Kid Stuff, Labels, And Vonnegut's Lament

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-09-03 17:00:00 No comments

One of the things that's long riled me about SF&F is something highly personal to my experiences with it, to the point where I'm positive now it's evidence of some bad bias on my part.

All of the things I came most to want from anything with those labels have been shaped by exposure to authors and works that turned out to be sui generis in their fields: Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, James Tiptree Jr., Joanna Russ, Theodore Sturgeon, &c.

In other words, I fell in love with the exception, not the rule, and I held out hope against hope that the exception would turn out to be the rule. I'm still struggling with this.

See, I've had to confront the possibility that I was being unfair, and that I was demanding things of SF&F that it was never meant to be. After all, 90% of everything is mediocre-to-crummy — and that includes genres of creative work, even those that seem primed by default to push further and peer deeper than the others.

Conventional wisdom about what's so peachy keen 'bout SF&F, especially if you talk to its fans, tends to revolve around how, in the words of that beer commercial, it refreshes the parts other stories don't reach. Kurt Vonnegut was big on this; he wasn't crazy about a lot of what was produced under the label, but he liked that the people involved were trying, where so many others outside were just flipping up their noses and congregating in their respective corners. He liked that there were people who were trying, in their own stumbling way, to make sense of the fact that we live in a world shaped by the ethos of technology we barely understand, instead of writing yet another story about a professor banging one of his students or what have you.

The picture's drastically different these days. A sizable slice of authors considered "literary" have at least one SF-ish book to their name; some let themselves be allied more freely with the genre than others, and don't mind the association.

I still feel, though, that a lot of what's produced in that vein is wide of the mark I have in mind. But I also have to ask, how much of that is just prejudice and wishful thinking? How much of that was because I attached myself to SF&F as a young person, sought out things from it that I didn't think existed anywhere else? How much of it is just me being a stick in the mud?

The compromise I've settled on is twofold. One, I have to discipline myself not to be disenchanted with SF&F for not delivering the goods I found in it here and there, and to recognize that nobody delivers the goods more than a fraction of the time anyway. The other is to remind myself that labels are ultimately b.s.

Something else that helped, I think, was being honest with myself about how this quest didn't have to be about choosing sides or setting up zero-sum games — that it didn't have to be about SF&F being where it was at to the exclusion of all that other old-hat stuff. It took me well until I was into my thirties, for instance, to read Dostoevsky and get more out of it than just the ability to finish a homework assignment on the man's work. (I didn't get a damn thing out of Notes From Underground when I was in high school; that was definitely too early.) It could be about how each of these things had something to teach the other, and how you could perform your own synthesis, within yourself, of the halves into whatever whole you wanted to find. That required work on your part, but that was a good thing; it meant you moving away from being a passive consumer of the stuff to an active participant with it, and shouldn't a creator try to level up in that way somehow anyway?

That leads me to the other part of this, in re labels, which I'll sum up like so: All labels fall away in time. Meaning that whatever you, or your marketing team, chooses to call something will only matter in the first incarnation for that thing. Nobody thought Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor or The Naked Kiss, or Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, or Dashiell Hammett's work would ever end up on any shelf with the label classic or influential or milestone. They weren't designed that way, but they ended up there. Some of that was happenstance, some of it was being really lucky. But if it can happen to those works, it's possible it can happen to anything.

Labels fall away in time, and eventually reveal the true nature of something. I've long thought the reason something like, say, The Great Gatsby endures is not just because there's a bunch of people with a vested interest in keeping it alive. (I believe that's far more the case with something like Joyce's Ulysses.) It's because there's a dual quality to it — it's entirely of its moment in time, but at the same time it has an open-endedness to it that allows it to be received into other moments in time, too. Eventually we stopped thinking of Gatsby as a "Roaring '20s" story — or, rather, as a story that began there but didn't end there.

So if a lot of what I've seen labeled as SF&F doesn't live up to the idea I had for the label, the problem is not with the label. The problem is with the way we tend to let labels do our thinking — and maybe also our dreaming, and our wishing — for us. Myself included.

I've long had high-minded aspirations for what SF&F can be, but I have to recognize that the aspirations may not be for uplifting the label.

Maybe the better approach, one I've been trying to cultivate, is just to look for wherever the magic is in whatever form it turns up in — and to trust that the magic can be found wherever you go looking for it, instead of just waiting petulantly for it to show up in the places I keep telling myself it most deserves to be found.

This approach requires more digging, but the rewards are greater. It also has the positive side effect of making someone into a more adventurous reader. Labels fall away all the more quickly for me now. That's as it should have been all along, I suppose. Instead of trying to let a genre or a label do the talking, it's best to look for votes cast in the form of individual authors or individual books, as Dale Peck once put it, rather than a literary program of any kind — something formal, and therefore lifeless.

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It's been working so far, I think. After I left behind the idea that I had to find whatever it was I was looking for inside SF&F and no place else, I had the freedom to make discoveries I couldn't have made before. I don't think I could have read Dom Casmurro (easily one of the two or three best books I've read past the age of forty), let alone found something valuable in it, without first coming to these realizations.

Some of this, I'm sure, is just the process of maturation. I'm still a kid at heart in a lot of ways, but my heart has a lot more than kid stuff in it now, and I'm finding how the many ages of man can sit side-by-side without trying to shove each other off the bench.

Tags: fantasy genres science fiction writers writing