Tag Archives: Ursula Le Guin

Defining Science Fiction

There has long been a battle, an attitude, a snobbery in the writing world where literary or mainstream fiction is real writing, and all that “genre” fiction is done by hacks and of little merit in the tales of the world. Anyone who writes in a genre knows this and has felt it. But what is a genre? It is the categorizing of a novel or story by some of its strongest elements.

No longer in favor but once very popular were westerns. They obviously took place in a time of the Wild West where cowboys and indians ran amok and pioneers struggled to survive while men maddened by gold-rush fever lived little better than animals. Romances are tales about love and obstacles to happiness, and almost always have the predictable ending of the man and woman (or man and man, woman and woman) finding each other. But the tales of how they get there are varied. Harlequin books has one of the most steady sell-throughs of any publisher. Publishing romances is a good business.

Erotica is obviously taking content into a more sensual or erotic tone. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, have elements integral to the story and were those elements removed the story wouldn’t hold up. Horror also fell into disfavor and is better known as dark fantasy these days. Still, there are blends of tales that aren’t all one thing. There are stories that are erotic and science fiction, western romances, literary fantasy, magic realism and politics (actually that one is a typical mix), and then there are literary, erotic, science fiction tales.

I wrote one story, “Hold Back the Night,” which I called my literary, lesbian, erotic vampire story. Vampire was never mentioned in the tale and it dealt with the wife burnings that happen in India. But labeling fiction is what we do; we the readers, we the writers and we the publishers. Publishers choose genres so that they can market to a specific demographic mindset. We’ll sell more of these books if we make it look like a cookbook or a romance and market to those people specifically interested in this. Publishers hate books that don’t fit in the neat categories.

Most of all they want to market books in mainstream, literary fiction because it is the largest readership and therefore the biggest sales. Writers of course would love the same. Readers can be a bit like sheept and think that if they only like a mystery book, they’ll never look in the romance section, but then there are thousands of books to look through so it can be difficult to find them. So, in mainstream, the more sales the more money, and the more awards available than in a specified category. A book that can’t fit into a category, or a story, may not be bought for a long time. I have a story that is not quite fantasy, and not quite mainstream and will circulate for a long time because it falls into the cracks.

But genres cause their own problems and as we see, narrow the readership. Many stories are not all of one shade. So Margaret Atwood, multi-award winner, always says she doesn’t write science fiction, yet some of her books extrapolate into a near future and ask what if. Seems pretty science fiction to me, many other writers, and readers. Yet she denies. Ursula Le Guin, multi-award winner writer of SF disagrees with Atwood’s view.

Le Guin gives an intriguing review of The Year of the Flood, which takes place after the events in Oryx and Crake. Both of these books are nearish future, with a crumbling of society, dystopian novels, because that’s what Atwood does best. But yet, she, like many of the literati, those who hold themselves above mere genre writers, says it’s not science fiction. And I must ask, what’s she afraid of, or is her viewpoint so narrow that in fact she only sees science fiction as squids in space?

Le Guin and Atwood are giants in their own rights, both award-winning authors whose stories span boundaries in some ways. Speculative fiction (an all-encompassing term for horror, fantasy, science fiction and really, literary fiction as well) doesn’t have to be shallow and it often looks at worlds and attitudes and how people change in regards to the pressures of life, species, invasion, change and technology–very valid commentary into our humanity, or inhumanity. So perhaps Atwood needs to accept that she has a narrow viewpoint of SF, get down from the pedestal and just accept that she writes it, sometimes. It’s not like it will hurt her rep, but the adamant head in the sand denial still doesn’t change that she writes science fiction, no matter what she calls it. Maybe she just hates the labels and codifying of writing.

I have not read The Year of the Flood, though I did read Oryx and Crake and where I felt it was a long setup for the story that wasn’t in the book, maybe Year is that story. And maybe not. For a very thought-provoking review by Ursula Le Guin of Atwood’s book, click on the link and be your own judge. And read the book, or read Le Guin’s books and see if the literary writer outweighs the SF writer. In the end, do you think Atwood writes science fiction, no matter what she calls it?

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood

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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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Writing: Clarion Daze

I’m soon to embark on the second major writing workshop of my career. I attended Clarion West in Seattle lo, these many years ago. Clarion was a six-week workshop with a different instructor per week: five authors, one editor. I still think it was a stellar cast of instructors that year: Ed Bryant, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Ursula Le Guin, Tappan King and Samuel Delaney.

There were 21 of us attending from all over the US and three from Vancouver, BC. You arrived with a story written, ready to critique. Each day we would critique three people, then go back to the dorms and write and read stories for the next day. We were supposed to produce a story a week for critiquing.

Ages ranged from fresh out of high school to a couple of people in their forties. People came with all levels of ability though all of us had made the selection process. I knew I had a lot to learn and if we were all standing on a ladder, I was beneath most of the other people. But in the process of that six-week course I climbed a long way up the ladder. There were those above me who climbed maybe only a few inches. There were those who didn’t move at all.

Connie Willis gave us humor, Ed Bryant gave us horror. Tappan gave the realities of publishing and Chip talked about the novel format. Octavia and Ursula were a wealth of insight and information. Of course they all taught the process of writing and story structure as well. I think I was the second most prolific person and did write a story a week, if not more. I also got by on four hours of sleep a night for six weeks and felt like I was close to having spontaneous out of body experiences. I can say that things became jittery and I was drinking Pepsi regularly and I don’t really drink pop.

We did let some of our stress out with a massive water fight that soaked the dorm, with a few people like Gordon Van Gelder being tossed in the shower. After that (or maybe it was the culmination) we had everything from water pistols and weenies to Uzis, and would skulk down the street with a water weapons, laying in wait for our unsuspecting classmates. We curtailed the street attacks when someone pointed out that the police might not take kindly to people lurking about with what looked like weapons.

The slug became our mascot, specifically the banana slug. Somehow it was mentioned in class the first week, and Seattle is prolific with them as is much of the West Coast. I believe we read that there was a slug race going on in one of the nearby cities. We bought some rubber slugs and would leave them outside people’s doors. Then Octavia Butler, in our second week, mentioned how she was phobic of slugs and once had one in her bathroom. By the third week Ursula, who lives in Portland, cemented the image though I can’t remember what she said. So we had Cyril the cyber slug and eventually when I did up T-shirts to commemorate our workshop, it was Cyril, with pierced antennae, mirrorshades, a mohawk and riveted body parts that graced the shirts. Somewhere, I still have one.

The reason some people didn’t write much was that they came to the workshop knowing they could write well. When twenty people critique your story it can be pretty deflating and sometimes ego crushing. There were times when the critique would consists of six or more people saying the same thing, which became irritating. We had meetings so that people would just say ditto if they had nothing new to say. There was one fellow who really only wrote one story the whole workshop and would name drop constantly. That was not his most annoying trait. He had the habit of not reading someone’s story and then sitting halfway around from who was being critiqued (we’d know the night before). Listening to everyone else’s critiques, he would then cobble his critique together. It soon became obvious to us and though we had a meeting where we didn’t address him directly we tried to make sure he knew that we could tell which people didn’t read the stories. He also decided to come to my room one night and give his personal opinion of my writing.

Each weekend there would be a party (coupled with the Clarion reading series) at a host’s house. Some hosts were authors like Greg and Elizabeth Bear and we got to probe their minds in an informal way. Many of us were so burned out after the workshop that I think some people never wrote again. I slept for about a month.

Our year seemed to birth more editors than anything else. Kij Johnson worked for Dark Horse comics and Tor at one point, Gordon Van Gelder worked for St. Martins before taking over F&SF. Michael Stearns still works for Harcourt I believe, in New York now. Kathleen Alcala edited for a publication in Seattle and wrote magic realism. I freelanced copy edited for years and still do, as well as currently editing for Aberrant Dreams (and soon to help with poetry editing for Chizine). I’m not sure where some of the others went or what they did but few published novels came out of our year. To date, I think Kij is the most successful there. Others sold poetry and short fiction. Kij and I recently googled Dean Shomshak, who we knew as the revenant guy (because of his one zombie story) and it seems he became quite successful in writing game books and articles. Kathryn Drennan wrote shows and series in Hollywood.

Did Clarion help my writing? Yes. Did it help it enough? I don’t know. Would I do it again? I don’t know but here I am getting ready for a shorter two-week workshop. There is something about being immersed in a group of your peeps and doing nothing but eating, drinking and spewing writing. If nothing else, you usually come out of it with more ideas and a better path through your story.

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