Science Fiction Repair Shop: Against the Grain, Pt. 2

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-07-23 14:00:00 No comments

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In the first part of this article I talked about how SF&F is peculiarly vulnerable to the problems of masscult, in big part because the publishing industries that are built around those genres champion masscult values often even without realizing it. I've talked about this sort of thing before — how publishers discovered it was better to sell people five books instead of one (better revenue stream!) and so a generation of both readers and writers (and for all I know, editors too) grew up assuming you had to pump a story full of air to make it marketable. Among other things, this means the few books that really did work as trilogies (e.g., Gormenghast) got pushed to the bottom of the pile.

Strictly speaking, none of this is a new development. The "sword-and-planet" book cycles were doing that long before Lester del Rey brought out Terry Brooks's Shannara series, which for me is when the fossil record indicates things really began to slide. Not because of the books themselves, but because of the machinery surrounding their production.

What's new, then, is how the cycle-of-books format is becoming a default mode of production, consumption and aesthetics, despite the damage it does to all three. What's new is how there's less of a sense any one book has to be a self-contained story, how the whole conceit of storytelling as a selective process is being thrown out the window in favor of environmental immersion. The system is rapidly favoring such things because they're profitable, despite the damage done to writing as a whole.

Even on a practical level this is out of control. A six-thousand page cycle of novels is that much more of an investment of everyone's time to write, edit, and read. But the most crucial net effect is that it leaves that much less room for other things to flourish. It crowds out the competition in more ways than one, and it's making it increasingly difficult for creators to conceive of work that operates outside of those exhausting parameters. (When the compact disc supplanted the vinyl LP and the cassette tape as the default medium, record companies started pressuring artists to deliver more songs to fill the available space on the disc.) The work itself takes a major backseat to its marketing, its production, its being whipped into shape — in other words, all the things that are supposed to follow a creative work rather than lead it.

This is not to say that original, creative, even valuable works can be produced within such a system. The problem is that the deck is stacked so severely against that happening that any good work produced is in spite of what goes on and not because of it.

Masscult SF&F is about length and breadth, not depth. Worse, its sheer prevalence convinces everyone within reach — readers and would-be creators alike — that length and breadth are acceptable substitutes for depth. It makes a nice parallel to B.R. Meyers's observation that it's fundamentally silly to believe you can make a story epic just by hanging around the same characters long enough and following them in obsessive enough detail.

The critical distinctions that might have existed to differentiate those two (length/breadth vs. depth) are also being eroded. The vast majority of the criticism for SF&F, even the best-informed and most literate such criticism, does not see this as a problem. They see it at worst as part of the territory, an inevitable consequence of producing or reading work in that field — not a degenerate or at the very least problematic state of affairs. It seems all but futile to protest the making of one good book into five bad ones, because everyone's going to do it, and a writer's gotta eat, and — the most spurious argument of all — the more SF&F of any kind, the better. And soon everyone else — reader, author and critic — are following gamely along.

For all I know, these issues have been with us since the inception of SF&F as recognizable genres. But it wasn't until recently, with the slow intrusion of those genres into acceptability via mainstream culture, that either genre was taken seriously as mainstream culture. With that intrusion came a concomitant rise in turning SF&F into pop commodities, in building things to be as much as possible like the last crossover hit and ignoring the cultivation of every other good thing in the process. The SF New Wave of the 1970s, which championed experimentation and boundary-pushing in theme and content, did not always hit its intended targets. The side of the road through that territory is littered with a great many failures and one-time oddities. But there was an energy there, a willingness to experiment in an inclusive way. It all found itself body-slammed to the side when SF-as-a-pop-phenomenon exploded with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. SF was now "in", but it was only "in" if it resembled previous SF that was "in". SF was Kind Of A Big Deal now, and it made less economic sense than ever to cater to a self-selecting minority when you could have, well, everyone.

Today, the only real wellsprings of adventure in SF&F seem to come from things like bizarro fiction, work which seems more interested in acting as an endurance test for its audience than anything else. If mainstream fiction is hidebound by having learned all the wrong things from James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, then bizarro is just as hidebound for having learned all the wrong things from William S. Burroughs and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. An author is not interesting merely because because he writes about talking anuses or because of the depths of his misanthropy (it is always easier for an author to fake hatred than love); he is interesting because his work is to some degree inseparable from the life he has lived and the vision he maintains in and of that life.

I'll have more to say in the next installment.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop fantasy publishing science fiction writing