When will "the literary establishment" start taking science fiction more seriously? Everybody from Michael Chabon to David Hartwell wants to know. But would most readers really be happy if science fiction actually became more literary? Here's our list of things that might change about science fiction if it took on more literary pretensions. I actually find myself disagreeing with Michael Chabon, somewhat, when he claims there's no real difference between literary and genre fiction. I've spent enough time in the literary scene (well, a literary scene) to get a sense that there is such a thing as literary writing. It has its own set of clichés, its own expectations, and its own chosen subject matter. You don't pick up the New Yorker, much less a small lit journal whose name ends in "Review," expecting to see the same kind of thing you'd see in Asimov's. You just don't. At the same time, there's no one "literary establishment," with a single viewpoint. A couple of years ago, the New York Times Book Review polled 125 critics and authors to decide the best novels of the past 25 years. The winner, Toni Morrison's Beloved, got only 15 votes. Most other selections got only a handful of votes, meaning that nobody could agree on the best works. Not only that, but the list of winning books absolutely screams "lowest common denominator," with an over-representation of boring hacks like John Updike. (My hero Donald Hall spends a whole chapter in his seminal writing handbook Writing Well explaining, pitilessly and irrefutably, why John Updike really is a terrible writer, sentence by sentence.) And that's the thing: the most literary writing from the "literary world" never really attains much prominence outside of a cloistered scene that talks amongst itself. There are tons of writers who are literary superstars in some context, but they'll never get profiled in Entertainment Weekly or reviewed in the NYTBR, any more than any paperback scifi writer will. In fact, the literary world is a lot like science fiction in that respect. There are literary stars who never break out of the lit ghetto, and then there are some who cross over and become "mainstream." There are people who the Quinnipiac Review will fall over itself to publish, whom you'll never in a million years hear of. Which is the point, sort of — maybe at some point in the past the term "literary" referred to works, from whatever genre, that had stood the test of time and gained classic stauts. But nowadays "literary" refers to a particular type of writing. It's a genre in its own right, just like science fiction. "Literary" certainly doesn't mean "good." It's a description for one way in which writing can be good. But something can be literary and not particularly good, and writing can be good without being particularly literary.
Let's take a concrete example: I recently reviewed David Louis Edelman's Multireal, and a while before that I reviewed The Stone Gods by former literary darling Jeanette Winterson. There is no doubt in my mind that Edelman's novel is a much better book than The Stone Gods, which is a severely flawed work. But The Stone Gods is a thousand times more literary than Multireal. Literary qualities that The Stone Gods possesses include a masterful, poetic prose style; a clever experimentation with narrative form; a heavy layer of irony over the main characters' inner lives; a story that jumps around in time and repeats the same motifs and characters across different settings. Multireal, by contrast, tells a complicated story in a fairly straightforward way. The earlier novel, Infoquake, has one big flashback that takes up a third of the book, and there are some dream sequences here and there. But it's not that arty.
Certainly there are some SF writers writing today who are "literary." Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind, as does Geoff Ryman. Sarah Hall's Carhullan Army/Daughters Of The North, which just won the Tiptree Award, is extremely literary. Many lit snobs now talk about Samuel R. Delany with as much rapture as they reserve for Raymond Carver or Alice Munroe. What would you get if science fiction novels and stories were more "literary"? It wouldn't necessarily make them better, or even help them gain respectability. But here's a random, and possibly wrong-headed, selection of what you might get if science fiction went more "lit.": 1) More ambiguity. A friend of mine used to joke that the New Yorker's short stories always had to end with a "clarifying moment of ambiguity." We're not sure what's just happened, and nothing has actually been resolved, but we feel somehow better, or worse, about the whole business now that it's over. Oh, and here's a teacup. Isn't it shiny? So forget having everything explained — in fact, the less we understand about what just happened, the better. 2) Fancier word-play. Most science fiction stories and novels use language as a tool to get the story across. They're usually written serviceably, but not sparklingly. There are usually way too many adverbs, too many passive sentences, and too much use of the verb "to be." In literary writing, by contrast, there's an obsession with prose style. Every sentence must dapple, like sunlight through a babboon's toes in the jungle. A couple years ago, I got on the mailing list for a few of the biggest literary publishers and found myself receiving a couple dozen literary books a month. I read as many of them as I could, and the writing was often quite lovely, even when the stories left no other impression on my mind. MFA programs are exploding with people who have been drilled to create prose bonsai. 3) Paragraphs that start with numbers. I have no idea where this fad came from — maybe poetry? — but I still see it a lot, especially in short fiction. It used to be lists, or fake memos, but I think those are out now. But numbers are still around. 4) Heroes who are less heroic. Look at it this way: Why is Hamlet the most written about of Shakespeare's plays? It's not because it's good. Hamlet is actually a pretty weak play, lacking the cleverness of As You Like It or the heaviness of the Scottish play. Several other Shakespeare plays, including The Tempest, have nicer writing. Actors like Hamlet because the lead role gives them a chance to have fun grandstanding and Burbageing. But critics love Hamlet because the main character is such a poor hero. He couldn't lace his boots without agonizing about it for hours, and he's horrified by his own mortality in precisely the way that a hero isn't supposed to be. So goodbye escapist science fiction heroes, hello angsty wanderers!
5) Tell us more about the teacup. It's chipped on one side, but somehow the friction from all those fingernails holding it steady has worn it down. So the chipped area feels almost polished, as if the cup-maker chipped it herself, and then glazed it. There's a stain on its base that no amount of scrubbing with the wiry brush is ever equal to removing. It has a pattern of flowers and baby's breath, which you haven't noticed in years. 6) A fetishization of a certain kind of person. People joke about the literary story revolving around suburban malaise, but it's sort of true nonetheless. During my year of reading piles of literary books, I read tons of near-identical stories of growing up with a nanny, or being a soccer mom, or being a business dad. For some reason, a lot of literary novels start with a funeral, forcing a successful thirtysomething or fortysomething person to return to his/her family and uncover the buried secrets of his/her childhood. (Think Sweet Home Alabama, but not quite as cute.) In science fiction terms, this would mean more stories about middle managers, shuttling around below decks on the starcruiser and wondering if this is all there is to life. 7) Why do we feel bad? A lot of the most interesting literary fiction that I've read lately has a kind of malaise running underneath it. Angsty, or maybe angry. I'm thinking Gary Amdahl type stuff. Stories about people who feel bad or pissed off for reasons they can't articulate, and which we understand even less well than they do. Science fiction has come a long way since the days when it had to feature "happy, competent characters" with no emotional problems. But it's still the literature of problem-solving, not anhedonia. So it's a "be careful what you wish for" type of thing. As I said earlier, some science fiction is genuinely literary, as much as anything in The New Yorker ever is, but I wouldn't want to see all science fiction writers making that their life's goal. I love literary fiction, for mostly different reasons than I love science fiction. There are truths you can only tell by being playful with words, or by delving into intentional murkiness. The best literary fiction is both clever and heart-throttling, making you confront the "boredom, the horror and the glory" of life by forcing you to see more clearly, or more murkily, than you're accustomed to seeing. The best science fiction, by contrast, is about exploring brilliant ideas, thought experiments, possible futures or just escapist fun. And there's nothing wrong with that.