A Perspective on Perspectives
The Good people at Nerds of a Feather are currently experimenting with a couple of new formats including the Blogtable I was lucky enough to participate in earlier this week. The second format they have tried is called Perspectives and it seems to involve a number of bloggers responding to a particular piece or event. For reasons best known to The G, they chose my reviews of Terraform and Uncanny magazines as the basis for their first Perspectives.
Whenever people respond to anything I write (particularly negatively, natch) my first instinct is to mutter about them getting the wrong end of the stick but this time, I was reminded of an old article by John Clute in which he talks about the wonders of ‘misprision’ and how someone’s decision to latch onto a meaning other than the one you intended can serve to open up interesting perspectives on the original piece. Plus… it would be a bit off of me to argue that the author is dead and then argue that people have failed to interpret one of my essays correctly! So rather than seeking to ‘correct’ their responses or ‘punish them for their impudence’, I’ll respond to their ideas directly and use them as an opportunity to clarify some of my own thinking.
The piece starts with some lovely unpacking by the G who teases the implications out of some of my ideas in an effort to make them a little bit more transparent. The money shot is this paragraph:
Put more firmly in the Bourdieusian vocabulary McCalmont uses to frame his argument, Uncanny could be said to utilize social capital (i.e. networks) in order to produce cultural capital (i.e. prestige) for social actors who already possess institutional advantages within fandom–with results that, while polished in terms of craft, are predictable, stale and contrived. Provocatively, he further asserts that the online pro-paying markets have largely abandoned “traditional” idea-driven science fiction in favor of “over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotions.”
I think that genre culture likes to believe that it operates according to a meritocracy in which the cream invariably rises to the top. In the aftermath of Racefail, people are now much more aware that problematic attitudes towards race and gender have historically distorted that meritocracy giving undue prominence to stories by white men. This being said, I think that most people in genre culture would argue that, were the field to get over its racism and sexism, you would get a proper meritocracy in which only the best stories got into print and only the-best-of-the-best made it into Year’s Best anthologies and awards ballots. I don’t think this is even remotely true… I think that even if all trace of prejudice and privilege were expunged from the field, you would still get a field that confused ‘this author has loads of social capital’ with ‘this author writes really good fiction’. Come to mention it, I am not sure how a true cultural meritocracy would work, even in principle.
There’s a really interesting film about cultural production called The September Issue in which the director takes a long hard look at the fashion industry and decides that the whole system relies upon the widely respected and hugely well connected editor Anna Wintour to make very basic aesthetic judgements about which colours and styles are ‘good’ in a particular season. Without those initial value judgements and social hierarchies to make those judgements stick, the fashion industry would be completely incapable of deciding what to produce in any given year. The voices of Wintour and her peers set the agenda and provide a basic context for all design decisions.
One of the things to emerge from the Requires Hate debacle was a glimpse into how the field of short fiction actually operates. I don’t know about you, but I had always assumed that magazines and anthologies ran on the basis that everyone goes into a single slush pile unless they’re someone like Neil Gaiman who will explicitly drive sales. However, pay attention to the talk of black-listing and the accusations flying between Alex Dally MacFarlane and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and you will realise that genre short fiction is a field in which nothing matters other than social connections as even obscure editors and authors use social capital to determine which authors to publish and which anthologies to appear in.
Both fashion and genre short fiction use social capital as a means of resolving aesthetic judgements, it’s just that the field of fashion is more transparent and honest about the impact of fashion and social influence upon its aesthetic judgement. Nobody in fashion would argue that vibrant orange is an inherently more sophisticated colour than navy blue but genre short fiction is quite happy suggesting that over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotion are inherently better and more sophisticated than engineering puzzle stories. Much of what passes for critical discourse in genre circles is little more than post-hoc justification of existing fashions.
Genre short fiction is a field that runs on social capital and so the fiction that the field produces is shaped by the need for stories to serve as social currency that will help authors and editors to grow their personal networks and prestige. The worrying thing about this development is that the acquisition of prestige is now almost completely unrelated to the ability to reach an audience and so the field of genre short fiction grows ever more invisible and irrelevant to the majority of readers both inside and outside of genre culture. I chose to compare Uncanny and Terraform as Uncanny is a magazine that runs purely on social capital while Terraform runs on an ability to reach as wide an audience as possible.
I don’t think that this makes Uncanny any more legitimate a source of genre fiction than Terraform as it is quite easy to imagine an alternate present in which the genre’s gatekeepers and social actors had decided that we should all value scientific accuracy more than the effective deployment of mainstream literary techniques. My tastes are no more legitimate or science-fictional than those of anyone else; it is just that I’m quite happy to wear navy blue.
G’s response revolves around a fear of convergence and the suspicion that more and more short fiction venues seem to be publishing the same types of story and that this results in less choice for readers and a general impoverishment of the genre. I think there is definitely some truth in this statement.
In my piece of Short Fiction and the Feels, I pointed to a particular literary technique that had appeared in a number of award-winning stories over the past few years. I suspect that this technique (using genre imagery to highlight mundane emotional states) is now being over-used and the fact that Uncanny also included a story that made use of the technique suggests that authors are being encouraged to produce that type of story. Whether or not this constitutes convergence is a tricky question to answer but we have definitely entered a phase of that technique’s lifespan where nobody should be getting any credit for its deployment. But then… not every author, jury member or Hugo voter is watching the field that closely and some people still think that they deserve credit for blurring genres, as though kicking against the fashions of 1990s genre fiction is anything other than a complete failure of imagination: Yeeeeah… fuck torn jeans and neon-coloured t-shirts! My fantasy novel has a computer in it! How do you like THEM apples President Clinton?!
My view is that genre short fiction is responding to the social needs of professional elites rather than the entertainment needs of ordinary readers but I honestly could not tell you whether or not there is less choice in genre magazines than there was (say) ten years ago. Conversely, I definitely think that genre short fiction seems more monolithic when viewed from the outside.
Over the last ten years, genre culture has been divesting itself of the signalling protocols that once allowed readers to make informed choices about what they might want to read. Rather than devoting themselves to a particular genre or a particular style, many free online magazines have a rather hand-wavy commitment to ‘excellence’ that includes science fiction, fantasy, horror and young adult variations on all three. These days, magazines don’t filter their content and nor do awards or reviewers so how are readers supposed to know where they are supposed to start looking for stuff to read? The more pragmatic editors become about their selection criteria, the harder it is for readers to determine whether a magazine is worth trying to read and the less differentiated the various markets become, the more their output comes to resemble a vast undifferentiated mass of fiction. Sure… the initiated may be able to tell you that one magazine is more likely to publish a particular type of story than another but to the outsider? It’s just… genre matter.
When G says:
Nevertheless, I do see Uncanny #1 as a missed opportunity of sorts–a lost chance to widen the band of what the online pro-paying markets are currently publishing, and in the process add something new and vital to the overall conversation. In that sense I do very much agree with Jonathan that Terraform, to date at least, represents the more dynamic and exciting venture. Genre needs more outlets that eschew formulas, or at least try new ones. More to the point, it needs more outlets that don’t give a shit about conventions or consensuses. Terraform can do this because, as Jonathan notes, it isn’t linked to the institutions of fandom or its internal social hierarchies.
I think he’s yearning for magazines that dare to nail their colours to the mast and provide some sort of clue as to which stories they are hoping to publish. In this particular cultural climate, a magazine that says ‘we will not publish this type of story’ has a bold editorial policy. Most free online magazines seem quite content to feed the mass.
Taking a slightly stronger reading of G’s response, I also think that there is a case for saying that the blurring of genre boundaries has resulted in a less diverse commercial landscape but I think that’s more of a novel-level problem than a short story-level problem. My problem with genre short fiction is that it is absolutely impossible to know where to start looking for the types of story that interest you. Apex? Lightspeed? Clarkesworld? Uncanny? Tor? Frankly, they might as well be dumping all of their stories on a shared server as a series of unmarked text files.
Dean’s response left me a little bit confused. He begins by – a propos nothing – defending his decision not to include negative reviews on his own website. He then calls me ‘cynically pretentious’ before admitting that I make a few good points and then concludes by asking if criticism is really nothing more than sneering at other people’s tastes:
Is that what criticism has come to? That it has to come from a place of smug superiority? If you bash 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight, unadulterated pieces of garbage of every single level, it’s met with “well, at least they read”. And perhaps that’s the reason people don’t want to leave a one-star review. That, and the author might stalk you beat you with a wine bottle.
I am not sure what point Dean is trying to make here but it sounds a lot like he’s suggesting that people who write negative reviews shouldn’t be surprised if people hit them over the head with wine bottles… and that would be a stupid thing to say.
I think there’s a big difference between sneering at someone’s taste and articulating the fact that you do not like the things that they happen to like. Sneering may or may not be a serious cultural problem but it’s nowhere near as problematic as assuming that every expression of opinion is an implied insult to the people who disagree. If we have reached that point as a culture then we are completely fucked.
Tone arguments invariably come across as little more than petulant whining but the reason I tend not to pull my punches when I write negative reviews is that the tone of the piece is as much a part of my reaction as the points I make about a particular work. If reading something left me feeling betrayed and frustrated then those feelings of betrayal and frustration need to emerge from my review. Why would you even bother to write a review if you weren’t going to be completely honest about how something made you feel?
Reading Charles’ response I was struck by the fact that we evidently approach the field in very different ways. At one point, Charles says:
There is great diversity in the genre, which I think is a good thing. I like more than just science fiction, more than just fantasy. I like light comedies and dark, brooding tragedies. I like stories with aliens, stories with magic, stories with airships or superheroes or some combination of all of the above. And that’s why I try to read as widely as possible.
I think the field prefers readers like Charles to readers like me. Every cultural scene rewards investment and so creates an incentive to appear as knowledgeable as possible. In genre culture, this has always manifested itself as pressure to “read as widely as possible”.
When I first entered the field, this pressure took the form of people feeling obliged to familiarise themselves with the entire history of science fiction before being able to issue an opinion about a particular book. Have you read Heinlein? No… well you couldn’t possibly enjoy this book on as many levels as I do!
As time passed, this pressure decreased only to be replaced with an almost identical expectation that you should read books from all three genres on the grounds that failure to move beyond the boundaries of science fiction was gauche at best and culturally regressive at worse. In more recent years, this social pressure has reconfigured itself into an expectation that you should read books by a diverse range of authors as well as books aimed at young adults.
I have always felt these pressures and refused to act upon them. The field changes and so do the ideologies favoured by its elites but, at the end of the day, life is too short to read books on the basis of how other people think you ought to read. Charles can read as widely as he wishes… I read in a focused fashion and find a short fiction field that does not filter by genre to be hugely frustrating.