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You should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. posted 27 October 2005 in Author Q & AYou should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. by Cu'jara Cinmoi, Author of Prince of Nothing

NOTE: Harboutfront is in Toronto. The International Festival of Authors is a BIG deal, bringing in luminaries from the world over, and gaining all kinds of press coverage. They usually have only one token genre writer in attendance any given year (I think it was Kostova this year).

I wrote this to The Globe & Mail, one of the festival's primary sponsors, knowing all the while that they would never use it.

From Harbourfront to Hinterland (and Back Again)

This past weekend, at the same time as the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront, the Philosophy Department of Brock University hosted an interdisciplinary conference on ‘The Uses of Science Fiction.’ The keynote speaker was none other Robert J. Sawyer, one of Canada’s bestselling authors, and a tireless proponent of both genre fiction and science education. At the end of his keynote talk, Rob was asked a variant of the old 'but is it real literature’ question. The problem with much science fiction, the individual suggested, is that it’s too invested in ideas. The idea becomes a tyrannical thing, flattening the characters, and snuffing out the particularity that makes literature ‘real.’ After commenting on the vexing nature of defining the term, Rob suggested that the best way to determine whether a work was ‘real literature’ or not was to simply ask readers what it was about: If they answered with a plot summary, then there was a good chance it wasn’t literature. If they answered with something other than a plot summary, then there was a good chance that it was.

This, without a doubt, has to be one of the better definitions going.

In many ways, we humans are painfully predictable. Since we have difficulty with complexity, we tend to simplify things with evaluative labels. Since we’re egocentric, we tend to rationalize things in flattering ways. Since we’re social, we tend to be keenly attuned to the vagaries of status. These tendencies are so fundamental that most of us are entirely unaware of the ways they dominate our day to day lives. But dominate they do. And taken together, they become variables in a very strange, and sometimes very troubling, calculus of human interaction.

Take me, for instance. I write epic fantasy. While I was in grad school, however, I would always say ‘speculative fiction’ whenever I was asked what I write. For me, ‘epic fantasy’ was the genre that dare not speak its name. The only people I dared say it to were those who looked at least as geeky as I did. It wasn’t until I was published that I screwed up the courage to shout it from the rooftops.

(At the time I told myself I was doing it for affirmation’s sake, as a way to ‘own’ my label, but as Rob pointed out in his talk, using euphemistic labels is self-defeating once you’re published, because the inevitable follow-up question is, "Where would I find you in the bookstore?" Now I’m inclined to think the whole ‘owning my label’ thing was just a flattering rationalization.)

Twice, now, I’ve been invited to participate in local literary book festivals, and almost without exception, every time people hear me utter those words, ‘epic fantasy,’ their eyes hesitate, click to the surrounding crowd (as though looking for a fire exit), then click back in pity and embarrassment. Once, one woman suddenly shouted "Bob!" over my shoulder, then said, "I’m sorry, but I must speak with Bob."

Since writing epic fantasy is what I do, I obviously think it’s the most important writing on the face of the planet. At the same time, I’m keenly aware of the status others attribute to the label ‘epic fantasy,’ that educated people whose opinion I otherwise respect, simply assume that I write formulaic tales about living lawn ornaments. As a result, I’ve developed an arsenal of defensive rationalizations, and I’ve copped an attitude of iconoclastic disdain. When I saw the photo of Jonathan Safran Foer on last Wednesday’s Globe Review, for instance, I was seized by paroxysms of wicked laughter. The velvet blazer, the scarlet-and-lime scarf, the Sears catalogue stare–everything seemed to confirm my compensatory animus.

The shitty thing is, I know I’m doing this. I know I suffer a classic, Nietzschean case of ressentiment. But I can’t help it, not after seeing just how deep the pigeon hole goes.

Which brings me back to Rob’s excellent definition of literature. It reminded me that literature is not so much a set of rules as a kind of personal event. It’s the readers, not the characters, who conjure truth and transformation out of mere words. It’s the rewriting of real assumptions. And this is why I think that in North American culture, the truly important literature, the transforming literature, is happening in the hinterlands and not at the harbourfront. In genre and not the literary mainstream.

It’s Rowling, not Salinger, that’s on the pyre now.

I worry that a greater part of the world is drifting away, that as the years pass, our culture is becoming more and more ornamental, more and more a kind of vast flattery feedback mechanism. I worry that events like the International Festival of Authors, which openly profess to occupy the cultural heights, simply reinforce and perpetuate the calculus of status, self-congratulation, and labeling that convinces the up and coming Jonathan Safran Foer’s of the world to write only for those already schooled in ‘serious literature’ and so least in need of it. I worry that the shame that made me hide what I wrote is an example of a more general incentive to sing yet more songs to the choir.

There’s a telling difference, I think, between overturning to cater and catering to overturn. view post

You should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. posted 27 October 2005 in Author Q & AYou should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. by Entropic_existence, Moderator

Wow, very, very well written article and will probably never see the light of day in the Globe and Mail unfortunately. I don't think I could agree more that all too often people look down on genre writing as being formulaic, when sure there is alot of that writing but there is also a great deal of very original peices of literature. Your work and that of Erickson come to mind for me as being two of the greatest series in epic fantasy right now. Although from a "literary" standpoint I find yours to be much more cerebral, which is awesome. view post

You should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. posted 27 October 2005 in Author Q & AYou should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. by Cu'jara Cinmoi, Author of Prince of Nothing

Think about it in these terms.

Imagine that you could describe an individual's preferences as a circle. If you compared that individual's preferences with those of another, you would find that their circles would overlap to some degree. Their circles could be almost identical, which is to say they could have almost identical tastes, or their circles could be almost entirely disconnected, which is to say they could have very similar tastes. The point is, the area where the circles overlap, no matter how big or how small, would represent those tastes they have in common.

Now imagine sampling a million different people and superimposing a million different circles. The more people you sample, the smaller the space of maximal overlap - the preferences held in common by all one million people - would become.

Since selling to more people means making more profit, the primary incentive for corporations is to aim for that band of maximal overlap. There's a powerful disincentive to experiment, to stray outside the 'slot' - if you forgive a hockey euphemism. Think of McDonald's, or Romance novels.

Now this analogy does a good job, I think, at explaining a number of different tendencies in mass culture. Why paper's aim at a grade eight reading level, just for instance. In other words, it does a good job illustrating what is the assumed antithesis of literature. Given this, you would think that it would do an equally good job at explaining what's at stake in works we're told count as 'literature.'

But it doesn't. In fact, the literary mainstream, it seems to me, is just as invested in 'finding the slot' for their readership as is any other genre of fiction. Literary writers by and large write for literary readers - end of story. They're in the business of satisfying consumer expectations, no different than McLiterature, and they're every bit as dismissive of those things that fall out of their slot of maximal satisfaction.

Now what I'm talking about is a different kind of literature. Take our million circles sketched across our sheet of paper, and add a third dimension - add depth. Now if you look at them head on, you'll see the same thing you saw when they were two dimensionally represented. But if you move your head to left or to the right, or whichever way, you'll quickly notice what might be called angular slots. These would be roundabout ways in which preference sets that seem to be antagonistic when mapped two dimensionally, actually possess reconciliatory paths when navigated from a different direction.

This is pretty much what I'm trying to do by writing genre fiction.

Now as far as I'm concerned - and I realize that this is a self flattering rationale - this is what true literature does: it takes issue with preferences, not out any bankrupt formalist commitment to 'deconstruction' or rule-breaking for its own sake, but for the sake of expanding perspectives - to warp the circle, perhaps, but to expand it certainly.

Genre, I'm saying, is the next great frontier of literature, because what we presently called 'mainstream literature' has exhausted its audience. They're simply too well-trained for the situation not to devolve into a McLiterary one. It's the writing that cuts across preferences that will be remembered, mark my words!

This is also why I take the love it/hate it response my books seem to incite as an indicator of artistic success. As soon as people who obviously never encountered anything like my books before stop posting one star reviews on Amazon, I literally think I'm starting to fail.

It's the stranger's hand I'm most interested in shaking. view post

You should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. posted 28 October 2005 in Author Q & AYou should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. by Legolas, Commoner

Thanks for the link, Larry, this is indeed interesting stuff.

It's certainly true that "literary" authors are not much more original than "genre" - not necessarily the spec. fic. genre, any genre - authors, but that they merely have other norms and standards to adhere to to fit into their "literature" category. The genre of "literature" takes a special spot in the world of books for the simple reason that it is the only genre to be defined by style and quality of writing, rather than by content or subjects written about.
Following that reasoning, there is no reason why some so-called genre books can't be literature, as well, and I indeed think that some are. But humans tend to have a tendency of trying to sort things into categories, and cross-overs that fit into multiple categories or none at all are therefore a bit difficult to sell - unless they are written by reputed literary authors, since writing one critically acclaimed book is generally enough to ensure the next books will be successful as well, even if they are quite different.

I don't think it's true that spec. fic. an sich doesn't appeal to the mainstream literary critics or book buyers. After all, there are enough examples among the contemporary "classics" that are partially or entirely speculative fiction. Umberto Eco's "Baudolino", for instance, is partially historical fiction, partially speculative fiction. There are many books that offer the same combination, but that do so from a "genre" angle, and therefore are ignored by literary critics and readers. It may be a slight exaggeration, but I think an author's first - successful - book and the way it is presented to the media define his career. Start out by publishing a critically acclaimed "literary" novel, and you can freely go into speculative fiction later without really losing much standing. But if you start out with a "genre" novel, you can pretty much forget ever getting the attention of the "literary" crowd unless you sell such enormous amounts that they cannot ignore you anymore - but the best way to sell enormous amounts is of course to be a conformist, which a "genre author" who wants to appeal to a literary crowd almost per definition is not.
And so it is that, ironically, the "literary" mainstream crowd only ever really hears of the best-selling genre books. Those books are usually rather conformist, which in turn strengthens the aversion against genre "escapism", while the general public remains blissfully ignorant of the existence of non-conformist genre books which, if they only knew about them, they might actually want to read and appreciate.
To put it in less abstract terms: if the general public thought of for instance Stanislas Lem and Steven Erikson when SF&F is mentioned, rather than of Star Wars and David Eddings, genre books wouldn't be despised so much.

P.S. Contrary to what one might deduce from my post, I actually do appreciate David Eddings' books. Star Wars, not so much. view post

You should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. posted 30 October 2005 in Author Q & AYou should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. by Cu'jara Cinmoi, Author of Prince of Nothing

We haven't moved all that far from pedigrees and provenances, I guess. The thing is, when literary types 'go slumming' in genre, it's typically not seen as genre fiction, but an out an out appropriation of generic forms for a literary purpose. It's similar to, but not identical to, white surburban kids dressing up as gangbangers. 'Respectable' people don't mind the clothes so much, so long as they can see the skin.

A trite analogy, I know, but I really think it captures something of the dynamic. Here in Canada, my publisher had high hopes of garnering a dual audience for my books. But no one 'serious' would even review it, once they realized the skin actually matched the clothes.

Hmmm... That does sound bitter, doesn't it! <!-- s:roll: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/icon_rolleyes.gif" alt=":roll:" title="Rolling Eyes" /><!-- s:roll: --> view post

You should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. posted 01 January 2006 in Author Q &amp; AYou should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. by Nasrudin's Shadow, Candidate

It seems to me that in instances where "important" reviewers are not bound by another's agenda, they are often chained to their own. Crossing the boundaries of genre literature and real, serious, impress-your-stodgy-old-professor-by-adding-an-"esque"-to-it-literature is, as you've already pointed out, done in books, not in Izzy Asper's parlour or in marketing meetings. Here, on these pages and on similar message boards, are books and music and films being put to the test. People can talk much more loudly than they ever could before. While this has, sadly, led to a noisier world, it has also lead to an environment where consumers and appreciators of art can direct their own search for new and challenging works.

On a different note, I think epic fantasy is the closest "sort" of writing there is to the essence of literature. As with any genre, of course, it's benefits are it's drawbacks, but the discerning writer always knows how much to show, yes?

Anyway, I should get back to reading the Warrior Prophet, so I can enjoy these discussions without fear of spoilers. view post


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