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Monday, January 15, 2007
Scalzi on Zadie

As I know from hanging around his blog a bit, reading his Amazon Plog and picking up other Scalzi tidbits here and there John Scalzi makes an effort to understand different points of view.

As far as the Zadie Smith essay he is analyzing is concerned: I wonder if his lack of understanding about her point of view ("Ms. Smith entirely loses me on this bit...") is based on the fact that she is considered a literary writer by most, while he is considered a genre one.

In that literary world Joyce's Ulysses has been called the best (or most important) novel ever written. And guess what -- it's a pain in the ass to read. How about Infinite Jest, another doorstop literary novel that has sold more copies than 95% of individual SF novels will ever sell? Talk about demanding heavy lifting (literally and literarily) from the reader!

Science fiction (of which John Scalzi is an obviously notable practitioner), seems to me to be a more limited form. Or should I say a form having more rules to adhere to in theme and construction and therefore less sloppy than a literary work that is anchored in nothing except the writer's imagination. Which is why SF appeals to more orderly -- if no less thoughtful -- readers. In short, if your science is right, the story constructed around it might be tighter than the literary one. Or at least it will appear so and also strike the reader as such.

But while the literary writers are trying to approximate a Poe-like intoxication in their own lives and supposedly in the service of their art (and yeah, I know this is like the old "I buy Playboy to read the articles" canard) the John Scalzi sort of writing mind would be examining -- from a safe distance -- Poe's artistic and inspiration-inducing intoxicated dream state, including what it encompasses and produces, in order to use it in a more orderly and rational work than the messy literary writers. I think this might address the acceptable level of obscurity Smith writes of and which John Scalzi has difficulty with in her essay, as he hews to truths of science (Apollonian) and produces works which the Dionysians of Smith's stable are incapable of.

Or something like that. This is just a blog post. I would be more careful, but to paraphrase Scalzi, nobody's paying me to blather on about the topic. And yeah, Smith chose Eliot to illustrate the boundries of metaphysics and mysticism at which the literary mind should stop, while I would pick Poe. To each their own...
Qua? Infinite Jest is TOTALLY science fiction. Come on: Set in the near future? Years named after products? US, Canada and Mexico merged into one huge nation state? There's nothing about the book that *isn't* science fiction. Not to call it so is to simply fall into the tautology of "If it's science fiction, it can't be good; if it's good, it can't be science fiction." It's science fiction, and it's good. And it's ironic that you use it as an example of work that science fiction isn't like.

Your considering science fiction a more limited form mostly suggests to me (with no disrepect) that you might wish to read more in the genre. For a Ulysses-level challenge in science fiction, your quest is rather easily remedied: Try Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany. It is not at all difficult to find you more candidates. Suffice to say that science fiction is jam-packed with writers who might fill your description of "Dionyesian," and who willfully and gleefully flout established forms not only of the genre but of the entire form of the novel.

I would dispute that literary fiction is not itself "limited" by its own set of conventions as much as you suggest science fiction is by its set. Much of science fiction can be dismissed as stories of "competent men" spouting serviceable dialogue and checking off plot points on their way to solving an engineering crisis; Much of literary fiction can likewise be dismissed as an unassuming narrator (often a writer) walking through checkpoints of common yet somehow extraordinary experience, collecting enough of these moments to cash in for for the quiet moment of epiphany in the penultimate chapter. All genres have conventions; that's one of the reasons we know they're genres at all. Good work in a genre gets the conventions right and makes them more than cliches; great works often brilliantly ignore the conventions; some of them also create new ones.

I'm not having trouble following Ms. Smith's logic because I am somehow constrained by the limitations of the genre in which I write, if for no other reason than I have a life and intellect outside science fiction. When I say Ms. Smith "loses" me, it's not that I don't comprehend; her argument is not that thorny a thicket. It's that I don't agree; moreover, I wouldn't agree regardless of the literary genre in which I wrote. The disgreement isn't about genre, it's about what goals of the novelist should be.
John, thanks for your meaningful response. As usual you nailed some points (I do in fact have to read more in the genre -- I'm an adult who has come back to SF after a 30 year absence and I've got plenty of catching up to do -- and Dahlgren is on the TBR pile), while your take on others, though illuminating of one who works in the genre, sets in motion the wheels of debate that SF writers, fans, etc. seem to enjoy engaging in ad infinitum: Is it Science Fiction?

I refer to your categorizing Infinite Jest as Science Fiction. You can do that if you so choose, but might it not be more than SF, say, New Fabulism or a sort of post modern Magic Realism, or even a big honking hunk of Slipstream? I didn't say that IJ wasn't Science Fiction, did I? Don't worry I'm not trying to wiggle out from under my statements. But the back of an edition of the paperback has a quote by Sven Birkerts: "The next step in fiction...Edgy, accurate and darkly witty...Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis. Think." No "think Asimov, think Ellison, think Silverberg?"

I'm not trying to be flip. It is interesting how frequently I've seen those, like yourself, with a passion for Science Fiction, relish the chance to claim a work as SF; Dewey Decimal System, Barnes and Nobel shelf space or other forms of categorization be damned. Anyway, as far as IJ is concerned, I would agree with you, but only to a point.

As for my statement that you didn't understand Zadie's theory: I know that intellectually you are quite capable of grasping the concepts. What I think you didn't connect to is the spirit of what she was saying, and I think it's due to the vastly different backgrounds and the conditionings you received on your separate roads to becoming noteworthy writers. Frankly John, you come off as a coddled sort who has had a relatively easy go of things and has been well educated behind safe ivy (or ivyish?) walls all his life. I know Zadie is now at Harvard, but my point is that I believe she paid a few more dues and had to scuffle a lot more than you to get where she is. In short, while Zadie may be broadcasting from the Ivory Tower, the discs she's spinning were bought on the street and in my opinion this adds to her authenticity, if you will.

So when you say she "loses you" when she says the author's main duty is to illuminte his/her place in the world it might be because her place, unlike yours (and mine, frankly), wasn't always assured. She has fought a fight to simply exist in a world that you and I have always taken for granted. I know you're aware of all this, it's just that I think you might have overlooked this aspect when you jumped on her essay. I think that these differences between you and Zadie are why you stress the importance of story, while what she wants to do with her novels is change the world and thereby create a more comfortable place for herself and others who didn't win the well-born lottery. Making her readers comfortable is a bonus, but is not necessary for her to accomplish her goal. And her readers know this, as yours know that you might throw in a BEM now and then just for kicks.

And I appreciate your forthcoming paragraph about literary v genre above, but again your concern is with the nuts and bolts (if this character does so and so, it makes it literary; if I twist the plot 45 degrees in this direction it makes it genre X, etc.) of things and speaks to me more of a genre writer, not constricted by the form or a slave to it, but nonetheless pigeonholed. (Don't misunderstand, I'm not characterizing you here -- I'm aware you produce more than SF.) But I'll say pigeonholed, because maybe that's what I meant when I originally used the word limited and set off your alarms.

Anyway, thanks for addressing my opinions. It's extremely edifying to have one of your status in the field come around and class the place up a bit, while trying to set me straight. Much appreciated!

J.D. Finch, Pale Blue Auto-Mobile
I have so enjoyed my trip through this site; as a poet and an avid reader, I found it both enlightening and enriching...Thank You!
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