As reported on Boing Boing, Ursula LeGuin wrote probably the funniest, most sarcastically devastating rebuttal of the persistent “genre fiction sucks” meme I’ve ever encountered. This piece of dry genius was penned in response to a miraculously clueless Slate review of Michael Chabon’s latest “counterfactual” (read: spec fic, but I wanna be lit’ry) opus. The reviewer, Ruth Franklin, opined: “Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.”
After recovering from the near-mortal wound so delivered, LeGuin (incidentally, one of the most “serious” writers of literature in any genre, if by “serious” we are to read “fucking brilliant”) sent Ansible a response, in the form of a very short story. Read the whole thing here (please!), but my favorite part:
God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics — the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathemata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? Did he not want to preserve the virginity of Yaddo? Had he not even understand the importance of the distinction between sci fi and counterfactual fiction?
My God: “…endless, solemn dances on the grave?” This is pure genius. I doubt she’ll admit it publicly, but dear Ms. Franklin must be feeling rather red-faced at the moment.
My favorite line is at the end:
Genre breathed its corpse-breath in her face, and she was lost. She was defiled. She might as well be dead. She would never, ever get invited to write for Granta now.
This is particularly hilarious to me because I have read precisely one issue of Granta. Someone who knew I liked SF gave it to me because, she said, it contained an interesting story that she was fairly sure was Science Fiction. Indeed, her surmise was correct. The story was illustrated with planets, just in case a hapless member of Granta’s literary audience found herself adrift amongst these unfamiliar spaceships and hyperdrives and interdimensional travel and other landmarks so far removed from their comfortable tales of upper middle-class urban angst. I actually liked the story, though it suffered from that typical disease of Genre As Written By a Serious Author: it wasn’t nearly as original as the author (and, apparently, the editors) thought it was.
In any case, I was grateful to this person for having alerted me to this strange and palpably pretentious literary magazine, because I thought I had discovered a new market for my short stories. So, eager writer that I am, I promptly zipped onto their website and looked up their submission guidelines. And there I discovered…
Here is a list of things that Granta does not publish:
* Genre fiction. That means: no Romance, Crime, Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, Historical.
My goodness! thought I, hapless and apparently pestilent writer of that great horror, Genre Fiction. How could this magazine, which so recently published a work that not only featured spaceships, but also aliens and other universes, not be interested in my ever-so-earnest meditations on similar themes?
But LeGuin, with her ineffable flair for ridiculing this absurdity, has puzzled it out for me. It isn’t that these self-appointed guardians of the world of Serious Literature are opposed to aliens, spaceships, Martian colonies, FTL drives, black holes and freeze-dried ice cream per se, but that writers who delve into these arenas must ensure that they have performed the necessary public rituals of grave-dancing and sneering repudiation of the very genre in which they wish to work. Even better if they refuse to read a single example of this “genre” they so despise, instead relying on the previews of The Fifth Element, which really didn’t look very good, and vague childhood memories of disliking Ewoks. Then they should publish a few stories of the explicitly “literary” variety (which is of course not a genre with its own conventions and cliches, how could it be, for this is the only One True Serious Literature), featuring angst-filled urban dwellers coping extravagantly with 9/11 and family betrayals and quiet epiphanies by the seashore. Then, having made their street cred nigh-impregnable, they are free to jump feet-first into the pool of genre that they are quite certain has yet to be touched by a single writer of their caliber.
What a service they are performing for us, the lowly hacks just desperate for a royalty check! Writers like Atwood and McCarthy and Ishiguro and Cunningham are gifting us genre writers with the crumbs of their ineffably superior ideas and execution. Sure, they deny that they’re writing genre at all, (they “write about people,” you see, which is completely different), but the crumbs fall beneath the table anyway. Never mind that Atwood’s dystopian feminist tales of the future were done earlier (and probably more thoughtfully) by Octavia Butler. For that matter, so long as we’re talking about intelligent, beautifully written SF with sociological themes (read: about people), why not try Sheri S. Tepper or Robert Charles Wilson or, hell, Ursula K. LeGuin.
Here’s something to take home, writers and editors of literary fiction:
- “literary” is a genre.
- “science fiction” and “fantasy” have a long history, much of it excellent, and judging it a priori based on your ignorance should not increase your taste-making clout
- if you don’t know anything about the genre of a book to which you have been assigned a review, perhaps you should politely suggest to your editor that someone who does should review it. That might prevent you from making an ass of yourself in public. Though, of course, we all love asses who make themselves in public.
Ms. LeGuin– I will never, ever get invited to write for Granta now. Praise be to the gods!