SF as a Literary Genre

So, that symposium, then. I thought it was, on balance, quite fun. (For a take from someone better read in sf criticism than me, see this post; and for photos, see here.) At times it struggled a little to address both of its audiences (the Gresham symposium regulars, who seemed to account for about a third of the audience, and the knowledgeable sf fans and critics, who must have been another third) equally, and the Chair was perhaps more enthusiastic than knowledgeable; but there was good stuff in there. These are brief notes, since eventually the full transcripts and possibly even audio will be available on the Gresham college website; I trust that there were enough people now reading this in attendance that we can go into more detail in the comments.

The conceit of Neal Stephenson‘s keynote address was to imagine what a xeno-ethnologist would make of our culture, and his conclusion was: it no longer makes sense to talk about “mainstream” versus “genre”. He described this split, between acceptable culture and a number of debased genres, as the “standard model”, and argued that it may have been accurate half a century or more ago, but was no longer relevant. However, he also defined his terms very carefully: not only did he specify that he was talking about speculative fiction rather than science fiction, he made it clear that he was using the widest possible definition of speculative fiction, to include, for example, “new historical fiction” like 300 (and presumably also The Baroque Cycle). He used “mundane” to describe all non-sf.

Sf, he argued, is unique among genres in that it has grown but remained separate. Westerns largely died (contemporary examples are all exceptional in some way, not part of a living genre; romance has become ubiquitous in film; crime has become a dominant narrative form on tv. Sf has become too common and too successful to be realistically described as a genre — hence his very broad definition of the term — but has not been absorbed in the way that romance and crime have. It remains a separate stream in our culture.

A xeno-ethnologist, he suggested, would see a “bifurcated culture”, with speculative on one side and mundane on the other. Evidence for this bifurcation: the redefinition of bestseller lists in, eg, the New York Times, to include only the types of books that the compilers of bestseller lists think should be on there (eg relegating Potter to YA); and the careers of actors such as Sigourney Weaver and Hugo Weaving, who have respectable success as actors but disproportionate fame among speculative audience relative to mundane audiences. He proposed that the unifying factor among actors achieving this sort of success was their ability to “project intelligence”; that intelligence (practical or intellectual or some other kind) was the key to identifying these characters. At this point it became clear that better terms for the split he was trying to describe would be between geeky and not, rather than speculative than not. His attempt to explain that split was, I thought, actually quite sophisticated. He argued that, in the everyday world, intelligence is not exceptional — though it comes in many forms — but that a lot of mundane fiction does not actually reflect this. In a complex world, the split is between art that encourages vegging out and that which encourages geeking out, and the latter is the stuff that has become the speculative stream of our culture. (Remember how broad his definition of speculative is: I strongly suspect he would attempt to claim, say, HBO shows, and certainly something like The West Wing.) The satisfaction of sf, he argued, was that its characters are not dumb, ie they act like we think real people would. (I leave you to decide how much “real people” is being defined as “people like Neal Stephenson”, although he was at pains, as I said, to point out that there are many kinds of intelligence.) He wrapped up with some rather strawman and largely unproductive attacks on academia as a factor behind this split, suggesting that the post-structuralist, post-modern principles of English teaching breed a sort of lack of confidence in writing about anything other than subjective personal experience.

There’s further discussion of Stephenson’s talk here and (second-hand) here.

Andy Sawyer‘s presentation on the overlap between science fiction and other genres was, I hope he will not be offended by me saying, more aimed at the Gresham regulars than at the fans. It was a galloping survey of the various attempts to define sf, from Aldiss to Suvin and others, with the underlying argument that sf is never a pure genre, that it is always part something else. (Citing Paul Kincaid’s family-resemblance approach from “On the Origins of Science Fiction” as part support.) Useful points made: classification is always a form of ideological argument; and “science fiction” can sometimes be considered as a verb, something that happens in texts when certain elements are introduced. He also proposed a starting point for genre of 1827 (ie a century before Gernsback) on the grounds of a novel by Jane Webb called The Mummy! which responded directly to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. He also pointed out that magazines for most other kinds of category fiction existed before Amazing, and suggested that perhaps this was a mark of the limitations of sf as a category, and that it might more usefully be thought of as a way of thinking.

John Clute talked about Horror motifs in science fiction, via a detailed reading of the dystopian novel City of Endless Night by Milo Hastings (1919). He started from the idea that science fiction (or “the argued fantastic”) and horror are largely opposed: “rationalising horror [i.e. what sf does] is to tolerate it”. Vampires explained can be scary, but not horrific. What, then, he asked, can survive of horror in an sf setting? Another way of framing the question is to ask what genres can let us see (as long as, he said, we remember that they are tools for seeing but not the thing seen itself). Horror, he suggested, is a way of wrestling with amnesia, and in particular can be a way of wrestling with the amnesia of society: it is about forcing us to remember or to recognise. (Building on a distinction he’s talked about before.) This sort of horror can be seen in dystopias, in “Hitler Wins” stories, in apocalypse stories and — he suggested — in a lot of near-future science fiction written after 2000. Examples given: The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall; HARM by Brian Aldiss; The Luminous Depths by David Herter; Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon; The Book of Dave by Will Self; Pattern Recognition by William Gibson; The Road by Cormac McCarthy; and Super-Cannes by JG Ballard. One notable thing about this list: only two of its number have been published as genre. He also described this cluster as “cenotaph fiction” (a description, incidentally, I suspect could be applied to Mary Doria Russell’s latest novel, which I am currently reading).

Next up was Martin Willis, talking about Science fiction in the nineteenth century. I think this presentation was probably not as bad as it seemed at the time, but was not helped by the structure: the whole first half was generalities about the period and about what “the critics” say about it, which looked particularly bad coming immediately after Clute’s close reading, and such that it sounded like he was arguing against a straw man even if it wasn’t entirely. I think, actually, a lot of what he said was pushing hard at an open door. His main argument, for example, was that sf critics do not pay enough attention to nineteenth-century science fiction (it didn’t help his case that, when he did get around to talking about examples, he included Poe and Shelley; although in talking about, eg, mesmerism as a science in sf he made me think again about Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y as an heir to this tradition). Separately, he argued that critics do not pay enough attention to the way that science functions in science fiction (something I am very sympathetic to, and indeed something I liked about Joanna Russ’ reviews as collected in The Country You Have Never Seen); and he also argued that too often science in science fiction is the work of individuals, not recognised as a social enterprise, or “a vibrant set of political and social cultures” (another idea I’m sympathetic to).

Last but not least was Roger Luckhurst, talking about Modern British Science Fiction, and he very nearly got through the whole talk without mentioning a contemporary science fiction novel by a British writer. Instead he talked about three different implications of modern: modernity, meaning a philosophically and scientifically enlightened society as we have had for the past few hundred years (in theory); modernisation, meaning the technological and ecological consequences of the industrial revolution and urbanisation; and modernism, meaning the literary movement at the start of the twentieth century. Sf, he argued (and I gather here that he was paraphrasing his own book), is a literature of modernity and modernisation but has an ambivalent relationship, at best, with modernism. I have to say that I enjoy Luckhurst’s approach — he always brings in a lot of context, in the form of biographical and historical information — even when I don’t agree with it. When he did get to contemporary sf, he came back to the idea of a “post-genre fantastic” (which, weirdly, he first attributed to “a science fiction critic”, only later naming the source as Gary Wolfe), and pointed to writers such as Chabon and Lethem (not British, note) as moving between and across genres. His British exemplar text was Justina Robson’s Keeping it Real, and to be fair he made it sound wonderful, talking of the Quantum Bomb as a generic bomb, and of the way in which the story literally makes the logics of sf and fantasy and horror inseparable; if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t know that structurally it’s a complete mess, I would certainly be rushing out to buy a copy. He offered two reasons for why this increasing free-ness across genres might be happening: one, that there has been a shift in our understanding of what counts as “culture” (the very shift, in fact, that Stephenson was objecting to, although Luckhurst said he doesn’t care for the term “post-modern”); and two, our relationship to science and technology is changing; we no longer have even the illusion that science can be held separate from society.

I should also note that the symposium ended with a panel discussion, which was mostly not very edifying, although the all-male nature of the faculty was challenged (the response was to acknowledge that yes, in this day and age the panel was not a representative sample of people who research sf); and one woman asked “what it would take for there to be a strong female character in sf that men could identify with”; Farah Mendlesohn provided some data from her survey of children’s reading habits — and therefore changing audience demographics — as a partial answer, and Caroline Mullan pointed out that the answer could just be Buffy. Then there was a drinks reception, and a dinner, both of which were filled with good company and conversation; and now I have to go to work.


31 thoughts on “SF as a Literary Genre

  1. It was a good day :-) Thanks all and sorry for pissing off home early.

    I thought Martin Willis’ talk was interesting as it was a great example of how to alienate a crowd filled with a goodly number of SF critics. It was slightly strange that he started the talk by mentioning SF critics and historians’ failure to go back through the history of literature reclaiming texts as SF when that’s clearly was Adam Roberts’ Palgrave history was all about, an observation doubly strange given the fact that he seemed to have actually read it.

    I also thought that he comment about Westfahl was strange as Willis suggested that Westfahl was treating science as a collection of facts by refusing to engage with the science directly, only commenting upon the methodology… but it struck me that if you DID see science as a political and social enterprise then you wouldn’t want to engage with the facts; you’d just comment on the nature of the scientific enterprise (i.e. the methodology) and then you’d move on. I don’t think modern SF or SF criticism does see science as a set of facts, more like a set of theories and ideas… but as you say, pushing at an open door.

    As I said on the way out, I thought Stephenson’s attacks of academia were way off target. Part of the postmodernist project has been the idea that EVERYTHING is subject to litcrit techniques. In some cases that has not been particularly productive such as in the attacks of science of the 1990s, but one of the side effects of that project has been the shattering of the dividing line between high and low culture and the idea that while some subjects are worthy of study others are not (a fact that was nicely picked up by Lockhurst) and I think that SF has benefited from that culture change both in making the study of SF more welcome in academia AND in terms of SFnal elements pollination of what might once have been considered “mainstream” works.

  2. romance has become ubiquitous in film; crime has become a dominant narrative form on tv.

    He didn’t really make the connection that what he was saying was that crime was the dominant serial form and romance was the dominant individual form (and this is reflected in books as well as media.) This ignores the fact that soap operas are also a dominant serial media form. He also described SF as the dominant individual media form (nine of the top ten box office films) without addressing the fact this conflicted with his earlier remarks. The stuff about Hugo Weaving et all was entertaining but even more poorly argued. So I liked Stephenson’s talk a lot but it was often hamstrung by what he admitted was a very naive understanding of the media arts.

    Oh, and Clute’s got a good reading voice! And I guess I was the only one who liked Willis’s talk…

  3. Martin:

    So I liked Stephenson’s talk a lot but it was often hamstrung by what he admitted was a very naive understanding of the media arts.

    Yes; there’s some interesting stuff in there, but it wasn’t quite ready to be aired in public, is my feeling.

    And I guess I was the only one who liked Willis’s talk…

    Well, I thought he had good presence and was a very good speaker, if that helps.

  4. The problem with Stephenson’s talk was that his assertions (which had a distinct North American flavour) only really work if you accept that they are broad statements of general trends, and that there are lots of exceptions. Not all movies (or even all Hollywood movies) are romances; not all television series are crime thrillers; not all academics are post-moderninsts. Stephenson tended to show at first that he understood this, but then go on as if the exceptions didn’t matter. I also thought his talk had little to do with ‘SF as a literary genre’.

    As Willis was saying that sf critics weren’t interested in nineteenth century SF, beyond a few defining ur-texts, I found myself wondering who he meant. Certainly not Roberts, or Stableford. Maybe Aldiss, but if so I think it’s a misreading.

    What I thought the whole day exemplified was that there are two distinct strains of sf criticism. One emerges out of the academy, in particular English Literature departments, and is often performed by people whose primary interests are not sf: Luckhurst and Willis are examples. The other emerges from fandom, and is exemplified by the likes of Clute and Paul Kincaid. I won’t say “never the twain shall meet”, since they clearly do, sometimes in one person, as with Farah Mendlesohn, Adam Roberts or Andrew Butler. But the twain don’t meet as often as they ought to, which results in misreadings of the critical landscape such as Willis’.

  5. I found the symposium to be a slightly strange experience. I am an academic, I suppose, but I’ve never been to any conferences or talks on the arts side of things, and the experience is quite strange because my brain doesn’t seem trained to deal with them. I’m used to Powerpoint and diagrams and a slide of conclusions at the end, and to be honest by the time it got to the end of a lot of the talks I couldn’t remember what the arguments at the beginning were. It’s also strange to see speakers reference the work of other academics, and then go on to say how they disagree with them just by making a difference argument or interpretation – I realise this is how it works, but it’s hard for me to switch gears and stop wanting to know where their experimental evidence is.

    Which is a way of saying that I had a different experience to those in the room who were better read on the subject. I found Willis’s talk to be entertaining, becuase he was a good speaker who managed to hold my attention, and while I know enough to suspect he might be a bit off with his assertion that academics had been ignoring the nineteenth century, I didn’t know for sure. I think the substance of Luckhurst’s paper was probably better, but it also felt aimed less at the layperson and to be honest my concentration had wandered off and I don’t remember much about it.

    Still, I had a good time and it was nice to see so many excellent people there and have one of those long leisurely dinners with friends I don’t get to have enough of, but it’s the social parts which made the day for me.

  6. Incidentally someone came up to Roger Luckhurst afterwards re. Justina Robson’s book, and pointed out the elves have a point about immigration. We edged, nervously, away.

    What also has just struck me – on the sf criticism ignoring the 19th century issue – is that the first raft of books published by Liverpool University Press on sf seemed determined to ignore anything that you might label as generic, and mostly covered materials prior to 1926 (the Stapledon bio hardly beiong on pulp sf)

  7. I thought Stephenson was the best by some stretch – I suppose that’s who I wanted to hear. Clute was good to listen to but his argument didn’t convince me and I think his final list of books comprise radically differing impulses.

    Re the postmodernism/poststructuralism debate – I think Stephenson has a point in one respect because whatever the wider beneficial effects on the culture at large, it is evident that the rise of pomo.postruc in 80s and 90s was the ideological counterpart of a counter-revolutionary mamagerialism which is set on destroying the Liberal Arts in this country (maybe it needed to be destroyed but not necessarily in that way). We need to reconfigure the intellectual history of the last 150 years in order to actually discuss the pros and cons of these things – I think Stephenson and Luckhurst might both be right but that just highlights the need for a more precise/detailed terminology – rather than one that seems to set them at odds.

  8. I also suspect that the current steampunk explosion leads to more interest in the nineteenth century and the writers from that time. Really, this era is far from forgotten.

  9. Liz:

    it’s hard for me to switch gears and stop wanting to know where their experimental evidence is.

    Yeah. The slackers! SF critics are ignoring the nineteenth century? Show me numbers!


    I think his final list of books comprise radically differing impulses.

    I have to assume he was being deliberately provocative in his choices. I can see how, say, The Road and HARM fit; I have much more difficulty seeing how Against the Day and Pattern Recognition fit. I think the general point that sfnal horror can be found in books that try to challenge societal amnesia or head-in-sand-tendency is a good one, though.

  10. Liz :

    Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who lost the thread. There were a couple of talks where I was completely lost quite quickly but I suspect that this was because we weren’t operating under the methodology of “here’s something true, let me prove it” as “here’s a cool idea… and another… and another”, which I suspect carries a lot more weight in the humanities than it does anywhere else.

    Tony :

    The duality of SF criticism is interesting actually as there is SOME bleed between the two. Some academic critics review for ‘zines and some fan critics publish in academic journals. I think it’s a side-effect of the snobbishness regarding SF, it’s tough to make an academic career out of specialising in SF and so SF hasn’t been completely professionalised, there’s still room for the dilettante or gentleman-scholar so to speak.

  11. Roger L rarely refers to sf critics by name in his book. For some reason, they are almost always relegated to footnotes. Unlike higher status cultural theorists.

  12. In defence of Luckhurst (whom I don’t know), it has to be said that his position is extremely radical for a specialist in Modern and Contemporary Literature. I should note at this point that this is also my field and so I had absolutely no problem following him because I’m familiar with the idiom and the general outlines of the positions (which do have a logic – they’re not just one cool idea after another). I think Tony is being unfair to link him in with Willis – judging from his publications (and the enthusiasm of his paper), sf is demonstrably one of his primary interests. But what was especially striking was that he more-or-less said that sf was THE literature of modernity and concluded that what was modern about it was the absence of modernism. People in the field of Modern and Contemporary Literature do not usually say this kind of thing (and that’s putting it mildly). So for me, that was EXCITING. I can see that others might be underwhelmed but that is because they don’t share the same underlying assumptions as people who work in Modern and Contemporary Literature. This was succinctly defined by Luckhurst as being that Henry James won the war with Wells and so came to dominate the modern definition of literary fiction. Of course, the reason others don’t share this assumption is because it is demonstrably false – only in the minds of academics and the literary elite did James win this war; the heirs of Wells, from Orwell onwards, inherited the real world and modernism burnt itself out by 1940. Therefore, what we were seeing in Luckhurst’s paper was the beginning of a sea change (well, it’s been coming some time) by which received academic opinion is transforming itself and recanting the last 100 years or so. Welcome to the post-genre fantastic, same as the pre-genre fantastic …

  13. Nick:

    I didn’t notice you there but I was in an odd headspace. James won the war in that he won the right to be taken seriously, to be reviewed in heavy weight critical quarterlies, to have biographies written about him, to be quoted endlessly on how to write. He got all the kudos. And style still dominates over narrative in critical discussions

    Wells just had to make do with readers.

    Incidentally, back in the 1990s Roger L was one of those poststructuralists who crept under Stephenson radar and did deconstruction with sf; the result was a book on Ballard and a number of very useful articles in SFS. Any a couple of stinking reviews from the sf community. (In one of them as I recall he discusses the new wave as a point when sf gets modernism, but is uncomfortable with the assertion as it implies a progression he isn’t happy with.)

    Tony: I’d like to see more of your two rivers model of crit. I suspect Adam Roberts and myself are closer to Willis/Luckhurst than Clute/Kincaid. It might be something to do with using existing critical tools as opposed to sometimes inventing them on the fly. I make no value judgement as to which is preferable.

  14. Hmmmm. I’m rewriting the history of modernism elsewhere (alas no link as yet) but I can reveal that while James will get lots of noise in immediate years (eg. Zizek Parallax book) this is a last hurrah.

    On Stephenson, I’m prepared to bet heavily that he is clued up on pomo/poststruc etc but was using short hand – he mostly complained about the death of the author, which had a certain logic given his argument (but he knows that he is himself a postmodern writer). In a way I think he’s right – because actually we could do worse than go back to Richards and Empson (proof that the smartest guys in the room in the 20s and 30s were not modernists). I’ve never managed to read Suvin, but Empson’s sense of pastoral is presumably the one that works for sf and Empson’s poetry must be a candidate for the best sfnal poetry ever (try ‘Camping Out’) and he wrote an essay titled ‘Donne the Spaceman’ and he would have liked the Baroque Cycle.

  15. Nick:

    I’m not saying that Luckhurst isn’t primarily interested in sf. Indeed, I’m not even saying that about Willis. But I am saying that both have come to sf crticism from the academy, rather than from fandom. I don’t view that as bad, either.


    I view you and Adam Roberts as representing what I think should be happening. You may both have emerged from the academy, but you’re both fully engaged with fannish criticism. I think both modes have something to bring to the table, but only if they talk to each other.

  16. Nick

    The James debate also had an effect on the construction of “children’s literature”. Beverly Lyons Clark talks about this in _Kiddie Lit_. Almost anything with adventure in it, gets shoved down an age group. It also pushes many women out of “literature” because their books do not share the values James esteems.

  17. Farah (and Andrew), I’m not denying the influence of James – I suppose I am trying to reflect the bifurcated culture: james only won in realm of elitist literary culture and the academic modernist industry (he didn’t win in the wider world). Admittedly, those spheres are very influential and have cast a distorting material effect over the wider culture – but ultimately the position is ideological and it will break down – I think current modernist studies are showing signs of this position breaking down; but as is so often the case, the immediate result of this will be a massive retrenchment with hordes of top scholars declaring contemporary literature to have gone wrong and demanding a return to James (this is starting to happen).

    And what I was thinking was that this bears out Stephenson’s argument, which is that current academic ideology (even though it appears to accept everything as equal) is still in thrall to this (false) hierarchy – whereas what we need is a more pluralistic notion of culture which still permits value judgements (which I would suggest we would find in the tradition of Richards and Empson and not contemporary postmodernism/ poststructuralism).

    But I would really need to write a book to make this argument intelligible with support etc.

    On the ‘children’s lit’ front – the James-R.L. Stevenson relationship is interesting – there was a major exchange of letters and articles about 20 years before the James-Wells rift. Into the early 20C, Stevenson was considered the leading writer of the day; but 30 years later he had been relegated to the nursery shelves. However, in most ways, Stevenson represents a better candidate for the paradigmatic writer reflecting the crisis of modernity. (although again, probably an argument that would have to be made in depth to have any impact on the academic world).

  18. (Niall, I ask you the same question).

    No objection from me. Everything here is free for the linking, as far as I’m concerned.

  19. Linking and quoting are different things, I’d say. But thank you.

    By the way, I like the way my ident has been spontaneously turned into a domino game. Or a single bathroom tile.

  20. They’re rather natty, aren’t they? It’s not anything I did; it’s something WordPress has introduced. I keep wondering how many variants there are, or whether they’re cleverly randomly generated.

  21. I don’t know if it’s ettiquette for a panellist to comment on comments on him, but Niall says that he hopes I will not be offended by him saying that my talk was more aimed at Gresham regulars than the fans — no not at all! That was my attention ; I knew there’d be a lot of fans there to whom much of what I’d be saying was pretty obvious, but there would also be people there who knew little about sf and/or its academic connections.

  22. “He wrapped up with some rather strawman and largely unproductive attacks on academia as a factor behind this split, suggesting that the post-structuralist, post-modern principles of English teaching breed a sort of lack of confidence in writing about anything other than subjective personal experience.”

    I remain convinced that Mr. Stephenson once had a college girlfriend stolen by a lit professor.

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