fantasy world."

Heavy sigh.

#286 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 02:58 AM:

Tim Walters @ 282: "Well, if we're using my definition, having an internal tragedy has exactly zero bearing on whether a book is lit-fic or not."

Yes. That is why your definition of lit fic is better than mine, and why your definition of science fiction is a bad one. To me, "imaginary science" is only slightly better than "chemicals and rocketships." It describes what's there, but not why it's there.

"You're using "about" in two very different senses here. As I said above, I'd prefer to replace "subject matter" with "trope content" and scratch the whole problematic "about" thing."

Ah. I think I finally get it. You're arguing that "genre" is defined by a shared set of tropes, and because lit-fic doesn't (according to you) have such a set, it doesn't count as a genre.

Now, even setting aside the question of whether lit-fic has its own, I don't think that a shared set of tropes is a reasonable definition of genre. It's too petty--if that's what you think a genre is, I'm not surprised that you don't think it applies. Who would want it to?

The definition of genre I favor is "a genre is a body of works which share similar goals and are part of the same tradition." By "share similar goals" means that they are engaged in the same endeavor, whether that is to explore the possibilities of language, examine humanity's relationship with technology, or write a damn good adventure story. Because they are trying for the same goals, the same tropes will be useful: for the first genre, they may draw on similar allegorical styles or narrative techniques; the second may develop sophisticated methods for clearly and unobtrusively familiarizing the reader with imaginary worlds; the third might find stock character types (the femme fatale, the clumsy sidekick) effective tools in reaching their goal. By "are part of the same tradition" I mean that the relationships between them can be described as "without have first read X, it will be difficult to understand Y," or "reading Z will enrich your understanding of A," or "B makes an interesting contrast to C." Either the author or the reader understands the works as existing within the context of the others.

This is not to say that tropes or communities are the definition of genre. They are symptoms of genre. Someone working towards a similar aim, even without being familiar with other work directed towards that goal, will still be part of the genre by the nature of what they write. Tropes and communities are simply the natural results of groups of people working together, responding to and borrowing from each other as they go.

The problem, within this framework, of literary fiction is that by glossing over the distinction between their specific literary focus and the universal goal of writing well, they miss out on what every one else has to offer. One of the classic criticisms of The Handmaid's Tale (and other lit-fic dystopias) is that the exposition is clunky--had Atwood availed herself of the sophisticated, finely-honed info-dumping skills that sf has spent decades developing, she could have written a better book. The flip-side of this is the implicit insult offered to everyone else: "You focus on writing adventure yarns or murder mysteries, while I focus on writing well." No one is served.

#287 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 07:20 AM:

Tim Walters... Paula Helm Murray... And there are people who can't process fiction that doesn't look like reality as it is here and now, even if it's set in the known Past. I remember one woman who couldn't handle SF movies like Star Wars, not because she had contempt for that kind of story, but because she couldn't pretend that the sets were anything but sets.

#288 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 07:44 AM:

C. Wingate @259, Here on the one hand we have a bunch of really bright people (SAT 700+ math, old scale) who like to read, and they are disposed (for whatever reason) to like fiction that is particularly interested in what technology can/will do for/to the world. They are (they think, anyway) sufficiently articulate. Classic SF (and I'll stick Verne in for sure, and Wells is pretty close to this) is their perfect genre. Meanwhile in school they get stuck with reading annoying mopey stuff about annoying mopey people*, and then in college (if they aren't careful) experimental stuff which they may well decide isn't actually meant to be read. But after all, they are destined for well-paying jobs in industry, whereas the English majors are going to be stuck with teaching jobs.

On the other side of the quad, we have a bunch of really literate people (SAT verbal 700+) who aren't that interested in science or math. They have a lot more to be mopey about, as they aren't headed to well-paying jobs in industry; but unlike many of the first group, they are better attuned to nuances of behavior and personality. Also, they are more inclined to think of writing as something that is done other than under duress. They are sensitive to the reality that a lot of SF isn't well-written, and they aren't into it for the techno-geekery.

One problem with that analysis is, well, me. I'm not an American, so I don't know what SAT scores I would have had, but I think generally my verbal skills (at least as far as reading and thinking about texts are concerned) are a good deal better than my math skills (I can do math when I have to, but it takes a good deal of effort for me, and it's not something I'd do for fun in my spare time).

Now, I read mostly non-fiction, but as far as fiction goes, I'm clearly more into various kinds of genre fiction than into literary fiction. I've only liked a handful of lit fic books I've read. Among my assignments in school, there were some more where I could see why they're seen a valuable but didn't think they were something for me, and some that I simply disliked for various reasons. (From this last group, I got the impression that some lit fic is mainly about confirming one way of looking at life and holding it up as the only legitimate one.)

So your idea might describe some other people well, but it doesn't really fit with my own experiences.

Tim Walters @264, I find it interesting that no one has felt the need to back up the claim that lit-fic readers disdain SF. Our people just know, I guess.

Did you read anthony's comments in this very thread? Or Brenda's comments in this thread?

Tim Walters @284, Paula Helm Murray @285, I have some sympathy for that position. I like reading fiction, but I think you should generally be careful with calling fiction important or relevant. After all, any insights we get from fiction might be insights into things that are very different from anything outside the author's imagination. (Non-fiction can be misleading, too, but I think that's still easier to notice or check.) That's one reason why I'm not impressed when people tell me that the fiction they read is so much more important and relevant than the fiction that I read.

#289 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 02:24 PM:

heresiarch @ 286: You're arguing that "genre" is defined by a shared set of tropes, and because lit-fic doesn't (according to you) have such a set, it doesn't count as a genre.

I don't think that is the only valid way to define genre (see my discussion of a "minimalist" definition of SF, above), and I wouldn't even say that I prefer it, but I think it's the most common way, and in particular it's how most people claim that controversial books like THT are SF.

The definition of genre I favor is "a genre is a body of works which share similar goals and are part of the same tradition."

That seems potentially useful, but leads away from rather than toward a greater integration of lit-fic and SF. I'm not even sure that something SF-shaped follows from it. Certainly, if I were Margaret Atwood, I would deny that I shared goals or tradition with First Lensman; it's hard enough to make the case for acknowledged SF works like 334 or Stranger in a Strange Land--tradition maybe (but maybe not), goals not so much.

had Atwood availed herself of the sophisticated, finely-honed info-dumping skills that sf has spent decades developing, she could have written a better book

Agreed, with one caveat: those finely honed info-dumping skills presume a certain amount of SF-reading skill on the reader's part. Doing it our way might have made it a worse book for her intended audience. If I were the author, I'd rather make the less-experienced reader work to catch up than be clunky, but not everyone feels that way.

But for what it's worth, Doris Lessing has always acknowledged her SF books as SF, and yet they're much clunkier than THT.

Serge @ 287: Not everyone has a pair of disbelief suspenders in their closet.

Raphael @ 288: Did you read anthony's comments in this very thread? Or Brenda's comments in [another] thread?

Yes to the first, no to the second. But people have come forward with examples, and I'll readily acknowledge that anti-genre prejudice exists, although in what proportion to genre support at the present time may not be clear (and undoubtedly varies from place to place and institution to institution).

#290 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2009, 08:25 PM:

I'm not getting into the defintion of genre question.

I can say that I am far more word than number oriented (I can do algebra, and am told I'd like geometry/trig. I've done some limited application trig when I was a machinist. I like tools, and have had glimpes of how the calculus works, but never tackled it. Equations seem to me to be full of small bits of magic. When I ponder how they work the answers I come up with are all... they don't).

But I've always liked SF (and mysteries, and mil-fic, and some westersn), non-fic. Lit-fic, in the modern guise, leaves me cold. I like Dickens, Verne, Orwell (of whom I see essays, and a fable, and a piece of dystopic SF). Never managed Joyce.

What about things like, "A Canticle for Leibovitz"? Is that lit-fic, or SF? I'd say both.

What I do know is the way the people who approach lit-fic (in my experience) treat it, lit fic is a class. Things which are genre can't be lit-fic. If they like something as lit-fic, genre falls away.

I have heard (in a number of places, from a variety of people), oh, "that's" not "X", it's literature. One person tried to explain that Sherlock Holmes wasn't realy Detective fiction, because it established the tropes (ignoring Dupin), and therefore was some sort of ideal from which the rest debased. He was, IMO, in denial. Liking Holmes would ruin his affectation of being devoted to, "serious" literature, and so Holmes couldn't be allowed to live outside the canon of "literature".

That, (with no offense intended to you Tim, because I don't see you doing that), seems to be a large part of the visceral reaction to things which came out of genre, being stripped of genre when the lit-fic crowd decides it's good.

To allow genre works to be literature somehow removes the cachét of specialness they see/take from Lit-Fic being rarified.

And that's what I resent. Being ghettoised, having my genres' triumphs taken away, and denigrated.

#291 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 12:14 AM:

re 291: Canticle is flatly SF which the lit-crit types adopted (and it took them a while at that).

#292 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 03:27 PM:

Tangentially related. I don't mean the fact that there's an xkcd book coming out, which most of you probably already know anyway, but the fact that Mr. Cohen wrote about it the way he did.

#293 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 03:45 PM:

Xopher@106: I like the idea of the term "genrephobe", but the mixing of language families makes me twitchy; can somebody recall a Greek word for clan/mode/style that could be used in place of "genre"? ("phobe" is so widely recognized that I'd lean against finding the Latin for it.)

Tim@116 et al: the article is at least sloppy given her categories of "SF proper" ("gizmo-riddled"), science fantasy (which is what everyone else calls just fantasy) and speculative fiction (any sort of social extrapolation) has she even \read/ good current SF (I'd point to Cherryh as an obvious contradiction), or is she just incapable of dealing with a universe which has more interesting toys than the remote-control pen she's used for autographing? (I don't mind so much that she ignores the entanglement of "SF proper" and "speculative fiction", but she also doesn't sound like she's read any good old stuff, in which gadgets and social structures tended to be entangled.) It's interesting that the article Kathryn links to at 121 shows more awareness of the weakness of boundaries, but I think it would be too charitable to say (e.g.) that she's quoting the errors of the more narrow-minded as a way of seducing possible converts.

anthony@118: That you didn't get a rush from de Sade probably says something good about you, but says little about the author's intent; what do you think was Ballard's intent in Crash?

wrt shelving: because they're my largest holding, MMP (all genres, although it's probably >85% F/SF/... and 5-10% ]mysteries[ (e.g., everything from Sayers to Hiassen) are where I have the most space: two flights down from where I'm typing this. (Chasing references for responses to ML is never my only exercise in a day, but sometimes comes close.) Larger fiction and various graphics (both "comics" and "coffee-table books" are in the main floor because the wood bookcases my father made during long winters have the depth (and not enough shelves for MMP) -- plus they look well with the wood floors and panelling. Reference is around the corner because that's where we had the space. (It's a small, well-lit house; the first thing said by the first active fan to enter it was "I see the problem -- too many windows and not enough wall space.") Unread everything is next to me (just the opposite of the immediate-reference organization of, e.g., Pratchett) for the same reason.

#294 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 05:54 PM:

CHip @ 293: science fantasy (which is what everyone else calls just fantasy)

Not necessarily.

I don't mind so much that she ignores the entanglement of "SF proper" and "speculative fiction", but she also doesn't sound like she's read any good old stuff, in which gadgets and social structures tended to be entangled.

Huh? This seems perfectly clear to me: "However, the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm." I really don't see how this book review/essay can be read as saying that her three subdivisions are either exclusive or exhaustive.

#295 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2009, 07:05 PM:

CHip 293: I like the idea of the term "genrephobe", but the mixing of language families makes me twitchy

I guess we homosexuals are over that problem. The word 'homosexual' itself, and then the word 'homophobia', which really should mean "fear of beings like oneself."

#296 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 01:01 AM:

There are also some serious edge cases: I think of "The Sparrow", which is SF, in that it had a rocket ship, and aliens, but is also six-kinds of classic lit-fic, orvat nyy nobhg gur vagreany fgehttyrf bs gur cebgntbavfg va qrnyvat jvgu uvf senvygvrf/fgeratguf, rgp.; naq svaqvat uvf terngrfg qernz yrnqf gb ubeevq gentrqvrf.

Jura lbh nqq gung vg'f nyy nobhg na vaperqvoyr pevfvf bs snvgu nevfvat sebz uvz fgevivat gb abg or na bowrpg, ohg na npgvir cnegvpvcnag va uvf yvsr...

When I read it, I had to put it down about every 20 pages because it was like being hit in the gut with a baseball bat. Powerful images, gorgeous language and just amazing scope.

#297 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 02:24 AM:

(Further rumination has sparked some more thoughts about the nature of genre.)

Tim Walters @ 289: "That seems potentially useful, but leads away from rather than toward a greater integration of lit-fic and SF."

I'm not terribly interested in integration--there's a place for lit fic and for sf in my philosophy. My goal is (a) to further our understanding of existing works, and (b) to better equip future writers with the tools they need. That means that when a work straddles genre lines, instead of arguing whether it's really truly genre X or genre Y, we discuss which elements it borrows from each and why. It means that when an author hits upon an idea for writing a story set in a distant, dystopian future, they go and familiarize themselves with what others have already done within that framework instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

I think one result of that will be not increased integration but increased interstitiality, and I think that's a good thing. The border zones between genres have been fairly inhospitable historically, which leaves them underpopulated. The moves of people like Michael Chabon to occupy that space fill me with nothing but happiness.

"if I were Margaret Atwood, I would deny that I shared goals or tradition with First Lensman"

They aren't both exploring the possibilities of what could be? Certainly they share very little trope content, but then we've covered that particular objection. No conversation involves every last person speaking directly to every other, but they're all still in the same room. Maybe Smith and Atwood aren't speaking to each other, but they're both speaking to Bujold.

"Agreed, with one caveat: those finely honed info-dumping skills presume a certain amount of SF-reading skill on the reader's part."

Certainly, but I hope you wouldn't argue that lit fic requires any fewer specialized reading skills. Of the two, sf is far easier to read in my experience: SF books are often designed to bootstrap readers up to speed (here is fact one, which allows you to understand facts two and three, which give you four through ten, etc.) whereas lit fic is often deliberately abstruse.*

*Not that there isn't deliberately abstruse SF--Neuromancer much?--or that lit fic doesn't have perfectly good reasons for that abstruseness. It's still hard to read.

#298 ::: MD² ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 02:24 AM:

Stumbled on this topical article by Bruce Sterling this morning.

Thought I'd share it.

#299 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 08:15 AM:

Xopher@295

Beside the whole English language is basically one giant mixing of language families...

#300 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 01:35 PM:

CHip @293, Xopher @295, Michael I @299: Wasn't that an objection to 'television'?

#301 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 02:27 PM:

Xopher@295: Heterosexuals should be over it too, of course.

Epacris@300: and 'bicycle'.

#302 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 03:05 PM:

Andrew, I was really just joking about the word. My comment had no political intent, nor was any criticism of CHip intended.

#303 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 03:20 PM:

Xopher@302: Oh, utterly. I was just pointing out that 'heterosexual' commits the same 'transgression'. (Though 'bisexual' is well-formed, being Latin throughout.)

#304 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 03:30 PM:

Ah, I missed that. But now we return to the notion of markedness; most heterosexuals don't think of themselves as having such a label, I daresay.

#305 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 08:28 PM:

Joel Polowin @ 229
Looks to me as though you just need to encode the Dewey decimal system in resistor colour bands.

No, thanks. In what universe are the writings of Daniel Dennet, Maria Ouspenskaya, and D. T. Suzuki all in the same category, and yet those of Dennet, William Calvin, and Douglas Hofstadter are all in separate categories? If I'm going to screw up the shelving I'd rather do it my own way.

Serge @ 234
the nature of the mess depending on who else is around, Donald Duck or Bruce Dern.

Or Click & Clack.

#306 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2009, 12:14 AM:

In #305 Bruce Cohen writes:
If I'm going to screw up the shelving I'd rather do it my own way.

"Bruceonomy."

#307 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2009, 12:52 AM:

heresiarch @ 297: We seem to have arrived at some sort of consensus, since I agree with everything you say here! Thanks for helping me get my thoughts in order.

#308 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2009, 05:34 AM:

Tim Walters @ 307: You're welcome, and thank you too--I've definitely learned a lot from this conversation.

#309 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2009, 08:07 PM:

Tim@294: the tropes Atwood was referring to are peripheral to the Wikipedia article you link, but are common to what most people point to when they say "fantasy" -- even if Atwood left out TNH's One True (fantastic) Trope. Saying that the works in which those tropes are central are called "science fantasy" is beyond intellectually sloppy.

#310 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2009, 08:36 PM:

CHip @ 209: Saying that the works in which those tropes are central are called "science fantasy" is beyond intellectually sloppy.

Looking at the article again, she calls it "science-fiction fantasy," which may be a clumsy neologism, but conveys the idea of "fantasy that gets shelved with science fiction" well enough. It's not as if there's a universally accepted term for that ("fantasy" is much too broad except in a conversation between fans who use it as shorthand; "genre fantasy" is accurate but fairly obscure, and seen by some [not me] as pejorative).

Or maybe she was thinking of Pern.

#311 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2009, 09:49 PM:

It's interesting, because Pern is essentially a science-fiction background used to set up a story that feels more like fantasy (to me), and is full of fantasy tropes.

So is Cherryh's pair of Rider novels (Rider at the Gate and Cloud's Rider); in fact in Cherryh's case it feels almost like horror.

The two instances could not be less alike, methinks.

#312 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2009, 11:26 PM:

The distinction between (genre) fantasy and SF is pretty minor from an outsider's point of view. Both are published by the same houses, written in many cases by the same authors, read by the same fans, compete for the same awards, celebrated at the same conventions, etc.* Arguably they're different flavors of the same genre, and it's only a naming convention that keeps us from seeing them that way. Even to a lifelong fan like me it seems bizarre to think of The Sword of Rhiannon as being in the same genre as The Foundation Trilogy but in a different genre from The Swords of Lankhmar.

*Of course there are exceptions to all of these, but not enough, I think, to invalidate my point.

#313 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2009, 01:25 AM:

Xopher, #311: The other thing about Pern is that in the later books (after The White Dragon in the chronology), McCaffrey mixes in enough SF tropes that it starts being hard to say where it should be classified. She has her fantasy society discover the original colony ships and find out about the genetic engineering which created the dragons and the grubs in the first place, which needless to say makes for a great deal of social upheaval.

#314 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2009, 02:51 AM:

Debra Doyle @ 275

there are still a lot of readers who were around and collecting bruises back when sf ranked somewhere slightly higher than porn but definitely well below mysteries on the literary-respectability scale.

And back when an SF novel might see a single hardcover print run of 2,000 copies, meaning that there were fewer than 10 full-time professional SF writers because the market couldn't support more. And meaning that there weren't that many full-time readers either.

#315 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2009, 02:55 AM:

Wait a minute. Are we talking about Pern, or Porn? After "The Dragon Riders" I thought they were all basically dragon porn. Good dragon porn, to be sure, but still.

#316 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2009, 06:09 AM:

Another obit of Ballard that I read in print claimed that he "didn't see himself as" a science fiction writer. I wanted to ask if that's true, but I've just re-read Tom Whitmore's post at 140.

Tim Walters @312, even after Micah and Debra Doyle explained the similarities to me, I still think they have a rather different atmosphere and "look-and-feel" (aside from borderline cases, of course).

#317 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2009, 11:12 AM:

Ballard wasn't always so sanguine about the SF label:

The SF label has stuck to him - "It has some pretty powerful adhesive" - which irritates his subversive side. "Even today I see High-Rise and The Atrocity Exhibition referred to as science fiction. It's partly shorthand, but it's also a way of defusing the threat. By calling a novel like Crash science fiction, you isolate the book and you don't think about what it is. You can forget about it."

Raphael @ 316: I agree that SF and fantasy are distinguishable. Nevertheless, for many purposes, they are the same genre. The difference is analogous to that between locked-room mysteries and hard-boiled mysteries rather than to that between romance and westerns.

#318 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2009, 01:59 PM:

Tim Walters@312: Doesn't that rather make it a minor distinction from an insider's point of view? It's the insider who knows about the fans, the conventions, the awards, possibly even the publishers. To the outsider, who just goes by content, there's no special reason to see, say, Tolkien and Heinlein as examples of the same thing (though of course there are plenty of examples which would be harder to classify).

#319 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2009, 02:18 PM:

Andrew M @ 318: First, the outsider doesn't just go by content, but also by various signifiers (cover art, shelf placement, etc.); second, to the outsider, Tolkien and Heinlein are quite similar in content. Both dealt with imaginary worlds and beings; the fact that Heinlein rationalized his to some extent is quite secondary to that. (And Heinlein, of course, wrote fantasy as well, like most SF writers of his generation, and like many today.)

It's quite common to see LOTR referred to as "sci-fi", especially the movies. That's a telling error.

#320 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2009, 02:42 PM:

Bruce, #315: McCaffrey has always included significant romance elements in her writing (see my earlier comment about SF being a flexible genre), and some of them are... distinctly uncomfortable for me to read now, after 20-odd years of social change; F'nor/Brekke, for example, starts out with an encounter that's effectively rape, which is presented as justified because she's in love with him. But none of them are IMO explicit enough to be called porn -- my mother had far worse on her bookshelves.

#321 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2009, 02:35 PM:

Lee writes in #313:

Xopher, #311: The other thing about Pern is that in the later books (after The White Dragon in the chronology), McCaffrey mixes in enough SF tropes that it starts being hard to say where it should be classified. She has her fantasy society discover the original colony ships and find out about the genetic engineering which created the dragons and the grubs in the first place, which needless to say makes for a great deal of social upheaval.

To me, the SF underpinnings have been clear since "Weyr Search," the first story in McCaffrey's series-- which was published in the nominally all-SF Analog. (This story became part of the first fix-up novel, Dragonflight.)

The Teaching Ballads folklore about the Red Star preserves hard-won scientific knowledge that allows the lost colony to survive, despite having fallen to medieval levels of technology.

To perhaps state the obvious, part of the game McCaffrey plays is to tell us a tale that is, at a glance, fantasy-- about castles and dragons and lords and kitchen-drudges-- but is science fiction at its core.

As I said, this was apparent from Story One. There is pleasure in the reader's discovery that The World Is Not What It Seems To Be.

Another important part of her game is to sneak the techniques of the romance story into SF, and make us adolescent male readers like it.

Romance? Science fiction? Fantasy?

Patrick likes to quote Delany about "endless arguments about edge cases leave us with less understanding of the center, rather than more."

It's clear to me that Anne McCaffrey deliberately set out to construct an edge-case. And succeeded very, very well.

#322 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2009, 06:47 PM:

Ursula K. Le Guin calls Utopia a utopia (via Whump)

#323 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2009, 07:23 PM:

Bill Higgins writes: To me, the SF underpinnings have been clear since "Weyr Search"

It's hard-core SF as long as telepathic teleporting time-travelling antigravity giant golden magic ponies are not considered fantasy.

#324 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2009, 03:23 AM:

Niall,

When the imminent incomprehensible event that makes us all gods is called a miracle, I'll hold Pern to your standards.

Until then, we identify more charitably.

#325 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2012, 02:01 PM:

Whoa. How did I miss this when the thread was active?

C. Wingate, #259: Here on the one hand we have a bunch of really bright people (SAT 700+ math, old scale) who like to read, and they are disposed (for whatever reason) to like fiction that is particularly interested in what technology can/will do for/to the world. They are (they think, anyway) sufficiently articulate. Classic SF (and I'll stick Verne in for sure, and Wells is pretty close to this) is their perfect genre. Meanwhile in school they get stuck with reading annoying mopey stuff about annoying mopey people*, and then in college (if they aren't careful) experimental stuff which they may well decide isn't actually meant to be read. But after all, they are destined for well-paying jobs in industry, whereas the English majors are going to be stuck with teaching jobs.

On the other side of the quad, we have a bunch of really literate people (SAT verbal 700+) who aren't that interested in science or math. They have a lot more to be mopey about, as they aren't headed to well-paying jobs in industry; but unlike many of the first group, they are better attuned to nuances of behavior and personality. Also, they are more inclined to think of writing as something that is done other than under duress. They are sensitive to the reality that a lot of SF isn't well-written, and they aren't into it for the techno-geekery.

You're completely ignoring the group of people like me, who are good at both language AND math. SAT 770 verbal / 690 math, which should have dropped me into your "literate" group -- and yet I majored in math in college, had a 20-year career as a programmer, and strongly prefer genre books to lit-fic (which I tend to find really, really boring). Obviously there is more going on here than a math/language distinction.

#326 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2012, 02:20 PM:

I had double-800s on the GRE back in '76. I forget exactly what I had on the SAT, but it was well above 1400 combined, and I recall that both were above 700.

#327 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2012, 04:20 PM:

Lee @325, Jim@326:

I'd guess that that demographic is quite well-represented here (and it ought to be no surprise to anyone if it is). But at least when I was growing up, social reality didn't want to acknowledge the possibility that anyone could have a brain that was both verbal and mathematical. (The divide was weakening a bit, even then, though. But I remember my A-level maths teacher, who was utterly brilliant, and in his 60s in the late 1980's tell me that he'd had an enormous struggle to be allowed to study both Maths and Music in his final 3 years of high school).

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