Tag Archives: Michael Chabon

Writing: The Ghettoization of Speculative Fiction?

CBC, ghettoizing SF, bad science fiction, badly written fantasy

From a 50s B-movie. Unfortunately some people think SF novels are still like this.

Yesterday on CBC Radio’s Q, Jian Ghomeshi talked with Clive Thompson about the ghettoization of speculative fiction or whether William Gibson was the next Tolstoy. Thompson was extolling the virtues of SF, sort of. Or damning with faint praise. Below is the response that I sent, which I also put here in case CBC decides they have moral rights on my opinion.

Dear Jian,

 

I’m not quite sure what to make of the speaker Clive Thompson you had on talking about SF, science fiction, or speculative fiction since it encompassed both science fiction and fantasy works.

 

I write here as an individual but also as the president of SF Canada whose members consist of professional writers and others in the speculative fiction community. I missed the first part of Thompson’s conversation but I also express here views of the members of SF Canada.

 

Although Clive was supposed to be regaling the virtues of SF, he sounded uninformed in many ways. As a reader he seemed to exhibit huge gaps in knowledge when he said that most SF is badly written, misogynistic, dominated by men. And he gave Heinlein and Dick as examples. Robert Heinlein and Phillip K. Dick were in their heyday in the 60s and 70s; that’s at least 30-40 years ago. Taken in context, Heinlein was no different than many authors (whether SF or not) of the day, and some of his views on relationships were far reaching for the time.

 

Thompson did mention Cory Doctorow, who is a Canadian but there was a huge gap in between. (Doctorow’s book has been nominated for this year’s Nebula awards.) Some of the bigger names in speculative fiction may be men but there are many women writing and of merit: Ursula Le Guin, Kij Johnson, Pat Cadigan, Pat Murphy (of old, Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Anne McCaffery), Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kris Rusch, Nalo Hopkinson, etc.

 

If he was talking Canadian speculative fiction, then he was all over the map with his observations so I must presume this was about SF in general. There is very little that is published these days that would be misogynistic unless it was showing a particular culture. Much is extremely well written and if you ask Michael Chabon, winner of both SF awards and the Pulitzer, he places more value on his SF awards.

 

Basically Thompson picked some of the worst or most dated examples for his points. It would have been better to see more current knowledge that goes beyond Margaret Atwood.

 

As for ghettoization, well there is good and bad writing in all genres. He spoke about the issue of whether one would place Oryx & Crake on literary or SF shelves and how it was confusing for publishers. I spent 20 years in the book industry as book rep and book buyer (for a store). This doesn’t confuse the publishers as they are the ones that came up with the categories through their marketing departments. A book will be marketed to the group that they think will buy the most copies. The cover will be changed accordingly. So in essence it is the publisher that has ghettoized all genres.

 

As to the attitude toward SF, well it depends. What sells the best in movie theatres, and is often based off of a book? There is indeed a snobby attitude that only literary is real writing and many of those writers who do write speculative stories adamantly say that it is not of that ilk. My creative writing degree did not include speculative fiction because of the attitude at the university that the only good writer was a dead white man. I would argue that erotic fiction and romances have a lower spot in the old world thinker’s eyes of “genre” and ghettoization, even though they may sell better. Harlequin romances have some of the highest sell-through rates of any books. Are they good? I don’t know as I haven’t read one.

 

Thompson also mentioned that SF is doing quite well. On one level yes, on another, not so much. Fantasy still outsells science fiction and in many cases editors are begging for science fiction stories. But sales of speculative fiction? Yes, the Harry Potter series can speak to that.

 

Next time, when talking about SF and whether William Gibson (an expat American living in Canada) is the next Tolstoy, it would be great to have someone up to date on current speculative fiction trends. Heck, try Neil Gaiman who you talked with a couple of weeks ago, or contact SF Canada and we’ll send you a boatload of opinions by Canadians.

 

Regards,

Colleen Anderson

President

SF Canada

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Genre vs Literary Works

Now that movie technology has advanced, movie makers create worlds with all manner of special effects. There are a great number of fantastical, science fictional works. There is the whole gamut of superhero movies from the various comic books. And then there are movies based on books. Back in the sixties, science fiction movies went way out on a limb when 2001: A Space Odyssey was filmed. And then there was Bladerunner, based off of P.K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (an awesome title by the way). There were many others, which ran the range of B and lower–the Godzillas and Blob and other somewhat campy horror flicks.

And then came Star Wars, an epic story with star spanning special effects. Full steam ahead and there are many movies now out at the same time. For example, right now we have Hell Boy II, Dark Knight, Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Mummy III, to name a few. So, a lot of these are good fun and not particularly deep. Hollywood does love to turn speculative fiction into only eye and mind candy. When you look at the evolution of speculative (SF, fantasy, horror) novels, we’ve gone from bug-eyed aliens to very complex stories and worlds that look at the human condition, ethical and moral tales and what-ifs of future technologies.

On top of covering a host of possibilities with humanity, an author has to often create a viable, believable world that works. It must still follow rules and must be shown enough to paint dimensions so the reader can see it. This is of course, much easier in a movie, and yes a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe even five thousand. Good speculative writing is not for the faint of heart, nor for the undisciplined and uneducated.

All of these skills that one must learn for speculative writing apply for any type of writing. Know your market, which means read, read, read. Then write, write, write and learn and perfect. This never stops, ever. I tend to lump all the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and even the myths of long ago under the umbrella term of speculative. In reality, anything that is not considered a history or telling of true life events, is in fact speculative.

Now the truly interesting thing is that a speculative writer can write science fiction and it will be looked down the long narrow noses of literary academics and called “genre” (said with nose in the air, as if smelling bad, and with an English accent). But a literary writer can write something that is speculative fiction and it will be praised and lauded and given awards. Case in point; Margaret Atwood has written two speculative novels (at least that I’ve read): Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale. They are sometimes claimed to not be speculative, or speculative but not science fiction, getting to the fine hair splitting of genre names. But she takes those technologies and does a what-if into the future. That is indeed speculative and even science fiction.

When I was slowly progressing toward a degree in Creative Writing at UBC, one had to specialize in three areas: I chose short fiction, children’s fiction and poetry. In my kiddy lit class, the instructor didn’t like it when we wrote anything to do with fantastical worlds. She said they didn’t sell that well. Well, Ms Alderson, are you eating your hat after the fame of Harry Potter? This attitude was reflected throughout the department. However, George McWhirter who was the department head, and the only person worth his weight in gold, understood that writing well came first and what you wrote came second. He was not of the opinion expressed in The Boston Globe: “[T]he genre of the comic book is an anemic vein for novelists to mine, lest they squander their brilliance.” Ow.

A champion for blending or removing the snobbery borders between genres (or lowbrow and highbrow as some put it) is Michael Chabon. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. For his most recent book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union he was award the Nebula and the Campbell Awards. He was purported as saying the SF related Nebula meant more to him than getting the Pulitzer.

Perhaps with such writers as champions, we’ll see “genre” fiction being treated as writing and not drivel, where the best of all writing will rise to the top and more “genre” works will be nominated for awards. I’m not holding my breath…yet.

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Writing: Campbell and Sturgeon Awards

Friday night was the presentation of the Campbell Award for best new novel and the Sturgeon Award for best new short fiction of the year. They were presented in Lawrence, Kansas as part of the Campbell Conference and the SFRA (Science Fiction Research Association) conference. David Moles won the Sturgeon Award for his story “Finisterra,” as well as Elizabeth Bear for her story “Tidelines”

The Campbell Award gave third place to Ken MacLeod for his book, The Execution Channel. Second place went to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball, and the winner was Kathleen Ann Goonan for her novel, In War Times.

Saturday continued the conference with a SF book sale at the KU library, and readings and signings at the Oread bookstore. Readers included David Moles, Kij Johnson, Frederik Pohl, Robin Wayne Bailey, Karen Joy Fowler, James Van Pelt and Kathleen Ann Goonan. Fred Pohl, the last of the Futurists (which included Kornbluth, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein and others) claims that he will no longer write a collaboration with another author because they end up dying. He finished a book with Arthur C. Clarke but Clarke died before the last fifty pages. The book, The Last Theorem, will be released within the next few months. Pohl is quite a funny guy and it was a delight to hear him read, as well as the other authors.

The conference ended the novel writing workshop. Saturday night, we had a party as our last goodbye to each other. it was a good workshop and some really great people. I’m excited to start working, really working on my novel and restructuring it. Maybe I can get it done this year.

James Van Pelt said some interesting things about writing regularly. He once kept trying for 1000 words a day but couldn’t always manage it so then he’d fall behind and not write for days on end. Stephen King and other writers might do 1000 words a day or more but they don’t always have other jobs. Pelt realized that the 1000 words was the barrier and sat down with what he’d be happy writing in a year and then divided it by the number of days. He realized that he only needed 200 words a day. That breaks down to less than a page and even if tired or too busy, a very doable number. It increased his output and he’s never missed writing a day since.

I think I’ll be trying that and tonight I sat down to look at a story I wrote recently. Using some of the new depths to writing I learned these past two weeks, I rewrote it and added a thousand words. I’ll try writing at least 200 words on fiction every day.

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