The Literature of Delusions

by Arthur B

If science fiction is clever-clever smarty pants literature for wise and erudite philosophers, why does Clive Thompson read it?
~
In my review of The Iron Dream, written in-character as the absolute worst sort of science fiction fan, I bang on a lot about "the Literature of Ideas". This phrase - capitalisation strictly optional - is often wheeled out by fans, critics, and advocates of SF who want to present it as the distinguishing feature of the genre. How justified the statement is depends on exactly what is meant by "ideas" and exactly what sort of SF we are talking about. If we are considering hard SF of the most rigorously technically plausible variety, it does neatly identify a trend common to that particular mode towards stories built entirely around speculation about the consequences of what would happen if a particular situation arose given the presence of particular technologies, or how one specific technological advance could change the world. It's when you try to apply the concept on a broad scale - taking the broadest possible definition of SF (many people are happy to bring fantasy and supernatural horror under the wider "speculative fiction" umbrella), and the broadest possible meaning of "ideas" - that you get unstuck.

Melanie pointed out a noteworthy example of this in the comments to the Iron Dream article, a screed written for Wired magazine by Clive Thompson which is so perfectly ludicrous that my reaction to it soon expanded beyond comment length and into a word count approaching... well, approaching the word count of this article, to be honest.

Join a Better Book Club, Clive


Clive's basic argument is that what he calls "traditional 'literary fiction'" no longer offers intellectually or philosophically stimulating material, and if you want to read something deep and profound you should read science fiction. He claims to have studied literature in college, and that for around a decade he read a large amount of contemporary fiction but eventually got rather bored with it because it was all rather samey. This may all be true, but if it is the case then either literature was not the main focus of Clive's college-level studies or his tutors set him a woefully restrictive reading list, and likewise that heap of contemporary fiction he claims have read in his twenties can't be that diverse.

Clive doesn't offer us a definition of literary fiction or contemporary fiction in his editorial, so we have to work out what he means by that from the sole example he offers of it: not, alas, an actual book that someone has actually written, but a sort of archetypal example of contemporary fiction as Clive thinks of it.
After I'd read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, "OK. Cool. I see how today's world works." I also started to feel like I'd been reading the same book over and over again.
The nugget of insight Clive offers in the article is that if you get to a point in your reading where you feel as though you've been skimming the same novel over and over again it is usually a good idea to read something a little different, something outside of your habitual stamping grounds. What Clive doesn't seem to realise that there's a wide range of different fictional fashions, trends, traditions and genres you can dabble in these days; the choice isn't between SF on the one hand and realistic people with realistic jobs/relationships/families on the other.

Furthermore, his caricature of contemporary fiction seems to assume that the field isn't especially varied, which sounds like balderdash to me. Let's do a thought experiment - Clive likes thought experiments - and come up with the most restrictive definition of "contemporary fiction" we can. First off, let's assume we are talking about "contemporary" in the sense of publication date - it's unlikely that Clive means it in this sense, but I'm trying to make a rhetorical point here - so no musty old classics count, and let's set a window of "published any time after 1900" because that's the distinction we made back in school between modern works and literary classics. Secondly, let's assume that we're talking about "contemporary" in the more usual sense of "contemporary to the time of writing" - historical novels are out, as is anything set in the future, and the action of the novel should take place as close as possible to the time in which the novel was written - at the very least, it ought to be set within a time period the author has first-hand experience of.

So much for time period - now for subject matter. Since we are meant to be dealing with "literary fiction", let's chuck all genre fiction out of the window - no porn, no detective novels, no thrillers, no SF, no fantasy, no romance, no alternate histories, no war stories of the guns blazing action movie variety, no horror, no parodies, no YA, no children's fiction, no Dave. Absolutely nothing supernatural or based on technology which does not actually exist should happen in the story and the action should remain within the bounds of realism. Moreover, given how much Clive's description of the ur-novel of contemporary fiction emphasises it, let's assume that realism and accurate observation on the contemporary world is paramount, so no fanciful stories about social circles entirely beyond the author's experience is allowed, and by and large the author shouldn't excessively mythologise or sensationalise the subject matter they're writing about. Lastly, the book in question should be acknowledged to have some literary merit, at least to the extent that if you proposed reading it in a contemporary literature course for adults you wouldn't get sneered at by the Literary Establishment (whoever they are)..

Even within the fairly narrow remit I've allowed myself there, there's room for plenty of variety. The God of Small Things, The Line of Beauty, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, The Great Gatsby, Empire of the Sun, Life is Elsewhere, The Autograph Man, The Dark Side of Love, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Dice Man, The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, To Kill a Mockingbird, Earthly Powers, Contest and We Need to Talk About Kevin really don't have that much in common at all, and you can't really hammer any of them into the "realistic person in a realistic city living a realistic life doing realistic things with their realistic spouse with whom they are in a realistic relationship whilst realistically managing their realistically fraught realistic relations with their realistic family" model Clive proposes.

But even more than that, if we stick rigidly to the mode Clive proposes there's no reason why there can't be endless variety in there - unless, of course, by "realistic" Clive means "just like my own life". How many of these contemporary novels that Clive read were set in Asia, or Africa, or hell, a non-Anglophone portion of Europe for that matter? How many were set outside North America? How many were set outside the United States? How many were set in settings within the United States which are particularly unfamiliar to Clive, rather than these "realistic cities" of his? How many were set in the less overwhelmingly white neighbourhoods of those "realistic cities"? Perhaps within that span of 189 books Clive went on a literary world tour, exposing himself to the realistic and personally observed experiences of people from a staggeringly broad range of backgrounds presenting stories set all over this naughty earth. If that's the case and he still considered them all to be essentially the same at the end of it, then clearly he wasn't paying very close attention.

Infinite Error


But of course, part of Clive's deal is that he doesn't actually believe that infinite variety is possible within the bounds of realistic contemporary fiction. "If you run a realistic simulation enough times — writing tens of thousands of novels about contemporary life — eventually you're going to explore almost every outcome" is how he expresses this particular failure of logic. This is a statement which is incorrect on so many levels that I could choose an almost infinite number of angles of attack, which is a point against it in itself. He goes on to argue that the only way you can come up with new situations which give rise to new results is by adding something from outside the realm of the realistic.

This does not even begin to resemble an argument that contemporary fiction has explored all the avenues it can possibly explore. First off, when you consider the wide variety of people and cultures and places on this Earth of ours, the idea that the number of possible novels which could be written about people living today only numbers in the tens of thousands seems like a massive underestimate. Add to that the fact that the contemporary situation is constantly changing; no need to go to science fiction to look for ways in which technology reshapes societies when we're currently undergoing that process right now with respect to the Internet and smartphones, and a typical year's crop of natural disasters, wars, elections, scandals, and novelties offers a bumper yield of new scenarios and concepts for the contemporary fiction author to explore.

Secondly, even if we accept this estimate, this is actually more novels than any of us could actually expect to read in a lifetime. Say it takes on average about a week to read a novel - some will be much shorter, some will be much longer of course, but let's take that as a baseline. That means that assuming I lived to over a hundred and began reading grown-up contemporary novels as soon as I learned to read, I might with luck and diligence be able to digest 5000 such novels. This is well short of the tens of thousands figure Clive quotes, so even if billions of self-published authors slaving away at billions of typewriters were able to exhaust all the possible stories our contemporary situation has to offer, there's no way any one reader could ever read more than a fraction of them. Whilst I can fully believe that Clive did genuinely get bored of realistic contemporary fiction - you can get bored of anything with enough exposure to it - I refuse to believe that this was because he had in fact already seen every conceivable scenario possible in our reality in the pages of said books, and if he thinks he did he must have a painfully narrow idea of what is realistic and possible.

On top of that, the idea that there's only a finite number of outcomes and events and stories possible in novels set in the contemporary world is a blunt assertion of fact that Clive entirely fails to support. Let's try a little thought experiment, because we all know that Clive likes thought experiments. We're going to imagine a very simple universe: it consists solely of a spindle, on which there are two wheels, each of which is rotating at a different speed. Let's draw a doodle on each of the wheels, and doodle on the spindle too for good measure, and let's assume that the first wheel completes 1 full revolution every second, and the second wheel completes 1 full revolution every π seconds.

When we start the wheels going, the doodles on the wheels and the spindle are all perfectly aligned with each other the way we originally drew them, but once the wheels start rotating they'll never come back to that precise alignment: the doodles will never, ever look the same as they did when we started out. The first wheel will return to its starting point at intervals of 1 second, and the second wheel will return to its starting point at intervals of π seconds, and because π is an irrational number then the wheels can spin for an infinite amount of time and will never, ever hit a point where both the first and second wheels return to their starting points at the same time.

This is an incredibly simple scenario, but it's also a scenario where there are infinite possibilities - an infinite different number of alignments of spindle, wheels, and doodles arise, and no one alignment is ever repeated. True, this scenario is as dull as shit, but you get the point. Your home town contains vastly more different moving parts operating under a vastly more complicated set of rules; the world as a whole is even more complicated. Even if you are only interested in a particular subset of the moving parts - say, a set of human beings approximately the size of the cast of a contemporary novel - there's a limitless number of different scenarios and outcomes which can arise from the interactions of those human beings, even if the rules of the system you're looking at mean that some outcomes and events aren't actually possible. Jerry Springer is one of the most formulaic television shows in the world but you never see the same fight on it twice.

The Chronicler Fallacy


However you cut it, Clive's contention that contemporary fiction has simply run out of scenarios to explore is completely unsupportable. More to the point, even if it were true it doesn't actually support his argument. Clive is arguing that contemporary fiction has lost its ability to explore interesting philosophical themes, and that science fiction is by far the best venue to do this. However, the range of events which could potentially take place given the assumed rules of a particular literary mode has nothing to do with the types of philosophy that can be explored by that mode. When it comes to themes in novels, the way a set of events is presented to us is of just as much importance as what actually occurs. We Need to Talk About Kevin is written as a series of letters from Kevin's mother; this stamps a particular tone on the book and opens it up to particular interrogations of the subject matter, and if you changed that you would in fact change the novel; an account of the same events presented as Kevin's diary, or as a bundle of newspaper articles and interviews, or as told by an impersonal narrator, or as a really tastelessly comedic farce would in fact be a completely different novel, would probably lend itself to a completely different philosophical take on its themes, and may not even address the same set of themes as the novel which actually exists does.

Clive does not seem to recognise this at all in his article. His Sims analogy (which to be fair to him he admits is somewhat reductive) suggests that he considers the events narrated in a novel to be the sole important thing about it, in which case I can only assume he got a really poor grade on that college literature course of his. Clive seems to implicitly assume that the function of a novelist is to act as a chronicler of a set of in-universe events which they have cooked up for our consideration, and seems unable to imagine that the mode of narration in itself may be a meaningful part of the exploration of theme. (More than that: with his talk of simulation he appears to assume that authors have no agency in the chain of events that occur in their novels, but merely set the start conditions of their simulation and follow it through to a conclusion, which takes the adage about characters "writing themselves" a little far.)

I would argue that there is in fact no philosophical position that you can explore in a story about dragons which a sufficiently skilled author couldn't explore in a contemporary novel of the sort Clive is talking about. Adding dragons to the equation might expand the range of in-universe possibilities, but it doesn't actually expand the range of themes or philosophical concepts the author can explore. The only reason to explore those themes with dragons and robots instead of realistic people doing realistic things is because you'd personally prefer to write about dragons and robots, and whilst that's a perfectly legitimate preference it is boorish to suggest it should be every philosophically-minded soul's preference.

Premise Is Not Theme


This is not to say that there aren't scenarios which SF can explore which contemporary fiction can't - obviously there are. But a scenario is not a theme. Let's go over the different examples of science fictional premises Clive offers, shall we?

  • A Cory Doctorow story which presents an allegory for real-life disputes about file sharing and pharmaceutical patent infringement, leading to contemplation of the nature of property, law, international justice, and all that good stuff. The thing is, this is an allegory for something which already happens in the contemporary world right now, so there's no reason a contemporary novel about file sharing and patent infringements couldn't lead to consideration of similar philosophical themes.

  • "How would love change if we lived to 500?" asks Clive. Interesting question, but it's the sort of question which is the beginning of a philosophical thought experiment which could be used to illustrate thoughts on love, mortality, impermanence, the desire for a legacy, and so on and so forth. When Plato rattled on about the Ring of Gyges he wasn't literally interested in the possibility that he might one day actually own a ring which could turn him invisible; he was opening up a discussion about morality and accountability and whether people obey the rules of society purely because of the fear of disapproval or coercion - and the thing is, whilst using a supernatural charm was a neat and evocative way of opening that discussion, it's not the only way to open it. Plato could have gone for a much more mundane "you could commit a particular crime or series of crimes with a high level of certainty that nobody will ever catch you in the deed or find out what happened" scenario and still made exactly the same arguments.

    Likewise, you can open up a discussion of how mortality or its absence might change the way love works by positing a world where people can live to 500, or by writing a conventional story contrasting a couple who lead their lives as though they are going to live forever versus a couple who are very aware of their mortality. Similarly, the "what if you could travel back in time and reverse decisions?" premise opens up a discussion which could equally be opened up with conventional premises "what if you were in a position to create an entirely new identity and leave your old life behind?" or "what if you could tamper with the records of an event in your personal history to create a narrative to your own liking?"

  • As for confronting, talking to or killing God, just as fantastical things in a story can be an allegory for concrete real-life issues, so too can mundane things in a story serve as allegories for supernatural or theological concepts. Depending precisely on your perception of God, you could tell a story about a protagonist's relationship with their parent, or their employer, or their spouse, or an ideal and make it an allegory for encounters with God if you liked.

This is a point which cuts to the heart of the whole "literature of ideas" thing. The premise of a story is not the same thing as its theme, though Clive - in common with many advocates of the supremacy of the Literature of Ideas over humdrum conventional literary fiction for blinkered Mundanes - does not show any understanding of this. The "what ifs" people breathlessly talk about when they get into this sort of discussion are the premises which drive SF stories, and aren't necessarily the themes they address - assuming the story actually addresses theme at all and doesn't just wallow in empty worldbuilding and pie in the sky speculation. It is true to say that SF is a "literature of ideas" if you take "idea" to mean "premises" - the critical acclaim in which SF stories are held often correlates strongly with how wild and out there their premises get. But there is no story in the world which doesn't offer premises. Science fiction isn't the exclusive literature of ideas; at most, it's the literature of freaky counterfactual premises.

Tradition Ain't What It Used To Be


Clive tries to seriously argue that speculative fiction is the inheritor of the Western philosophical tradition, which would make Jim Butcher, Jay Lake and Daniel Polansky the heirs to Socrates and Hobbes, whilst conventional writers are left out in the cold. His basis for saying this, we've established, seems mainly to stem from the fact that SF loudly and brashly declares its premises, whereas contemporary fiction can sometimes be a bit more oblique about what it's on about. But in addition, he also seems to confuse using the motifs of old-timey philosophical allegories for actually participating in philosophical discourse, as though there were no difference between a Ring of Invisibility showing up randomly in a Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novel and the Ring of Gyges bit in The Republic.

In a similar way, in his closing remarks Clive seems to argue that authors embraced by the mainstream who appropriate the odd motif from science fiction are necessarily writing science fiction themselves. This is true enough if you subscribe to a notion that a genre is defined by the motifs used within it - robots belong to science fiction, dragons belong to fantasy, vampires belong to horror, and so on - but not only is this a simplistic and over-reductive definition of genre (albeit one likely to be held by someone who believes stories are exclusively defined by the events that happen within them), it's also not the sense Clive wants to use it here. Nor is he using genre in the sense of "convenient marketing niche". His concluding line about mainstream literary authors owing SF "a large debt" and the way he talks about their use of science fictional elements in their work suggests that he wants to use "science fiction" to denote "works written in the tradition of science fiction authors of the past" - in other words, defining a genre as a tradition (or fashion) arising from the community of authors participating in it. But although he is able to identify authors who borrow bits and pieces from the SF toybox, he doesn't offer any convincing argument that they've gone further than that and actually attempted to craft work within the SF tradition. The Plot Against America might share an alternate history spin with The Man In the High Castle but I am fairly sure that Philip Roth wasn't trying to write in the style of Philip K. Dick when he composed it.

(Also, Clive's list of genre-bending authors include some real oddities: Susanna Clarke? Please, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the very model of a modern genre page-turner.)

Travel Broadens the Mind and Stagnation Stunts It


On the subject of Dick, Clive is clearly familiar enough with the work of the holy pink laser satellite space God's earthly representative to recognise the really messed up way Dick writes women in a lot of his stuff, but he clearly hasn't given closer consideration to Dick's career, because otherwise he'll have noted something: that whilst Dick's major works, both in terms of critical acclaim and in terms of popular success and in terms of philosophical depth are rooted squarely in science fiction, the man himself actually cut his teeth writing mainstream contemporary fiction. Much of it, in fact, was in the supposedly philosophically bankrupt "realistic people, realistic lives" mode Clive decries in this article!

Until 1960 or thereabouts Dick was determined to make a name for himself as a mainstream author, despite a near total lack of interest in his mainstream output (to the point where most of his non-SF novels weren't even published until well after his death). SF was cheap and cheerful stuff he wrote to pay the bills - at least, it was until around the time he wrote The Man In the High Castle and, in the wake of the tremendously positive reaction to it, realised he could hit paydirt by applying the techniques he'd honed in his mainstream fiction to science fiction scenarios. Dick's career, in fact, is a prime example of how for authors writing - or even reading - outside of their usual field of expertise can enrich their work.

The same is true for readers. Give something a try which is a little outside of the usual bounds of your taste and, if you like it, it'll usually open a few doors for you, brush away some cobwebs, and generally exercise literary muscles your usual fare had been left neglected. Of course, this is only more true if your typical reading habits are especially restrictive or homogeneous. But if you've forced yourself out of one rut the benefits are going to be limited if you wind up in a similar, equally narrow rut.

Remaining in a rut, however, is precisely what Clive proposes. With the zeal of the freshly-converted, Clive has not only embraced science fiction, but has also denounced the contemporary fiction on which he used to thrive. He is seriously arguing not just that people give science fiction a chance - a position it isn't unreasonable to take - but that science fiction is by far the best genre you could possibly read if you want something intellectually stimulating, and that the rest of the literary world is deprived of philosophical currency (if not entirely bankrupt). The obvious implication is that reading anything other than SF is likely to be a waste of time, which in turn implies that Clive's reading habits have become just as narrow as they were when he read 189 novels in a row about realistic people doing realistic crap.

In short, Clive is taking the personal enjoyment he got out of changing his reading habits and mistaking it for a universal principle of the objective superiority of SF over mundane material. In doing so, he makes claims of science fiction it can't possibly live up to, and which can only lead to disappointment in the long run. I have to wonder whether a decade down the line Clive will be saying that dark romance, or horror, or hard-boiled detective fiction, or historical epics, or whatever new trend in sixth-rate porn displaces Fifty Shades in the next few years is where the really good shit is, and that after his 189th novel about a cybernetically enhanced assassin falling in love with a sarcastic starfighter pilot he realised that all science fiction is the same.
~

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

~
Comments (go to latest)
Andy G at 16:54 on 2012-09-01
I think Clive could have made a better argument about how 21st-century literary fiction is dominated stylistically by naturalism and thematically by the lives and concerns of rich white Westerners. He could perhaps have made the case that science fiction is the only sphere that still dares to ask Big Questions rather than being bogged down in postmodern malaise and navel-gazing. I still don't think I would buy it, but it would be less of a strawman than "there's only so many ways you can write about real things" or "a literature of ideas is a literature of predicting the consequences of some technological or sociological change". Just asking any old "what-if" question isn't going to cut it.
Andy G at 16:57 on 2012-09-01
And also, there's actually a huge backlash within philosophy against the use of "science fiction" thought experiments, which are supposed to test our moral and conceptual intuitions but in practice usually just reveal that we don't have any moral or conceptual intuitions about utterly abstract and bizarre scenarios ("If your zombie clone from a teleporter accident is brought back to life, is that the real you?")
Arthur B at 17:01 on 2012-09-01
I think Clive could have made a better argument about how 21st-century literary fiction is dominated stylistically by naturalism and thematically by the lives and concerns of rich white Westerners.

Hilariously, his only specific example of a science fiction story he enjoys is a Cory Doctorow tale, and Doctorow is chronic for pandering to the rich white Western geek demographic.
Andy G at 17:30 on 2012-09-01
Yes, I think he could have made the negative case quite well but would then have struggled with the case that sci-fi is significantly different on the whole!
"If you run a realistic simulation enough times — writing tens of thousands of novels about contemporary life — eventually you're going to explore almost every outcome" is how he expresses this particular failure of logic.

This is why geeks can't have nice things.
Dan H at 20:42 on 2012-09-01
To be fair to Thompson's original observation, it *is* true that an awful lot of mainstream literary fiction is very, very samey - as Andy suggests, a huge amount of it is something along the lines of "heterosexual white twentysomething finds his well-paid job emotionally unsatisfying and spends 250 pages telling you about it."

It is, of course, patently absurd to suggest that the way to get a more varied literary diet is to switch to a genre 90% of which consists of "heterosexual white twentysomething finds his well-paid job emotionally unsatisfying and spends 450 pages telling you about it IN SPACE".

He seems to be falling into the same trap that a lot of mewling nerdboys fall into, which is the utter failure to understand that books are about more than the mere sequence of events that occur in them and the elements that exist in their settings. I remember having an argument on RPG.net years ago with somebody who insisted that a novel set in an alternative version of the second world war in which vampires were real would be inherently richer than one set in the real second world war, on the grounds that the former could include all of the elements of the latter *and could also include vampires*.

It's sort of the equivalent of suggesting that Baz Lurhman's William Shakespeare's Romeo Plus Juliet was inherently better than any *previous* production of Romeo and Juliet because it could include cars and helicopters, which could not have appeared in a production of the play staged in the eighteenth century.
"heterosexual white twentysomething finds his well-paid job emotionally unsatisfying and spends 250 pages telling you about it."

It does seem like he thinks this is the whole of what "real life" is, and it's understandable that there's only so much you could possibly have to say about such uninspiring subject matter. Yeah, you could read books about Asians or poor people, but how much more interesting could they really be when you get down to it? Their experiences of reality are probably just as dreary and unimpressive as any privileged white Westerner's, if not even more actively sucky. Screw that, bring on the robots and spaceships.
Arthur B at 21:17 on 2012-09-01
To be fair to Thompson's original observation, it *is* true that an awful lot of mainstream literary fiction is very, very samey - as Andy suggests, a huge amount of it is something along the lines of "heterosexual white twentysomething finds his well-paid job emotionally unsatisfying and spends 250 pages telling you about it."

It is, of course, patently absurd to suggest that the way to get a more varied literary diet is to switch to a genre 90% of which consists of "heterosexual white twentysomething finds his well-paid job emotionally unsatisfying and spends 450 pages telling you about it IN SPACE".

Very true. I'd actually say pretty much any genre or subgenre is doomed to be at least somewhat samey because if it wasn't homogeneous at least to a certain extent you wouldn't be able to neatly identify it as a genre in the first place.

"Mainstream literary fiction" seems to be an oddity because as far as I can tell the only really supportable way to define it is "books which meet criteria the consensus of the mainstream literary establishment holds to be indicative of literary merit". But if that is somewhat samey that's not evidence of the creative bankruptcy of mainstream authors but the narrow-mindedness of the mainstream consensus.
Arthur B at 21:34 on 2012-09-01
Also:
I remember having an argument on RPG.net years ago

YOU DON'T SAY.
Andy G at 22:57 on 2012-09-01
"Mainstream literary fiction" seems to be an oddity because as far as I can tell the only really supportable way to define it is "books which meet criteria the consensus of the mainstream literary establishment holds to be indicative of literary merit". But if that is somewhat samey that's not evidence of the creative bankruptcy of mainstream authors but the narrow-mindedness of the mainstream consensus.


Is the oddity you're trying to describe here analogous to the following: Mainstream teacups are teacups which meet the criteria of the mainstream teacup-judging establishment. All mainstream teacups are green because, as it happens, the teacup-judging establishment only likes green teacups. But that tells you more about teacup judges than teacup makers, since teacup makers are actually making a veritable rainbow of teacups?

If so: I think it might not be so clear cut because it's all very two-way. The mainstream judgements don't just happen after the literary fiction (or teacups) have already been made: they shape the creative possibilities in advance of authors writing. And equally, authors of creative fiction are able to reshape what counts as mainstream through their writing.
Arthur B at 23:00 on 2012-09-01
That's certainly true - the glut of samey stuff on the literary fiction market doubtless arises in part from authors wanting to write books which will be accepted and applauded by the market or the critics they wish to please, a desire which would naturally prompt them to rotely repeat the movements which have proved to tickle the fancy of the intended audience before.

On the other hand, when people reshape what counts as mainstream or literary through their writing, is this the result of them deliberately deciding to confront this or is this just down to them following their own muses and the quality of their work shining through sufficiently to win recognition?
Arthur B at 02:08 on 2012-09-02
(To make my point less obliquely: there are plenty of people writing high-quality stuff which clearly isn't genre fiction and equally clearly doesn't fit the rut "literary fiction" is held to occupy currently. In principle this ought to change people's preconceptions of what literary fiction is; in practice, it probably does a little but less than expected because if it did literary fiction wouldn't be in a rut in the first place.)
http://kingwalters.livejournal.com/ at 14:16 on 2012-09-02
This article makes me sad. Contemporary literary fiction is, in my experience, universally crap, and so it is disappointing to see Thompson so comprehensively bungle the attack.

On the other hand, I guess any advocate of contemporary SF would make a similar hash of things. Motes, beams, and so forth.
James D at 04:38 on 2012-09-03
It's just such a nonsensical conclusion; assuming he's talking about "modern literary fiction that gets a lot of critical praise and attention," there could be a point made about it being too repetitive, but it's not like sci-fi is this vibrant new movement bursting with vigorous young authors while modern literary fiction is this bloated, decadent parasite. In fact, sci-fi seems to be in a bit of a slump lately.

Honestly, Arthur, I think this article might have been a bit too much of an easy target. You need a more challenging opponent!
Arthur B at 07:45 on 2012-09-03
Well, I tackled it not because of the difficulty of this specific target but because of the common fallacies that combine in the article to lead to this daft conclusion. A whole lot of SF fans believe at least a subset of what Clive maintains here and also tend to be fairly dismissive of literary fiction without (unlike Clive, to be fair to him) ever actually sampling it as a result.
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 05:35 on 2012-09-04
Hmm. I'd say about 80% of what I read is "contemporary literary fiction" (with maybe 10% pre 20th century and the other ten percent various genre texts that come my way via interesting reviews, having previously read the authors, etc.) And yet, I can't remember the last book I read about a disaffected 20something man living in NYC musing on his relationship and career angst. Now, this could well be that after having read CLF since I was about fourteen, I'm simply better at zeroing in on the topics/settings/tropes I find more interesting (whereas, say, part of the reason I tend to only read SF I've seen reviewed is because the signposts of the genre aren't nearly as blatant to me for what I'm likely to like.)

I also have three more-or-less liberal arts degrees and managed to take only one sort-of-philosophy class, but The Sims as a model for finite creative output scenarios seems very, very silly to me.

(Also, as someone who writes non-genre, but reads a lot of genre blogs/websites, I think I've developed a defensive cringe whenever anyone innocently asks me what I write about.)
What I really want to know is, if sf is the "literature of ideas", what does that make other genres?

Let's see. Mystery could be the Literature of Plot, and romance could be the Literature of Characters. Oooo, and fantasy could be the Literature of Setting! Leaving thrillers as the Literature of Pacing.

I guess that leaves horror out in the cold, but tough shit, I don't like horror anyway.
Arthur B at 11:02 on 2012-09-04
I guess that leaves horror out in the cold, but tough shit, I don't like horror anyway.

Literature of Atmosphere, perhaps? After all, no other genre ever seeks to establish a pervasive mood over the course of a story, just as nothing aside from science fiction ever cooks up interesting premises. (To give non-SF authors their due, they seem to do very well writing without any Ideas whatsoever. It's a good trick!)
Melanie at 19:04 on 2012-09-04
Literature of Atmosphere, perhaps? After all, no other genre ever seeks to establish a pervasive mood over the course of a story, just as nothing aside from science fiction ever cooks up interesting premises.


Of course! You're right; that's perfect. In fact, I probably didn't think of atmosphere because I don't usually read horror.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 09:36 on 2012-09-05
It has always seemed to me that these sorts of arguments for the literature of ideas and how scifi is better than anything those snooty literary folks say is good start from the need to defend scifi from those same snooty folks, who often deride any book that has scifi or fantasy elements as genre literature. And of course this does happen. But is is such a futile response to just go 'no, you're stupid!' and pandering to a fanboyish subculture of inflated importance, instead of trying to support worthwhile literature where it appears. Everybody has their own tastes of course and I if that taste has even some variance, you'll be bound to stumble on some quality fiction that has some philosophical ideas and stuff there.

Hmm. it may be that Clive of Scifi's many mistakes could be traced to his unsuccesful course in literature. One thing from your text stands out:

Clive tries to seriously argue that speculative fiction is the inheritor of the
Western philosophical tradition, which would make Jim Butcher, Jay Lake and
Daniel Polansky the heirs to Socrates and Hobbes, whilst conventional writers
are left out in the cold.

While literary studies do overlap with philosophy it seems a pretty outrageous claim that any kind of literary fiction is the inheritor of western philosophical tradition. Well, people like to feel important, so I guess I understand the motivation, but the field of philosophy has been a distinct subject of study arguably from antiquity and at least from the times of early christian scholars of late antique and islamic scholars from the early middle age. Does Clive think that academic philosophy is somehow defunct or does he see that as somehow belonging to the scifi genre?
Does Clive think that academic philosophy is somehow defunct or does he see that as somehow belonging to the scifi genre?

He does seem to think that since scifi likes to grapple with "deep" questions like "If you were cloned, would your clone really be you?" just like philosophers are supposed to do, they must be the new philosophers. A lot of geeks don't realize there's anything even slightly rigorous about philosophy, and they certainly don't know anything about formal logic.
Dan H at 19:44 on 2012-09-05
A lot of geeks don't realize there's anything even slightly rigorous about philosophy


A lot of geeks don't realize there's anything even slightly rigorous about anything they aren't personally interested in. Or for that matter a lot of the things they *are* interested in.

In geekdom "academic rigor" begins and ends with high-school level science.
Wardog at 22:11 on 2012-09-05
Let's see. Mystery could be the Literature of Plot, and romance could be the Literature of Characters. Oooo, and fantasy could be the Literature of Setting! Leaving thrillers as the Literature of Pacing


I just wanted to say this made me literally lol.

Does that mean Contest is the Literature of Bam?

And non-fiction is the Literature of Facts? (and would therefore be approved by Space Marines).
Melanie at 22:39 on 2012-09-05
Does that mean Contest is the Literature of Bam?

And non-fiction is the Literature of Facts?


I am probably going to ruin it by admitting I don't know what you mean by "Contest", in this context. :(

If non-fiction is the Literature of Facts then it occurs to me that non-genre fiction could be the Literature of Lies.
Fin at 22:45 on 2012-09-05
Propaganda would be the Literature of Truth?
Arthur B at 22:52 on 2012-09-05
I just wanted to say this made me literally lol.

Ferretbrain comments: the Literature of LOLs.
Wardog at 22:54 on 2012-09-05
Propaganda would be the Literature of Truth?

How very 1984.
Fin at 22:58 on 2012-09-05
How very 1984.


Littrue. =D
Melanie at 23:27 on 2012-09-05
Comics are the Literature of Image!
Dan H at 23:29 on 2012-09-05
Video games are the Literature of Choice.
Melanie at 01:09 on 2012-09-06
Video games are the Literature of Choice.


:D
Arthur B at 01:56 on 2012-09-06
Professional wrestling is the Literature of Motion.

Although ballet also involves the conveying of a narrative through the performance of a formalised series of physical techniques which demand a high level of training and expertise on the part of the performers, I am not interested in ballet, and therefore it contains nothing of merit. I know this is true because if it had merit I would be interested in it, because I am very smart and discerning. I know I am smart and discerning because I like highly intellectual diversions like Dan Abnett novels, violent video games, and movies which combine guns, explosions, and my preferred eye candy.
Arthur B at 07:38 on 2012-09-06
I am probably going to ruin it by admitting I don't know what you mean by "Contest", in this context. :(

It's the Matt Reilly book we read in Text Factor 2.

Due to the protagonist's secret skill I would actually say that it's the Literature of Magnets.
Melanie at 00:04 on 2012-09-07
It's the Matt Reilly book we read in Text Factor 2.


Oh, I see! Thanks. I haven't actually listened to all the podcasts (the Literature of Voice) yet; no wonder I didn't recognize it.
Neal Yanje at 19:54 on 2012-09-11
This dichotomy between science fiction and literary fiction is silly to me, in addition to all the reasons you give, because it seems like there are quite a few authors and works which are comfortably accepted in both spheres. Off the top of my head I can think of Orwell and Vonnegut, but there are probably more.

And it isn't just confined to historical examples like those two, either: novels like The Yiddish Policemen's Union or How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, both of which take place in science fiction-y settings and yet tell stories that wouldn't be out of place in "normal" literary fiction.

The more I read Clive's article, the more it seems that he is basically saying "People enjoy things that I don't, and don't enjoy things that I do, and this is a problem."
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 20:56 on 2012-11-25
The thing is, this is an allegory for something which already happens in the contemporary world right now, so there's no reason a contemporary novel about file sharing and patent infringements couldn't lead to consideration of similar philosophical themes.


While you're right about this, I think you made the point in one of your other articles that giving something an SF treatment can be useful way to strip out any issues surrounding the real world thing that aren't relevant to the issue you want to focus on in the book.

I half-read (in bookshops) a trilogy of novels about the US army invading the moon, that was mainly interested in discussing the US military's relationship with the civilian population, the government and democracy. Now you could have told this story about the modern day, RL US Army, but I think the theme would have become a lot harder to put across in the context of the war in Afghanistan than in a fictional future war zone, especially given the trilogy's pro-military tone.

So while scenario may not be the theme it can be important in making the theme obvious.
Arthur B at 21:48 on 2012-11-25
So while scenario may not be the theme it can be important in making the theme obvious.

This is true, and a good reason to make the scenario SFnal, but to suggest that making the scenario SFnal is the only way to tease out the theme in question would, I'm sure you'd agree, be kind of batty.

It might be more difficult, but that just means you need to refine your abilities as an author more to pull it off. If authors flinch away from taking the hard road, it's going to be correspondingly more unlikely that they'll grow as authors, right?
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 September 2012