Science Fiction Repair Shop: What We Talk About When We Talk About SF&F Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-07-10 14:00:00 No comments

A Swing and a Miss - Magazine - The Atlantic

MOST PEOPLE’S INTEREST in contemporary “literary” fiction, if they have any interest at all, is a matter of wanting to read the latest Big Novel while it’s still being talked about. If they like it, so much the better, but a sense of connection to their peers is what they’re really after. It would be wrong to think them gullible. They succumb to the loudest promotional campaign every year only because they recognize the recurring need for an “it” novel, something everyone can agree to read at about the same time. ... People used to expect literary novels to deepen the experience of living; now they are happy with any sustained display of writerly cleverness.

The implication I glean from the above is simple: most people no longer expect to get much of anything out of literature, because they've told themselves they know better. It's only a book, after all.

I'm reminded of Jacques Barzun talking about how "educated" people in the late 19th century told themselves they should not admire sunsets since they were witnessing nothing more extraordinary than the diffraction of light through the atmosphere.

If Meyers is right, it's the connectivity — the act of reading as a social phenomenon rather than a personal one — that is most important. It's also something I feel a bit of an outsider trying to understand. I don't read to tell people what I've been reading; I read to read. (I suspect this mania to make even solitary activities into "social" ones long predates the rise of "social apps.")

Yet I know full well part of the joy of doing anything is in sharing it with others, which is a big part of why I have this site in the first place. And I also know that even if the first motive on my part isn't sharing, it's one that rises after the fact. The first I want to do when I'm done with a truly extraordinary book is go tell everyone I know about it, because those things are damn rare and need all the boosterism they can get.

But what further bothers Meyers is how the social aspect of reading is also affecting the way it's produced as well:

In an effort to offer something, anything, that is not already on Facebook, our writers seem less likely to go big than to go small, writing in great polished detail of the most trivial thoughts and deeds.

Dale Peck had a thesis for how this came to be: Ulysses. In his mind it was the failings, the shortcomings of Joyce's book that had been taken most earnestly to heart by the generations of writers who labored in its shadow. The recitation of the endless trivia of the day was, I feel, not one of the main points of that novel, but it somehow ended up becoming a common novelists' note, struck so many times it has since gone flat in the ears.

In order for "ordinary people" to connect to our stories, the literary novelist thinks, we must populate the book with the same tedious trivia, the same nattering minutiae that readers themselves deal with. Thus, the tiresome device of using brand names to describe things instead of actually describing them; thus, the aimless underplotting (because "life's like that"); thus, the stupefying dullness of so much of this stuff, not called out as dullness but instead embraced as genius because it's "observant" and "meticulous".

Fantasy fans are familiar, all too familiar, with how Tolkien threw his own umbra over the landscape of that genre, something that Lester Del Rey found could be commercialized by way of Terry Brooks and which has been milked by scads of other authors for ever-decreasing returns since. None of this would be quite so bad if it didn't come at the cost of sidelining other authors who were at least as brilliant in their own ways — Mervyn Peake, for instance — and who had ideas about "fantasy" that weren't chained to the stone of the Campbellian monomyth.

But the post-Tolkien gang won, in big part because they had good marketing muscle behind them. They provided an easy, prepackaged reference point for fans to rally around — something I imagine felt even more badly-needed then than now, what with fantasy fandom confined to a small sub-subset of overall readers. (The tension, never fully resolved, between self-identified SF fans and fantasy fans, shows itself most strongly when one party or the other gets it into their heads that their work deserves more to "cross over" than the other.)

What's striking about the post-Tolkien work, and which makes me think more of Meyer's discussion of the love of trivia than of fantasy work generally, is how so much of what's put on the page in your average cinderblock post-Tolkien fantasy novel is description, scene-setting, and detail. The easy answer for why this is done is because it helps "draw us into the story", but an excess of it has the opposite effect: it becomes tedious. Too much of it turns into a distaff version of the same kind of writing Meyers complained about in more self-consciously literary work, where you read by simply sliding your eye down the middle of the page, and where you are not so much absorbed as simply distracted.

I don't think it's a bad thing to want to know in a story what people ate or wore, especially a story that isn't about our particular moment in time. What stops me cold is how these things too easily become dumping grounds. Smothering the reader in detail take the place of learned observation, the selection of a few telling details that matter and resonate. They're like the Facebook stream that bubbles with unselective nattering, where the mere fact of providing information is the highest good, and where the only thing that enhances the importance of a given detail is the self-selecting attention of the audience.

The idea that an author should be choosing the few details that matter is being replaced by the idea that the artist should surround us with detail and empower us to make our own choices about what to keep and what to throw out. It's a seductive theory, and hard to come out against such a thing without sounding anti-democratic, or at least anti-audience. Doubly so since we seem to be herding ourselves towards the idea that the differences between the author and the audience are in some way oppressive, and that the ideal solution to it is not to read better authors but to make the reader more like an author and vice versa. Of course, the most direct way for a reader to become an author is for him to go write a book in the first place, and any authors who don't do much reading themselves are only blowing off their own toes--but why let such pettifogging practical details get in the way of a great theory?

Let me not make it sound like I'm in favor of some absolute sanctity of the author. He's just another bloke. But he's a bloke who's taken it upon himself to lead us somewhere and show us something. That mission — usually self-appointed; no one's forcing him to do this — is not going to be made any easier by attempts to pull down the wall between author and audience. There is always something electric about being shown something new, and fully-formed in its newness, by someone who's not you. When the very work you're reading exists at least in part to pay homage to the idea of the electrically new (SF&F), the importance of this goes through the roof.

The whole point of an author picking his material that much more selectively is to hone both his vision and ours. An art that is just as indifferent and indiscriminate as the life it's derived from — even, and especially, a popular art — will only reinforce the creation of more such things.

Tags: B.R. Meyers Science Fiction Repair Shop fantasy fiction publicity publishing science fiction writing