Right for the Wrong Reasons

by Dan H

Dan overanalyses some guy's PhD thesis
~
A while ago there was a link on the Playpen to this post from The Steampunk Scholar explaining his model of steampunk.

What’s interesting about the post (from my limited perspective) is that I agree with pretty much all of it but disagree with pretty much all of the reasoning in it.

The Scholar’s main conclusions, with which I largely concur, are:

  1. Steampunk is best viewed as an aesthetic, rather than a “genre”

  2. Steampunk is more properly categorised as techno-fantasy than science fiction


The reasoning, with which I disagree (and I confess to summarising here) is roughly:

  1. Steampunk is not a genre because there is no single element which is common to all Steampunk

  2. Steampunk is not science fiction, because it is based on technology which we know would never really work


I’m going to start with genre.

What Is Genre Anyway

The Steampunk Scholar says this:
But I'm not arguing for steampunk as fantasy, nor am I arguing people stop saying it's science fiction. It's neither, and both. This is precisely why I argue that steampunk is not a genre, except to publishers who need easy taxonomies to stick on the back cover to sell books.

Now I confess to being something of a heretic on the subject of genre, but to my mind saying “steampunk is not a genre, except to publishers” seems rather like saying “a tomato is not a fruit, except to biologists.” There’s a certain sense in which it’s true, and there might even be a sense in which it is useful (you would not, as the old saying goes, put a tomato in a fruit salad) but it also fails to recognise the fact that biologists (and for that matter publishers) actually have very good, very specific reasons for categorising things the way they do.

Because I’m a science graduate rather than a literature graduate, I frequently give Kyra great opportunity for mockery by arriving, by a roundabout route, at a well understood and clearly documented literary concept. A little while ago I was observing that people tend to assume that wholly subjective things have to be grounded in some kind of fixed external authority when in fact they aren’t. Kyra’s response to this was “congratulations, you’ve just reached postmodernism”.

I mention this because this steadfast belief in an absolute, external reality baffles me every time I encounter it, and I encounter it a lot when I’m talking with geeks about genre. There seems to be a prevailing belief out there that every “genre” exists in some kind of literary World of Forms, eternal and unchanging.

This is of course nonsense. “Genre” is nothing more than a handy label. It is in fact merely a “convenient taxonomy to stick on the back cover to sell books”. If I write a novel in which a wizard falls in love with a robot while solving a murder on an airship, a murder which turns out to have been committed by a werewolf who is slowly hunting down all the passengers, and who might be controlled by a sinister corporate conspiracy, then not only have I written the most awesome novel ever but I’ve also produced something that could equally well be classified as fantasy, romance, science fiction, steampunk, crime fiction, horror or thriller. Which it wound up “really” being would depend on which label the publisher wound up sticking on it, and what sort of person wound up reading it, because really that’s all genre is – a convenient means of making particular sorts of books accessible to particular sorts of people.

The Scholar’s argument against steampunk as genre is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what genre is and how it works. he says:
I could go on, but the point of all this is, I don't think appeals to etymology (the "steam" or "punk" in steampunk) work. Further, I don't think you can create a list of elements that show up over and over again in the art, the literature, or the subculture based on items like airships, anachronistic tech, etc. Something always seems to slip under the radar.

This seems to draw a false conclusion from a correct observation. It is true that there is no single element that occurs in all steampunk literature, but equally there is no single element that occurs in all fantasy, or all science fiction. Indeed often the most common elements in genre fiction are often the least genre-defining – a fantasy novel is far more likely to include a swordfight than a dragon, but nobody would argue that swordfights are part of the definition of fantasy.

The Scholar’s mistake here seems to be trying to construct a prescriptive definition for Seampunk, when what is really needed is a descriptive definition. Airships, brass and goggles are perfectly sensible parts of a descriptive definition of Steampunk, as they are all elements which the source material tends to contain. They can’t be used as elements of a prescriptive definition however, because that would imply that something would need to contain exactly those elements in order to be considered Steampunk, which is clearly useless.

The sad truth of genre is that we are all demographics. The Fantasy genre is defined no more or less clearly than as “the sort of books which the sorts of people who like fantasy like”. There is no explicit, definable setting or narrative feature which unites all of “fantasy” or “science fiction” or even “romance” for that matter (yes all romance novels include a love story, but so do a great many things that are not romance novels).

Genre is defined by its audience. An interesting example of this (or so I would argue – although I confess I have no particular evidence) is the gradual separation of “science fiction” and “fantasy” into separate genres in the latter half of the twentieth century. Early science fiction and fantasy – the era of Vance, Howard and the like – were barely distinct from each other. The Dying Earth is set in an unimaginably distant future, and involves characters who regularly go on journeys into space. John Carter meets princesses on Mars. Corwin of Amber walks between parallel universes carrying a sword, and makes firearms out of jeweller's rouge. People who read one sort of book habitually read the other, and both styles of book shared themes and ideas. This is probably most obvious in the planetary romance subgenre in which “other planet” and “fantasy kingdom” are treated as barely distinct.

With the Lord of the Rings boom in the sixties, however, a new swathe of readers were brought to the genre who were interested in elves and wizards and not at all interested in Martians. The result: authors started writing, and publishers started publishing, books specifically aimed at people-who-like-sword-fights or at people-who-like-spaceships, and the two demographics drifted apart creating the genres we know today.

The reason Steampunk can't really be considered a genre is nothing to do with a lack of consistent elements, and everything to do with the lack of a definable market. Science Fiction and Fantasy have well established, well understood audiences who can be meaningfully targeted. Steampunk, as yet, doesn't. Lots of people think that airships and rayguns make a cool combination, but few people choose their reading matter on that basis whereas many people do default to fantasy or science fiction when they go into a bookshop.

Aesthetics

It is most certainly true that there is a “Steampunk aesthetic” and it is arguably true that Steampunk cannot be considered a genre per se. Where I quibble with the Steampunk Scholar is in the notion that something has to be either one or the other.

You can make a strong case, for example, that Star Wars is effectively a Fantasy movie with a sci-fi aesthetic – when you get right down to it, it's about a farmer's boy who becomes a magic knight with a shiny sword and saves the world from an evil wizard. All the stuff with spaceships is just window-dressing. Similarly you could argue that Harry Potter (particularly early Potter) is a boarding school story with a fantasy aesthetic (Rowling is famously quoted as saying she “didn't realise she was writing fantasy” and I actually kind of believe her) and that Firefly is a western with a sci-fi aesthetic (although I suppose you could also call it sci-fi with a western aesthetic, which opens a whole new can of worms – heck you could almost claim it as Steampunk).

Were I in the mood to construct overly simplistic models for complex phenomena, I might say that genre is comprised of three elements: the aesthetic, the conceptual and the structural, aesthetic elements being cosmetic features like airships and dragons, conceptual features being the kinds of ideas the genre tends to engage with, and structural features being stuff about how the books are actually written. Some genres are defined primarily by conceptual features (horror tends to be scary, romance tends to be romantic) some by aesthetic features (fantasy tends to include magic and swordfights) and some by structural features (a three-volume novel will usually be published in three volumes).

Of course pursuant to my earlier comments on the subject, all of these features are descriptive, not prescriptive. Fantasy fiction tends to include magical or supernatural elements, focus on mythic ideas or coming of age stories, and be published in brick-thick volumes which form series or trilogies, but none of these features individually are required of any individual fantasy novel. Indeed frequently a text will “qualify” for a genre on the basis of only one of these features. Many books are considered “science fiction” merely because they involve spaceships or lasers, even if they don't engage with the technology on a conceptual level.

I don't actually have a problem with the idea that Steampunk could be “purely” an aesthetic, rather than possessing a mixture of aesthetic, structural an conceptual components, but I do feel that an aesthetic on its own is almost by definition meaningless.

In his recent post on Howl's Moving Castle the Scholar seems intrigued by the question “why does a Japanese filmmaker choose to utilize the steampunk aesthetic for a fairytale?” the answer to this question, of course, is that he didn't.

Once you give a thing a name, you become more sensitised to it, often to the point of becoming oversensistised. As (rather circular) evidence of this, I cite the fact that once I heard the phrase “confirmation bias” I became a lot more inclined to interpret things as being examples of confirmation bias. Of course, my interpretation of my oversensitivity to confirmation bias as evidence that naming things makes you oversensitive to them may itself be evidence of confirmation bias (d'you see what I did there).

Lame, self-referential jokes aside, the moment you categorise a particular set of elements as being part of PHENOMENON X, then you start down the path of viewing any one of those elements as evidence of PHENOMENON X, which is extremely likely to lead you to conclude that PHENOMENON X is everywhere. It's like those “is your child on drugs” pamphlets which give a list of symptoms that describe every teenager in the world. Once you identify a set of elements (particularly a vague set of elements) as being indicative of a “steampunk aesthetic” you start seeing steampunk aesthetics everywhere. When all you have is a steam powered hammer, every problem starts to look like a clockwork nail.

Howl's Moving Castle is based on a Diana Wynn Jones novel. The film includes some elements which, if you squint, could count as steampunk. The castle itself has a vaguely Victorian, faintly industrial look to it, and the inexplicable war theme involves aeroplanes which don't look much like anything that ever really flew (although aside from being brown, I don't see anything that makes them look particularly steampunk either) but the rest of Ingary doesn't look so much “retro-futurist” (to use the Scholar's term) as it does generically “past-ey”.

Rather than a steampunk aesthetic being an unusual choice for Howl's Moving Castle, I'd argue it was almost an obvious choice (or at least, an obvious choice given the changes Miyazaki made to the original text). The story, at its heart, is a fairytale, and the fairytale, although it may not seem it, is actually a concept deeply rooted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Brothers Grimm published their compilations in 1812, Hans Christian Andersen was working in the 1840s, Peter Pan was published in 1902. Fairytales have something of a timeless quality, but a part of that timeless quality comes from being set broadly at the time of writing – this makes a vague no-time broadly consistent with the eighteenth or nineteenth century an entirely unsurprising one for a fairytale narrative.

Of course this doesn't explain the techno-fantasy elements, but at this point it's probably worth remembering that this is an anime. Techno-fantasy is a huge part of anime – the classic giant robots being the obvious example. To be fair, the Scholar does observe that Miyazaki should be considered as part of the inspiration behind steampunk, rather than a proponent of it, but here again the focus seems over-specific. It might be interesting to consider the way in which the steampunk movement has been influenced by anime in general (if nothing else it's an approach I've not seen before), whereas citing Miyazaki specifically as some kind of founding father of the not-genre seems to be both unsupported and arbitrary. Also Howl's Moving Castle was released in 2004.

It's not even that I think “the Steampunk aesthetic” is something unworth studying, but I think that studying an aesthetic is something very different to studying literature (which as far as I understand it is what the Steampunk Scholar is supposed to be doing). An aesthetic is something a particular group of people choose to adopt, and understanding that aesthetic involves understanding who those people are, and why they chose to adopt it. If steampunk is an aesthetic, then the interesting question is not “what cultural artefacts display this aesthetic” but rather “why has this aesthetic developed the way it has” - why adopt elements X and Y from the source material, and not P and Q? Why airships and goggles and not workhouses and open sewers? Do the elements that look like they come from Victorian literature really come from Victorian literature, or can they be better understood as coming from – for example – Japanese anime?

It is certainly true that there are works outside the steampunk “genre” which use elements of steampunk imagery, but arguing that this constitutes “proof that steampunk is an aesthetic” is to commit the fallacy of composition. It may be true that steampunk is composed of identifiable aesthetic features, but that does not mean that steampunk as a whole “is” an aesthetic. Surrealism contains a great many common aesthetic features, and a surrealist aesthetic can be applied to a great many cultural artefacts, but that doesn't change the fact that it was also a specific artistic movement which existed at a particular place and time, and which was underscored by an element of shared philosophy.

To draw an analogy (and one which also uses popular Japanese animations as its base) Neon Genesis Evangelion uses what could broadly be defined as a Judeo-Christian Aesthetic - the mecha are “angels”, the kabbalistic world-tree is a repeated motif, and one of the major McGuffins in the series is the Spear of Longinus. It would, however, be patently ludicrous to conclude from this observation that “Christianity is an aesthetic” because it's fairly clearly much more than that. Similarly, there's a lot of art out there at the moment with an anime aesthetic, but anime is also something fairly specific and well-defined.

Techno-Fantasy

The other situation in which I agree with the Steampunk Scholar's conclusions but disagree with his argument is the “fantastical” nature of steampunk.

He says:
Yet time, after time, after time, steampunk repeatedly resorts to the use of technofantasy, which in short, is when you say something is scientific and technological, but never really substantiate it, or worse yet, explain it using rules that contradict the laws of our physical sciences. Plain and simple, if your story occurs in a world where aether exists and can do the impossible, you're not writing science fiction, you're writing fantasy.

Of course I'm on thin ice here, because I've spent the past two and a half thousand words arguing that genre means whatever the hell the people who read it think it means, but it strikes me that if you categorise any work of science fiction in which the technology wouldn't really work as “fantasy” you're wiping out practically the entire genre.

I know that actually, the Scholar's point is more subtle than that – that Steampunk technologies operate on technological principles that have actually been superseded, but this strikes me as a false distinction. We know that there is no such thing as phlogiston, but we also know that there is no such thing as dilithium, and we are no more likely to discover one than the other. You cannot power a spaceship with steam, but nor can you power it with infinite improbability or bistromath. We know that there are no sky krakens, but we also know that there are no Martians, and no Klingons.

Indeed, one might argue that using obsolete technological ideas as the basis for science fiction should actually lead to more rigorous technologies, not less. We know exactly what the properties of the aether were supposed to be and exactly what aether-based technology would work like although of course ironically what it would mostly work like is modern telecommunications because actually the behaviour of electromagnetic waves is predicted perfectly well by aether theory. A great deal of science fiction includes technologies which are at best unexplained, and at worst provably impossible. Yes, with things set in the future you can handwave the assumption that new scientific discoveries make it all make sense, but by that logic you could just as well assume that we'll discover that phlogiston was real all along – once you're throwing out the currently accepted laws of physics, it really doesn't matter whether you plead an unknown future or an alternative past to justify it.

Going back to my over-simplistic model of genre, while futuristic technology is an aesthetic component of science fiction, an important conceptual component is the central “what if”. Star Trek doesn't give a damn about how teleporters work (indeed they were originally introduced to save them having to film landing sequences) it cares about imagining a future society in which humanity has risen above its greed and prejudice to produce a more perfect society. Ursula le Guin writes science fiction stories in which there is no advanced technology at all, but which instead address social and cultural issues directly (what if our conventional notion of marriage involved four people rather than two, what if we had no concept of gender). Much as I hate Dollhouse, its central SF premise – what if we could custom-build people - is extremely compelling, and if it fails as SF (which I would argue it does) it is not because it fails to explain how the technology “works”, but because it fails to address this central question.

That said, I do agree that Steampunk is better understood as techno-fantasy than as science fiction, not because airships are intrinsically “un-science-fiction” but because they do not serve any speculative purpose. The problem with steampunk technology is not that it's based on an obsolete understanding of physics, it's that frequently all it does is recreate technology which already exists (albeit with a – well – a different aesthetic). So while the default “what if” in science fiction is “what will it be like when we discover spaceships and meet aliens” the default “what if” of steampunk has to be “what if a Victorian-era society developed a level of technology beyond what existed in that era”. The problem with that question being that it is one to which we already know the answer. Take Victorian London, introduce horseless carriages, powered flight and difference engines, and you get modern London. It's, y'know, what happened in history.

Steampunk's “techno-fantastic, neo-Victorian, retro-futurism” fits it, in my mind, squarely in the box of a fantasy subgenre. Fantasy fiction, on the most general level, takes a pseudohistorical setting, re-imagines it in a way that fits the author's preferences, and throws in a lot of fantastical elements either to look cool or to serve as metaphors making a specific thematic point. Whether this leaves you with “it looks just like the twelfth century, but there's wizards and dragons” or “it looks just like the nineteenth century, but there's airships an sky krakens” doesn't really matter.

Steampunk takes a (frequently idealised) image of a historical period, adds fantastical elements to it, and primarily uses that setup as the backdrop for an adventure story. Some of it's more complicated, but most of it isn't. Based on my limited experience, steampunk tends to work the same way. Again this doesn't mean it's bad or isn't worth studying, just that it's thematically more likely to be aligned with fantasy than science fiction.

I've poked a bit more around the Scholar's blog since starting on this article and I keep getting the same impression – the guy obviously knows a lot about the movement, and is obviously highly invested in it, but his thinking is so alien to my own that it's often hard to see where he's coming from (then again, he liked Perdido Street Station, which is a strike against him in my book).

This is one of those articles that doesn't really have a conclusion except yeah, stuff, steampunk, still not really sure what to make of it.
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
Niall at 13:25 on 2010-06-06
There seems to be a prevailing belief out there that every “genre” exists in some kind of literary World of Forms, eternal and unchanging.


I think you're getting hung up on the fact that people mean different things by "genre" at different times. One definition means, as you say, "marketing category"; the other definition means something like "artistic tradition". When I talk casually about "genre" I'm almost always doing so with the second sense in mind -- because I think excluding, say, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, or Marcel Theroux's Far North (a fantasy and an sf text, respectively, that are deliberately in dialogue with previous works but not published as part of the sf or fantasy genres) from my thinking is silly.

This is related to the no-single-element point because the reason books like The Magicians and Far North don't get shelved in sf and fantasy is because, depending on how you look at it, they either contain an element that allow them to also be categorised as something else (prejudicially, "literary writing"), or because they lack an element that allows them to be categorised as sf or fantasy (prejudicially, "crap writing"). So as soon as you reject no-single-element, you also have to (I think) reject the idea that the marketing category "is" the artistic tradition in any stable sense.

So the fact that there isn't a steampunk shelf in mainstream bookshops yet (I've seen one in Forbidden Planet occasionally, though it seems to come and go) is indeed evidence that steampunk is not yet a fully defined marketing category. On the other hand, it's not evidence that it's not an established artistic tradition.

This is why I like the distinction made in that essay I linked from the playpen the other day, that considers science fiction the genre (the marketing category) and science fiction the mode (the artistic tradition). Unfortunately, people tend to think you're being unutterably pompous if you start talking about sf as a mode...
Andy G at 19:44 on 2010-06-06
I don't want to sound like a broken record here, but the ideas of Wittgenstein might be really useful here. Postmodernism is actually only one branch of the view that there is no magical answer behind reality about the correct use of concepts. However, while postmodernism (very roughly) believes that this means the use of concepts is essentially arbitrary, Wittgenstein thought it meant that the correct answers depended on the use of the concepts IN reality.

So for instance, there is no single feature behind most concepts - you can't find one thing that all games have in common, but that doesn't mean they're not games. There are *tendencies* and familes of qualities. This is pretty common - MOST concepts work like this. For instance, if you try and draw up a list of necessary and sufficient qualities for chairs, you can find examples of chairs with none of the qualities and examples of non-chairs with all of them.

If you're asked of a particular object: 'So, is THIS a game?' the answer will depend on what the purpose of the categorisation is. There isn't a correct answer independent of the context in which you're using the concept - it depends what kind of distinctions you're trying to make, and what is relevant in this instance about something being a game or not.

Similarly, the usefulness of concepts depends on there being a relevant purpose. One great example was a friend of Wittgenstein's who criticised (IIRC) the concept of shell shock because it was too generalised to be diagnostically useful.

I remember reading an essay where this line of thought was applied to genres. Some genres (such as sonnets) are defined rigidly, but others are more problematic. When does a short story become a novella and when does a novella become a novel? There isn't an answer that can be discovered (e.g. it's a short story if it's less than 10 pages) - it depends on what the use is of categorising them differently. In the case of fantasy/sci-fi, it NOW makes sense for some of the reasons you described to distinguish between them, though in certain contexts it may also make sense to group them together. Aside from a very few special contexts, it's not clear it makes sense in general to distinguish steampunk (or dark fantasy) from fantasy/sci-fi: there are no distinctive tendencies in terms of plotting, reception or significance as there are between, say, fantasy/sci-fi and crime, literary fiction or whatever.

This line of thought does pretty much kill dead that rather pointless line of enquiry: Is Novel X fantasy/sci-fi? You can't ask that question in a vacuum. If you want to ask whether a literary author's new novel is fantasy because it features fantastic elements, you need to ask what it is you hope to achieve from this categorisation. All magic realism contains fantastic elements, but there are myriad reasons why it is helpful to distinguish it from fantasy (which generally has different aims, tropes etc. and is not fantasy). Simply saying something is fantasy becauase of the single fact that it contains supernatural things is as helpful as creating a categorisation system that distinguishes between novels with an even number of pages and novels with an odd number of pages.
Dan H at 20:42 on 2010-06-06
I think you're getting hung up on the fact that people mean different things by "genre" at different times. One definition means, as you say, "marketing category"; the other definition means something like "artistic tradition".


I don't think I'm getting hung up on that, I'm just rejecting the second definition. We have a perfectly reasonable term for "artistic tradition" that term is "artistic tradition". Artistic tradition is nebulous and complicated, a series of influences and counter-influences, connecting pretty much everything to everything else.

I've not read The Magicians but from what I can tell from a cursory googling, it looks like it actually, well, isn't a fantasy novel. It was clearly written by somebody who had *read* a lot of fantasy novels, and who may therefore be considered to be part of an "artistic tradition" that includes fantasy novels, but that does not necessarily *make* it a fantasy novel any more than Drood or Johnathon Strange and Mister Norrell are Victorian novels.

As Andy observes, categorizing a novel as fantasy merely because it contains elements of the supernatural is unhelpful (as is categorizing a novel as *not* being fantasy simply because it doesn't). Is it helpful to categorize The Magicians as fantasy? Does it enhance your understanding of the text, or does it detract from it? Or is it more to do with validating the rest of the genre, by associating it with a more literary work?
Niall at 00:27 on 2010-06-07
On Wittgenstein: like this, you mean? Absolutely true, and doesn't disagree with my position. It's precisely because The Magicians contains a secondary world, and a plot structure with elements borrowed from Harry Potter and Narnia, and various other familiar elements, that it's a fantasy novel. It's not just that it contains an element of the supernatural. And for what it's worth, the author, like all authors, quite sanely doesn't like categorisation, but "if you held a gun to his head", he would say fantasy.

Strange & Norrell is another good example, actually. Not published as genre, but clearly a fantasy novel.

I don't think I'm getting hung up on that, I'm just rejecting the second definition.


This is of course your right, although I think the ship has pretty much sailed, I'm afraid.
Wardog at 09:17 on 2010-06-07
I think you're getting hung up on the fact that people mean different things by "genre" at different times.

This strikes me as being pretty fundamental to any understanding of genre...
Arthur B at 09:56 on 2010-06-07
This is of course your right, although I think the ship has pretty much sailed, I'm afraid.

You say that as though the issue isn't really up for debate any more. I find that a bit hard to swallow.
Niall at 10:31 on 2010-06-07
Well, I suppose the question is, up for debate among who? If the aim is to convince the sf academic world, as exemplified by the steampunk scholar, that the various subtypes of fantastic literature are defined fully and only by their marketing, then yes, I don't think it's up for debate. Science fiction is studied as an artistic tradition/mode; where something was published is largely irrelevant; and although most academics will be quite careful to distinguish between genre-the-field and genre-the-market, as a casual usage "the genre" is widespread.

In the actively fannish world -- those who blog/write fanzines and/or go to conventions, say -- I'd say people are much less careful about how they use "genre". It is recognised as a marketing category, but I haven't come across anyone for a long time who would try to argue that it is *only* the marketing category. That is, you still get plenty of "she's writing from outside the genre!" comments, but even those commenters generally don't try to assert that, say, Far North *isn't science fiction* -- they just assert that it's *rubbish* science fiction. Given that Michael Chabon won a Hugo a couple of years for a published-as-mainstream alternate history novel, and Susanna Clarke won a couple of years before that, I think more and more fans are comfortable with the idea that interesting sf and fantasy can be found from non-genre publishers. More, I expect that most fans would be happy claiming Clarke, at least, as "a genre writer" on the basis that she's friends with Neil Gaiman, married to Colin Greenland, been previously published in genre anthologies, and clearly aware of the history of genre fantasy, etc etc etc. (And based on the survey of writers I did last year, Clarke is happy to be so identified -- although like Grossman, with the caveat that she considers herself a "writer of stories" first.) Of course, there's also a vocal body of fans who would say that identifying any writer as "a genre writer" or "a non genre writer" is pointless, and that we should just talk about what the books *are*.

In the world of general readers, who knows? Anecdotally, I encounter the "but that's not science fiction" reaction less often than I used to.
Arthur B at 11:04 on 2010-06-07
In the world of general readers, who knows? Anecdotally, I encounter the "but that's not science fiction" reaction less often than I used to.

But surely if SF is properly considered as an artistic tradition then you should be seeing it a lot in the "SF academic world"? To take 1984 as an example, George Orwell was clearly not writing in the same tradition as Asimov or Clarke or Heinlein or Doc Smith or any of his contemporaries.

Shouldn't the "SF academics" be regularly tossing books out on the basis of not fitting the tradition, as they've defined it?
Niall at 11:14 on 2010-06-07
No -- the point about considering sf as an artistic tradition is that it includes works like 1984 as a different strand but part of the same broad mode. Even if Orwell was entirely uninfluenced by earlier generations of sf writers (and given that it turns out Virginia Woolf was influenced by Olaf Stapledon, I'm not willing to completely discount that at this point), he's certainly had tremendous influence on later generations of sf writers, and thus 1984 becomes part of the tradition. Orwell gets an entry in the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for instance.
Arthur B at 11:28 on 2010-06-07
Even if Orwell was entirely uninfluenced by earlier generations of sf writers (and given that it turns out Virginia Woolf was influenced by Olaf Stapledon, I'm not willing to completely discount that at this point), he's certainly had tremendous influence on later generations of sf writers, and thus 1984 becomes part of the tradition.

But this leads to the odd conclusion that you can be a member of a particular tradition if you're influential enough on the writers therein, even if you're clearly not writing in the same field but are someone they happen to think is cool.

By this logic William Burroughs is New Weird and HG Wells wrote steampunk.
Andy G at 11:49 on 2010-06-07
On Wittgenstein: like this, you mean? Absolutely true, and doesn't disagree with my position.


Yes, the short point of my long post was basically that the reasoning of The Steampunk Scholar (as summarised by Dan) is clearly just wrong.

I also actually disagree with the following passage, which I think is what you're objecting to Niall:

The reason Steampunk can't really be considered a genre is nothing to do with a lack of consistent elements, and everything to do with the lack of a definable market. Science Fiction and Fantasy have well established, well understood audiences who can be meaningfully targeted. Steampunk, as yet, doesn't.


I think this is the right kind of reasoning for why steampunk isn't a genre, but that the relevant factors are to do with a bit more than market. Genres are also defined by tendencies (rather than universal features) regarding plotting, tropes, themes, purposes, etc. etc. When deciding how to categorise something in a shop, the relevant considerations are simpler - i.e. the market - but categorising something in academic discussion draws on a wider set of considerations.

Basically, I would say that NOT ONLY is there not a discrete market for steampunk, there is ALSO no distinctive cluster/family of other features that means it is sufficiently different from fantasy as a whole to merit a separate genre category. The same was long true for fantasy, which didn't inhabit a separate niche from sci-fi until it was more fully fleshed out.
Andy G at 11:50 on 2010-06-07
Sorry to double-post - wanted to flag up that perhaps Dark Fantasy is a good example of something that is a 'shop genre' (because it has a discrete market) but not an 'academic genre' (because it's not relevantly differnt from other fantasy).
Niall at 11:53 on 2010-06-07
I think we need to differentiate between an artistic mode and a community of writers. Orwell wrote in the science fiction mode, even if he wasn't reading Astounding. That is: I assert that 1984 shares enough characteristics with the science fiction mode to be considered as science fiction, and that you can't establish relationships of equivalent strength when it comes to Burroughs/New Weird and Wells/Steampunk.

A first stab at those characteristics might be the ones described in this book: 1984 contains fictive novums, fictive neology, future history, and can be understood as an example of science-fictional grotesque.
Niall at 11:57 on 2010-06-07
Andy: yes, I agree with everything in your comments there, I think.
Niall at 12:55 on 2010-06-07
Personally I think "artistic tradition" implies the interaction of the two things. But yes, this would be why I said at the start that I think "mode" is the best way of looking at the question.
Arthur B at 12:55 on 2010-06-07
I think we need to differentiate between an artistic mode and a community of writers.

The phrase "artistic tradition" seems to imply the latter vastly more than it does the former.
Arthur B at 13:08 on 2010-06-07
So, now we've got this far...

Firstly, would you accept that the "mode" of SF/fantasy/whatever is not eternal and unchanging, but does in fact change over time?

Secondly, would you accept that the evolution of a genre over time is strongly influenced by its audience?
Niall at 13:39 on 2010-06-07
Yes, of course. What I was disagreeing with was Dan's argument that genre always and only means marketing niches, and that a suggestion that (e.g.) science fiction can be considered as something separate from the shelf label "science fiction" is an appeal to a world of forms.

Ironically, I'm not sure whether in your second question you mean the market genre or the broader mode. In either case the answer's yes, mind.

To bring it all back to steampunk, as I say I'd agree with Andy's reframing of the point that it doesn't exist as a separate entity yet -- but I also think there's increasing evidence that it's travelling in that direction. Comparing it to dark fantasy/paranormal romance is interesting, actually. If DF/PR is a shop genre but not an academic genre, I wonder whether steampunk is on its way to becoming an academic genre but not a shop genre -- in the sense that I've seen more than one steampunk scholar, and thus far no DF/PR scholars. Of course, this is because DF/PR is written by women, and thus not serious business.
Arthur B at 14:03 on 2010-06-07
If DF/PR is a shop genre but not an academic genre, I wonder whether steampunk is on its way to becoming an academic genre but not a shop genre -- in the sense that I've seen more than one steampunk scholar, and thus far no DF/PR scholars.

Have you been looking?
Niall at 14:15 on 2010-06-07
Well, I've been looking to the extent that I've been looking for steampunk scholars -- that is, I haven't been specifically looking for either, but I try to keep my eye on the field's main critical journals, and read as widely across the sf blogosphere as I can. Obviously, it's entirely possible there are scads of publications in places I don't keep track of -- I assume there are journals about romance, for instance. But that in itself would say something about how DF/PR is perceived as part of the fantastic, no?
Wardog at 14:30 on 2010-06-07
Yes, of course. What I was disagreeing with was Dan's argument that genre always and only means marketing niches, and that a suggestion that (e.g.) science fiction can be considered as something separate from the shelf label "science fiction" is an appeal to a world of forms

Obviously I can't answer for Dan here but I don't think rejecting one interpretation of something means you automatically believe solely in the other. There's a difference between accepting that genre is an ultimately unstable concept and concluding that genre can ONLY be a marketing exercise.

Orwell gets an entry in the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for instance.

Surely that just means Clute & Nicholls believe Orwell was writing science fiction, not that Orwell was writing science fiction.

A first stab at those characteristics might be the ones described in this book: 1984 contains fictive novums, fictive neology, future history, and can be understood as an example of science-fictional grotesque.

The thing is, I understand that you *could* read 1984 as an example of science-fictional grotesque but it still leaves the question: why would you want to? What insight into the text does it give you that reading it as NOT being an example of the science-fictional grotesque doesn't? I would argue: none whatsoever. In fact, as far as I see it, the only benefit in reading 1984 as an example of science fictional grotesque is that it allows you to appropriate it into a canon you personally wish to validate.

Also what on earth does Evaporating Genres have to do with anything? I mean, yes, I see it's vaguely thematically connected to your argument but I'll need more than the introductory paragraph on the website to show me precisely how.
Niall at 14:36 on 2010-06-07
There's a difference between accepting that genre is an ultimately unstable concept and concluding that genre can ONLY be a marketing exercise.


Yeah, but he did say that "It is in fact merely a 'convenient taxonomy to stick on the back cover to sell books.'"

Surely that just means Clute & Nicholls believe Orwell was writing science fiction, not that Orwell was writing science fiction.


Yes. But since the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia is regarded as the most systematic and comprehensive attempt to describe the field/mode/genre that's ever been made, and a very sound and well-informed attempt at that, it's indicative of a general acceptance in sf criticism that 1984 is science fiction.

What insight into the text does it give you that reading it as NOT being an example fo the science-fictional grotesque doesn't?


I tend to think of approaches to texts as being like colour filters. Place a different filter over a text, and it brings different elements to the foreground. Reading 1984 as science fiction highlights its similarities and differences to other sf novels -- and I'm thinking here of specific textual strategies to create the sense of difference and dystopia. I'd argue that this helps clarify what is and is not radical about Orwell's book, and makes available a set of tools for understanding how it works that you may not otherwise have considered using.

Also what on earth does Evaporating Genres have to do with anything?


Sorry, I copied and pasted from the wrong search window -- I meant this link, which is to the essay that gives the book its title. Basically just an example of someone writing well about how the genres of the fantastic have evolved over the last century.
Wardog at 14:49 on 2010-06-07
Yeah, but he did say that "It is in fact merely a 'convenient taxonomy to stick on the back cover to sell books.'"

I believe that was originally the Steampunk Scholar, was it not? Also Dan's riff on the idea was, err, slightly more nuanced than the Scholar's but I'll leave Dan's arguments for Dan to argue.

But since the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia is regarded as the most systematic and comprehensive attempt to describe the field/mode/genre that's ever been made, and a very sound and well-informed attempt at that, it's indicative of a general acceptance in sf criticism that 1984 is science fiction.

Isn't that entirely incenstuous though? I mean if some people who like sci-fi write a book in which they claim (however persuasively) that a text is sci-fi and some other people who *also* like sci-fi agree with them ... then all you've got is a situation in which 1984 is sci-fi to people who want it to be sci-fi. Which takes us back to Dan's original musings on the subject of the instability of genre.

I tend to think of approaches to texts as being like colour filters. Place a different filter over a text, and it brings different elements to the foreground

Yes but I can place a Marxist or a structuralist or a feminist filter over 1984; it doesn't therefore mean that 1984 is a Maxist or a structuralist or a feminist text. Equally, using 1984 to illuminate other sci-fi and other sci-fi to illuminate 1984 is the same circle-jerk as using an Encyclopedia of sci-fi to establish that a particular text is sci-fi. I'm not saying any of these actions can't be individually revealing about a text but ultimately you still have to recognise the limitations of a circle jerk.
Andy G at 14:50 on 2010-06-07
I guess because you are going to reading/writing within pre-existing forms (even if those get modified throughout time), genres can be a useful label, simply as a shorthand for certain loose groupings (as long as you don't take them too seriously).

But they're only useful labels if there's some clarity about what they're being used for - specifically, what are they being used to DISTINGUISH from? For instance, it is useful to distinguish novels from poems, plays (even if those distinctions are a bit fuzzy at the edges), or to distinguish fantasy from sci-fi from detective novels.

What is steampunk being distinguished FROM? You can have steampunk novels, poems, films, so it's not a genre in that sense, but arguably you can have steampunk fantasy, sci-fi or thrillers which differ in terms of features of, for instance, plots. I get the sense that the only distinctive cluster of features are to do with how things LOOK. Is there a steampunk outlook on life, a typical steampunk hero, steampunk cliches?

Arthur B at 14:50 on 2010-06-07
I tend to think of approaches to texts as being like colour filters. Place a different filter over a text, and it brings different elements to the foreground.

But by the same token, if you wear blue-tinted glasses (or goggles, since this is a steampunk debate) then everything is going to end up looking more or less blue, even if it isn't blue at all.

You did, I hope, read Dan's comments about confirmation bias above?
Niall at 15:45 on 2010-06-07
I believe that was originally the Steampunk Scholar, was it not?


Not that I can see.

Isn't that entirely incenstuous though?


Only if science fiction studies as an academic discipline is hermetically sealed, with nobody from the inside paying any attention to what outsiders are saying, and vice versa. The former definitely isn't the case, and the latter isn't the case so far as I can tell -- though you'd probably have a clearer idea than me, there.

1984 is a useful reference point here, but I'm not talking about people constructing an argument to justify 1984 as science fiction -- that would indeed be putting cart before horse. I'm saying that the best and most thoroughly worked-out arguments about what science fiction is and does -- developed for the purpose of studying it -- suggest that it's silly to say that books like 1984 aren't science fiction. Similarly, I'm not saying the Encyclopedia establishes that 1984 is sf, I'm saying that the Encyclopedia is compiled taking account of the view of sf that fifty years of academic study has established, so it's a useful shorthand.

As for filters and labels: first, I'm not sure a Marxist filter does the same thing as a science fiction filter. As you say, a Marxist analysis doesn't mean that a text "is" Marxist -- it's possibly to offer a Marxist analysis of a vigorously anti-Marxist text, because it's a set of questions that can be asked of just about anything. But a science fiction analysis of a non-sf book is pointless; the questions you ask will be meaningless, and the critical tools you use inappropriate.

Second, though, and more importantly, one thing I agree with in Dan's piece is that the only time when labels on books are mutually exclusive is when you're deciding where to shelve them. Otherwise a book can indeed happily be a fantasy romance science fiction steampunk crime horror thriller. So saying 1984 is science fiction doesn't deny that it's many other things as well; it only asserts that one of the things it is is sf.

Arthur:

if you wear blue-tinted glasses (or goggles, since this is a steampunk debate) then everything is going to end up looking more or less blue


Sure, there's a question about the sensitivity you set your filter at. (Though strictly speaking, wouldn't something that reflects no blue light at all not show up in your blue goggles? I can't remember my physics well enough.) But you're going to have to do some work to convince me that a filter that detects a novel set in a dystopian future characterised by invented technologies, social organisation and language as science fiction is oversensitive.
Arthur B at 16:41 on 2010-06-07
Sure, there's a question about the sensitivity you set your filter at. (Though strictly speaking, wouldn't something that reflects no blue light at all not show up in your blue goggles? I can't remember my physics well enough.)

In principle it will show up black. In practice, you might well see it as a very, very dark blue (what with it being entirely surrounded by blue). Which, if we're torturing the analogy this much, shows how your filter might make you think you see something that isn't actually there.

But you're going to have to do some work to convince me that a filter that detects a novel set in a dystopian future characterised by invented technologies, social organisation and language as science fiction is oversensitive.

I actually wasn't saying 1984 wasn't SF, I was just pointing out that it isn't really SF by the standards of genre-as-marketing, or by the standards of the mainstream SF tradition of the time. And if you read 1984 with an SF filter, all it's going to do is to convince you even more that it belongs in SF, whilst obscuring those aspects of the novel which might differentiate it from SF.

Now, can you convince me that the filters that so many steampunks seem to be using these days, which cram entirely inappropriate things like The Manual of Detection or The Anubis Gates into the steampunk category, aren't oversensitive?
Wardog at 17:06 on 2010-06-07
Not that I can see.


Um, he says so in in this post.

"But I'm not arguing for steampunk as fantasy, nor am I arguing people stop saying it's science fiction. It's neither, and both. This is precisely why I argue that steampunk is not a genre, except to publishers who need easy taxonomies to stick on the back cover to sell books. Steampunk is an aesthetic: it is a look, or a style. It is not a genre, because within the literature, there is no recurrent narrative element that one can point to which appears in all, or even most of the books."

It's kind of the core proposition of his argument.
Niall at 17:12 on 2010-06-07
I was just pointing out that it isn't really SF by the standards of genre-as-marketing, or by the standards of the mainstream SF tradition of the time.


The first part of that I agree with as a general principle -- "dystopia" in general gets hived off from the genre market these days, either into literary or, interestingly, into YA. The second I'm a bit iffy about, because by "mainstream SF tradition" in 1949 I'm guessing you mean the Heinlein/Asimov/et al tradition -- the pulp tradition -- and while that's inarguable (I already said as much upthread), it's also really an American tradition. I'm of the school that sees a distinct history of British sf in the first half of the twentieth century, much less ghettoized than the American pulps, and much more accepted by "the literary establishment" (horrible phrase), that continues into the "cosy catastrophes" of Wyndham et al and then gets largely subsumed into the market category we know round about the time of the New Wave. We know Orwell was influenced by the likes of Wells and London, not to mention Huxley (and Zamyatin, and probably Burdekin), so to me his work clearly fits within a contemporary tradition of speculation for which the best name is science fiction, but which is at this time distinct from what's being sold as sf in America.

Now, can you convince me that the filters that so many steampunks seem to be using these days, which cram entirely inappropriate things like The Manual of Detection or The Anubis Gates into the steampunk category, aren't oversensitive?


No, but then I wasn't trying to do that...
Arthur B at 17:22 on 2010-06-07
No, but then I wasn't trying to do that...

Except that you were defending the idea of there being an "artistic tradition" of steampunk which is studied and debated by steampunk academics, whilst at the same time being pretty happy about said scholars including in the tradition works written by people who were working in an entirely different tradition and weren't at all influenced by steampunk. So long as they look like "a different strand of the same broad mode" if you wear your steampunk goggles and squint right, there's no problem.

So you were, in fact, trying to do precisely that...
Niall at 17:24 on 2010-06-07
Um, he says so in in this post.


I think I'm placing the emphasis at different points in their arguments. My reading:

Steampunk Scholar: Genre is primarily defined by the presence of recurring narrative elements. Steampunk lacks these and is therefore not a genre. (Genre is also defined by publisher labels, and steampunk is a genre in this limited sense.)

Dan: Genre is primarily defined by publishers, responding to audiences. Steampunk is not a genre because it does not have a distinct audience.

Me: Steampunk Scholar is right that there's more to genre than publisher labels, but wrong that recurring narrative elements are a sufficient definition. Dan is right that steampunk is not yet a market category, but wrong that this is sufficient to conclude that it is not a genre.
Niall at 17:28 on 2010-06-07
whilst at the same time being pretty happy about said scholars including in the tradition works written by people who were working in an entirely different tradition and weren't at all influenced by steampunk


No, I specifically disagreed with your suggestion that my logic led to considering Wells as steampunk. I'm supporting the notion that steampunk could be (not yet necessarily is) developing into its own mode, in part because you'd expect to see a lot of testing of edge cases in such circumstances.
Arthur B at 17:34 on 2010-06-07
I'm supporting the notion that steampunk could be (not yet necessarily is) developing into its own mode, in part because you'd expect to see a lot of testing of edge cases in such circumstances.

Where do you see the edge cases here?

Upthread Andy G asked you this:

What is steampunk being distinguished FROM? You can have steampunk novels, poems, films, so it's not a genre in that sense, but arguably you can have steampunk fantasy, sci-fi or thrillers which differ in terms of features of, for instance, plots. I get the sense that the only distinctive cluster of features are to do with how things LOOK. Is there a steampunk outlook on life, a typical steampunk hero, steampunk cliches?

As happy as I am that you're giving my points as much consideration as you have, I do want to urge you to answer Andy's question here, because it's a really, really good one.
Niall at 17:40 on 2010-06-07
Where do you see the edge cases here?


Any time someone makes an argument that a work is steampunk, that's an edge case. Some will be convincing, some won't be. I don't think The Manual of Detection is steampunk, for what that's worth.

As for Andy's comment -- apologies if that was directly dressed to me, I thought it was mostly rhetorical and at the least an open question for anyone to have a go at. I didn't answer because I don't know. I have the sense that (as we went round in the Playpen last week) the look is an outward manifestation of a certain set of values, having to do with the value of direct interaction with technology and nostalgia for the past (see some discussion of a recent Wiscon panel). It's certainly broadly true of the contemporary steampunk I've read, in some cases with those assumptions interrogated, in others less so.
Niall at 17:43 on 2010-06-07
I can't believe I just wrote "nostalgia for the past". Gah.
Sister Magpie at 17:48 on 2010-06-07
What is steampunk being distinguished FROM? You can have steampunk novels, poems, films, so it's not a genre in that sense, but arguably you can have steampunk fantasy, sci-fi or thrillers which differ in terms of features of, for instance, plots. I get the sense that the only distinctive cluster of features are to do with how things LOOK. Is there a steampunk outlook on life, a typical steampunk hero, steampunk cliches?


I would love to know this. I haven't read nearly enough of it to know, but I often instinctively feel like there's got to be a slight different in attitude about science that goes along with the neo-Victoriana. For instance, is Steampunk sort of a technological world without the atom bomb? I know I'm not getting across what I want to with that sentence, but it always seems to me like that's part of it because there must be something attractive in wanting the trappings of out of date sci-fi. It can't really be that all the writers are fascinated with figuring out how to make things work with gears instead of computer chips.
Jamie Johnston at 18:20 on 2010-06-07
I occasionally try to think about what genre is, and after half an hour or so I generally find two things: (1) my brain hurts; (2) I can no longer remember why I thought it would be at all useful to know what genre is.

So only one very small point here about genre.

Andy, you said, 'Some genres (such as sonnets) are defined rigidly, but others are more problematic. When does a short story become a novella and when does a novella become a novel?' I have to ask: are 'sonnet' / 'short story' / 'novella' / 'novel' really regarded as genres by a significant body of people? If not, are you saying they should be? I don't ask in order to undermine your general point, which seems very sensible: it's just that this particular suggestion made me panic a bit since it threatens to bring the black hole of 'what is genre?' (a question I try not to think about) into dangerously close proximity to comparatively tidy and manageable planets like 'what is medium?' and 'what is form?' (questions I enjoy thinking about).
Andy G at 18:42 on 2010-06-07
I think that studying an aesthetic is something very different to studying literature (which as far as I understand it is what the Steampunk Scholar is supposed to be doing). An aesthetic is something a particular group of people choose to adopt, and understanding that aesthetic involves understanding who those people are, and why they chose to adopt it. If steampunk is an aesthetic, then the interesting question is not “what cultural artefacts display this aesthetic” but rather “why has this aesthetic developed the way it has”


I'm not quite sure I agree here. The aesthetic is still a part of a piece of literature and inquiries into it don't have to be reduced to questions about the audience/author (or artist, director whatever). Especially when it comes to art, there's no such thing as 'mere' appearance.

Clearly, steampunk is referring to *something*, a certain look or cluster of looks, that is a feature of the artworks and not just of the people who create them, and so it is a useful identifier at the moment to pick out a certain type of look.

But the question is: are there any pronounced shared tendencies, values, features beyond these purely aesthetic ones? Even if this is the case, I'm still not sure it would compete with 'fantasy' as a genre, any more than 'fantasy' competes with 'novel' as a genre. My art history is a bit fishy on this point, but it would have to compete more with a genre (or movement) defined primarily on aesthetic grounds, such as art deco (and even that is grounded in distinctive values and techniques). Steampunk just seems a bit too narrow to count as a genre of any kind rather than a subgenre.
Andy G at 18:52 on 2010-06-07
@ Jamie: I could be wrong here, but I always had the impression that genre was strictly used to mean things like novel, poem, etc., and then came to be used in a different way to distinguish between crime, fantasy, etc. I thought the latter was 'strictly' incorrect but it has come to be used that way. If I'm wrong, I take it all back and apologise for causing you consternation. A more neutral term here might be 'literary category'?

A little further titbit regarding short story/novella/novel - in German, it's helpful to keep the terms separate, because the novella was characteristic of Romantic authors, while it was regarded as an innovation when post-WW2 authors started writing short stories.
Jamie Johnston at 18:58 on 2010-06-07
Also, I'd like to come back to Dan with respect to the 'techno-fantasy' limb of the argument:

I wonder whether there isn't some usefulness to be salvaged from the Scholar's* version of 'techno-fantasy'. The definitions he gives ('tech that lacks plausibility'; 'when you say something is scientific and technological, but never really substantiate it, or worse yet, explain it using rules that contradict the laws of our physical sciences') are clearly pejorative (which is not an especially scholarly way to go about things, it seems to me); but the concept could be reformulated as something like 'technology / scientific theory that the text doesn't portray as compatible or consistent with current or future science'.

I think (without, I admit, having thought about it very hard) that might work as a basis for distinguishing at least most non-marginal examples of science fiction from at least many non-marginal examples of steampunk. One could say that Star Trek implicitly asks us to imagine science developing from its current state to a future discovery of dilithium (even if it doesn't ask us to think very hard about it), whereas a steampunk work involving a space-ship powered by phlogiston or steam would be implicitly asking us to throw out current scientific understanding and nor would it depend on the suggestion that we may one day discover phlogiston or work out how to power space-ships with steam: the implicit request would presumably be 'imagine a world where actual physics (not just our understanding of physics) is different or just kind of unimportant', which is also the implicit request of much fantasy fiction.**

I don't put that forward in opposition to your alternative distinction between science fiction and fantasy based on the presence or absence of the speculative element. That may well be a better one (though it does make wonder: if there were a work that actually did explore the premise 'what if aether theory were correct and had thus enabled Victorian scientists using that theory to achieve new advances in technology beyond what occurred in reality?', would it therefore be science fiction, and if so would it be not steampunk?). But I'd be interested to know whether you (and pretty much everyone else in this discussion), who have a much greater acquaintance with actual examples of steampunk, fantasy, and science fiction than I have, think my refined version of the Scholar's approach could stand up.



* Is the Steampunk Scholar a Time Lord? It would explain his use of a status-appropriating pseudonym.
** I'm not sure Hitchiker is a very helpful example to deploy at the core of the argument since it's debatable whether a work that's at least partly a spoof of a genre (or, if not exactly a spoof, at least a work that consciously derives comedy from certain aspects of the genre) stands fully inside the genre.
Arthur B at 19:05 on 2010-06-07
the look is an outward manifestation of a certain set of values, having to do with the value of direct interaction with technology and nostalgia for the past

This is a tangent, but the "direct interaction with technology" thing always sets my teeth on edge when it's raised by steampunks.

- If you think mass production is by and large a bad or harmful thing, you're essentially saying we should take away the one thing which makes it possible for people on less than comfortable incomes to afford goods of a reasonable quality at a non-ruinous price. I have severe problems with such a stance.

- If you want direct interaction with technology... then... go interact. Learn an engineering discipline. Teach yourself to code. Buy some tools (quite possibly mass-produced tools of a standard that a person in your income bracket could have only dreamed of before mass production came in) and set to it. We're living in a time where more people have more opportunity to interact with technology than ever before.
Jamie Johnston at 19:11 on 2010-06-07
Andy, you may well be right. My knowledge of the history of literary theory ends almost immediately after Aristotle's Poetics! Certainly the classical concept that equates to genre was very closely tied to form and medium because there were strong traditional rules dictating, for example, that prose could only be used to write history and other social sciences, and indeed the use of the form of verse drama was an essential part of the definitions of tragedy and comedy. But since these rules were in practice already being broken before the end of the classical era, I'd rather assumed that by the time somebody invented the actual term 'genre' the time would already have long passed when people tried to closely interlock form with subject-matter, setting, &c. Perhaps I was over-optimistic! :)
Jamie Johnston at 19:15 on 2010-06-07
(Finally, and briefly putting my head again out of the trench to lob a grenade into the no-man's-land of 'what is genre?'...)

Niall, I think when you summarize Dan's position as 'genre is primarily definted by publishers, responding to audiences' it's important not to overlook the paragraph a bit later where he says:

Were I in the mood to construct overly simplistic models for complex phenomena, I might say that genre is comprised of three elements: the aesthetic, the conceptual and the structural, aesthetic elements being cosmetic features like airships and dragons, conceptual features being the kinds of ideas the genre tends to engage with, and structural features being stuff about how the books are actually written.
Sister Magpie at 19:15 on 2010-06-07
Clearly, steampunk is referring to *something*, a certain look or cluster of looks, that is a feature of the artworks and not just of the people who create them, and so it is a useful identifier at the moment to pick out a certain type of look.


I tend to think, too, that when people choose a certain cluster of looks from the past they're also choosing at least some of the values that went with it. For instance, if you make your sci-fi look very art deco you're tying it to early sci-fi movies. If you're making things look Victorian surely you're also bringing along certain Victorian attitudes. It always seems to me that's part of it.

Of course that doesn't say exactly what attitudes you're bringing with it. "Victorian" and "1920s-30s" are time periods, not genres. But as time periods there are values associated with them by modern people. That's partly what I was trying to get out with the "science w/o the atom bomb" idea. The attitude towards science would just have to be so different, imo. Iow, I think there's a reason for choosing whatever aesthetic you're choosing that's more than just what it looks like. As is obvious in The Manual of Detection. The hats the men wear and the phonographs they listen to lay the groundwork for the classic noir attitude.
Niall at 19:25 on 2010-06-07
Arthur: yeah, I have some sympathy for that. There's a quite prevalent meme (in fandom) that we are isolated from our technology in a way that kids of the '50s weren't, that it's all shiny boxes with mysterious inner workings rather than things you can make with your hands. There is some truth in it, but as you say at the very least neglects coding as a way of directing technology, which is surely as hands-on as mucking around with a screwdriver.

ObEdgeCase: Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters", in which golems work and become an alternate means of mass production in a neo-Victorian past.

Jamie's comment reminds me that there are actually some comments about steampunk in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction that I was pimping upthread. Bearing in mind that they're formulated in the context of the book's overarching thesis that imaginative play is central to sf, and that we're talking all of three pages in a 200-page book, there are some interesting points:
Steampunk is a covering term for sf implanted in imaginary pasts, in which technological inventions and discoveries that did not happen are imagined to have occurred. The vast majority of these texts are placed in the nineteenth century, when the new technoscientific phenomena stimulate alternative industrial revolutions. Where cyberpunk explores the relationship between contemporary social life saturated with high tech and the science-fictional imagination, steampunk processes the genre's origins: the points at which both the literary form and its technological subject emerge in tandem.
[...]
In quintessential sf style, it wants to recover its history -- a history of imagining, after all -- by colonizing and absorbing it into the fantasies of the present. Steampunk works are, accordingly, not so much counterfactual as, to use Matt Hills's term, counterfictional.
[...]
With The Difference Engine, and steampunk in general, the rewriting of history is no longer concerned with earnest questions about the meaning of historical events as if they were physical ones, whose constitution and behaviour can and must be correctly described. Now, worlds are no longer naive; they are sentimental with a vengeance. The implicit and understated play comes into the foreground
Dan H at 19:26 on 2010-06-07
Well, I suppose the question is, up for debate among who? If the aim is to convince the sf academic world, as exemplified by the steampunk scholar, that the various subtypes of fantastic literature are defined fully and only by their marketing, then yes, I don't think it's up for debate.


Ah, therein lie the issue. I have absolutely no desire to convince "the sf academic world" of anything. A basic tenet of logic is that the validity or otherwise of an argument is in no way contingent on how many people agree with it.

SF academia believes that genre is defined by ... well actually you haven't told me what you think genre is defined by, you've just waved your hands and cited specific examples of books which are "clearly" part of one genre or another.

The thing is, SF academia doesn't get to decide how genre works. They get to define what genre means as technical terminology within their discipline (although given that the Steampunk Scholar's definition of genre seems to make no reference this definition, I assume there is little consensus) but all that gives us is what one group of people mean by it. You don't get to say that's the "real" meaning of genre, or that people aren't being "careful" if they use the word to mean something else - hell you admit yourself that using the word "genre" to describe a literary tradition is in fact wrong and that the correct term should be "mode".

For the purposes of studying Science Fiction it is, of course, useful to define the mode as broadly as possible. Any study of science fiction which excludes 1984 would be badly constructed, as would any study of fantasy which did not include the Morte d'Arthur. Similarly I absolutely agree with the Steampunk Scholar's decision to include texts like Perdido Street Station and The Anubis Gates on his list of Steampunk texts, because it does in fact make sense to study things which are on the periphery of your main area of interest.

On the other hand, if you're interested in buying, selling, and reading books, then what's mostly of interest to you is the marketing category.
Dan H at 20:17 on 2010-06-07

I think this is the right kind of reasoning for why steampunk isn't a genre, but that the relevant factors are to do with a bit more than market.


For what it's worth, I freely admit to overstating my case for rhetorical effect (I, after all, am *not* writing an academic paper) but I think I might have a more generous interpretation of what "market" means than you do. In particular to my mind...

Basically, I would say that NOT ONLY is there not a discrete market for steampunk,


...and...

there is ALSO no distinctive cluster/family of other features that means it is sufficiently different from fantasy as a whole to merit a separate genre category.


...are effectively the same statement.

It is demonstrably possible to categorize a subset of science fiction, fantasy, and general fiction as "steampunk" and it is absolutely possible to do this based on a family of features, as long as you reject the idea that *every single one* of those features has to be present in every text: goggles, airships, and rayguns are all part of it, as of course are "neo-Victorianism, retro-futurism and technofantasy".

The question then comes down to whether those features render the genre "sufficiently different to merit a separate genre category" and that decision can only really be made by the market.

The same was long true for fantasy, which didn't inhabit a separate niche from sci-fi until it was more fully fleshed out.


Ah, whereas I would say that fantasy didn't inhabit a separate niche from sci-fi until people started *seeing* it as a separate niche. Fantasy did not, after all, suddenly acquire new qualities or traits between the 1920s and today which made it more distinct from science fiction than it had been previously. Rather people's *perceptions* of the genre shifted. It's not like a modern fantasy novel is somehow provably "more fantasy-like" than one from sixty years ago.
Dan H at 20:59 on 2010-06-07
Aaand more replies to Andy...

Sorry, million replies to sort through.


I'm not quite sure I agree here. The aesthetic is still a part of a piece of literature and inquiries into it don't have to be reduced to questions about the audience/author (or artist, director whatever). Especially when it comes to art, there's no such thing as 'mere' appearance.


Oh I absolutely agree, but the Scholar very specifically *divorces* the aesthetic from the literature. He doesn't say that steampunk is a genre (or subgenre) defined by a particular aesthetic, he says that steampunk *is* the aesthetic. This is what causes me trouble.

Art deco is a good example. When people study art deco (as I understand it) they tend to focus on the movement *as a whole* - its social and cultural context - they don't do close analysis of individual art deco *pieces* because there's nothing to really say about an individual item except "this is typical of art deco in the following ways."

Andy G at 21:05 on 2010-06-07
Re: The market

I don't think I understand how you're using 'market' here. To me (and I think to Niall), it sounds like it reduces the matter of genre to the decisions of publishers and consumers. It sounds all Ayn Rand-y.

Even if you're construing it really widely, I'm just not sure it includes everything. Literary categories are also important to *artists* because what kind of thing they take themselves to be creating is pretty important. And I don't know if you regard Ferretbrain as part of the market, but discussions of literature require certain concepts and vocabulary, and the usefulness of categories to these discussions doesn't obviously seem to be the same as what's useful to 'the market'.

Ah, whereas I would say that fantasy didn't inhabit a separate niche from sci-fi until people started *seeing* it as a separate niche.


Well, sort of. The usefulness of categories will depend on facts and tendencies among the things being categorised, and certainly in the case of literature categorising (because a form of interpretation) can actually lead to changes in what's being categorised. Works that defy existing genres, such as The Lord of the Rings, open up a new space of creative opportunities for other authors.

The concept of fantasy evolved dynamically - the concept solidified because fantasy authors did inceasingly different things, but fantasy authors also did different things because they had an increasingly concrete conception of what they were doing.

Andy G at 21:22 on 2010-06-07
Oh I absolutely agree, but the Scholar very specifically *divorces* the aesthetic from the literature. He doesn't say that steampunk is a genre (or subgenre) defined by a particular aesthetic, he says that steampunk *is* the aesthetic. This is what causes me trouble.


I'm not sure I understand the problem here. Just because you say steampunk isn't a genre but an aesthetic, it doesn't mean that when you talk about the aesthic appeal (or lack thereof) of steampunk elements that you're not allowed to justify your claim by reference to their effect within the context of the work in which they appear. In Steampunk Pirates of Penzance, the look is clearly steampunk, the genre is operetta, and the value of the goggles in this context depends on what they add to this operetta.

There are also purely formal approaches in which you talk about the aesthetic value of things independently of context, though I don't think that's what the Steampunk Scholar intends (which is just as well because such approaches are basically bollocks, since all aesthetic value depends on concepts whatever Kant may think about it).
Dan H at 22:06 on 2010-06-07

Even if you're construing it really widely, I'm just not sure it includes everything. Literary categories are also important to *artists* because what kind of thing they take themselves to be creating is pretty important.


Ah, I'm also counting artists as part of the market. Although I'm also not a big fan of authorial intent - I don't actually think that whether the author thinks they're writing [genre X] makes a difference.

And I don't know if you regard Ferretbrain as part of the market, but discussions of literature require certain concepts and vocabulary, and the usefulness of categories to these discussions doesn't obviously seem to be the same as what's useful to 'the market'


Actually, I think they very much *are* the most useful definitions. This is a pop-culture site. When we talk about "science fiction" or "fantasy" we're generally talking about "things which were sold to us as science fiction or fantasy, and which we bought in the science fiction or fantasy section of the bookstore". We very much *aren't* interested in discussing "the fantasy mode". We write very much as *ordinary readers* not as academics.

So yes, the "market" definitions are exactly what make most sense here.

Just because you say steampunk isn't a genre but an aesthetic, it doesn't mean that when you talk about the aesthic appeal (or lack thereof) of steampunk elements that you're not allowed to justify your claim by reference to their effect within the context of the work in which they appear. In Steampunk Pirates of Penzance, the look is clearly steampunk, the genre is operetta, and the value of the goggles in this context depends on what they add to this operetta.


The problem here, though, is that if the goggles *don't* add anything to the operatta, that doesn't make them any less valid as a steampunk element, just as if a work of art deco is ugly, that doesn't make it less art deco, so the question of whether the "aesthetic" works in that context is surely meaningless. All you can say about the goggles and airship is whether they are or are not steampunky, which they clearly are.

Plus there's the fact that the Steampunk Scholar *isn't* looking at things like "Steampunk Pirates of Penzance" - he's looking specifically at works of literature that were created as steampunk.
Andy G at 22:17 on 2010-06-07
@ Dan:

I think this just brings up quite a few points where we're probably just going to disagree.

Market - I just don't like using commercial concepts as if they were fundamental universal ones. Like the way in which everything is a brand. I don't really disagree with what you're saying about the market but I think it should be regarded as a subcategory of "people who read books".

I also think the way in which you're defining genres in terms of market groups is parasitic upon the genres, because I don't think you can define "people who want to read fantasy books" prior to describing the typical content of fantasy books. Again, it's a dynamic relationship.

Artists - If I intend to write a fantasy novel, I will write a different novel than if I intend to write a mystery novel, just as I will cook a different meal if intend to cook an omelette rather than a bowl of pasta. Which isn't to say it's fantasy *just* because I intended it to be so. Genres and forms are guides and tools for authors as well as for readers.

The problem here, though, is that if the goggles *don't* add anything to the operatta, that doesn't make them any less valid as a steampunk element, just as if a work of art deco is ugly, that doesn't make it less art deco, so the question of whether the "aesthetic" works in that context is surely meaningless. All you can say about the goggles and airship is whether they are or are not steampunky, which they clearly are.


Well, that's just if all he wants to do is *describe* steampunk elements. I guess purely descriptive works on literature and art are possible but a bit pointless. I don't see why his project excludes him from saying not just that the goggles are steampunky but also that they achieve certain effects because they're steampunky.
Dan H at 22:17 on 2010-06-07
when you talk about the aesthic appeal (or lack thereof) of steampunk elements


Sorry to double post, but I want to highlight this in particular.

The problem I have here is that the Steampunk Scholar *doesn't* talk about the aesthetic appeal of steampunk elements, he just says "hey, this is steampunk". If he was saying "these are situations in which as steampunk aesthetic is used, and it is used to this effect" I could get behind it, but as far as I can tell he's still talking about the literature, and then talking about *why* the literature is steampunk, but never seems to go beyond saying "this is steampunk". If you read his review of Howl's Moving Castle he doesn't actually engage with the steampunk beyond saying "this is steampunk" nor does he relate the steampunk to the text in any way.
Andy G at 22:23 on 2010-06-07
@ Dan:

Aha OK, I get where you're coming from now. However, he's not *compelled* into that position just because he views steampunk merely as an aesthetic.
Arthur B at 22:29 on 2010-06-07
Artists - If I intend to write a fantasy novel, I will write a different novel than if I intend to write a mystery novel, just as I will cook a different meal if intend to cook an omelette rather than a bowl of pasta. Which isn't to say it's fantasy *just* because I intended it to be so. Genres and forms are guides and tools for authors as well as for readers.

And what guides the authors, in this case? The expectations that readers have of the fantasy genre. What defines whether they have succeeded or failed at writing a fantasy novel? Again, it's the readers.

The author, of course, is one of those readers. If they weren't, they wouldn't be able to write a fantasy novel - unless you already have expectations of what a genre is like, you can't possibly write in it, and you form those expectations through exposure to other works in that genre.
Arthur B at 22:34 on 2010-06-07
Aha OK, I get where you're coming from now. However, he's not *compelled* into that position just because he views steampunk merely as an aesthetic.

Double posting here for the sake of coughing and pointing at the title of the article...
Dan H at 22:41 on 2010-06-07

Aha OK, I get where you're coming from now. However, he's not *compelled* into that position just because he views steampunk merely as an aesthetic.


No, obviously. There's a lot you can do with "this is an aesthetic" but he doesn't seem to be doing them.
Andy G at 00:09 on 2010-06-08
@ Arthur B:

Well actually this one is more like "Andy thought Dan sounded like he was saying something wrong about a case where the Scholar being wrong about something despite being right about something else for the wrong reasons, but then it turned out Dan and Andy agreed after all" ;)

And what guides the authors, in this case? The expectations that readers have of the fantasy genre. What defines whether they have succeeded or failed at writing a fantasy novel? Again, it's the readers.


I think your account is in danger of being a bit reductive because it leaves everything down to the reader.

It's important not to oversubjectivise the use of concepts, because although we define the *use* of concepts, it doesn't mean we can't be wrong when we use them (people defined the use of the term 'flat' but they were wrong about the earth being flat). At least to some degree, once criteria have been established a text fulfils them in virtue of objective facts about the text, not in virtue of the subjective opinions of readers. When I say something is fantasy, I am talking about the text and not directly about the opinions of its readers (even if those are what determine the correct usage of 'fantasy').

It's also important not just to see the author as a literary juke box whose function is defined just by their audience. The author obviously can't write in a vacuum and is connected to their readers through shared understandings of genre and form, but what the author does with those forms isn't rigidly determined by what the audience expects and wants from that genre. It's a relationship that works both ways.
Arthur B at 00:23 on 2010-06-08
It's also important not just to see the author as a literary juke box whose function is defined just by their audience. The author obviously can't write in a vacuum and is connected to their readers through shared understandings of genre and form, but what the author does with those forms isn't rigidly determined by what the audience expects and wants from that genre. It's a relationship that works both ways.

But then is it possible for an author to write something which he or she considers to be science fiction (or fantasy, or whatever) even though nobody else agrees with them?

When it comes to matters of categorisation - and genre is, whichever way you choose to define it, about categorisation - you can't have a situation where just one person gets to decide where the line is drawn. If a sufficient critical mass of people disagree with you about where the line between, say, horror and paranormal romance is drawn then ultimately you have to either bow to the will of the majority and revise your definitions or stick to your guns at the cost of becoming almost incapable of meaningfully taking part in the discussion, because you're no longer speaking the same language as the other participants.

The author can do whatever they like whilst they are writing, but when it comes to actually judging what genre the results reside in it's ultimately the readership who makes the final call. If the author has produced something which the readership by and large recognises as a type of fantasy then it doesn't matter how much they claim they weren't writing fantasy. For all intents and purposes, they were. (I'm looking at you, Rowling.)
Andy G at 01:42 on 2010-06-08

But then is it possible for an author to write something which he or she considers to be science fiction (or fantasy, or whatever) even though nobody else agrees with them?


Yes. Because there are criteria for the use of categories such as fantasy, it is possible to be wrong. We can imagine a sci-fi author who writes the first ever sci-fi book without spaceships - unlike her readers, who reject the book as sci-fi, she has recognised that the presence of spaceships is not essential to sci-fi, given the kinds of considerations that make sci-fi a useful category.

More interestingly: imagine the reaction when Lord of the Rings comes out. There is no fantasy genre - it can't be classified. The concept of fantasy is basically invented as a distinct genre to account for it. This doesn't mean that it wasn't fantasy until it was classified, because the classification is retrospective on the basis of relevant criteria.
Arthur B at 08:32 on 2010-06-08
We can imagine a sci-fi author who writes the first ever sci-fi book without spaceships - unlike her readers, who reject the book as sci-fi, she has recognised that the presence of spaceships is not essential to sci-fi, given the kinds of considerations that make sci-fi a useful category.

Did this actually happen to the first SF novel to lack rocketships? Or are readers actually more astute than you give them credit for? I'm pretty sure most of the people who say things like "it can't be SF, there's no rocketships" aren't SF readers and therefore aren't actually familiar with the sort of considerations that make SF a useful category. (The remainder of the people who say things like that are SF authors in deep, deep denial about what they are actually writing...)

More interestingly: imagine the reaction when Lord of the Rings comes out. There is no fantasy genre - it can't be classified.

No fantasy genre except for Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, E.R. Eddison, C.L. Moore, William Morris, George MacDonald,,,

But I'll overlook that for the sake of the thought experiment. :)

This doesn't mean that it wasn't fantasy until it was classified, because the classification is retrospective on the basis of relevant criteria

Which... um... I can't help but see as a big fat point in favour of my idea that it's the readers who decide genre. Tolkien may not have said "I am writing a fantasy novel". (Heck, there's parts of LotR where you almost suspect he wasn't even trying to write a novel at all.) But it was the readership, after consideration, who gave him the fantasy tag.

The readers can be briefly wrong-footed by a radical new idea, but they'll eventually find a way to categorise it.
Niall at 10:18 on 2010-06-08
No fantasy genre except for Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, E.R. Eddison, C.L. Moore, William Morris, George MacDonald...


... almost all of whom were not marketed or categorised as "fantasy" until their '60s reprints in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, launched to take advantage of the market Tolkien was creating. Before that point, Andy's right, there was fantasy literature but there really wasn't a fantasy genre in the readership-defined sense you've been arguing for.

... which makes me think of contemporary steampunk as being analagous to fantasy in its pre-Tolkien incarnation. And makes me imagine the earnest fantasy fans of the 1940s trying to convince their peers that yes, Dunsany, Vance and Morris are all doing the same sort of thing, and they're not just trying to stake a claim to a bunch of disparate writers with no clear unifying style or themes. :-)
Arthur B at 10:39 on 2010-06-08
... almost all of whom were not marketed or categorised as "fantasy" until their '60s reprints in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, launched to take advantage of the market Tolkien was creating.

You mean the market which happened to suddenly and spontaneously explode into being about 10 years after Lord of the Rings was published? I think the sudden upsurge in popularity of Tolkien at that point had far more to do with reader tastes than it had to do with anything Tolkien was actively doing at the time. And to speak of any author single-handedly creating a market is absurd.

Before that point, Andy's right, there was fantasy literature but there really wasn't a fantasy genre in the readership-defined sense you've been arguing for.

The hell? Howard influenced a great swathe of people writing in an identifiably similar mode, ranging from contemporaries like Moore and Lieber and Leigh Brackett right down to Michael Moorcock, whose first Elric novella came out around 4 years before even before Ballantine put out their precursors to the Adult Fantasy series. All of those authors started out as readers who got sufficiently jazzed by what the likes of Howard and Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith were doing to give it a crack themselves.

What's more, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction came out in 1949 - note which genre comes first in the title. Why would anybody start a magazine with that name unless they had identified a readership hungry for something called fantasy?
Niall at 11:01 on 2010-06-08
You mean the market which happened to suddenly and spontaneously explode into being about 10 years after Lord of the Rings was published?


Yes. Lord of the Rings wasn't a smash hit -- in the sense of creating a mass market -- until the first US paperback editions from Ace in 1965. Obviously people were reading and talking about the book before then, which helped to lay the groundwork for the Ballantine series. You get things like Michael Moorcock saying in a 1961 fanzine article that "I feel we should have another general name to include the sub-genre of books which deal with Middle Earths and lands and worlds based on this planet, worlds which exist only in some author’s vivid imagination" (this is reprinted in the current Del Rey editions of Elric.) Note that "things like Middle Earth", which we now think of as the central plank of the fantasy genre, were considered a sub-genre and that they didn't have an agreed name.

I'm not saying genre fantasy sprang fully-formed from Tolkien's forehead, nor that there weren't people who preferentially read fantastical works. But the market apparatus didn't exist until after Tolkien, and a lot of the writers you're talking about were originally considered part of the broad stream of pulp sf and only later recognised as part of a history of fantasy. I recommend this book, which has all sorts of issues, but is at least fun to argue with.
Arthur B at 11:15 on 2010-06-08
Note that "things like Middle Earth", which we now think of as the central plank of the fantasy genre, were considered a sub-genre and that they didn't have an agreed name.

Well, first off do we even think of that sort of thing as a "central plank" of the fantasy genre, in the sense that if you yank it out you're no longer dealing with fantasy? There was a great fashion for such things and to a certain extent still is. But there's plenty of steampunk, historical fantasy, modern-day fantasy, and Dark Fantasy out there too and it's never completely been eclipsed. A "secondary creation" (to use JRR's term) is actually one of those descriptive things Dan talks about - the presence of one strongly points to fantasy, but it's not a requirement of fantasy

But the market apparatus didn't exist until after Tolkien, and a lot of the writers you're talking about were originally considered part of the broad stream of pulp sf and only later recognised as part of a history of fantasy.

What do you call The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction if not a market apparatus? How can you possibly consider the title of said organ in any way other than indicating that, at the time it was published, fantasy was already a recognised and distinct trend within the broader church of speculative fiction, and one distinct enough from SF that you couldn't just say "SF" and expect people to automatically assume you were including fantasy?

I would point out that most of Howard, Smith and Lovecraft's work was put out in "Weird Tales", which was specifically a magazine for "Weird Fiction" - its output was mainly what we would recognise as horror and fantasy, and very little of what we would recognise as SF. So I'd argue that even in the 1920s fantasy was not merely considered "part of the broad stream of pulp SF". But it's The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that I especially want to draw your attention to, since I pointed it out in my last reply and you more or less blatantly ignored it.
Andy G at 11:27 on 2010-06-08
@ Arthur:

Yes, both the spaceship and the LotR examples are thought experiments, because reality is too messy for clear examples.

The point I'm trying to make is that there's a difference between defining criteria and something fulfilling those criteria. You admit precisely this yourself - people can be *wrong* about whether something is science fiction or not (for a given purpose of using the science fiction category anyway). This isn't to say there is *always* a true answer, because in edge cases it may be indeterminate and the existing categories may not provide an answer for weird cases.

Which... um... I can't help but see as a big fat point in favour of my idea that it's the readers who decide genre. Tolkien may not have said "I am writing a fantasy novel". (Heck, there's parts of LotR where you almost suspect he wasn't even trying to write a novel at all.) But it was the readership, after consideration, who gave him the fantasy tag.


I've been reading back to try and remember what the point of this disagreement was. I think my initial point was simply that although authorial intent doesn't define the genre of text, nor does audience intent (it's not fantasy just because I think it is), and that genre is useful for both the author and the audience. What you say above doesn't contradict this, because by 'readers' you basically mean 'the community of people who use and decide upon literary terminology', which includes both artists and audience.
Arthur B at 11:31 on 2010-06-08
The point I'm trying to make is that there's a difference between defining criteria and something fulfilling those criteria.

And what I'm saying is that authors don't get to define the criteria by which readers judge their works.

What you say above doesn't contradict this, because by 'readers' you basically mean 'the community of people who use and decide upon literary terminology', which includes both artists and audience.

I've been saying over and over again in this that authors are a subset of readers - nobody writes in a vacuum, everyone has their own influences.

Basically I don't put artists on a pedestal and give them any special privileges when it comes to using and deciding on literary terminology. Individual authors can be wrong. Individual readers can be wrong. Individual academics (who are basically a specialist sort of reader) can be wrong. But the readership as a whole can't be wrong.
Niall at 11:31 on 2010-06-08
Well, first off do we even think of that sort of thing as a "central plank" of the fantasy genre, in the sense that if you yank it out you're no longer dealing with fantasy?


No, it's the central plank in the sense that a majority of the canonical (e.g. Song of Ice and Fire) and mass commercial (e.g. Wheel of Time) texts of the last forty years are examples of it. Fantasy is a massively and, as you say, increasingly varied form. But Robert Jordan is how Tor can publish so much of it.

How can you possibly consider the title of said organ in any way other than indicating that, at the time it was published, fantasy was already a recognised and distinct trend within the broader church of speculative fiction, and one distinct enough from SF that you couldn't just say "SF" and expect people to automatically assume you were including fantasy?


Because I'm distinguishing between a limited audience of enthusiasts and a mass cultural audience. "Science fiction" was added to the title because it wasn't viable as a fantasy magazine. That says to me it's part of an effort to promote fantasy, but that fantasy wasn't sufficiently popular to be sustain its own market at that point.(Meanwhile, steampunk has its own magazine right now.)
Arthur B at 11:42 on 2010-06-08
No, it's the central plank in the sense that a majority of the canonical (e.g. Song of Ice and Fire) and mass commercial (e.g. Wheel of Time) texts of the last forty years are examples of it.

What is this canonical bullshit you are pulling on me? When did fantasy fiction have its Council of Trent and who the fuck forgot to invite me?

Seriously, are you saying that A Song of Ice and Fire is somehow less of a mass commercial product than The Wheel of Time? Because the last I checked HBO weren't adapting Jordan for the small screen.

Because I'm distinguishing between a limited audience of enthusiasts and a mass cultural audience.

I am massively confused. Are you considering the magazine the purview of the limited audience of enthusiasts or the mass cultural audience? It was my understanding that fiction magazines in the 1940s tended to cater to the latter and it was only comparatively recently (since the 1960s or so) that the magazine scene started to dwindle. Are you saying that the readership of fantasy expanded after LotR made it big? That's true enough, but that doesn't wipe away the influence of the authors who influenced Tolkien (and Moorcock, and Terry Brooks, and Jordan, and the rest of the people who rode the Tolkien boom), nor does it wipe away the way in which the pre-Tolkien readership's expectations shaped the fantasy genre.

"Science fiction" was added to the title because it wasn't viable as a fantasy magazine. That says to me it's part of an effort to promote fantasy, but that fantasy wasn't sufficiently popular to be sustain its own market at that point.

It says to me that fantasy fiction was sufficiently big to be recognised as something distinct from science fiction, but at point in time the fantasy audiences and SF audiences overlapped sufficiently that it just didn't make commercial sense to make a fantasy-only mag.
Andy G at 11:43 on 2010-06-08
@ Arthur: I agree with everything you say except the very last line, which suggests we've probably been arguing at cross-purposes:

But the readership as a whole can't be wrong.


I agree it couldn't be the case that everyone in the world is wrong about the meaning of a term, because the meaning is the way it is used by eveyone. But once this meaning is established, there are objective criteria for whether something fulfils this meaning or not. It's a bit fuzzier for literature, but I'm not saying that in every case it's possible for the entire readership to be wrong (because often edge cases will reveal the inadequacy of the categories as they stand, meaning categories need to be refined or replaced). Rather, I'm saying that it's possible in principle for the entire readership to be wrong *sometimes* about whether a particular works fulfils a certain category.
Arthur B at 11:51 on 2010-06-08
I agree it couldn't be the case that everyone in the world is wrong about the meaning of a term, because the meaning is the way it is used by eveyone. But once this meaning is established, there are objective criteria for whether something fulfils this meaning or not.

I think you just gave any linguists following the conversation a stroke.

The thing is the meaning is never established - not finally, it's never carved in stone. The recent sidetrack about secondary worlds is a case in point - in the late Victorian period they were kind of novel and usually required some sort of framing device to justify, then they became accepted, then they became almost required, at least as far as high fantasy and a significant amount of low fantasy is concerned.

If everyone changes their mind about where the line is drawn, you'd better suck it up and change with them, otherwise you just get left behind.

Rather, I'm saying that it's possible in principle for the entire readership to be wrong *sometimes* about whether a particular works fulfils a certain category.

Can you cite any examples where this has actually been the case?

I would suggest that what happens far more often is where you get edge cases, where the readership doesn't actually have an overall consensus when it comes to where a particular work sits. The readership as a whole can't be wrong, but the readership doesn't always reach a collective judgement - and it's precisely where you get that lack of consensus that you get the edge cases in the first place. In fact, I'd argue that edge cases (in the sense we've been using them here) are defined by a lack of an overall consensus in the readership regarding them.
Niall at 11:58 on 2010-06-08
Seriously, are you saying that A Song of Ice and Fire is somehow less of a mass commercial product than The Wheel of Time?


God yes. Martin sells about a quarter of what Jordan does.

but that doesn't wipe away the influence of the authors who influenced Tolkien (and Moorcock, and Terry Brooks, and Jordan, and the rest of the people who rode the Tolkien boom), nor does it wipe away the way in which the pre-Tolkien readership's expectations shaped the fantasy genre.


I never said it did. Let me try again. The fantasy audience pre-Tolkien/Ballantine wasn't big enough or, as you now agree, sufficiently separate from the science fiction audience (or the general fiction audience, for some of the writers later published in the BAF line) for works to be reliably sold via a fantasy genre to a fantasy readership. That doesn't mean there wasn't an audience for fantasy. It means that said audience wasn't loud or numerous enough to sustain a market.
Arthur B at 12:17 on 2010-06-08
God yes. Martin sells about a quarter of what Jordan does.

So is there a magic threshold at which point a book becomes "commercial fantasy" rather than "canonical fantasy"?

It means that said audience wasn't loud or numerous enough to sustain a market.

It wasn't loud or numerous enough to sustain a market for mass paperbacks. They bought plenty of magazines and fanzines. They paid Michael Moorcock's rent. And there was enough of a marketplace of ideas for the audience to decide what the fantasy genre was and wasn't.
Andy G at 12:32 on 2010-06-08
I think you just gave any linguists following the conversation a stroke.


I am a linguist, and I'm still stroke-free :p


The thing is the meaning is never established - not finally, it's never carved in stone.


Exactly! *Meaning* and the use of words changes rapidly. However, consider the following sentence:

"Grass is green"

The meaning of this sentence has been decided upon by the language community, and could change or be modified to cope with edge cases. However, what makes it *true* is objective facts about the grass.

The point I'm making is that when I say "The Lord of the Rings is fantasy", this DOESN'T mean "Everyone thinks the Lord of the Rings is fantasy" but "The Lord of the Rings fulfils the generally-agreed-upon criteria for being fantasy". It is a report about Lord of the Rings, not the content of people's minds.

Edge cases arise because meanings are never entirely settled or complete. However, it would be wrong to view every case as an edge case (which is essentially the postmodernist position), because language is useful most of time.
Arthur B at 12:48 on 2010-06-08
The point I'm making is that when I say "The Lord of the Rings is fantasy", this DOESN'T mean "Everyone thinks the Lord of the Rings is fantasy" but "The Lord of the Rings fulfils the generally-agreed-upon criteria for being fantasy". It is a report about Lord of the Rings, not the content of people's minds.

No it isn't! The generally-agreed-upon criteria only exist in people's minds! Where do you think the "agreement" comes from in the first place? How do you think the criteria are formulated? The two interpretations you've given for "The Lord of the Rings is fantasy" are just two ways of saying the same thing!

The difference between a statement like "Lord of the Rings is fantasy" and "Grass is green" is that "green" is reflective of an objective, physical property of grass which we can measure - you could, if you really wanted to, work out the general range of frequencies of visible light that grass reflects. There's no physical property of "fantasy", there's no Hobbitometer you can use to measure the exact proportion of fantasy there is in a book, and had the history of genre fiction be different, we might not even have a category we call "fantasy" at all. The generally agreed-upon criteria for fantasy are inventions of the human mind, based not on the exploration of any objective property of the the texts we regard as "fantasy", but on a subjective assessment of the general tendencies of a group of texts we happen to have lumped together.
Andy G at 13:23 on 2010-06-08
@ Arthur:

All that shows is that the criteria for the use of 'fantasy' aren't physical properties. It doesn't mean there are no criteria! But equally, it doesn't mean that there is some sort of weird essence. For instance, take 'chairs'. There is no essence or physical property shared by all chairs, and yet the term is not subjective - there ARE criteria relating to function and context. If there weren't, language wouldn't work!
Arthur B at 13:32 on 2010-06-08
All that shows is that the criteria for the use of 'fantasy' aren't physical properties. It doesn't mean there are no criteria!

But you haven't shown that the criteria aren't anything more than constructs in the mind of the readership as a whole either. The function of a fantasy novel has nothing to do with any objectively verifiable task it accomplishes (such as, to borrow the chair example, being able to take the weight of a seated person) and everything to do with how readers subjectively interpret it.
Andy G at 13:41 on 2010-06-08
@ Arthur: That's an extremely relativising view! Actually, chairs aren't defined simply by function: a flimsy chair is still a chair (there are chairs in art exhibitions which are designed not to support anyone's weight, for instance, or doll's house chairs). 'Fantasy' is useful as way of categorising on the basis of certain features being present in a given work. It's not subjective whether those features are there! Any more than it's subjective that the UK exists or that it's illegal to steal from shops! These things are rooted in actual practices and reality, not just in people's minds.

Dan H at 13:46 on 2010-06-08
It's important not to oversubjectivise the use of concepts, because although we define the *use* of concepts, it doesn't mean we can't be wrong when we use them (people defined the use of the term 'flat' but they were wrong about the earth being flat).


Were I feeling glib, I'd point out that it actually makes a lot of sense to treat the earth as flat - it's flat to a very good approximation on a local scale.

That said, I think you're right that we shouldn't over-subjectivize, the reason I pushed the subjectivity point in the original article was that the Steampunk Scholar seemed to be defining things over-objectively (seeming to insist that unless a particular set of elements were present in *literally every* steampunk text, that steampunk could not be considered a genre).

I'd also suggest that I think we're still talking at very slight cross-purposes. I'm not particularly interested in defining whether *individual texts* belong in any particular genre as much as I am in defining whether a particular genre can be usefully said to exist.

This is why I think "is it a section in bookshops" - while glib - is actually a useful guideline. It's not so much definitional as indicative: the fact that bookshops separate books into particular categories is strong evidence that those categories have a real, practical use (that use, primarily, being to help people find books they might want to read). It's not the only reason that a genre categorisation could be useful, but it's a major one.

To go back to a much earlier example, the reason we *don't* consider "books with an odd number of pages" and "books with an even number of pages" to be distinct genres is that nobody is interested in whether the number of pages in a book is odd or even. If there *was* an observable, large category of people who chose their reading material on this basis, then this itself would constitute evidence that "odd books" and "even books" should be considered distinct.
Arthur B at 13:47 on 2010-06-08
'Fantasy' is useful as way of categorising on the basis of certain features being present in a given work. It's not subjective whether those features are there!

Ah, but what is subjective is that those features, taken together, are part of a genre called "fantasy". It is subjective that secondary world high fantasy like Lord of the Rings is considered to be in the same general ballpark as postmodern occult thrillers like Last Call. It is subjective that modern-day stories of the supernatural which tend to be a bit scary are called "horror", whereas modern-day stories of the supernatural which aren't intended to be scary are called "fantasy".
Andy G at 14:45 on 2010-06-08
I think this disagreement has really boiled down into a quibble about the use of the word subjective. All I want to say is that the usefulness of a term such as 'fantasy' does depend on facts about the works it's being used to describe. Otherwise genre classifications would be entirely uninformative.

I think Arthur, you're using subjective to mean something more like 'non-essential'. The cake of the world doesn't come pre-sliced, we cut it up ourselves in line with our purposes, but having cut it up it is an objective fact that the cherry is on this slice rather than that. Reality is more complex because the same cake can be cut in all sorts of different ways at the same times so we need to be sure which way of cutting we're talking about, and there's the tricky issue of all the crumbly edges.
Andy G at 14:46 on 2010-06-08
Re: Flatness. Interestingly, even something as 'objective' as flatness does depend on a purpose of use - the same concept of flatness is applied differently if we're talking about a patch of ground, the shape of the earth, or a mirror on a high-precision space telescope.
Arthur B at 15:11 on 2010-06-08
Reality is more complex because the same cake can be cut in all sorts of different ways at the same times so we need to be sure which way of cutting we're talking about, and there's the tricky issue of all the crumbly edges.

That's exactly it. Where we choose to cut is to a certain extent arbitrary, and is certainly subjective, in the sense that there's no ordained "correct" place to make the cut.

If we all woke up tomorrow with total amnesia when it came to genre and had to sit down and categories the fiction available to us, we might end up devising the exact same genres that we currently see. Or we might end up coming up with an entirely different set of genres. Perhaps that would be more likely - after all, currently we define some genres based on the interactions we expect to see in them (romance) and some genres based on the setting features we expect to see (steampunk), whereas if you tasked someone to sit down and come up with a system of fictional genres from scratch they'd be likely to be more consistent about the sort of criteria they'd use. (They'd cut the cake into nice even sections with cuts going through the middle, rather than slashing at it in a haphazard fashion.) You could end up walking into a bookshop and seeing shelf labels like "Romance", "Revenge", "Pursuit", "Mystery", and "Yet Another Fucking Hero's Journey".
Andy G at 15:23 on 2010-06-08
@ Arthur: Well I agree with all that. Except that that's not what 'subjective' means :p
Arthur B at 15:40 on 2010-06-08
I was always taught that "objective" is that stuff which doesn't change when someone else is looking at it and "subjective" is everything else...
Andy G at 15:41 on 2010-06-08
Yes but the cake is cut even when nobody can see it :)
Arthur B at 15:43 on 2010-06-08
What? No! No it isn't! If nobody was looking not only would nobody cut the cake, but there wouldn't be a cake to begin with!

With one sentence you have taken us from placid agreement into bloodshot-eyed argument yet again.
Andy G at 15:54 on 2010-06-08
Hee hee maybe the cake metaphor is becoming unhelpful ...

I define objective as being 'available to everyone', while subjective means 'valid only for a given individual'. So for instance, indefinable inner sensations and tastes about food are subjective. Things to do with language, concepts and terminology are objective, because they are necessarily shared.
Andy G at 15:58 on 2010-06-08
I would say there's also another distinction between 'raw reality' and the constructed concepts that are applied to it, but that's a different kind of distinction.
Arthur B at 16:10 on 2010-06-08
I define objective as being 'available to everyone', while subjective means 'valid only for a given individual'. So for instance, indefinable inner sensations and tastes about food are subjective. Things to do with language, concepts and terminology are objective, because they are necessarily shared.

I think your theory that language is objective is somewhat torpedoed by the fact that we can't agree about what "subjective" or "objective" mean. ;)

For me, I tend to go with wikipedia's definition (the ultimate subjective source!) of objectivity referring to things which are "mind-independent", rather than things which come down to personal judgement. The thing is, I think that there are some things which are subjective and come down to personal judgement, but which at the same time are the subject of a general consensus on the part of the readership (like "fantasy is like this, horror is like that"). Just because lots of people come to the same subjective conclusion about something doesn't mean there's an objective reality behind that idea - it just means that one particular subjective conclusion is especially compelling.

To be massively pretentious for a moment*: it's like Plato's analogy of the cave, with the shadows on the wall and stuff. The physical objects casting the shadows are objectively real. The people inside the caves' interpretation of the shadows are subjective. And here's the kicker - sometimes shadows appear on the walls of the cave which have no objective source. Everyone in the cave can see the shadows and interpret them, but there's no concrete reality behind them.

*I claim that this is fair game, actually, since Dan raised the World of Forms in the original article. ;)
Dan H at 16:20 on 2010-06-08
I think I'm actually with Andy on subjectivity vs objectivity, it's just that I think we're getting into a tricky distinction between "an objective definition" and "an objectively correct definition".

If I define Fantasy as "any book which contains at least one dragon" then the Hobbit is objectively fantasy, and the Lord of the Rings is objectively not fantasy, by my definiton. My definition is a bit crap, but it is still "objective".

Unless you start pontificating about what counts as a dragon...
Arthur B at 16:33 on 2010-06-08
If I define Fantasy as "any book which contains at least one dragon" then the Hobbit is objectively fantasy, and the Lord of the Rings is objectively not fantasy, by my definiton.

Actually it's an edge case because it depends on whether you count the appendices. ;)

There's also the issue that no two people are actually using the same objective definition when considering this sort of thing, so it all comes back to individual judgement again (except this time the judgement is all about which objective rule you choose to follow).

You can objectively say "here is a text" and objectively identify features in the text, of course, that goes without saying. But I don't think classifying a book as fantasy on the basis of features you've identified is a strictly objective call for two reasons:

- There is no objective ideal of fantasy, no platonic fantasy novel from which you can derive rules for classifying novels as fantasy or not-fantasy*.

- As a consequence of that, there is no generally-agreed on set of rules for defining whether or not something is fantasy. It's more like a balancing act between those features that suggest fantasy and those that don't support it, and everyone's mental scales are calibrated differently.

Basically I don't think you can get an objectively correct definition of fantasy - such a thing would be entirely too prescriptive to work. You can, of course, cook up an objective rule. But your decision to use that rule in the first place is, itself, subjective.
Shim at 16:40 on 2010-06-08
I think you just gave any linguists following the conversation a stroke.

I am a linguist, and I'm still stroke-free :p

I saw black for a couple of seconds.

Otherwise I'm just lurking and occasionally scanning the discussion. To be honest, I mostly either don't understand the discussion or don't care very much because it turns into philosophy. However...

Broadly speaking, I would say: any word is defined by its users. Its meaning also depends on who uses it, when and why they use it. However, once you have a meaning in mind, it is possible to say whether (in your opinion, for the current purpose) something matches that meaning, even if you can't measure it. But almost anything is subject to debate : it's all very well to say you could, if you really wanted to, work out the general range of frequencies of visible light that grass reflects, but exactly what counts as "green" is up for argument. Different cultures and languages define colours differently. Grass, in Welsh, is in fact described as "blue"; even in English, a "grey" horse might be white, "white" people are pink, and "red" hair is orange.

Also, I'd say that the characteristics of "genre" depend on which genre you're talking about. In romance or thrillers, the genre broadly defines the kind of plots you can expect. In science fiction or fantasy, it broadly defines the expectations you should have for the world. For most people, I'd say genre is a way to get a feel for the kind of book something is, and it's mostly to help them decide whether they want to read it. I agree with this:
Ah, whereas I would say that fantasy didn't inhabit a separate niche from sci-fi until people started *seeing* it as a separate niche.
Bookshops have now begun classifying things as "Dark Fantasy". Those books haven't suddenly changed, it's just that It Has Been Decided that that's a useful way to categorise certain books.

But then is it possible for an author to write something which he or she considers to be science fiction (or fantasy, or whatever) even though nobody else agrees with them?

Yes. Because there are criteria for the use of categories such as fantasy, it is possible to be wrong.


What? No! I mean... okay, start again. It is physically possible for an author to write that book, yes. It doesn't mean that it is science fiction, etc. Meaning is constructed by the users of the language. If nobody thinks a book is science fiction, it isn't, just like if people think dolphins are fish, they are. A decade later, people might think it is science fiction, and now they're right. That's how language works.
Andy G at 17:03 on 2010-06-08
@ Arthur: Pretentiousness is OK, because I'm just stealing the ideas of philosophers without name-dropping ;)

As a consequence of that, there is no generally-agreed on set of rules for defining whether or not something is fantasy. It's more like a balancing act between those features that suggest fantasy and those that don't support it, and everyone's mental scales are calibrated differently.


You see, I would argue there are generally-agreed-upon criteria for the use of 'fantasy', it's just that the criteria don't take the form of a precise rule or algorithm. They also don't need to - the fact that the term 'fantasy' works well enough is evidenced by the fact that we get what each other mean when we talk about it.

@ Shimmin:

Please don't have a stroke! I entirely agree that meaning is constructed and that categories are devised based on usefulness. It's just that they're useful because of the kind of distinctions they allow us to make on the basis of things out there in the world, not just in our heads.

if people think dolphins are fish, they are


It depends on how the term 'fish' is being used. If it's being used to distinguish sea animals with fins from land animals, then a dolphin is a fish. But if it's being used to distinguish fish from mammals, reptiles, etc., then a dolphin is not a fish and it never was.

There's a great phrase from a philosopher who argues that if we detach our concepts from reality entirely, all our conceptualising becomes mere 'frictionless spinning in the void'. When we talk about dolphins or books, we are talking about something out there in the world, and the way things are in the world can fail to meet the criteria for fulfilling our concepts.
Arthur B at 17:24 on 2010-06-08
You see, I would argue there are generally-agreed-upon criteria for the use of 'fantasy', it's just that the criteria don't take the form of a precise rule or algorithm.

But if we have somewhat compatible views on what fantasy is, that just means that we happen to have arbitrarily selected the same rules of thumb to make the call. They may be clearly better than the sillier rules, like "fantasy must have dragons". But we can't say they are objectively superior to other rules which are less obviously daft, and it's really down to our personal tastes which rules we use and which we ignore (and often we use a different set of rules for each individual text!).

And the fact that people do have raging arguments over what fantasy is, and whether a particular book is fantasy, suggests to me that there is less consensus than you're asserting there is.
Shim at 17:31 on 2010-06-08
@ Shimmin:

Please don't have a stroke! I entirely agree that meaning is constructed and that categories are devised based on usefulness. It's just that they're useful because of the kind of distinctions they allow us to make on the basis of things out there in the world, not just in our heads.

Yeah, basically I agree with you. The first reading of But once this meaning is established, there are objective criteria for whether something fulfils this meaning or not bothered me a bit, but I decided on reflection it's actually roughly what I said above.

if people think dolphins are fish, they are

It depends on how the term 'fish' is being used. If it's being used to distinguish sea animals with fins from land animals, then a dolphin is a fish. But if it's being used to distinguish fish from mammals, reptiles, etc., then a dolphin is not a fish and it never was.

With the dolphin/fish example, what I meant there was, the meaning of "fish" used to be basically about appearance and behaviour and there wasn't the mammal vs. fish distinction. The distinctions people make changed over time, so now most people wouldn't usually consider dolphins fish, whereas at one time they would. So in, oh, C12th Britain, a dolphin objectively was a fish. Now, it isn't.
Andy G at 17:47 on 2010-06-08
But if we have somewhat compatible views on what fantasy is, that just means that we happen to have arbitrarily selected the same rules of thumb to make the call. They may be clearly better than the sillier rules, like "fantasy must have dragons". But we can't say they are objectively superior to other rules which are less obviously daft, and it's really down to our personal tastes which rules we use and which we ignore (and often we use a different set of rules for each individual text!).


I don't think individuals usually do select their own definitions for terms - rather, they're inherited from the ways that they are generally used. That's what makes them useful as tools for communication. Objective superiority doesn't really come into it - rather, it's a question of people being able to make useful distinctions and understand each other.

There can be local disagreements about the use of terms, but that's not especially significant or unique to 'fantasy'. You could imagine an argument about whether a telescope mirror is 'flat' or not. These kind of disagreements combine discussion of the purpose of the categorisation, features of the objects being discussed, and the kinds of criteria used for this category.

So in, oh, C12th Britain, a dolphin objectively was a fish. Now, it isn't.


Well, it objectively was a fish by their definition, and not by ours. It's all a matter of the purpose of categorisation, because there is no essence of fishness.
Shim at 18:58 on 2010-06-08
Well, it objectively was a fish by their definition, and not by ours. It's all a matter of the purpose of categorisation, because there is no essence of fishness.

And by the same token, when N Author writes the first "sci-fi" novel without spaceships, and it is universally rejected as sci-fi, it isn't sci-fi. It might be sci-fi five years later, if the common definition has shifted, but at the time, it isn't. The readers aren't wrong.
Andy G at 19:10 on 2010-06-08

And by the same token, when N Author writes the first "sci-fi" novel without spaceships, and it is universally rejected as sci-fi, it isn't sci-fi. It might be sci-fi five years later, if the common definition has shifted, but at the time, it isn't. The readers aren't wrong.


It depends on the criteria for sci-fi they're using - because they could be misapplying their own criteria. If somebody in the Middle Ages thought that dolphins weren't fish because they came onto land to give birth, they would be wrong by the criteria of their own usage.

I'm not really saying this is likely, because concepts like sci-fi are tailored to fit the kind of things they're describing. I just want to flag up that there is, in principle, a gap between the meaning and the truth.
Andy G at 19:38 on 2010-06-08
Hmm or maybe it's more like picking players for a football team ... there's an objective truth about who it's most useful to pick, but whether or not they're on the team is a factor of whether they're picked or not.
Jamie Johnston at 21:31 on 2010-06-08
Reasons I'm going to drop out of this discussion:

1: It's moving way too quickly to keep up with when one has no access to the internet during working hours. [Boggles.]

2: My attempt to derail it into talking about some other aspects of the article have failed abysmally. [Sulks.]

3: Most importantly, I think it absolutely vital to do nothing further to distract Dan from writing the novel about the robot-loving werewolf-chasing anti-corporate wizard detective on an airship. [Can't wait!]

;)
Shim at 23:11 on 2010-06-08
I think Jamie probably has the right idea. Actually, two right ideas - I liked your techno-fantasy definition, I just didn't have anything to add and was derailed by linguistics. Actually, three right ideas. I will be very sad if we don't get any technofantastical romance mysteries now.
Andy G at 23:41 on 2010-06-08
Reasons I'm going to drop out of this discussion:

My brain is melting.

I would just like to disown my previous comment about the analogy with football teams. It's nothing like picking players for a football team.
Arthur B at 23:54 on 2010-06-08
I think it's clear to anyone who's actually read this far that my brain melted fairly early on in this discussion. So I'll drop too.

/passes cigarettes around. Did the Earth move for you? And for you? And for you, and you...
Dan H at 09:58 on 2010-06-09
Since folks have bowed out of the "what is genre" discussion I thought I'd resurrect Jamie's derailing attempt:

Jamie says, of techno-fantasy:

One could say that Star Trek implicitly asks us to imagine science developing from its current state to a future discovery of dilithium (even if it doesn't ask us to think very hard about it), whereas a steampunk work involving a space-ship powered by phlogiston or steam would be implicitly asking us to throw out current scientific understanding and nor would it depend on the suggestion that we may one day discover phlogiston or work out how to power space-ships with steam: the implicit request would presumably be 'imagine a world where actual physics (not just our understanding of physics) is different or just kind of unimportant', which is also the implicit request of much fantasy fiction


I think that's not a bad distinction, but I think some things which would be commonly classified as "Science Fiction" still slip through the cracks. Star Trek, for example, does not just involve us positing the discovery of dilithium, it involves us positing *a scientific framework in which the concept of dilithium is remotely plausible*. As far as I understand it, dilithium is a rare mineral which somehow "is" or "contains" antimatter, yet somehow manages to exist in a matter universe without annihilating. This is no more plausible than the discovery of phlogiston or caloric.

In many ways, I actually think the barrier between technofantasy and sf is - ironically - an aesthetic one. I'd view a lot of Warhammer 40K technology as "technofantasy" for example.
Andy G at 12:26 on 2010-06-09
Separate point entirely - I was wondering if anyone thinks it might be a good idea to have some sort of threading system to prevent entire discussions being derailed by people without jobs/with unfettered internet access at work? Or do I just need to show a bit more restraint? ;)
Shim at 12:41 on 2010-06-09
Star Trek, for example, does not just involve us positing the discovery of dilithium, it involves us positing *a scientific framework in which the concept of dilithium is remotely plausible*. As far as I understand it, dilithium is a rare mineral which somehow "is" or "contains" antimatter, yet somehow manages to exist in a matter universe without annihilating. This is no more plausible than the discovery of phlogiston or caloric.

I'd like to try a slightly different version. Dilithium in Star Trek is basically handwaving (and I'd argue, unhelpful handwaving) for "FLT and teleporters work, we don't know how, deal with it". The basic idea of science just getting better remains, even if the details are a bit daft (because, well, it's future tech so we don't know how it might work). Steampunk, as Jamie says, tends towards alternative scientific laws that are simply incompatible with reality, and require an alternative universe. And yes, I know FLT and teleporters aren't the best example here...

Okay, what about these - sci-fi, fantasy, something else?:
* Special implants make it possible to remember everything perfectly. You can see or hear anything exactly as you did at the time, and these memories can be extracted to another person or a computer. How does this affect society?
* Fairies are real, and will do work for you if you leave a bowl of milk out. There is a genuine possibility of being taken down to their kingdom and trapped for years, hexed or blessed, or having your child swapped for a fairy child. They might give out money that turns into leaves overnight. How has this affected society?
* People can conjure fire, light and drinkable water from nothing. How has this affected society?
* Wormhole-driven spaceships allow FLT and people can be repaired after injury or death based on regular molecular scans. The crew of a spaceship learn of an alien race that poses a deadly threat to humanity and set out on a quest to escape its attacks, gather intelligence and equipment to infiltrate its homeworld, and then defeat it.
* Aether-clockwork servitors were developed in the 1780s and quickly became universal for industrial work. Class divisions were reduced because servitors did the manual work. Aetheric communications devices spread across the globe, improving understanding and reducing nationalistic feeling. The major slave trade never occurred. Imperialist expansion was reduced. What does the world look like?
* The captain of a pirate airship discovers a plot by brain-transplanted kangaroos to spread lycanthropy across the world, allowing them to seize power during the night when people can't control their behaviour.
Guy at 12:55 on 2010-06-09
Some very quick thoughts on genre and word-meaning - superquick, I promise! If we think of words as meaning what they are collectively understood to mean, that gives them both flexibility (a whole bunch of people develop the idea that "with" means "together" instead of "against", and lo, it does!) and stiffness (in that I personally have no power to change the meaning of "with" back again, because it's what is collectively believed, not what I believe, that matters). Considered that way, any relatively new "genre label" will have some weird properties when compared with other words. The number of people who are aware of and care about that label will be relatively small, which means that flexibility will be relatively high, because a small group means less "linguistic inertia". And yet most of the people who are aware of the label "steampunk" will have strong feelings about "steampunk" quite unlike most people's feelings about the word "fish".In a sense those strong feelings are probably the major force behind the word gaining "cultural momentum"... but then if it *really* gains momentum (like the term "generation X" did) then its meaning gets taken out of the hands of that passionate core and it will end up being used for something else. Hmm. OK, I promised quick, I finish there. :P
Dan H at 14:31 on 2010-06-09
@Guy

I think that's basically right, and it's more or less what I mean when I talk about genres being defined by "the market" - it's a broad consensus that is most conveniently reflected in the way texts get shelved in bookstores.

In practice, though, it gets more complicated, because specialists will often need a meaning for a term which diverges subtly (or indeed wildly) from the "consensus" definition. This is okay, as long as everybody understands that's what's going on but frequently specialists get all overprotective, and insist that their definition is the "right" one and that people who use the other definition are being "careless" or saying X when they "really mean" Y.

It gets even more complicated because sometimes the specialists are right, and sometimes they aren't. Ironically you then have to plead cultural consensus *again* to define whether something is best understood *in terms* of cultural consensus, or best understood in terms of a definition by specialists.
Arthur B at 14:57 on 2010-06-09
I think that's basically right, and it's more or less what I mean when I talk about genres being defined by "the market" - it's a broad consensus that is most conveniently reflected in the way texts get shelved in bookstores.

So it would be fair to say that you were mainly referring to the "marketplace of ideas", and the way interactions there manifest in the commercial market?
Dan H at 15:10 on 2010-06-09
Sorry, just skimming this thread and caught the following:

Seriously, are you saying that A Song of Ice and Fire is somehow less of a mass commercial product than The Wheel of Time?


God yes. Martin sells about a quarter of what Jordan does


Now I confess I'm not a paid up member of sf academia and my position here therefore counts for nothing, but I'm pretty sure that you can't say that one book is "less commercial" than another simply because it sells less well.

I also find it ironic that sf academics apparently make the same arbitrary value judgments about texts that they get snippy about people making about their genre.
Arthur B at 15:35 on 2010-06-09
Now I confess I'm not a paid up member of sf academia and my position here therefore counts for nothing, but I'm pretty sure that you can't say that one book is "less commercial" than another simply because it sells less well.

Also, it's worth pointing out that a quarter of "lots and lots and lots and lots" is still "lots". If you set the bar for "commercial fantasy" so high that even Martin doesn't qualify, then barely any authors' work qualifies as "commercial".

So not only is "less sales = less commercial" a silly rule to apply to begin with, in this case it's being applied in an especially silly way.
Andy G at 15:38 on 2010-06-09
Ooh this is nearly the most-discussed article on Ferretbrain!
Dan H at 15:44 on 2010-06-09
I'd like to try a slightly different version. Dilithium in Star Trek is basically handwaving (and I'd argue, unhelpful handwaving) for "FLT and teleporters work, we don't know how, deal with it". The basic idea of science just getting better remains, even if the details are a bit daft (because, well, it's future tech so we don't know how it might work). Steampunk, as Jamie says, tends towards alternative scientific laws that are simply incompatible with reality, and require an alternative universe. And yes, I know FLT and teleporters aren't the best example here...


I might even press for a simpler definition, which is simply that regardless of how a piece of technology is supposed to function, it can probably be considered "technofantasy" if the *form* of the technology is self-consciously archaic.

So for example I'd argue that most of the stuff in the 40K universe is technofantasy, because no how their spaceships are supposed to *work* they *look* like flying cathedrals.
Niall at 16:03 on 2010-06-09
I'm pretty sure that you can't say that one book is "less commercial" than another simply because it sells less well.


Sure you can. "How well something sells" is a perfectly good metric of a work's commercial-ness, and one used all the time by booksellers. This is not to say there aren't other metrics, such as whether something looks like it's written to meet a perceived mass market. If you prefer that sort of metric, that's fine, although I'd say Robert Jordan still comes out as more commercial than George RR Martin.

Also, it's worth pointing out that a quarter of "lots and lots and lots and lots" is still "lots"


Of course. But I didn't say Martin isn't commerical, just that he's less commercial than Robert Jordan, and more respected among readers (which is all "canonical" means). Which is accurate.

Although hey, if we're getting to the cheap shot stage, I feel obliged to point out that Dan's protestations that he has absolutely no desire to convince sf academics of anything would be a lot more convincing if he hadn't just written an article arguing with someone's academic study of sf...

(Just doing my part to get this thread to the most-discussed spot! Did you know the Library of Congress now has a subject heading for steampunk? Not a top-level one, admittedly, but still.)
Arthur B at 16:28 on 2010-06-09
Sure you can. "How well something sells" is a perfectly good metric of a work's commercial-ness, and one used all the time by booksellers.

I think you are messily conflating two different ideas: how well a book actually sells, and the extent to which the author has consciously crafted it as a commercial product. If we're actually analysing the content of a book - and that's what people look at when they decide what genre it belongs to - the former is spectacularly irrelevant.

Lord of the Rings sells spectacularly well, but actually selling the story to other people was the last thing on Tolkien's mind. (Heck, even the Silmarillion gets decent sales, and much of it is material Tolkien never seriously considered releasing to the public.) Any metric by which you end up saying that Tolkien is more commercial than Jordan is patently absurd; he may be more commercially successful, but he had a vastly less commercial approach when he actually wrote the damn thing.

Of course. But I didn't say Martin isn't commerical, just that he's less commercial than Robert Jordan, and more respected among readers (which is all "canonical" means). Which is accurate.

As far as "more respected" goes, he's on a downward slide at the moment. Give it five years. ;)

As far as "less commercial" goes, Martin writes multi-volume multiple-viewpoint fantasy with lots of blood and violence. He is active in licensing RPGs, art books, miniatures, figurines, calendars, TV series, comic books and diverse other spin-offs. His subject matter is extremely commercial considering the tastes of the late-1990s/early-2000s fantasy audience, and his treatment of the subject matter outside of the novels suggests an eager willingness to exploit it for commercial purposes which at least equals Jordan's own.

About the only non-commercial thing he's done is take an extraordinarily long time to finish A Dance of Dragons. And even then, he did sort of parcel out A Feast For Crows and release it to feed a hungry audience rather than actually finishing the book and deciding how to split the volumes up from that standpoint. And the wait does pretty much guarantee that vast numbers of people will buy the book when it comes out, even if it does turn out to be as intensely anticlimactic as A Feast For Crows.
Arthur B at 16:31 on 2010-06-09
PS:

if we're getting to the cheap shot stage, I feel obliged to point out that Dan's protestations that he has absolutely no desire to convince sf academics of anything would be a lot more convincing if he hadn't just written an article arguing with someone's academic study of sf...

I don't get the logic here. I throw a cheap shot at you, you throw one at Dan? Your aim seems a bit off there.
Sister Magpie at 16:34 on 2010-06-09
On the subject of what genre is, I'm reminded of something genre writer once said, which was that a genre, at least the sci fi/fantasy genre, tended to be "much bigger on the inside than it was on the outside."

Basically, he said that once you got labelled a genre writer everything you wrote was considered part of that genre, even if it really shouldn't have been. He wasn't complaining about this, iirc, but appreciating sci fi/fantasy readers for being so flexible and allowing people to try new things. He was in that case talking about genre as a comfortable space in which he could experiment once he was securely there.
Niall at 16:40 on 2010-06-09
I think you are messily conflating two different ideas: how well a book actually sells, and the extent to which the author has consciously crafted it as a commercial product.


Well, I'm saying those two things represent different ways of assessing how commercial something is. I'm not sure I'm conflating them.

Let me go back to the original comment. I picked Martin and Jordan as examples to support the idea that secondary-world fantasy of the kind popularized by Tolkien is the dominant arm of the fantasy genre, or at least has been between the late eighties and at least the middle of this decade. I picked Martin because he has been massively influential on other writers, is nominated for things like Hugo awards by readers, and is well-regarded by critics; I picked Jordan because his books sell well enough that they subsidise the largest genre publisher in America, but is not nominated for awards, and not well-regarded by critics. As a shorthand for those reasons, I labelled Martin "canonical" and Jordan "mass-commercial". As I say, this doesn't mean Martin isn't commercial -- I imagine his new one will hit the New York Times bestseller list for a couple of weeks, when it appears, and you're quite right about all his other activities. But I do think he's a different kind of evidence for the dominance of secondary-world fantasy than Jordan; that is, what's notable about Martin when assessing his contribution to fantasy won't be his sales so much as it will be his quality. With Jordan, the sales -- and the consequences of that, like new readers -- are the contribution, pretty much.

But at the time, it seemed easier to write "canonical" and "mass-commercial"...!
Niall at 16:41 on 2010-06-09
I don't get the logic here.


Oh, the logic was that my comment was responding to both Dan and you -- your comment building on his -- and I thought both of them were a bit cheap. But yes, I could have made that clearer.
Andy G at 16:45 on 2010-06-09
Basically, he said that once you got labelled a genre writer everything you wrote was considered part of that genre, even if it really shouldn't have been.


I remember thinking that with regard to Lavinia, by Ursula le Guin. I have to admit, I have reluctantly filed it under fantasy/sci-fi on my personal bookshelf ...
Arthur B at 17:36 on 2010-06-09
Well, I'm saying those two things represent different ways of assessing how commercial something is. I'm not sure I'm conflating them.

You're conflating them because you're sometimes using "commercial" to mean "commercially successful" and sometimes you mean "intentionally constructed using a commercially-minded approach". As I explained, those are entirely different things; I would also argue that in common usage saying something like "commercial text" tends to imply the latter far more than it does the former.

Think of the greasy-haired teenager whining about his favourite band landing a major record deal, and how they're going to go "commercial" and "sell out" and dilute their signature sound with more mainstream elements to appeal to a wider audience. That's what "commercial text" implies to me.
Niall at 17:40 on 2010-06-09
sometimes you mean "intentionally constructed using a commercially-minded approach"


Where did I do that? Genuine question, I can't spot it, and apologies if I did. I thought I'd been quite consistent in only using it in the sales sense, I just replied to Dan that I know this sense exists.
Arthur B at 17:51 on 2010-06-09
OK, now I'm even more confused. What do the sales of an individual text matter to which genre people place it in? People make that sort of call based on the content of the text, not its sales, and that content doesn't change if the text sells five copies or five million.
Niall at 18:36 on 2010-06-09
Well, now my question is, where was I arguing that sales had a bearing on which genre something went in? My argument was meant to be: in 1961 Michael Moorcock didn't even have a clear term for this Tolkien-style secondary-world stuff; nowadays (or for the last twenty years possibly now changing as a result of the rise of PR/UF blah blah) it is the dominant form of "stuff marketed as fantasy" as indicated by the huge sales of Robert Jordan (so it is dominant in terms of number of books sold) and the huge praise received by George RR Martin (so it is widely recognised as important in terms of quality).
Niall at 18:51 on 2010-06-09
Not to open another can of worms, but I just hit this in the article I'm reading, published 2005--

Although cyberpunk began as a literary movement, it is often referred to as more than that -- it is, rather, a concept reflected in many different disciplines sharing a similarity of approaches and attitudes.


-- and had to laugh.
Arthur B at 19:54 on 2010-06-09
...I don't get it.
Dan H at 20:07 on 2010-06-09

Although hey, if we're getting to the cheap shot stage, I feel obliged to point out that Dan's protestations that he has absolutely no desire to convince sf academics of anything would be a lot more convincing if he hadn't just written an article arguing with someone's academic study of sf...


An argument which was based on the fact that the study was poorly constructed, poorly defined, and logically fallacious. He is, quite simply, wrong. This has nothing to do with academia, and everything to do with people being wrong on the internet.

If I was remotely interested in sf academia I'd treat the Steampunk Scholar's opinions with far more weight - I would assume that his analysis was grounded in an academic understanding which I don't share, and would respect it accordingly. But I don't - I just see it as something some guy said, which I disagreed with.

I'm afraid I don't see much value in "sf academia" at all. I don't read secondary criticism. I certainly haven't read any of the books you keep citing, and I don't think that having read them would improve my understanding of the genre in any way. I'm afraid I just don't think science fiction is that worth studying.
Niall at 21:47 on 2010-06-09
everything to do with people being wrong on the internet.


129 comments say you're not wrong about that, at least! :-)
Dan H at 21:55 on 2010-06-09
129 comments say you're not wrong about that, at least! :-)


I think, to be honest, we're mostly agreeing loudly. It's just that we tend to be talking slightly at cross purposes.

I'm pretty much in agreement with you on Martin vs Jordan, for example, it's just that I read your use of "canonical" and "commercial" as having an implicit value judgment (ironically equivalent to "literary" and "genre") if you'd used "well respected" and "popular" I wouldn't have had an issue.
Wardog at 09:24 on 2010-06-10
Although hey, if we're getting to the cheap shot stage, I feel obliged to point out that Dan's protestations that he has absolutely no desire to convince sf academics of anything would be a lot more convincing if he hadn't just written an article arguing with someone's academic study of sf...


Yes but the audience was readers of Ferretbrain - who may have, in the rest of their lives, some connection to academia but I hope recognise that we are here to talk about that stuff that interests us *because* it interests us not because we somehow think discussion is, in itself, inherently validating.

This is site where people talk; it's not wannabe-academe.

Also, I don't know about Dan here but if I wanted to catch the eye of the academic community I would at the very least start by not publishing on my website.
Niall at 11:42 on 2010-06-10
Dan: yeah, we're obviously coming from very different perspectives. I'll try to keep an eye on my vocabulary in the future.

Kyra: I said it was a cheap shot! But since you've responded seriously, slightly less cheaply, from where I'm sitting a few of the comments in this thread have seemed to edge towards "we have opinions! We don't care what people who have actually studied these questions think" -- which I'm afraid makes it feel precisely like the discussion is perceived as, in itself, inherently validating, as opposted to an attempt to extend or explore anyone's understanding of the topic at hand. Plus, it's an attitude I'm sensitive to at the best of times, still more so when it's a subject close to my heart and I'm about to go on a three-day seminar...

All of which is in turn to say (a) apologies for tetchiness on my part at various points in the thread, and (b) I'm going to be offline for the next few days, so I have to bow out now anyway.
Arthur B at 11:54 on 2010-06-10
a few of the comments in this thread have seemed to edge towards "we have opinions! We don't care what people who have actually studied these questions think"

For my part, it's not so much that I don't care what some "SF academics" think, it's just that I don't think being an "SF academic" makes your opinions inherently more valid than the opinions of anyone who's read a lot of SF and has given the subject some thought.

If an SF academic said something I agreed with, I'd be happy to agree with them. But if an SF academic says something which I don't agree with, I'm not going to kowtow and give them the benefit of the doubt just because they're in academia.
Niall at 12:05 on 2010-06-10
it's just that I don't think being an "SF academic" makes your opinions inherently more valid than the opinions of anyone who's read a lot of SF and has given the subject some thought.


Sure -- since I myself am not an academic, just someone who's read a lot of sf and given the subject some thought, that's where I'm coming from as well. I read the secondary literature because I enjoy it, it's my hobby. Where I differ from you is that I will give the benefit of the doubt to academics in the field -- or to full-time critics like John Clute -- on the grounds that they've almost certainly read more widely than I have, and given the subject more thought than I have.
Arthur B at 12:14 on 2010-06-10
But isn't that kind of fanboyish? I take the stance that if someone who is more well-read than me and has given more thought to the subject than I have still can't come up with an argument that convinces me then I absolutely shouldn't give them the benefit of the doubt.

If their opinion is genuinely superior to my own they should be able to persuade me of its merits. If they can't, they're either bad at explaining their ideas (an unwelcome but common trait in academics) or the ideas themselves are just plain unsound - or at the very least aren't any more sound than anyone else's.
Niall at 13:06 on 2010-06-10
I'd distinguish between arguments, assertions and facts, I guess. Absolutely, arguments have to stand or fall on their merits -- half the fun of reading secondary literature is arguing back, and some of the academics I enjoy most are people I think are wrongheads, but who provoke interesting thoughts. Assertions I'm more likely to allow if they come from someone with an established record of good arguments, or from someone a trusted source tells me has such a record -- at a certain point you just have to accept some assertions if you're going to get anywhere. A trusted source could be a person or an institution. And facts I will tend to accept from an authoritative source until I have a good reason not to do so. Such sources, again, could be a person or could be a text like the Clute/Nicholls encyclopedia. I guess my feeling about some of the this thread -- and I certainly acknowledge there's an element of personal bruised-ego here, in that I clearly failed to make the case well enough -- is that there was scepticism that authoritative sources or established arguments even needed to be considered.

All that said, there are certainly a few specific academics I'm fanboyish about, most of whom I've linked to at some point in this thread -- such as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Farah Mendlesohn, Gary K Wolfe -- because they've proved to me that they know what they're talking about, and they're enjoyable writers in their own right. And I recommend them in that light -- I'd be genuinely interested to see what anyone here would make of Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, for instance, or the Mendlesohn/James Brief History of Fantasy.

And now I really must get work done, or god knows when I'll actually leave!
Arthur B at 13:12 on 2010-06-10
I guess my feeling about some of the this thread -- and I certainly acknowledge there's an element of personal bruised-ego here, in that I clearly failed to make the case well enough -- is that there was scepticism that authoritative sources or established arguments even needed to be considered.

I think here's where the culture-dissonance happened. FB seems to me to be the sort of place where we spend more time talking about our own opinions and ideas than we do pointing at other people's material and saying "check them out, they're authoritative they are".
Dan H at 15:41 on 2010-06-10
Re: Assertions, arguments and facts.

I think you're right to distinguish between them, but I don't think you're right to base your position on them on the source. All three of them, from my perspective, have to stand on their own merits.

Facts are the simplest example here. Something is either a fact or it isn't. To cite an earlier example, it is (probably) a fact that Robert Jordan sells more books than George R. R. Martin - there's real data about this and you can look it up. The data might be wrong, and your soruces might be misled, but it's a provable fact, something that you can test independently.

Assertions are things like "1984 is science fiction" or "Steampunk is characterised by neo-Victorianism, technofantasy, and retro-futurism". An assertion you also either accept or reject. One *might* be persuaded to accept an assertion by its source, but I personally would consider that to be poor logic. I would far rather either an accept an assertion or reject it, and either way keep clear in my mind the notion that it is an assertion.

There is, of course, sometimes overlap between "facts" and "assertions" because what some people will hold as facts, others will hold as matters of opinion. Furthermore, some things will technically be matters of fact, but be untestable or unprovable ("God Exists" could be considered a statement of fact - since either God exists or he doesn't - or an assertion). For the sake of simplicity I'd generally use "assertion" to describe anything that is even remotely controversial.

Then there's arguments. Arguments use logical frameworks to put together assertions and facts to reach conclusions. Accepting or rejecting an argument generally involves accepting both the assertions and the logic on which it is based. For example, I reject the Steampunk Scholar's argument that steampunk isn't a genre on the basis of logic ("steampunk isn't a genre" does not follow logically from his assertions), and you reject my argument that steampunk isn't a genre on the basis of rejecting its central assertions (you don't believe that "marketing category" is a useful definition of genre).

The whole thing gets more complicated because some assertions are founded on secondary arguments, and you might reject an assertion because you reject the argument on which it is founded (you reject my arguments for why "marketing category" is a good definition of genre) and so on ad infinitum.

I personally don't think that *source* has anything to do with any of these. I think all of them can stand or fall on their own merits. In that sense, I'm afraid I don't think that authoritative sources need to be considered, and established arguments don't deserve any deeper consideration than any other arguments.

A good example of this is Andy's early contribution when he introduced Wittgenstein to the debate. What Andy said was "here are my assertions and argument, which are derived from the philosophy of Wittgenstein". Whether you then accept or reject those assertions and arguments has everything to do with how they are presented, and nothing to do with Wittgenstein.

Does that make any sense?
Andy G at 18:10 on 2010-06-10
Would it throw an irrelevant spanner into the works if I mentioned that Wittgenstein talks a lot about an alternative to assertions and arguments as a way of persuading someone of the truth of a fact? At the risk of causing strokes and melting brains, he thought you could also do something analogous to changing the way someone saw something - like with the duck-rabbit, which you can see in differnt ways if you are trained to do so.
Dan H at 23:20 on 2010-06-10
That's interesting... although I'm not sure I agree. If nothing else, surely the point of the duck-rabbit is that both the duck interpretation and the rabbit interpretation are equally valid, so in this case there's no truth to persuade somebody of. I'm also not sure how you'd actually go about doing that *practically* - unless you mean by actual demonstration?

Also I'm not sure that the point of logic in the formal sense *is* to persuade people of things, so much as to construct ideas in an ordered manner and prevent common errors of thinking. Logic alone can't tell you whether something is true.
Andy G at 00:13 on 2010-06-11
Well, very roughly and very controversially, the idea isn't so much that there's a *right* way to look at things as that looking at things in certain ways makes us less prone to become confused or make mistakes. Instead of resolving disagreements through argumentation, the disagreement disappears entirely if we pull away the grounds on which it takes place by looking at matters in a different way.

Doing this practically amounts to saying 'look and see' and giving pointers, or giving the same kind of demonstrations of technique through which we learn most concepts (for instance, we don't learn the word 'fantasy' by having an exact definition given to us - rather, we pick it up from the way other people use it).

Also I'm not sure that the point of logic in the formal sense *is* to persuade people of things, so much as to construct ideas in an ordered manner and prevent common errors of thinking


Actually, this is very much the idea really.
Andy G at 00:15 on 2010-06-11
Oh and yes the duck-rabbit is actually a bit too trivial to actually illustrate this kind of thing. It's just a bit longwinded to actually spell out a full-blown example that actually works (especially because it's a bit debatable whether it does).
Dan H at 14:23 on 2010-06-11
Instead of resolving disagreements through argumentation, the disagreement disappears entirely if we pull away the grounds on which it takes place by looking at matters in a different way.


I suspect that this is one of those things which is useful in some situations and not others.

It's one thing to take an argument like "this picture is a duck! no this picture is a rabbit!" and resolve it by saying "actually this picture can be understood as being both a duck and a rabbit!" the thing is it only works if both sides (a) have a valid basis and (b) aren't mutually exclusive.

I can absolutely see the sense in recasting "is 1984 science fiction?" as "from what perspectives is it useful to view 1984 as science fiction?" but there are some situations where this kind of resolution is actually unacceptable. For example, you might be dealing with a decision that will have actual practical consequences. This seems like a good way of dealing with false dichotomies, but not a good way of dealing with *real* dichotomies.
Arthur B at 14:38 on 2010-06-11
Personally, I'd class "this can be understood as being both A and B" as a fact if it's unquestionably the case that the subject at hand could be both A or B (as with duckrabbit), an assertion if it's an unprovable statement that you just throw out there, and as the conclusion to an argument if you've built up an argument in support of it.

In other words, I don't think it's an entirely new approach, it's just a particular form the other approaches can take.
Andy G at 15:03 on 2010-06-11

I suspect that this is one of those things which is useful in some situations and not others.


Yes. This is why I called it an irrelevant spanner in this case. It also stands independently of what I said about Wittgenstein earlier, which was the rather more relevant bit. And it's also kind of controversial for the reasons you've suggested.

Just as a kind of taster of how it's meant to work: when asked whether the cogito ("I think therefore I am") was a valid inference or not, Wittgenstein plumped for the third option of looking at things in a different way so that it became senseless to ask the question.
Wardog at 12:09 on 2010-06-13
Kyra: I said it was a cheap shot! But since you've responded seriously, slightly less cheaply, from where I'm sitting a few of the comments in this thread have seemed to edge towards "we have opinions! We don't care what people who have actually studied these questions think" -- which I'm afraid makes it feel precisely like the discussion is perceived as, in itself, inherently validating, as opposted to an attempt to extend or explore anyone's understanding of the topic at hand. Plus, it's an attitude I'm sensitive to at the best of times, still more so when it's a subject close to my heart and I'm about to go on a three-day seminar...

I know for the sake for sanity we should probably leave this thread alone, as I think it has largely degenerated into its current state due to mis-readings and misunderstandings on both sides but I feel I should probably attempt to address this – for the sake of Ferretbrain's honour ;)

Basically I want to engage with the “we have opinions! We don't care what people who have actually studied these questions think” aspect – which implies, to me, that you think we have a tendency to fall back on the age-old Internet rhetoric of “we haz opinions, opinions can't be wrong, everybody has a right to their opinions” blah blah blah, which is, indeed, infuriating and does not constitute a debate of any sort. I don't want to over-categorise approaches to texts but I think there's a reasonable meaningful difference between opinion, which is rooted in oneself, and interpretation, which is rooted in the text. And I think we do a reasonable job of differentiating between them. My opinion is that steampunk is shit and pointless – however, I don't expect anyone to accept that as an insight into the flaws of the genre (if it is a genre).

And, again, this doesn't mean that we don't care about academic interpretations of genre fiction, but it does mean that we only care about it insofar as we choose to let it illuminate our own perspectives – even, I would argue, if the choice ends up as the degree of damage suffered by a bulldozer on rolling over Arthur Dent. What makes us uncomfortable around here is that occasionally it seems that your academic references are not offered as illuminations into your take on an issue or a text but as, errr, argumentum ad verecundiam. I'm not saying that one can't read an academic paper and find within it an argument or idea so cogent and perfectly articulated that it changes or confirms your own interpretation of a text but this does not, in itself, constitute a definitive reading of the text, superior to all others.

I would also point out that academic-readings are often like snakes eating their own tail – it's not so much that you've been thinking about the text for longer, so much as you've thinking about the academic context that surrounds the text for longer. Which is not the same thing.

Also I am genuinely wary of the “been thinking about this for longer” appeal to authority. By that logic, anything I have to say on The Woman White, for example, should be given greater weight than anything Arthur says on the same topic because I have pieces of paper in it, whereas Arthur has a doctorate in smooshing diamonds.

Personally I am perfectly happy with this hierarchy as it means I win Ferretbrain but I suspect it won't take...
Guy at 16:43 on 2010-06-13
There's a wonderful bit of Foucault where he talks about polemic and dialogue... hold on, I'll find it:


The polemicist proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consist of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning.


Whereas, in dialogue:


In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given to him; to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, et cetera. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of the others. Questions and answers depend on a game - a game that is at once pleasant and difficult - in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted forms of the dialogue.


It's my belief, and also my experience, that with discussion generally but *especially* with discussion over the internet, once one is in that polemical mode it's kind of already all over. Bringing in authorities on certain subject matter can feel like you're calling in artillery, summoning in overwhelming force from outside to validate a certain viewpoint, but... if it's done in a way that calls on someone else to surrender their right to remain unconvinced, to emphasize a different postulate, &c, the warlike nature of the manoeuvre naturally provokes a warlike response. So I guess my thinking is, with bringing academic stuff into a discussion (or really, any stuff) the question is, are you doing it in order to "call in artillery", or are you doing it because there's something interesting or useful or helpful in there, something that may be material for further thought or discussion even if the person you present it to doesn't agree with you?

I think it's unfortunate that... few of us get much chance to practice the kind of dialogue that Foucault is describing in that second bit there, but Ferretbrain is, imho, way way above the standard of what you find most places on the internet for promoting it. So even if there are some disagreements about what constitutes "accepted forms of the dialogue", I think it's well worth sticking around to try to work it out. :) (sort of @Niall, but I guess really just addressed to anyone who has the patience for my mad ramblings. :) )
A very rare find this: a non-moronic discussion on the web!

I will be back to ferretbrain one day but I just spent over an hour figuring out how to get Google give me an OpenID. Still haven't figured out how I did it though.

While I am at it, though, here a couple top-of-my-head-reactions to the above:

(1) genre should be no more definable than, say, color, so, steampunk (first time I saw the term) should be no more definable than red. Which does not entail that genre (or color) should not be discussed and I enjoyed the discussion the same way I enjoy watching a good chess game even though reading a discussion is not the same as following it as it unfolds.

(2) Re. "Lord of the Rings sells spectacularly well, but actually selling the story to other people was the last thing on Tolkien's mind." He never even copyrighted it.

(3) I like the bit of Foucault very much.

In any case, I didn't mean to wake up this thread but just to express my gratitude.
Arthur B at 17:17 on 2010-08-24
(2) Re. "Lord of the Rings sells spectacularly well, but actually selling the story to other people was the last thing on Tolkien's mind." He never even copyrighted it.

He didn't need to, copyright is something you automatically get as the producer of a literary, dramatic or artistic work without any requirement for action on your part, at least in those countries who are members of the Berne Convention (so that's most of the planet).

If someone's told you differently, they're either mistaken or trying to scam you. :)
Wardog at 09:30 on 2010-08-25
Thank you kindly, I'm glad you enjoyed the discussion - I think it got pretty fraught at the time (I seem to recall) but I think lots of good ideas and interesting thoughts came out of it.

In terms of openID, it's just there as an option - if you'd like an FB account for commenting just drop me an email at editoratferretbraindot.com, and I'llset you up.
I stand corrected: From

http://www.ansible.co.uk/sfx/tolkien.html

"... and meanwhile, naughtily taking advantage of a loophole in US copyright law, Ace Books brought out unauthorized paperbacks. [...] This was bad publicity for Ace, who eventually caved in, paid Tolkien royalties, and promised not to reprint."

And of course, the ACE paperbacks are what I still have from my graduate days back then! Still, I wonder (mildly) what the loophole was.

As for the copyright notice, you are also correct and, in fact, I have never bothered to register any of my stuff. But, somehow, I had always thought that the © notice was necessary, if only to date the stuff.

And it wouldn't have been a discussion hadn't people gotten fraught. The art of discussion is in containment which was what occurred. So, all was well, at least the way I see it.

Regards
Arthur B at 18:26 on 2010-08-27
Ah, well the US was a rogue state as far as copyright was concerned for about a century...
Arthur B at 00:23 on 2010-08-28
Oh, by the way, thanks for the Ansible link. I was interested to see that Tolkien didn't like That Hideous Strength - that makes two of us.
Andy G at 00:45 on 2010-08-28
Those are good factoids! And the one about the origin of Tolkien makes sense too, because the ü of Tollkühn is only one step away phonetically from the ie of Tolkien.
Morgus at 06:32 on 2011-02-18
Genres are classifications. Classifications are BORING. End of story.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in June 2010