Things Are Tough All Over

by Ray Davis

(originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction) (… and followed by publication of related correspondence)

I have a quarrel and a disagreement with Jonathan Lethem’s “Why Can’t We All Just Live Together?” piece [published by NYRSF, but earlier semi-randomly cut, retitled “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction,” and published by the Village Voice].

The quarrel is methodological.

Sf and mainstream (or, less flatteringly, “middlebrow”) fiction are both genres. That is to say, the terms “sf” and “mainstream” are used to label loose overlapping bundles of marketing techniques (including bookstore placement and publishing imprints), critical communities (including journalistic and awards systems), and interwriterly influence (including career path options and the impetus of “I can go that one better” challenges).

But rather than treating the genres of sf and mainstream fiction on equal terms, Lethem’s piece reifies the sf genre into a location, a family, and even a flirtatious fearful person. This rhetorical move unintentionally flatters the institutions of mainstream fiction at the expense of the institutions of sf: sf is an idiot leviathan who flings its gifts to the undeserving while “the mainstream” is a list of writers that Lethem respects. Reversing that formula can be left as an easy exercise for the reader.

My disagreement hinges on personal taste.

Both Lethem and I are unabashed supporters of the ideal of the Great Book — it’s an ideal with its share of problems, but let’s leave those for another day — and I share his essay’s unspoken assumption that, for us as readers, it’s a genre’s job to augment our personal lists of Great Books.

Thus a genre might be said to be “worthwhile” if it helps motivate the writing of Great Books: Hammett’s and Chandler’s novels would not have developed without the hard-boiled mystery as market and as field of dispute, and we’re accordingly grateful to the hard-boiled mystery. To take a more painful example, failed crossover Herman Melville may have had mixed feelings about the sea story; still, his works exist because of the sea story.

As far as this begetting chore goes, the sf genre still provides a uniquely demanding and dynamic market for short fiction: I doubt that Lethem would disagree that the quality and range of stories published as sf over the past thirty years overwhelm those of the mainstream. On the other hand, I wouldn’t disagree with Lethem that, for his and my favorite contemporary novelists, intra-genre influences play a lighter role than extra-genre influences.

But a genre is not a passive container. As a set of institutions and communities, it also directs attention. To take an extreme example, I usually refer to Jack Womack as an sf writer and Don DeLillo as a mainstream writer. Now, in what sense is Womack “sf” and DeLillo not, since Womack did not rise from the genre’s writerly community and Womack’s novels are not now marketed as sf? Well, I think of Womack (and Fowler, and Crowley, and Emshwiller) as sf rather than as mainstream because my readerly attention was drawn to them from an sf context rather than from a mainstream context.

In the 1930s, the genre and industry called “mainstream fiction” protected itself less efficiently against Ulysses by legal barriers than by burying a psychiatrist-written review of the novel in the back pages of the New York Times, and the Times continues to bury non-mainstream fiction by treating it as naively unimportant. Since Womack’s (and Fowler’s, and Crowley’s, and Emshwiller’s) novels are currently being published as mainstream, they aren’t rudely dismissed in the way that sf’s Great Books of the 1970s were. But, at least at the moment, neither do those authors receive the ongoing focus (and rewards) allotted to books by the few born-and-bred mainstream fiction stars with whom they might naturally be compared. I doubt that I would have found them as easily if I had started from mainstream sources, and I even have some doubt that their works would exist in so brilliant a form if the writers had maintained careers thoroughly within the mainstream.

I certainly agree with Lethem that these writers should obtain as large and appreciative an audience as possible, and that restricting their work to an sf imprint would only hurt their chances. And I think Lethem would agree with me that successfully publishing a Great Book in the mainstream does not necessarily make for a successfully high-profile mainstream career. Where we probably part paths is in my paranoiac (or at least anti-utopian) extension: that the institutions of mainstream fiction work against the production of Great Books.

Lethem’s list of Great Books is, I think, considerably larger than mine. At any rate, it contains many more books that have received mainstream attention. My guess is that there’s enough of an overlap between his list and the yearly recommendations of the New York Times or the “A List” of the Village Voice that one could fairly say that, for Lethem, the mainstream works: it does a good job of finding, publishing, and drawing attention to the Great Books.

For me, the mainstream does not work. Both Lethem and I cut our critical-readerly teeth on the approved American mainstream fiction of the late 1960s and the 1970s. But, unlike Lethem, I felt that the “interesting” wing of mainstream fiction (most often metonymized by Pynchon, although its giddy egos must by now number in the hundreds) was too intellectually and emotionally feeble to match the pre-1950 Great Books of my personal list. When I surveyed those Great Books, I found that few had received positive attention from institutions of mainstream fiction in their time. Attempting a practical application of this bit of history, I turned to non-mainstream genres in search of contemporary Great Books. And, having been successful, I still turn to them.

(Note that refusal of mainstream attention is not always limited to the Great Book’s own time. Lethem writes: “For the first sixty-odd years of the century, American fiction was deficient in exactly those qualities [i.e., speculation and the fabulous] sf [split off here from American fiction] offered in abundance….” That version of literary history seems based on a canon considerably more conservative than one might deduce from Lethem’s own library. I’d instead say: “American mainstream literary institutions have consistently neglected imaginative writing, including that produced during the first sixty-odd years of the century.”)

As Lethem indicates, sf career plans that include Great Books are unlikely to synch perfectly with the institutional plans of sf and fantasy genre markets. What I don’t see in his essay is any corresponding indication of factors that might interfere with success in the markets of current mainstream fiction.

In Lethem’s essay, “the mainstream” is that place where all can be judged by their writerly merits rather than (as in sf) by nostalgic prejudices. But career-centered lifestyle, exceptional organizational ability, established social position, public speaking skills (and desires), photogenicity, coincidence with well-understood models of fiction, and zeitgeist-friendliness all come to mind as mainstreaming assets lacked by many Great Book writers. I would have welcomed an acknowledgment that the institutions of mainstream fiction have their own histories and prejudices, as well as their own advantages, and that they put up their own obstacles to the production of Great Books.

I agree with Lethem that the sf genre’s markets provide limited freedom for production of Great Books, and that the strictures continue to tighten. I regretfully disagree that an equivalent number of Great Books will appear in mainstream fiction markets as they disappear from a fading sf genre, any more than (to switch media) an equivalent number of Great TV Movies showed up to offset the loss of Great B Pictures. I don’t believe the balance sheets work that way.


Copyright 1998 Ray Davis

The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction

by Jonathan Lethem

(Note, I’m republishing Lethem’s essay here because it seems to be disappearing from the internet. I had to find it on a livejournal page. The original link, listed in The Secret History of Science Fiction [http://www.verysilly.org/lethem/lethems_vision.html] is currently down. -ja)

In 1973 Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was awarded the Nebula, the highest honor available in the field once known as “science fiction” – a term now mostly forgotten.

Sorry, just dreaming. In our world Bruce is dead, while Bob Hope lurches on. And though Gravity’s Rainbow really was nominated for the 1973 Nebula, it was passed over for Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, which commentator Carter Scholz rightly deemed “less a novel than a schematic diagram in prose.” Pynchon’s nomination now stands as a hidden tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream.

That hope was born in the hearts of writers who, without any particular encouragement from the larger literary world, for a little while dragged the genre to the brink of respectability. The new-wave SF of the ’60s and ’70s was often word-drunk, applying modernist techniques willy-nilly to the old genre motifs, adding compensatory dollops of alienation and sexuality to characters who’d barely shed their slide rules. But the new wave also made possible books like Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, and Thomas Disch’s 334 – work to stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s, labels, categories, and genres aside. In a seizure of ambition, SF even flirted with renaming itself “speculative fabulation,” a lit-crit term both pretentiously silly and dead right.

For what makes SF wonderful and complicated is that mix of speculation and the fabulous: SF is both think-fiction and dream-fiction. For the first 60-odd years of the century American fiction was deficient in exactly those qualities SF offered in abundance, however inelegantly. While fabulists like Borges, Abe, Cortazar, and Calvino flourished abroad, a strain of literary puritanism quarantined imaginative and surreal writing from respectability here. Another typical reflex, that anti-intellectualism which dictates that novelists shouldn’t pontificate, extrapolate, or theorize, only show and feel, meant the novel of ideas was for many years pretty much the exclusive domain of, um, Norman Mailer. What’s more, a reluctance in the humanities to acknowledge the technocratic impulse that was transforming contemporary culture left certain themes untouched. For decades SF filled the gap, and during those decades its writers added characterization, ambiguity, and reflexivity, helping it evolve toward something like a literary maturity, or at least the ability to throw up an occasional masterpiece.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. In the ’60s, just as SF’s best writers began to beg the question of whether SF might be literature, American literary fiction began to open to the modes it had excluded. Writers like Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Coover restored the place of the imaginative and surreal, while others like Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy began to contend with the emergent technoculture. William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon did a little of both. The result was that the need to recognize SF’s accomplishments dwindled away. Why seek in those gaudy paperbacks what was readily available in reputable packages? So what followed was mostly critical rejection, or indifference.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the genre-ghetto walls, a retrenchment was underway. Though the stakes aren’t nearly as crucial, it’s hard not to see SF’s attempt at self-liberation as typical of other equality movements that peaked in political strength around the same time, then retreated into identity politics. Fearing the loss of a distinctive oppositional identity, and bitter over a lack of access to the ivory tower, SF took a step backward, away from its broadest literary aspirations. Not that SF of brilliance wasn’t written in the years following, but with a few key exceptions it was overwhelmed on the shelves (and award ballots) by a reactionary SF as artistically dire as it was comfortingly familiar.

In the ’80s, cyberpunk was taken as a sign of hope, for its verve, its polish, its sensory alertness to the way our conceptions of the future had changed. But even cyberpunk’s best writers mostly peddled surprisingly macho and regressive fantasies of rebellion as transcendence, and verve and polish were thin meat for those who recalled the mature depths of the best of the new wave. Anyway, cyberpunk’s best were quickly swamped themselves by gelled and pierced photocopies of adolescent power fantasies that were already very, very old.

Which brings us to today. Where, against all odds, SF deserving of greater attention from a literary readership is still written. Its relevance, though, since the collapse of the notion that SF should and would converge with literature, is unclear at best. SF’s literary writers exist now in a twilight world, neither respectable nor commercially viable. Their work drowns in a sea of garbage in bookstores, while much of SF’s promise is realized elsewhere by writers too savvy or oblivious to bother with its stigmatized identity. SF’s failure to present its own best face, to win proper respect, was never so tragic as now, when its strengths are so routinely preempted. In a literary culture where Pynchon, DeLillo, Barthelme, Coover, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, and Steve Erickson are ascendant powers, isn’t the division meaningless?

But the literary traditions reinforcing that division are only part of the story. Among the factors arrayed against acceptance of SF as serious writing, none is more plain to outsiders than this: the books are so fucking ugly. Worse, they’re all ugly in the same way, so you can’t distinguish those meant for grown-ups from those meant for 12-year-olds. Sadly enough, that confusion is intentional, and the explanation brings us back again to the mid ’70s.

It’s now a commonplace in film criticism that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg together brought to a crashing halt the most progressive and interesting decade in American film since the ’30s. What’s eerie is that the same duo are the villains in SF’s tragedy as well, though you might want to add a third name, J. R. R. Tolkien. The vast popular success of the imagery and archetypes purveyed by those three savants of children’s literature expanded the market for “sci-fi”, a cartoonified, castrated, and deeply nostalgic version of the budding literature, a thousandfold. What had been a negligible, eccentric publishing niche, permitted to go its own harmless way, was now a potential cash cow. (Remember when Star Trek was resurrected overnight, a moribund TV cult suddenly at the center of popular culture?) As stakes rose, marketers encamped on the territory, for a handy comparison, recall the cloning of grunge rock after Nirvana. Books were produced to meet this vast, superficial new appetite – rotten books, millions of them – and fine books were repackaged to fit the paradigm. Out with the hippie-surrealist book jackets of the ’60s, with their promise of grown-up abstractions and ambiguities. In with that leaden and literal style so perfectly abhorrent to the literary book buyer. The golden mean of an SF jacket since 1976 looks, well, exactly like the original poster for Star Wars. Men of the future were once again thinking with their swords – excuse me, light sabers. This passive sellout would make more sense if the typical writer of literary SF had actually made any money out of it. Instead, the act is still too often rewarded with wages resembling those of a poet, an untenured poet, that is.

Other obstacles to acceptance remain hidden in the culture of SF, ambushes on a road no one’s taking. Along with being a literary genre or mode, SF is also an ideological site. Anyone who’s visited is familiar with the home truths: that the colonization of space is desirable; that rationalism will prevail over superstition; that cyberspace has the potential to transform individual and collective consciousness. Tangling with this inheritance has resulted in work of genius – Barry Malzberg tarnishing the allure of astronautics, J. G. Ballard gleefully unraveling the presumption that technology extends from rationalism, James Tiptree Jr. (nee Alice Sheldon) replacing the body and its instincts in an all too disembodied discourse. But the pressure against heresy can be surprisingly strong, reflecting the emotional hunger for solidarity in marginalized groups. For SF can also function as a clubhouse, where members share the resentments of the excluded and a defensive fondness for stories which thrived in 12-year-old imaginations but shrivel on first contact with adult brains. In its unqualified love for its own junk stratum, SF may be as postmodern as Frederic Jameson’s dreams, but it’s also as sentimental about itself as an Elks lodge or a family.

Marginality, it should be said, isn’t always the worst thing for artists. Silence, exile, and cunning remain a writer’s allies, and despised genres have been a plentiful source of exile for generations of iconoclastic American fictioneers. And sure, hipster audiences always resent seeing their favorite cult item grow too popular. But an outsider art courts precious self-referentiality if it too strongly resists incorporation. The remnants of the jazz which refused the bebop transformation are those guys in pinstriped suits playing Dixieland, and the separate-but-unequal post-’70s SF field, preening over its lineage and fetishizing its rejection, sometimes sounds an awful lot like Dixieland – as refined, as calcified, as sweetly irrelevant.

If good writing is neglected because of genre boundaries, so it goes – good writing goes unread for lots of reasons. The shame is in what’s left unwritten, in artists internalizing prejudice as crippling self-doubt. Great art mostly occurs when creators are encouraged to entertain the possibility of their relevance. Might a Phil Dick have learned to revise his first drafts instead of flinging them despairingly into the marketplace if The Man in the High Castle had been recognized by the literary critics of 1964? Might another five or 10 fledgling Phil Dicks have appeared shortly thereafter? We’ll never know. And there are artistic costs on the other side of the breach as well. Consider Kurt Vonnegut, who in dodging the indignities of the SF label apparently renounced the iconographic fuel that fed his best work.

What would a less prejudiced model of SF’s relation to the larger enterprise look like? Well, nobody likes to be labeled an experimental writer, yet experimental writing flourishes in quiet pockets of the literary landscape – and, however little read, is granted its place. When claims are made for the wider importance of this or that experimental writer – Dennis Cooper, say, or Mark Leyner – those claims aren’t rebuffed on grounds that are, quite literally, categorical.

SF could ask this much: that its more hermetic or hardcore writers be respected for pleasing their small audience of devotees, that its rising stars be given a fair chance on the main stage. What’s missing, too, is a Great Books theory of post-1970 SF: one which asserts a shelf of Disch, Ballard, Dick, LeGuin, Samuel Delany, Russell Hoban, Joanna Russ, Geoff Ryman, Christopher Priest, David Foster Wallace – plus books like Pamela Zoline’s The Heat Death of the Universe, Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird, D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, Lawrence Shainberg’s Memories of Amnesia, Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Thomas Palmer’s Dream Science, as the standard. Such a theory would also have to push a lot of the genre’s self-enshrined but archaic “classics” onto the junk heap.

Tomorrow’s readers, born in dystopian cities, educated on computers, and steeped in media recursions of SF iconography, won’t notice if the novels they read are set in the future or the present. Savvy themselves, they won’t care if certain characters babble technojargon and others don’t. Some of those readers, though, will graduate from a craving for fictions that flatter and indulge their fantasies to that appetite for fictions that provoke, disturb, and complicate through a manipulation of those same narrative cravings. They’ll learn to appreciate the difference, say, between Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, between Tom Robbins and Thomas Pynchon, between Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany – distinctions forever too elusive to be made in publishers’ categories, or on booksellers’ shelves.

Of course, short of a utopian reconfiguration of the publishing, bookselling, and reviewing apparatus, the barrier – though increasingly contested and absurd – will remain. Still, we can dream. The 1973 Nebula Award should have gone to Gravity’s Rainbow, the 1977 award to DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star. Soon after, the notion of science fiction ought to have been gently and lovingly dismantled, and the writers dispersed: children’s fantasists here, hardware-fetish thriller writers here, novelizers of films both real and imaginary here. Most important, a ragged handful of heroically enduring and ambitious speculative fabulators should have embarked for the rocky realms of midlist, out-of-category fiction. And there – don’t wake me now, I’m fond of this one – they should have been welcomed.

###