Why science fiction authors just can't win

John Howell wrote a long and interesting piece titled "Why science fiction authors just can't win." Here's a brief extract:

Science fiction authors have long been outcasts from the literary world, in some cases critics using the worst examples of the genre as ammunition against it. Unfortunately though, at times even science fiction authors themselves can turn on their own kind: "Science fiction is rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space,” mocked Margaret Atwood (The Guardian, 28 January 2009), one of her many attempts to convince people that she is not a science fiction author, even though one of her most famous novels, A Handmaid's Tale, is exactly that.

More recently, in an article in the New York Times (4 October, 2009) publicising her new novel The Year of the Flood, Atwood declared that her dystopian novels are not science fiction. The article described The Year of the Flood as a novel set in “a violent future society created by a man-made plague" with "genetically-engineered humans and animals amid a ruined environment”, which sounds a lot like science fiction to me.

Taking even the narrowest definitions of science fiction, I’d suggest Atwood would have trouble arguing that some of her novels are not part of the genre. Apparently though, as long as you persist, you can convince the established order that your heart and mind is in the right place. Just keep insisting that everything science fiction is tacky, silly and sad and ridicule its creators at every opportunity. Disown the genre as emphatically and publicly as possible. As a writer there are tremendous advantages to avoiding the label science fiction, and Margret Atwood has successfully done that throughout her career and gained literary credibility in exchange.

In her defence, Atwood's apparent fear that once the label "science fiction" is attached to a novel the literary establishment will treat it differently seems well founded.

You can read the whole article here.

Lou Anders posted a link to Howell's piece on his blog, and he tempers everything with a quote from James Enge: I believe that the greatest danger to genre fiction nowadays is not the denial of respect from some notional group of literary tastemakers but the very real likelihood that sf/f may become respectable. Those who thirst for the foamy gray poison of respectability should consider the fate of jazz, once a popular medium, now respectable, ossified and ignored.

That post generated a good discussion with SFF pros such as Joe Abercrombie, Tim Akers, Joel Shepherd, Mark Chadbourn, Stephen Deas, and Phil Athans.

Check it out, and add your two cents if you feel like it!=)

31 commentaires:

Roland said...

I disagree with the quote. First of all, Jazz is very much alive and even if it's "ignored", that has nothing to do with it being also respected. The vitality of a genre is not defined by its respectability.

Also, this article reminds me again why I'll never read a book by Atwood...

Cecrow said...

Good article, in that it sheds light on what's really at issue: attacks against sci-fi as not being "L"iterature are in fact attacks against its fans, painting them with one brush. What self-respecting Booker Prize judge will dare give accolades to a sci-fi novel if he can only imagine it appealing to the stereotypical male teenage nerd persona? Won't that isolate and identify him with that abhorent audience, if he admits the book has value? Better it be left ignored than that. If he simply can't restrain himself then yes, the only escape is to identify it as other than sci-fi. And so much the easier if the author has already gone to the trouble of doing so. What we really need are a bunch of high-profile, good-standing folks to come out of the sci-fi closet and confess themselves as fans. Or a critic to startle everyone by saying "yes, such-and-such novel was good; but had it been portrayed in sci-fi clothing it would have brought the theme even more to light. Alas, a missed opportunity."

Tristan said...

Atwood is like Goodkind except with actual literary skill. I read the Handmaid's tale and it was science fiction, but they are her works and she should be able to classify them as she wants. The crapping on the sci-fi genre is silly and childish, and should be beneath someone of such stature.
As far respectable people championing the genre, both Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon have been vocal supporters of sci-fi and proud of it, but that does not change the ideas of literary jackasses the world over, who prefer to look in on the suffering of people they can barely imagine to gain some puffed up sense of moral importance and intellectual superiority over understanding how said author constructs a sentence while writing about a child be molested in the south during the 60s. Most Literary Minds are only interested in masturbatory displays of humanity and social awareness.
I remember a few months ago the Washington Post Sunday edition ran a whole section to celebrate the space program and quite a few articles were wasted bagging on Sci-fi, including some by noted sci-fi authors. This type of crap will continue, but I hope the majority of people just read and are proud of what they read, regardless of classification.

Lookf4r said...

who CARES.

Anonymous said...


But the problem circulates around the fact that most science fiction stories are also adventure stories and have superficial visual or atmospheric qualities.

It's almost like complaining "why can't swashbuckling pirate adventures be literature?!" Yes, there may be some examples, but on the whole, critics just wouldn't take a look, because they would likely be immediately engrossed in a sea of mediocrity, and they have most of the time of their career trained to maneuver in mainstream mediocre.

Anonymous said...

Joe Abercrombie's are rhetorically the most impressive comments. Good fun! I now consider him even less wicked.

Roland said...

Anonymous, this is very much not true. Not all genre fiction is the same. SF is a genre DEFINED by delving deep in human emotion and psyche as well as presenting scientific and social ideas. By its very nature it's way more liable to produce a "serious" work than any other "adventure" genre.

casey said...

I think there is definitely a stigma attached to "genre" fiction, but I also think we, the fans, tend to have something of a persecution complex. We are quick to point out stories like Atwood's denial, but don't point out stories like Vonnegut's critical success. Kurt Vonnegut was a no bones about it SF author, and until his recent death, America's most respected novelist. So it seems that some SF authors can indeed win.

Roland said...

And yet Vonnegut has never been considered a SF author by critics, and I wouldn't say he was one either. The only notable example of what you mean that I can think of, is Philip Dick.

casey said...

Have you read Vonnegut? You wouldn't consider Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse Five, Slapstick, Galapagos, or Cat's Cradle SF? Vonnegut is still housed in the SF section of both my local bookstores BTW. As are Huxley, Bradbury, and Orwell.

Matthew said...

To the argument about speculative fiction being actually deeper than "ordinary" fiction: let's not forget that surrealism, expressionism, satire, romanticism and many other literary styles have mostly evolved in the mainstream literary discourse. It wouldn't be convincing trying to tell the stuck-up critics that they are missing out on the best part of the art.

You can always view such a debate from different angles.

Roland said...

I never said Vonnegut hasn't written SF. I said no one considers him an SF writer.I don't know about your local bookstores, but neither Barnes & Noble, nor Borders put him in the SF section. They don't put Orwel or Huxley there either. But all of those three are primarily "mainstream" authors that wrote SOME SF books (and I severely doubt either Orwel or Huxley thought about writing "a science fiction novel" while creating "1984" and "Brave New World").

Bradbury is a different case - he is an SFF writer, and the genre defines his writing. I actually think that's the main difference. When an author is strictly SF, he has to be a classic like Bradbury or Dick to be grudgingly recognized. If he is mainly a "mainstream" or "literary" author, it doesn't matter how much his work could go into the field of SFF - if he's already recognized, his novels just "can't" be SFF, because to admit them as such, critics would have to admit that the SFF field could be a home to really amazing talent AND important topics. Which now they don't and don't want to.

casey said...

I think it's ridiculous to say no one considers Vonnegut an SF writer, and I think your explanation of why you don't consider him an SF writer is a PERFECT example of why people think SF authors "can't win"; every time an SF author or novel makes an impact on the literary world people like you are quick to remove said author or novel from the genre, regardless of the fact the said novel or author is CLEARLY SF.

Roland said...

Dude, did you read any of my previous posts?! O_o I'm not stating MY opinions here. I say it the way I see it. I don't consider Vonnegut an "SF writer" because for me an "SF writer" is someone for whom the non-SF book is an exception, and not the rule. That doesn't mean that I don't consider his SF works pure SF. But what I say is a fact - Vonnegut is not generally considered an SF writer, and neither is he marketed as one. It doesn't really matter whether me or you would say that he is.

casey said...

A) Please provide evidence that Vonnegut is not considered by most to be a SF writer.

B) I'm pretty sure Vonnegut's non-SF books ARE the exception.

I ask again, have you read Vonnegut?

Roland said...

I have, in fact. Three books. Neither was SF. And as for evidence, I told you that the two biggest booksellers in the US don't put him in their SF section. Isn't that sort of enough? Also, I've never seen him mentioned as an SF writer. I might be wrong of course, but for me that's evidence enough.

This is sort of pointless argument though. And even if some bookstores put their Vonnegut in the SF section, he would still be drowned by the thousands of books set in Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer etc etc etc ad nauseum. And it's not like there aren't original SFF worlds with the same level of quality and number of books, so it's actually quite understandable that the critics wouldn't take us seriously. I can name at least ten SFF authors that SHOULD be prevalent on the shelves, but aren't even stocked unless ordered.

casey said...

You've read three of his 14 novels and think yourself qualified to say that most of his novels aren't SF?

Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, is without a doubt SF. His two most critically acclaimed novels, Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, are without a doubt SF.

Simply because Borders doesn't stock his novels in the SF section does not mean that Vonnegut is not considered an SF author.

Again, this is a perfect example of why people think SF authors "can't win"; because as soon as one does "win" people like you will claim that they are not in fact an SF author.

Roland said...

This is the second time that you put words in my mouth. I am a die-hard SF fan. My favorite authors put to shame half the "literary" writers, Vonnegut included. I am only glad when a writer in the field receives recognition. To say that for some reason "as soon as one does "win" people like you will claim that they are not in fact an SF author" is 1) pure speculation on your part; and 2) not founded in anything I've said.

I don't consider Vonnegut an SF writer simply because I've *never* considered him an SF writer, and because I've never seen evidence that either critics, or booksellers, or publishers, or indeed Vonnegut HIMSELF consider him an SF writer. Perhaps I'm wrong, but so far you're doing nothing to prove your point, apart from trying to demonize my opinion.

For me there are two levels in this:

1. An SF/not SF writer. This is basically decided by the writer himself, and by the ideas with which he writes his books. Maregaret Atwood is DFFFINITELY not an SF writer, no matter how many SF books she writes. George Orwel is also not an SF writer. He never intended to write SF, his purpose was entirely different. I think Vonnegut is in the same group. THAT SAID THOUGH...

2. An SF/not SF book. This is something ENTIRELY different and not for the writer to label. 1984 might not have been written with SF in mind, but it is, undoubtedly, SF and one of the greatest works in the genre at that. For all of Atwood's posturing, The Handmaid's Tale is and will always be an SF book.

When we seperate those two levels, it's easy to see why critics are having such a blast bashing the SF field. They have a back door. When an otherwise "mainstream" or "literary" writer does write an SF book, they can say "he is not an SF writer, so his work can't be SF". It doesn't matter that it is clearly SF, because they don't really care about the truth. They care about maintaining a status quo in which genre fiction is pure entertainment and crap.

For what it's worth, I strongly believe that John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar is far superior to the last 10 books that won Booker, so critics can really just shove it.

casey said...

I think your reasoning is flawed, and I think (whether you like it or not) that type of reasoning is why SF gets as little respect as it does. There is always some excuse to say this author or that novel could not possibly be SF. You say Vonnegut is not an SF author because you've never heard him called an SF author; I say read more of his novels for yourself, and then maybe you can make a qualified judgment.

You want me to prove my point? Here you go:


Slaughterhouse Five is about a man who comes "unstuck in time", living his life in a non-linear way. Oh, and he gets abducted by aliens and put on display in their zoo. This is SF.

Cat's Cradle is about a dictator getting a hold of a weapon called "Ice 9", and agent which when dropped in any water will freeze all the water on earth. This is SF.

Player Piano is about a future in which machines rule, and the human rebellion to throw off said machines. This is SF. (This anti-utopian novel employs the standard science-fiction formula of a futuristic world run by machines and of one man's futile rebellion against that world ~ The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature)

The Sirens of Titan is about a guy who takes a journey through space, and visits various worlds. This is SF.

Galapagos is about a group of people stranded on the Galapagos Islands after civilization is destroyed. They evolve into sea otters. This is SF.

Slapstick is about the last president of the U.S. who now lives in the abandoned New York City, in a world where gravity is no longer constant and the Chinese have shrunk their soldiers down to the size of mice in order to invade without being detected. This is SF.

Timequake is about "...a timequake, a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum, made everybody and everything do exactly what they'd done during past decades, for good or ill, a second time...". This is SF.

In many of Vonnegut's novels a character named Kilgore Trout appears. Trout is a hack SF author. It is generally thought that Trout is Vonnegut's avatar-alter ego-vision of himself.

Now Vonnegut has written ALL these SF novels, do still you believe he can't be called an SF author?

Emperor said...

This is ridiculous. Science Fiction and Fantasy are some of the best examples of literature in the 20th century. Im so amazed that the stigma that sorrounded the pulp fiction magazines still sorrounds science fiction. You cant have submarines without Jules Verne, you cant have robotic laborers without Asimov, and movies like LOTR showed the breadth and scope of vision. This irritates me, and I will not read any books by Atwood.

Roland said...

Casey. I believe this will be the last time I address you, since you are clearly incapable of reading my posts with an open mind. Did you notice what I wrote about the distinction between SF writers and SF books? How the former is defined by the writer himself and the latter - by the reader? Sure, I KNOW that some of Vonnegut's works are pure SF. That doesn't make Vonnegut an SF writer if he does not consider himself one and critics and publishers don't consider him one. It has NOTHING to do with my opinion damn it!

rastronomicals said...

War's over, man.

Y'all need to move past.

"Literary" fiction is so constricted and so irrelevant at this point that science fiction finds--though it has certainly done itself no favors--it has won this battle by default.

The internet will validate what I'm saying, look around. No-one cares what some stuffed shirt clown might say in the New York Review of Books. Look what moves culturally, look what sells.

Look at what have become the cultural touchstones, Herbert's Sandworms or Gibson's cybercowboy or at the very least Harrison Ford's version of Rick Deckard: this is what serves us as high culture, if only because there is no more demand for yet another novel about the conflicted psyche of an English professsor who falls for his Lolitaesque student . . . .

And besides, whose respect are we actually pining for? Is there some name that when attached to a pro-SF treatise will change things?

Somebody above mentioned Lethem. Dude, if Lethem still proclaims loudly how he loves SF, even as he's, you know, no longer actively writing it, that's all the critical kudos I f***in' need.

Best thing anyone can do is simply move past the victimized mindset, that and recongizing that the Hugos are validation enough, when it comes right down to it.

casey said...

This is my point Roland,

We the fans of SF tend to have a victims mentality about our genre, we complain about SF authors not being able to "win"; but SF author can "win". The only problem is that once they do critics and others are quick to remove them from the genre. You say you don't think Vonnegut is an SF author because critics don't view him as an SF author; so I guess in your case the critics have accomplished their goal.

Roland said...

Not true. I don't think critics EVER considered Vonnegut an SF writer. Also, give me one example of a writer that was generally considered an SF writer and then was somehow "removed" from the field due to success. I can't think of even one name.

casey said...

I'm pretty sure I gave you an example: Kurt Vonnegut. But you refuse to believe that Vonnegut is an SF author, so what's the point of giving any more? I could say Orwell and Huxley again, but you refuse to believe they are SF authors as well.

As for critics NEVER thinking Vonnegut was an SF author:

"Cat's Cradle is an irreverent and often highly entertaining fantasy concerning the playful irresponsibility of nuclear scientists." ~ NY Times on Cat's Cradle.

"And even after we realize that this fantasy is storytelling after all" ~ NY Times on Slapstick.

"The bits of the novel that Vonnegut has rescued (or chopped up and put on to simmer) are odd and confusing -- but I am often thrown by the plots of fantasy and science fiction." ~ NY Times on Timequake.

Oh, and here's one I think illustrates my point about critics trying to lift Vonnegut from the "SF ghetto":

"Now there are two things I haven't yet told you about Billy Pilgrim, and I'm hesitant to do so, because when I tell you what they are you'll want to put Kurt Vonnegut back in the science-fiction category he's been trying to climb out of, and you'll be wrong.....

But is also very Vonnegut, which mean you'll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner." ~ NY Times on Slaughterhouse Five.

So it seems some critics actually do think Vonnegut is an SF author, and some are even trying hard to convince people he's not. It seems to have worked pretty well on you.

Roland said...

You're tiring man :) But since Vonnegut is obviously the hub of your existence, and the sole name you wanna spin your opinions about, have it your way. I'm done with this conversation. For me he's always been at best a borderline figure. An SF writer is David Brin. Or Isaak Asimov. Or Stephen Baxter.

And I am still waiting for a name OTHER than Vonnegut that has been "lifted" from SF due to success. Don't say Orwel and Huxley please. It's laughable to say the least.

Adam Whitehead said...

"Not true. I don't think critics EVER considered Vonnegut an SF writer. Also, give me one example of a writer that was generally considered an SF writer and then was somehow "removed" from the field due to success. I can't think of even one name."

JG Ballard. He wrote SF and said he wrote SF, until CRASH came along and gained literary attention/notoriety, then all of a sudden according to the critics he wasn't SF and never had been SF in the first place (retcon!). He recent obituaries were filled with things such as "People say his early work was SF but..." and then give ludicrously inane reasons why a novel about the Earth being turned into a crystalline formation somehow isn't SF. This situation was complicated because his best-known book, EMPIRE OF THE SUN, isn't SF and is a fictionalised autobiography, so is also only half-fiction as well. Philip K. Dick occasionally gets the same treatment as well.

This even befalls his contemporary Aldiss, who writes some non-SF as well as SF. Aldiss is still alive and defends his work as SF quite vigorously, though.

Roland said...

Hadn't thought of Ballard, but you are right. Still, those are all authors who at one point or another departed the SF field. Now Dick... is it true?! I mean, I've never seen mention, but if it's really true, than this is beyond sick...

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