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Fantasy and science fiction as "literature"
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 01, 2008 9:58 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Dreaming wrote:
Are you really going to tell me that a Vonnegut Novel and a Dick Novel are two categorically different classes of literature?
This is a near-perfect comparison. It's an absolute shame that Dick doesn't get the respect that Vonnegut gets. Hell, Dick doesn't get the respect that Clarke or Wells gets, and Dick's work was as groundbreaking as Wells' and far more thought-provoking than Clarke's.

Dick's overall body of work can stand with any other 20th century author. Except that Dick is (mistakenly) seen as a genre writer.
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 01, 2008 10:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Philip K. Dick's work has been treated well critically. Cf. Philip K. Dick: Contemporary Critical Interpretations. Most of it can be found here. His work is a notable exception to this rule I think. On Wiki, for example, he's listed as a postmodernist and his influences include Flaubert, Borges, Beckett (my favorite), Dostoyevsky, and Proust. Interesting.
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PostPosted: Thu Oct 02, 2008 11:36 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Dick has been treated well critically (which is good, because he damn well deserves it), but Dick hasn't become part of the standard lexicon taught in schools and universities. Other than his film adaptations, his work isn't taught.
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 03, 2008 4:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

This might become a longish message, but here goes anyway.

If the point was covered by Duchess and/or Aliantha then ignore my blather. The academy generally speaking ignores popular culture and its products; however, the excpetion is made in order for sociologist/anthropologist to study it like one might dissect the exogamous patterns of Tasmanian aboriginals. So academic literature depts. do not teach Zindel or Donaldson, but they do not teach Grisham or Patricia Cornwall either.

In some ways the history of the academy can be called one of exclusion. When Shakespeare was alive, his corpus of work would have never been considered worthy of academic interest. The same situation could be said of Dickens and/or Austen.

Does everyone need to be reminded of the stink Harold Bloom raised when Stephen King, a writer of popular novels and short stories, was awarded the NBCC Achievment medal?
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 03, 2008 12:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Is it possible that the problem isn't the writing itself, but the culture surrounding these genres? If "literature" had legions of dice-rolling nerds obsessing over its characters and worlds, having conventions where they dress up in silly costumes, perhaps it would lose some of its prestige, too?

Or if movie adaptations were made of classic "literature" which had that (now dead) movie voice guy trailers full of explosions and CGI and Will Smith?

The Nobel Prize chairman (or whatever he's called) recently said that American literature is too "insular," that it's too concerned with its own contemporary culture, and therefore Europe is the true center of literature. Even among these elites, they are influenced by what's happening around the literature, rather than simply what's on the page.
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 03, 2008 5:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yeah, I saw that. Personally I think the Nobel Chairman is making a mistake to generalise like that. Even if his crit is true in some senses, it doesn't preclude that existence or rising of such talent.

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 04, 2008 9:00 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
First, most genres are still filled with mostly crap and mediocrity. If you're mining for gold, you're not going to look where the gold is scarce, right? So the genre doesn't attract literary critics and literary scholars who would give new works any attention - they're all mining more promising veins. And they're not developing any sensitivities for the genre's content. So even if something wonderful emerges, no one of any caliber is around to notice.

Agreed. But doesn't this weaken your second point?
Quote:

Second, the inherent nature of genre fiction is that they share many of the same qualities as blockbuster movies. That is, they are entertaining without necessarilly demonstrating any literary skill.... Contrast this with mainstream novels, which have nothing to sell except being good literature. These guys live and breath literature in ways that only exceptional genre novels dream of.

IMHO, the "mainstream novel" genre is chock full of crap and mediocrity as well. The also are "entertaining without necessarily demonstrating any literary skill".

As far as academic acceptance, I think three other factors come into play.

The first has to do with the above. In any kind of fiction, all kinds of people are cranking out all kinds of books. Out of those, few could be considered "gold" and even fewer make the notice of those critics and academics who matter, as far as their being accepted into canon. There being fewer writers in any given genre, fewer will be "gold", even fewer than that will make notice, and because the genre lacks clout, far fewer will be considered for acceptance.

The second has to do with time. Beowulf or Parsifal (strongly Fantastical itself) would never make notice if they came out today, but because they are centuries old there is automatically importance attached to them. My college literature course included George MacDonald, who could be classified as Fantasy, but the genre didn't really exist when he was writing so it was considered for other reasons. Fahrenheit 451 has been around a few decades and my high-school age son had to read it for his English class.

The third has to do with the "Pop" factor. Academicians kowtow to their own trends like anyone else. Superior quality does not always make popular notice, sometimes it's just the next big noise, and five years later people wonder why anyone cared. (Remember the fuss over DaVinci Code? And now who cares?)

Patience, friends. A hundred years from now, The First Chronicles may well make it into college level lit courses, and The Hobbit may grace the pages of the Norton Anthology, but SF and Fantasy just don't have the cred among academicians yet. And trust me, when it does, our grandchildren will groan at having to read it the way we groaned to have to read The Scarlet Letter. Do we really want that? Razz
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PostPosted: Sat Oct 04, 2008 3:58 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Malik,
Quote:
The Nobel Prize chairman (or whatever he's called) recently said that American literature is too "insular," that it's too concerned with its own contemporary culture, and therefore Europe is the true center of literature.

I saw this as well. This was a preposterous statement. Of all places, the best rebuttal came from The New Yorker: "You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures." Of course the Europeans are going to say Europe is the "center of the literary world": they attempt to define it that way themselves.

deer of the dawn,

There's no "automatic importance" assigned to older literature. I worked at a museum research library this summer, and as I was archiving books I came across many, many 19th-century, early-20th century writers who had these fancy editions of their works published, absolutely lauded by critics, who I've never heard of. Who nobody has ever heard of. The smallest trickle of literature survives the test of time. Most of it recedes away forever. The Da Vinci Code is not an example that's very relevant here. No academic admires Dan Brown. He was a popular writer, that's it. I'm sure the truly great works of FSF will survive that test of time I mentioned. A very few. Most of it won't, deservedly so.
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PostPosted: Sun Oct 05, 2008 12:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

wayfriend wrote:
A couple points I'll add.

First, most genres are still filled with mostly crap and mediocrity. If you're mining for gold, you're not going to look where the gold is scarce, right? So the genre doesn't attract literary critics and literary scholars who would give new works any attention - they're all mining more promising veins. And they're not developing any sensitivities for the genre's content. So even if something wonderful emerges, no one of any caliber is around to notice.

Second, the inherent nature of genre fiction is that they share many of the same qualities as blockbuster movies. That is, they are entertaining without necessarilly demonstrating any literary skill. Other skills, sure. But demonstrating depth in science, or knowing how an armada of spaceships would attack a death star, or coming up with novel ways for people to slice each other up with a sword is not literary skill, sorry. Most of what's pleasing to genre readers comes along these lines, and they tend to over inflate the greatness of genre works because of it. Like it or not, as cool as giant spice-producing worms are, there's nothing that makes them good literature. Contrast this with mainstream novels, which have nothing to sell except being good literature. These guys live and breath literature in ways that only exceptional genre novels dream of.


All fiction is Genre fiction, someone just needs to make a popular enough work of fiction for a lot of people to imitate it. See Poe for the Detective story, Tolkein for Fantasy, and Asimov, Heinlein and company for SF. (Frankenstein, War of the Worlds and company retroactively got labeled.) There is PLENTY of mediocrity in so called "legitimate" fiction on the Oprah book club. There are wonderful works in SF and Fantasy that are unjustly reviewed with an unconscious mental sneer by so many in the literary world.

It's snobbish to say that Dune has absolutely nothing to offer that Oprah's book of the week does. (I will add that it's pretty snobbish of me to trash Oprah's book club) What is the purpose of art? Always, whenever you distill it to it's roots, art exists to bring joy. This is an extremely broad and narrow definition, inclusive and exclusive. For some, joy comes from a beautiful and poetic expression of truth. For me, it is usually a riveting and epic narrative. It's just plain unfair to trash Genre fiction, a great deal of the most beloved works of literature of the past century *are* genre fiction!

The answer to why FSF is considered trash certainly isn't that FSF is a trashy genre. That's an unworthy statement.
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PostPosted: Mon Oct 06, 2008 2:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Dreaming,

Who said that FSF is a "trashy genre"?
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 07, 2008 1:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Lord Mhoram wrote:
The Dreaming,

Who said that FSF is a "trashy genre"?


Wayfriend wrote:
Second, the inherent nature of genre fiction is that they share many of the same qualities as blockbuster movies. That is, they are entertaining without necessarilly demonstrating any literary skill. Other skills, sure. But demonstrating depth in science, or knowing how an armada of spaceships would attack a death star, or coming up with novel ways for people to slice each other up with a sword is not literary skill, sorry. Most of what's pleasing to genre readers comes along these lines, and they tend to over inflate the greatness of genre works because of it. Like it or not, as cool as giant spice-producing worms are, there's nothing that makes them good literature. Contrast this with mainstream novels, which have nothing to sell except being good literature. These guys live and breath literature in ways that only exceptional genre novels dream of.


Lord Mhoram wrote:
I thoroughly agree, particularly with the second point


You are saying that a simple setting degrades genre fiction into being "nonliterary". Writing is what decides how literary or nonliterary a work is, not genre. And saying that "mainstream" literature has nothing to sell except quality is ludicrous. There are an infinite number of ways to sell any shit. Unless you want to tell me that any SF that happens to be good isn't SF anymore, its mainstream literature? (That certainly seems to be the case with Orwell and Vonnegut)
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 07, 2008 1:23 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

TD,

In my opinion, what makes literature literature is characterization, setting, prose style, pacing, use of tools such as metaphor and foil, etc.

I don't include things such as world building, scientific accuracy, attention to detail, extrapolation, etc.

You could validly argue that how I define literature is wrong. Perhaps those things should be included. But I don't think literature, as an artform, should be defined as "whatever people put on paper". There are those who think that it should be defined exactly that way. The same arguments are applied to music, and film, and even painting and sculpture.

But given that position, it's my opinion that sci-fi or fantasy genre works rarely acheive a level deserving of critical praise. I'm not saying never. (After all, this is a site dedicated to SRD!) But it's rare enough that there are far more genre works that are popular and beloved than there are genre works that are exceptional literature.

You can only conclude from this that what makes genre works popular and/or beloved are not the qualities of fine literature, but the qualities that are respected only within the genre.

Which makes it inevitable that genre fans will feel slighted by the mainstream literary critics. Mainstream literary critics aren't in tune with the genre-specific sensibilities, and even if they were, they wouldn't judge based on them.

But I for one would never call genre fiction trashy as a generalization. (Some instances are, of course.) I love it, you love it, and there's a reason we love it. But those reasons are reasons that don't resonate outside of the genre, for the most part. Of course there are also examples that excel in both mainstream and genre-specific qualities. And we love those, too. But they're pretty rare.
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 07, 2008 1:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

OK. Let's take On the Beach as an example (setting aside that it's one of my favorite books).

I don't know that it really qualifies as science fiction (though at the time it was written it may have been considered such), but it's certainly speculative fiction.

Characterization? Check. Got it in spades.

Setting? Hell yes.

Prose style? Uh huh, it's the most beautifully written book about the end of the world ever written.

Pacing? Yup. Breathlessly takes you on the sub's journey, then brings you to the only logical conclusion.

Metaphor, foil, and ? Sure, why not.

Now by any measure, I'd consider On the Beach to be a masterpiece of mid-20th century literature, as well as the progenitor of a poopload of apocalyptic fiction.

But it's not taught, nor is it given the respect of other mid-20th century authors and their books. One can only deduce that it's due to the subject matter and genre.
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 07, 2008 1:49 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Cail wrote:
But it's not taught, nor is it given the respect of other mid-20th century authors and their books. One can only deduce that it's due to the subject matter and genre.

I'd totally agree that genre fiction, when it is good literature, doesn't get the attention it deserves by the mainstream literary world.

But you also have to answer this question: if you had to teach a literature class, and you could pick any book that you wanted, why would you pick On The Beach over very, very many other choices? To some extent, choosing a genre work is a bad choice, because it has a lot that detracts from what you actually want to study. A choice that's more mainstream sticks to the subject matter, and won't alienate a good portion of your class.

(If it was a class on sci-fi literature, then of course this would not be the case. I took one once. We covered Martian Chronicles, Left Hand of Darkness, and an Asimov piece I don't remember. They weren't bold choices. But they are probably fine choices for an intro to sci-fi as literature.)

Edit: I recently saw a really crappy made-for-TV movie called "On The Beach". It had Armond Asante (?). It was depressing and I couldn't remember why it was called "On The Beach". Any relation?
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 07, 2008 2:00 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The TV movie is the second adaptation of the book, the first was done in 1959 with Gregory Peck. Both adaptations are flawed, neither (IMO) is horrible, both are crushingly depressing, which is exactly what they're supposed to be.

I would chose On the Beach for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it is a great example of 50s-era paranoia and ennui regarding the Cold War and nuclear Armageddon. It's a snapshot of the times. But more than that, it's just beautifully written. Really, I hate to gush like a fanboy, but it's simply amazing. The language that Nevil Shute uses and the imagery that he crates is just stunning.

It's just as worthy as Hemingway's work, and as culturally important.
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 07, 2008 9:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

On the Beach is a great novel. I first read it in a high school English class, actually. Do a Google Scholar search on it; it's very well treated by scholars, particularly for a science fiction novel. I still don't think Nevile Shute is even in the same league as Hemingway. Not even close. A better analogue might be Thomas Pynchon or Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac or early John Updike, who are roughly contemporaries of Shute's. You can't convince me that he's anywhere near any of those writers, either. So I don't think the reason On the Beach is considered "lesser" in the literary world is just for pure snobbishness; it's because the work is just actually of a lesser quality.
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 08, 2008 8:47 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Personally, I think literature only really has one requirement - narrative, and should always be judged based on it's quality. The prettiest and most complex literary styling can be completely devoid of (clear) narrative, and therefore completely vapid and meaningless to me. A compelling story breaks all boundaries of genre, and can create a different sea of meanings and ideas in every reader. (Which is one of the reasons I like Donaldson so damn much)

That's me though, that's how I judge all literature. Honestly "literature", in the strict sense, often has it's own way of expressing itself that outsiders just can't really enjoy. "literary" works like Finnegan's Wake are pretty much inaccessible to anyone outside of the academic world, a much more exclusive one than the world of, say, sci-fi fans. By the standards of good popular literature, Joyce is trashy. (And saying they are just too dumb to get it is like me saying that literary academics are too dumb to get Starship Troopers)

Is there an objective way to judge literature? I think the way I judge it is. (I certainly love plenty of "literary" writers. Nabokov, for example, is a marvel) But anyone who devotes themselves to one specific niche of the artistic universe is missing out on a whole lot of great stuff. "Literary" academics do this just the same way Anime freaks do, one group just thinks they are better than the other.
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 08, 2008 9:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Lord Mhoram wrote:
On the Beach is a great novel. I first read it in a high school English class, actually. Do a Google Scholar search on it; it's very well treated by scholars, particularly for a science fiction novel. I still don't think Nevile Shute is even in the same league as Hemingway. Not even close. A better analogue might be Thomas Pynchon or Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac or early John Updike, who are roughly contemporaries of Shute's. You can't convince me that he's anywhere near any of those writers, either. So I don't think the reason On the Beach is considered "lesser" in the literary world is just for pure snobbishness; it's because the work is just actually of a lesser quality.
I think Shute exceeded himself with On the Beach, but I also think his other works stand up pretty well too (A Town Like Alice and The Far Country are both excellent). Qualitatively, I don't see his contemporaries being better than him.
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 08, 2008 4:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Dreaming,

For my own part, I think appreciating literature based solely on narrative is like appreciating pop music based only on melody. Narrative is only a single component among many. When you base perceptions only on narrative, you miss out on what I personally think is the most important, but not solely important, aspect of literature and where I think the vast majority of FSF falls short: language. You'd hate Marcel Proust based on what you just said. Lots of peopld do in fact. Razz His work has very little in the way of narrative, but so much to offer in the way of language. I liken reading him to looking at a massive tapestry. Take your pick, take a random page, and you'll be blown away by his linguistic mastery. In my opinion anyway. Contrast that with FSF, which has often amazing technical articulatios of narrative -- what we call "world-building" in FSF -- but the language can be quite mediocre. Everyone gets bogged down in The Two Towers, and it isn't because the world Tolkien creates isn't compelling. I try to not judge all literature based on either quality. It requires a synthesis of both.

Cail,

Like I said I disagree; won't be able to convince each other either way. For what it's worth, a consensus seems to side with me that Shute isn't up to snuff with the writers I mentioned, which was a random sample anyhow.
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The Dreaming
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PostPosted: Thu Oct 09, 2008 8:31 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I certainly admire technical prowess! I admire a lot of things about literature that aren't strictly the narrative. At least, when these things strengthen and empower it, not obscure and obfuscate it. That's what I'm driving at. It's the *heart* of literature for me. Making the story superfluous makes it cease to be literary in my opinion. Then you have something lyrical, which is fine for poetry, but I hate it in Novels. (And Drama for that matter, I thought The Hours was a piece of shit for exactly that reason.)

Nabokov, for example, has a masterful command of the language combined with the ability to actually tell a damn story.
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