Friday, June 8, 2012

Dear speculative fiction: stop whining, play full on instead!

From Monty Python's "Rightthinking People:"
GC: I think all righthtinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that ordinary, decent people are fed up in this country with being sick and tired.
All: Yes, yes...
GC: I'm certainly not! And I'm sick and tired of being told that I am.
?: Mrs. Havoc-Jones.
Mrs. Havoc-Jones: Well, I meet a lot of people and I'm convinced that the vast majority of wrongthinking people are right.
There have been several times this year when I've wanted to write this post or something like it, but have held off for fear that I would sound like an enormous bugbear. Since one of my resolutions for 2012 was not to be such a troll to others in the genre community, being a bugbear seemed like the opposite direction than that in which I had intended to take myself. But, with the latest hurlyburly surrounding the BEA panel on "Speculative fiction and (that greatest and most mythical of all fantastic creatures) the mainstream" (where by hurlyburly I basically mean the fact that we even have to have these panels), my mood may be described as catsplosion. WARNING: Onwards the rage cometh.

I've only really followed the ups and downs of speculative fiction for about as long as I've been blogging--which is to say, just two years now. In that time, I think I've seen some kind of whining or howling about the merciless Lord Mainstream raping, orphaning, pillaging, &c. the hapless peasants of Speculativille about once every month or two, occasionally rising to a general furor when something particularly spectacular occurs and our Righteous Indignitation is in particularly high demand. A really good recent example is Daniel Abraham's "Letter from Genre to Mainstream" that appeared at SF Signal in December, which elicited numerous copy-cat responses in the comments and at other blogs (such as Sam Sykes' extra-saucy riposte, for example), and was without doubt one of the silliest pieces of genre propaganda I've ever read.

Stuff like this is silly for a very particular reason: namely, Literature and Mainstream are boogeybeings that do not exist. Maybe by "mainstream" we mean "contemporary neo-realism" or whatever; maybe we mean books by Jodi Picoult. But in actual fact it seems that what is read "in the main" is very frequently terribly speculative. To wit: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. Also to wit, my Grade 11 English syllabus: 1984, Brave New World, The Chrysalids. Also also to wit: The Iliad, Inferno, Candide, A Christmas Carol. "Mainstream" is, in short, the lowest common denominator--not in a pejorative sense, but according to its mass. It doesn't really exist: it is a entity conjured up through the viewing of other objects; a measurement, quite simply, of their extension. It is a theoretical object, not an edifice or an institution, and it cannot do anything to hurt you. Actually, being mainstream is, it seems, the objective of much of this whining.

So, genre probably doesn't need any more promotion--as one promotes the learning of a dying language or the saving of a local community centre--because, quite frankly, people obviously already totally love it.

Mainstream is also frequently confused with literature by many speculative fiction writers who would like to stomp and scream about their anxieites. These tantrums usually refer to "literature"as though it were a craven institution intent on stomping them to dust. What's curious is not only that experimental writing, which is what "literature" really is, is usually not popular at all--go on down to HTML Giant and read about the New Sincerity of Marie Calloway (i.e. her Facebook conversations), for example--but also that high literature can often have elements of the speculative to it, as well. Ulysses and House of Leaves (books that are definitionally literary because they are preoccupied with style and form) are, even if popular or well-known, not exactly mainstream, though highly literary, and arguably kind of speculative.

However, these are really just confusions--perhaps born of anger, perhaps lack of interest in proper analysis, or perhaps even deliberate confusions sown by genre-heads who want to bolster the community by Othering its enemies and competitors. There are also oft-heard complaints out there, complaints that I would argue are really more indicative of speculative fiction's psychopathological issues. Complaints about, on the one hand, what genre is and ought to be--like Elizabeth Bear's request that speculative fiction in general be more like what Elizabeth Bear likes in speculative fiction in particular--and, on the other, general howling about how "literature" and the "mainstream"--those things that, remember, don't exist--are stealing our genre writers (as Daniel Abraham moans at SF Signal) or misrepresenting the genre (as Ryan Britt accuses at Tor.com).

This all makes me think about a post by Athena Andreadis a while back about the childishness of science fiction. I have come to realize that I am far more concerned about the childishness of science fiction (and fantasy, and weird, and horror, and whatever) writers than I am about the actual state of our stories. On the one hand, we argue amongst ourselves about the validity of certain kinds of speculative fiction; and on the other, we heckle and whine and assault other types of fiction and other types of readers for not being... us.

There was this motivational speaker named James Ray who told his followers to "play full on," or, in other words, to always give 100% of yourself to all your actions and endeavours. Ray ended up causing the deaths of a bunch of people in a sweat tent, and another attendee at one of his workshops committed suicide during the event, and now he's in jail, so let's not be too into him. But, oh writers of speculative fiction, let us do play full on! Let us be masters of our destinies. Let us be proud of what we do no matter who reads it; let us be regal, even! Let us be literary; let us be mainstream; because these are qualities and not categories. Let us laugh at realism because it is too realistic, but less us not laugh at literature because it written by incredibly smart and artistic and wonderful people. That makes of us fools.

Don't get me wrong. Thems literary-types can be silly, too. I just had a story published by decomP, "a literary magazine," who in their guidelines state they do not want genre fiction. But the story they published? I've always considered it speculative. I've always consider it genre! Have I beaten the system? No. It's just that everyone except me is petty and small-minded (LAAAAWL). But, seriously: I once received a rejection from Beneath Ceaseless Skies because the story felt "oddly modern." It was classic, magic-filled fantasy, but instead of "tavern" I wrote "café," and instead of "town guards," I wrote, "police." I bet they were really just upset I didn't have any elves. AMIRITE?

Everyone, just open your mind a little. Leave the vitriol to Texan black-thrash outfits.



-bn

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