Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Rising Above Miscegenation

Ursula K. LeGuin spoke of miscegenation between genre and mainstream fiction. She discussed briefly how the two are distinct in approach and form. She thought the mainstream benefitted but wasn’t too sure genre gained from such exchanges and mergers.

What mainstream fiction tends to get from genre is imaginative elements. Magic realism for the mainstream critics was what genre critics called fantasy all along, for instance. Such elements can enliven basics seen too many times before.

Genre fiction tends to take realism from mainstream fiction. A grittier sense of presence, a more realistic depiction of behavior or setting results. This can refresh tired ideas and threadbare executions.

In genre fiction, plot counts most. So do ideas. In mainstream fiction, character and setting are emphasized. This simple shift of emphasis has created a gap in American fiction that does not exist as strongly elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere -- Britain for example -- the differences are seen as valid variants, rather than distinctions. Genre and mainstream exist there intermingled. A writer can be considered serious while writing mystery or science fiction, there. Anthony Burgess is an example. In Britain, a genre writer can win serious literary awards for work that crosses or blurs genre lines. Martin Amis comes to mind.

Stateside, fen are upset by writers perceived generally as literary who “pilfer” genre elements and end up being recognized for innovation. Fen grouse about Margaret Atwood for swooping down from her literary heights to scarf up some science fictional insight in The Handmaid’s Tale, which went on to glean much acclaim and, incidentally, became a best-seller and major movie. Fen sneer at mystery writer P. D. James for using science fictional tricks in Children of Men, a book that also won acclaim, sold hugely well, and became a big movie. Mostly the fen resent all the attention the genre elements in such works receive from the mainstream critics, as if such things had never existed before, let alone been pioneered by pre-WW II pulp writers and their literary offspring.

Where, fen whine, is the mainstream or academic praise for Frank Herbert’s Dune or for Johanna Russ’s The Female Man?

Oh, but when Ursula K. LeGuin manages to jump the gap from a start in genre fiction to mainstream literary respectability, some fen wonder if she’s sold out, or if she’s even written “real” science fiction all along?

They pulled the same on Ray Bradbury. “He never really wrote science fiction or fantasy, it was always mainstream fabulism,” fen say, when the quality of his prose and the purity of his voice prompts mainstream recognition.

Of course, they skip over the work of Philip K. Dick, which has become a favorite of academics and has, oddly, been made into many movies since PKD’s death. Hell, it’s even been chosen for the Library of America fancy book gimmick, considered prestigious by collectors.

Suffice it to say that, stateside at least, the standards to which fiction are held vary between genre and mainstream. What are valid variations elsewhere are distinctions keeping groups separate here.

Miscegenation means interbreeding between distinct races. It is an ugly term. It implies purity contaminated. It leads to terms like maroon and mulatto

And sure enough, as fen eagerly point out, genre fiction, particularly science fiction, has been singled out stateside for prejudicial treatment. It’s been the victim of unwarranted slurs, scurrilous lies, and mean spirited analysis. It’s been held in contempt and used as a reason for automatic and universal dismissal from serious contention for major literary prizes.

The very term genre fiction carries a stigma of cookie-cutter lack of quality. Unfairly, all examples are judged by the worst among them. Pulp fiction from 50 years ago continues to define academic response to genre fiction today.

This despite many mainstream writers pilfering genre tropes, fen complain. How come it’s okay when they do it?

It’s how they do it, comes the response from the snob side of the divide. Learn to write better, the mainstream critics sneer.

By whose standards? That should be the question. If it is acknowledged that different standards apply, then it must also be acknowledged that a given work may simultaneously be excellent and terrible, depending on what critic is making the assessment.

Can the standards merge?

In the 1970s, a New Wave hit genre fiction, especially science fiction. Writers brought many new tricks, from mainstream literary writing classes. Purists balked. Pulp standards of writing developed by scientists and engineers, who concentrated on idea and plot, became Golden, while the New Wave stuff was viewed as effete, affected, and ineffectual. Who wanted all those characters cluttering things up; genre fiction required only cardboard cut-outs as place markers for ideas.

And so the debate devolved at once into name calling and posturing. It remains acrimonious to this day, despite decades of excellent work meshing the competing standards.

Which brings us back to Ursula K. LeGuin’s remark about miscegenation. She’s not sure genre benefits from an influx of mainstream elements?

First, consider the source of this comment; the latest issue of LOCUS, the newspaper of science fiction and fantasy publishing. She was speaking to a select audience and perhaps playing to its perceived prejudices.

Second, consider that LeGuin’s work itself represents some of the finest merging -- miscegenation -- available. She has always written pure science fiction with high mainstream standards of prose and character, setting and theme. Her work is neither white nor black but bronze and brown, a burnished alloy combining the best of both.

Third, consider that miscegenation is an old-fashioned, outdated word, long overdue for an overhaul. Perhaps that is what we can learn from her comment, that the new mix, as with hybrids everywhere, is stronger and healthier than either of its parents.

Of the New Wave herself, LeGuin may be looking forward to a time when the only consideration is not genre versus mainstream, but quality of writing. A good story well told is all that matters, in the end. Categorical thinking should be a thing of the past, an embarrassment like racism or any other kind of prejudice and bigotry.

Sure, some of us will always prefer stories with certain types of elements in them; that’s a matter of taste and education. But excluding work, not even giving it a chance, simply because it emphasizes one set of standards over another, or contains one set of elements and not another, is absurd.

It simply does not matter what percentage of what kind of “blood” one carries from one’s ancestry, and it simply does not matter what percentage of what arbitrary literary grouping a story contains.

We need to be better than that, like the best of today’s fiction.

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