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A Perspective on Perspectives

January 10, 2015

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.

 

Editorial Framing

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

The G

 

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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?!

 

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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

 

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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?

 

 

Charles

 

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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.

16 Comments
  1. January 12, 2015 7:53 pm

    Hi Jonathan–I think you’re spot on that blurring genre boundaries is a thing that many people feel is transgressive and edgy, but in reality is pushing back against something that hasn’t been the institutional center or conventional wisdom for some time. (Also love that truly stellar example of 1990s fashion.)

    However, I should have you know that I don’t have a problem with blurring boundaries or the fact that each magazine is blurring boundaries so much as I have a problem with the notion that online PPMs may, increasingly, be focused on one specific mode of boundary blurring fiction, one based on the adherence to certain conventions and application of certain narrative techniques.

    That isn’t to say I long for the days when stodgy, parochial and self-consciously “hard” SF (such as the kind that still dominates the pages of Analog) ruled the PPMs, nor is it to say that I can’t, haven’t or won’t enjoy quality fiction constructed along “speculative neo-magic realist” lines (I can, I have and I will). Rather, it’s to say I long for the days–a mere 3-4 years past–when a random sampling of the PPMs seemed to produce more variety than a random sampling of them today does. This is a somewhat different concern to whether any of the magazines have editorial “identities” separate from one another and/or which align with internal boundaries within SF/F. The two concerns overlap, to be sure, but are not quite the same.

    What happened? Not entirely sure, but I think your “aspirational ladder” notion captures a lot of what’s going on. I also think there have been developments that are both somewhat contingent on external factors and also located internal to specific markets that have helped pushed the overall market in that direction–for example, the merging of Lightspeed and Fantasy Magazines (which of course is also very much an example of two magazines losing strong identities in favor of a blurred one).

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  2. January 13, 2015 4:34 am

    ^Tangent on the above, I believe Beneath Ceaseless Skies is the last fantasy-only pro-paying market left with the merger of Fantasy Magazine and the closure of Realms of Fantasy. At least, no others come to mind.

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  3. January 13, 2015 11:21 am

    Hi G :-)

    Clarissa Explains it All FTW!

    I got what you were trying to say and I’m sorry if it came across as me trying to put words in your mouth. I get that you’re fine with genre-blending and I get that you’re suggesting that the market for short fiction has created some sort of stylistic convergence.

    I definitely get that the market presents itself as being less varied than it used to but I wonder whether that isn’t a product of the failure to differentiate between different types of story as opposed to a product of there being a genuine convergence. I share your intuition that the field seems to have encouraged the emergence of a kind of ‘quality genre writing’ that is mainstream in affect and structure but uses genre imagery. I also think that these types of story are now disproportionately represented at the level of awards. Where we differ is that I don’t feel comfortable saying that the field as a whole is less stylistically diverse than it was… I don’t read widely enough to make that judgement and so I’m not sure if they field *is* more likely to publish ‘quality genre writing’ than any other type of story or whether it simply looks that way because those are the types of story that tend to show up on Locus recommended reading lists and awards ballots. That’s why I’m conflating the two different concerns :-)

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  4. January 13, 2015 11:28 am

    Michal — That’s really interesting… I had no idea.

    That would suggest that, with the exception of Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Terraform, the only editorial directions people are willing to countenance is at the level of author demographic.

    It’s interesting that genre culture has entered a phase of its existence where a magazine devoted entirely to LGBT authors seems a more viable prospect than a magazine devoted only to science fiction. I hate to say it… but this really only deepens my suspicions that the entire short fiction field is nothing but an excercise in accruing social capital.

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  5. January 13, 2015 2:29 pm

    It’s interesting that Michal brings up Beneath Ceaseless Skies, because while it does still have a distinct identity, it’s also part of the whole convergence thing (see Martin Petto’s discussion: https://everythingisnice.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/beneath-ceaseless-skies/)

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  6. January 13, 2015 7:02 pm

    Interesting to see the name Benjanun Sriduangkaew in there as I would definitely consider her fiction to be on-message and relentlessly trendy. I always assumed that her critical voice was incredibly honest and emotionally authentic but nowadays I wonder whether she is capable of anything other than cynically giving people what they want to read.

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  7. January 14, 2015 2:07 am

    I agree on that–Beneath Ceaseless Skies publishes stylistically similar stories to the other online sf magazines mentioned above, though within a narrower subset (the remit is secondary-world fantasy only) and alongside the adventure fantasy promised by the masthead–see Saladin Ahmed’s sword & sorcery stories, for instance.

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  8. January 14, 2015 12:14 pm

    To quibble slightly, BCS publishes a lot of secondary-world fantasy but that isn’t its sole remit. It does sometimes publish both science fiction and, er, primary-world fantasy.

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  9. Charles permalink
    January 14, 2015 1:59 pm

    BCS is, according to its own submission guidelines, a fantasy-only venue. Shimmer Magazine is also, nearly without exception, contemporary fantasy (though I guess they are no long defined as Pro-Rate). There are also new ventures like Urban Fantasy Magazine and Grimdark Magazine which are much more focused in their approach. And, of course, there’s still Asimov’s, Analog, and AE which are all SF only venues. Plus there’s always half of Lightspeed that is SF and half that is F. Plus all of the pro anthologies that are SF minded (The End is… Triptych being just three out of a great many that are SF exclusive).

    So I don’t know if it’s quite fair to say that SFF is erasing the boundaries between genres. And I don’t know that I’d say I’ve been pressured into reading widely. I like to read widely and always have been. Finding that there is a variety of kinds of stories out there makes the genre more inclusive, to me at least. It makes me feel like there is a place for everyone. Including those that only want to read certain styles of SF.

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  10. honorarygla permalink
    January 14, 2015 2:52 pm

    Also, I have to say that you saying that a publication devoted only to LGBTQ authors would fare better than a sci fi only one is just…well, rather offensive. First, because there is currently no LGBTQ-only market out there. So it would be THE ONLY LGBTQ Spec Publication (I think ever) as opposed to another SF venue (one of many). Second, it assumes that people only read LGBTQ stories (which aren’t always written by LGBTQ authors) to get social points? Not because, maybe, that’s the sort of story they like to read. Not because, maybe, there are an awful lot of LGBTQ writers and readers out there and they might like those stories (to say nothing of non-LGBTQ writers and readers that might like writing and reading those stories). If I really try I can think of, oh, a few stories that have been out recently that have featured a Bi character. But Sci Fi stories? There are dozens every month.

    It’s not like the Queers Destroy SF Lightspeed is going to somehow create an entire slew of publications devoted only to that. No more than the Women Destroy SF created a bunch (or any) women-only venues. Oh, and those are SF only issues, so really, what the hell?

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  11. January 14, 2015 3:45 pm

    Honorarygla —

    Firstly, there is a market for LGBT speculative fiction, it’s operated by Lethe press and it’s called Icarus – The magazine of Gay Speculative Fiction. It’s (clearly) not all that visible but it has quite a following and I’ve certainly been aware of its existence for a while now.

    Secondly, how is it offensive to suggest that a magazine marketed on the basis of its willingness to publish LGBT voices is a better prospect than a magazine marketed on the basis of its willingness to publish nothing but science fiction? False I can see… but offensive? The market for SFF is aggressively expanding into demographic territory that has been ignored for decades. This expansion means that ‘we publish fiction by/for group x’ is actually quite a solid selling point unlike ‘we publish science fiction’ which is not much of a selling point partly for the reasons you mention (science fiction is fucking everywhere) and partly because the market for traditional SF has almost completely collapsed at novel level and the field knows it.

    Are you seriously offended by the idea that there’s a huge untapped market for fiction written by and for marginalised groups?

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  12. honorarygla permalink
    January 14, 2015 4:35 pm

    Ah, I forgot about Icarus (which is no longer operating but still did come out, though I guess it would a sign that a project like that is not immune to failing). Though even Icarus wasn’t only by/for non-straight people. It published straight authors, and was for everyone.

    And I suppose I’m offended more that you said “I hate to say it… but this really only deepens my suspicions that the entire short fiction field is nothing but an excercise in accruing social capital.” Like people like me are only reading and writing for some sort of points and not because SFF does draw in a lot of non-straight people. Because it sounded, to me, like you were saying having a publication devoted to LGBTQ writers/stories would be a sign of our fallen times. Like it wouldn’t be for/by straight people, when straight people (I presume) enjoy reading non-straight stories. Kind of how I like reading straight stories as well as non-straight ones. And there are a number of publications out there now that publish SF and only SF. Like the ones I mentioned, like Terraform (which just launched, so saying there are no new venues is just false) that you pointed out. Like I said in my piece, I don’t want Terraform to fail. I like Terraform. But I also would support other markets. And do, really.

    I also wonder at the idea that the traditional SF market has collapsed at the novel level. Are there not a whole hell of a lot of people writing “traditional” SF (McDevitt, Reynolds, Hamilton) as well as, what, “nontraditional” SF (whatever that means)? I don’t see SF at the novel level as sick, or dying, or broken.

    So no, I’m not offended by the idea that there’s a huge untapped market for fiction written by and for marginalized groups. I’m all for it, and very excited that it’s being tapped. I’m offended that you seem to be saying the existence of such a market is making it harder for you to enjoy SF. I’m offended that you seem to be saying it makes it harder to get SF published. I’m offended that there seems to be a bit of a “get off my lawn” vibe to your argument, when SFF is nobody’s lawn.

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  13. January 14, 2015 6:23 pm

    Firstly, I would like to apologise as I see now how that comment could be taken as a suggestion that LGBT-friendly writing is somehow less legitimate than other forms of writing. I don’t believe that, have never believed that and the fact that I could be read as saying that is a sign that I was being glib and talking shit. I apologise for any offence caused and I will strive to be more careful in future.

    My position is that I think that there is a massive market for LGBT-friendly SFF out there but I don’t think the current genre short fiction scene is interested in going out to find it. I think these magazines look inwards rather than outwards and their funding models have more to do with milking the aspirations of people already in the field than growing the field by discovering new markets. The self-absorption of the short fiction field is now so complete that even existing genre readers are struggling to find purchase, hence the problems fielding a full Hugo ballot and the sense of panic around lashing together a critical infrastructure that will make genre readers aware of short fiction. I don’t think that most of these magazines are interested in reaching out to new readers, I don’t think they care about being read at all.

    I don’t claim ownership of the lawn… in fact, I would say that the lawn belongs to everyone except me as my tastes don’t coincide with what is read, what gets people excited, what wins awards or what excites critics. I am a dinosaur who is clinging on to this cultural space by the tips of his fingers… I represent nothing and my words carry no weight.

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  14. January 19, 2015 1:13 pm

    BCS is, according to its own submission guidelines, a fantasy-only venue.

    All this shows is that they don’t always follow their own submission guidelines. This is a bit of a derail but it is also tied into exactly what Jonathan is talking about so I hope he won’t mind if I expand a bit. I like BCS and one of the things I like about it is its strong editorial mandate. I also like Yoon Ha Lee so I am pleased that they published work by her last year and ‘The Bonedragon’s Penance’ was my favourite 2014 BCS story. But ‘The Bonedragon’s Penance’ is a science fiction story. Two points on this:

    1) It appeared as part of ‘Science-Fantasy Month’ so even with that clear editorial mandate there is some pressure (whether internal or external) to diversify into homogeny.
    2) This looks a lot like exactly what Jonathan talks about in the Uncanny piece – going for the writer, not the subject.

    As I said, I like this fiction. I probably wouldn’t describe it is as “on-message and relentlessly trendy”. But it certainly isn’t alien to that sentiment.

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  15. January 19, 2015 1:18 pm

    BCS is, according to its own submission guidelines, a fantasy-only venue.

    All this shows is that they don’t always follow their own submission guidelines. This is a bit of a derail but it is also tied into exactly what Jonathan is talking about so I hope he won’t mind if I expand a bit. I like BCS and one of the things I like about it is its strong editorial mandate. I also like Yoon Ha Lee so I am pleased that they published work by her last year and ‘The Bonedragon’s Penance’ was my favourite 2014 BCS story. But ‘The Bonedragon’s Penance’ is a science fiction story. Two points on this:

    1) It appeared as part of ‘Science-Fantasy Month’ so even with that clear editorial mandate there is some pressure (whether internal or external) to diversify into homogeny.
    2) This looks a lot like exactly what Jonathan talks about in the Uncanny piece – going for the writer, not the subject.

    As I said, I like this fiction and I wouldn’t describe it is as “on-message and relentlessly trendy” but there is a grain of truth in this.

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