Know Your Enemy (2009)


This piece on the antagonism between lit and genre is from Death Ray 21, the very last. Francis Smallfield is a pseudonym I use sometimes. Francis is my middle name, Haley is a field-derived surname. That’s where that comes from.

Francis Smallfield has had a minor epiphany. At least, he thinks so. It’s all about SF versus Literature. Why can’t we just be friends?

It’s long been an annoyance to fans of SF that the literary establishment looks down its nose at genre fiction, and yet is very keen to claim as its own anything from ‘our’ patch that it takes a fancy to. At the same time writers who are well-known for their literary idiom stage raiding parties into the realms of SF and F to furnish their own stories. The same establishment is adept at inventing elaborate and unsupportable reasons for when something is SF and when something is not, when what they mean really is SF=shit.

Rhis condescension is nowhere near as bad as it was in the 90s, when SF was literally a dirty word. But it is still there. Just try talking to Mariella Frostrup about SF.

It’s easy enough to put all this down to snobbery, but there is an element of  focus underneath it all. SF & F has a bias toward setting and on idea. High literature focuses on the human condition. The camp followers of each tend to see what they are looking at in such terms. Where we see a spaceship, then that’s science fiction, regardless of thematic depth, literary quality or anything else. Whether it’s Orwell or a Star Wars spin off novel. For the high-lit types, what goes on inside that spaceship determines whether it is ‘worthy’ or not. We define our genre largely by the context of a story, they define theirs by content. As soon as a book pushes their buttons, it is neatly excised from the genre, because, and this is where the snobbery comes in, SF defines juvenile space adventures. To us, anything with a fantastical element is SF. We say we’re far more welcoming, they say they are connoisseurs. In reality, fans and the literati are talking at cross-purposes.

Like with all the tedious taxonomies of human efforts (don’t even get us started on music genres) all this really boils down to drawing meaningless lines in the sand. But there are, perhaps, identifiable contours on the beach, real differences between ‘lit SF’ and ‘genre SF’.

When literature borrows from SF, it does so quite sloppily. Take Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road, for example. This story is about a nameless father and son wandering across a world that has turned to ash. The SFnal noggin, steeped in nominal science, wonders what kind of catastrophe could so afflict the Earth as to effectively sterilise it of all life, yet still leave some people alive. It strains the credulity of the fan. In an SF book, pains would have been taken to figure all this out, (even if only in passing, or even spuriously). In McCarthy’s book, it’s only a backdrop. McCarthy is very much here concerned with the relationship between father and son. The setting doesn’t really matter beyond the atmosphere it provides. The Road is not about world building or extrapolation or adventure or any of the things SF often concerns itself with, it is really a book about McCarthy.

Look at the recent One by Conrad Williams. Superficially, it’s very similar – a man in a blasted world, in this case looking for his son. (The theme is a little different, if only because Williams’ view of fatherhood is different.) Both Williams and McCarthy write in a ‘lit’ style (McCarthy far more so). But Williams provides an explanation for his wasted Earth, which in turn provides a stage for horror, because despite its literary trappings, Williams’ book is, first and foremost, a horror story. McCarthy’s book uses SF as a setting and horror to intensify his theme, but it is neither SF or horror.

To help discern how these lit-types think, I have invented the ‘Babylon 5 supermarket test’ – Could you set a particular story in a mundane setting? For example, you could not render Babylon 5‘s story of galactic conflict as that of rival supermarket chains. In a similar manner, One could be not taken successfully out of SF. The Road could. The Time Traveller’s Wife could. One is SF, The Road might not be, because, and this is key, its SF content is not crucial to its story.

There is a massive crossover, of course. Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes… all these and hundreds more are both high literature and good science fiction, (and they’d all fail the B5 supermarket test). Authors like Jeanette Winterton and Margaret Atwood, avowedly high-lit, dip in and out of SF like ducks with varying degrees of acknowledgement and success, whereas the likes of Harlan Ellison use many of the tools of high-lit to create amazing SF (or vice versa, depending on where you stand). It’s all so interdependent; we’re back to ridiculous lines in the sand.

Many SF stories successfully tackle the big human questions, but there is a cogency to the background, to the detail, that high-lit often does not have (this is why SF by really good SF authors will beat SF by really good literary authors most days of the week). This is the real difference, we fans might say. But really it’s like the difference between impressionism and an old master. Both are art, just different art. Getting the litcrits to accept that, though, has been something of an uphill struggle.

To the fans I’d say: Just because something has an SF element does not mean it is SF to the core. The the litcrit brigade: Just because something has an SF element does not mean it is shit.

Though we insist we are speaking the same language, we are not. If we remember this then we should all get along just fine. Lines in the sand, that’s all; no part of human experience should be discounted on preconceptions alone, nor does one bad apple mean by extension that all apples are bad. Understanding, as I think I might do now, why the literary crowd views SF the way it does, does not change that one bit.

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