"... real talent manifests itself not in a writer's affectation but 'in the exactness of his observation [and] the justice of his situations.'"
Here is a favorite quote of mine:
As Christopher Isherwood once said to Cyril Connolly, real talent manifests itself not in a writer's affectation but "in the exactness of his observation [and] the justice of his situations."
It's rare that I come across such a succinct expression of so much of what a writer is supposed to do with his work.
Lev Grossman on why genres aren't evil.
Lev Grossman says it very well indeed:
Why do we seek out these hard places [Westeros, Panem, ec.] for our fantasy vacations? Because on some level, we recognize and claim those disasters as our own. We seek out hard places precisely because our lives are hard. When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply. Genre fiction isn’t just generic pap. You don’t read it to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them...
One of the great things about the literary world is that it’s an expanding pie; it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Literature is not bunk — as Raymond Chandler put it —and genre fiction is not a vice — as Edmund Wilson had it. They’re all just books, and good books are treasures beyond price, and vive la difference.
Literature is only a zero-sum game in the minds of those who think of it that way, who think of it as a matter of turf to protect. rossman also takes a moment to dismantle the idea that what we read should be some kind of badge of pride or status symbol, and to register distrust with the idea that one belongs over the other in any kind of hierarchy. Y'know, I distinctly remember saying something like that earlier ...
See also: The Myth of the Vulgar Cage.
In the end, SF is always about the humans -- especially the humans reading your work.
One could imagine a novel that captured the perspective of a baby or a dog in a way that seemed truthful and even relevant, but the achievement would be owed to everything in the book that is not the baby and not the dog. The reward of so much subjectivity in a novel is owed in the end to its incompleteness, so that we may identify the familiar world that is being illuminated in an unfamiliar way.
The implications for SF&F in such an observation should be obvious: think of all the stories that have been told from the point of view of a non-human or even a non-sentient character. Most of them revolve mainly around the depiction of the other, but as hinted above, the main reason why they work at all is because of what they are being contrasted with: us.
What is it that a book does better than a movie? Especially when it's SF?
... this form of storytelling [novels] has a future. This isn’t because written language is somehow better than visual imagery, or because it cures isolation, or even because reading books makes you smarter than watching TV, but because words on a page, as a delivery system for images and ideas, can do things the competition can’t. I would go so far as to say that serious fiction and poetry will survive because of their relative simplicity, not in spite of it.
This is only a very slight variation on something I've said myself on and off: a book is not a movie, but vive la difference! The two achieve different things, for different reasons, and to different ends, and to say that one is somehow better than the other (or, worse yet, better "because of the way we live now" or somesuch silliness) is to miss the point.
What's "ambitious" about a work of fiction? Hint: it isn't the length or the size of the dramatis personae.
B.R. Meyers again:
Underlying the hype [about Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke] is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious. The true mark of an ambitious work is its style and depth. We would recognize Anna Karenina as such a novel even if only its first few pages had survived, because they depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives.
I scarcely need to defend the proposition that SF&F make the same mistake: a bigger book, a longer series is by definition a more ambitious one or a better one. It's easy to confuse scope or sprawl with depth.
On the "relevance" question in fiction, especially SF.
The notion that contemporary fiction possesses greater relevance for us because it talks of the Internet or supermodels or familiar brand names is ridiculous. We can see ourselves reflected more clearly in Balzac's Parisians than in a modern American who goes into raptures when his daughter says "Toyota Celica" in her sleep.
I'm going to be quoting a great deal from Meyers's excellent essay (even better in its full-length book-sized incarnation) in the near future, but I wanted to start with this particular snippet.
"Relevance" is a buzzword, and I sincerely wish it wasn't. When we say this or that work of fiction is "relevant", we typically leave off the phrase to our lives as they are now or something of that ilk. We tend to think of Gravity's Rainbow or better yet something like Charles Stross's Rule 34 as "relevant" because they are about things that are immediate or of our current moment in time. It's reassuring to read fiction (or anything at all, really) that understands what kind of world we currently live in and makes some attempt to address its vagaries and difficulties.
Just enough is more, especially when showing as opposed to telling.
In a previous post I mentioned the quote: "Every pixel you take out of the imagination and put on the screen is a pixel you are taking responsibility for."
I swapped a few words in that sentence and got something even more relevant to where I stand: "Every word you take out of the imagination and put on the page is a word you are taking responsibility for." This goes way beyond "show, don't tell" (which I think should be "show and tell in the right measure").
By "the imagination", I'm referring to the imagination of the reader, not just the writer. Every time you call attention to something, describe something, you are asking the reader to surrender that much more of their imagination for the sake of yours.
Why philosophical fiction doesn't have to be boring -- and why SF&F provides an ideal field for such work.
I think there can be a philosophical novel in this day and age, and it’s more important than ever that one is published. But it faces challenges, which Erdal says are essentially “balance” and the question of what it would look like to consumers.
On the balance of it, SF&F seem to be the most likely place to find the philosophical novels of the age. So much of what they have been preoccupied with for so long has been philosophical discussion of things that affects all of us: artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial sentient life, the impacts of technical progress, etc.
That said, very little SF&F is reminiscent of what I would call the "big novel of ideas" approach, the sort of thing the author of the above piece attributes to folks like "Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus and countless others". I will most likely surprise no one when I say I love such books. I'm in the middle of re-reading The Brothers Karamazov now in one of its new translations, and I see firsthand (doubly so in this new translation) what a novel of ideas can do at its most unchained and vivacious.