Sorry to be so late with this: woke late/starting upper respiratory trouble, I think, then in order: laundry, unpacking, comcast.
But we’re not here to talk about my personal life (thank heavens), we’re here to talk about literature. It is a subject I’m eminently qualified to discuss, as the normal end result of my degree was either as language professor/literature professor or translator. A rare and vanishing few made it to the diplomatic corps and that was mom’s ambition for me — did you just snort giggle? — but despite my having the grades to do it, and having made contacts at all the foreign consulates (particularly the American Consul, a Texan Reagan appointee who shared the GOOD Bourbon with me) I really never thought I could make a success of such a career. I know, hard to picture.
And by the time I finished third year I had had fishing on the part of my college, on letting me establish a program on science fiction literature, and giving me one of those permanent jobs with retirement plan. Some days I wonder why I threw it all over, then I remember generations of Portuguese college children subjected to my skewed view of both science fiction and literature and realize that it’s all for the best in the best of all possible worlds and all that.
So, today I’ll revert to my roots and we’ll discuss literature. You may picture me standing at a lectern, in my black skirt suit and black tie and looking very proper. (Is that a smirk? Did you bring enough to share with the whole class?)
First I’ll confess I have defenestrated more “How to write” books for the crime of trying to define non-literature than for any other crime. There was a particular one on plot and theme, which I was following riveted until in the middle, the worst pedants of his nature took over his brain and he wrote something like “if you’re writing so called genre literature, like science fiction or mystery, you don’t need to read this, as all they do is bash a story on the page, just like all the other stories before, stuff about space lizards and old maids who solve mysteries.”
First of all, this showed a regrettable lack of knowledge of the current genre (Margaret Atwood not withstanding — and why do I now what to write a space lizard story called The Handmaiden’s Tail? Except for the fact that the imp of the perverse and I are best friends?) — I’ve read exactly one science fiction novel involving lizards: Karel Capek’s War With The Newts. As for maiden ladies solving crimes, even cozies these days are more likely to have what are technically — perhaps — spinsters, but neither maiden nor ladies.) What it revealed in fact, is that the author had no glimmer of understanding of genre literature, having been told it was bad, and trusting his mentors without ever verifying. There is a lot of that going around.
In fact, here, recently, one of you seemed to think that the difference between genre and literature is that literature features characters with depth and growth. Not only no, bu t hell no. In fact, “literary fiction” these days is often populated with walking cliches who wouldn’t grow if you watered them. Meanwhile just about all of genre, and certainly the best of genre has plenty of character growth. If you don’t think so I’ll assume you never cracked open Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Left Hand of Darkness or, h*ll, even Dragonriders of Pern. And only one of those is at risk of being taken for literature, and only because our betters are obsessed with genre stuff. Okay that and the somewhat opaque manner of telling that I tend to shrug off as “it was the seventies” but which is our first clue in our quest to find “literature” and “literary sf/f” as presently defined.
This is where you must abandon your illusions, not that I think many people on this site have them. “Literary” does not mean better. “Literary” does not mean more profound. “Literary” doesn’t even mean more complex. Literary is in fact a genre like any other. If you remember that genres are things invented by bookstores to sell books to customers, it all will make sense.
Genre didn’t always exist. Since I grew up in a time capsule, I can tell you it didn’t exist in the more oldfashioned bookstores I frequented as a kid. Romance and adventure, western and historical would all be shelved iggledy-piggeldy in a glorious hodge podge of story Some of the more sophisticated bookstores aspired to historical shelving — that is, they had the books in order of release. Some of the more anal-retentive alphabetized them. But most of them were hole in the wall places, where the proprietor glowered at you as you passed the counter, at which he sat reading some tome, and glared even more as you brought books up to buy (then proceeded to act as though you were kidnapping his children right under his very eyes.) So mostly, however the books had once been organized, they were now scrambled by eager customers, and the result was a sort of buffet where the salads, main courses and deserts were all intermixed, but it didn’t matter, since they let you try it out before buying.
I spent many an afternoon browsing through those and reading the beginning, before rejecting or accepting the books, completely ignorant of genre.
The more modern bookstores had a place for everything and sf/f was usually on spindles, which I learned to recognize because Heinlein, Asimov, Simak, Dick, Van Vogt and much much later on McCaffrey and countless others were often loitering there, waiting for me to pick them up and take them home (or more likely to read standing up in the grocery store, leaning against a pillar, while the trains home went by unnoticed.)
In those bookstores I rarely strayed to the “literary” shelves, unless I’d been directed to do so by a teacher. You see, the Portuguese books were so predictably left that you had to cringe (“the working class was oppressed” is the complete summation of the plot. Oh, with a dash of noble savage now and again.) The foreign ones (this was the seventies) seemed to have a fascination with improbable sex. Being a teen, I was myself fascinated with sex, but I was fairly sure it wasn’t meant to be joyless and nasty. And these were ALWAYS joyless and nasty. So I didn’t go there.
Since then what defines “literary” has changed. The sex-obsession of the seventies had all to do with the sexual revolution, now a thing of the past. While you’re still likely to find your neverend of joyless sex in literary novels, it’s now more likely to be “oppressive” sex — to wit, class race and gender oppression, because the marker of “literary” has moved on to the Marxist theories taught as literary analysis in all the best colleges.
What you have to remember about “literary” is that it could be defined as “things that college professors will read on a train.” I.e. “literary” is an aspirational mark, a mark of prestige. The book might or might not have a plot (or a prayer of making sense) but it is generally viewed as “difficult” “prestigious” and “saying the right things” and by right I mean political and social views as a positional good, which in the twentieth century has mostly hinged on being properly LEFT. And the twentieth century persists in critical and literary analysis, two notoriously conservative (in the proper sense of the word) fields.)
All of these apply to literary science fiction and fantasy, though using tropes of the genre. My Shakespeare books, for instance, were going to get tagged as “literary” no matter what I did, unless I wrote them in very American vernacular and sometimes even then. While they didn’t precisely say the “correct” things, it was easy to miss it through the haze of Shakespearean English (I spent a lot of time listening to the plays, watching the plays, and reading Elizabethan-era essays, to the point my then three year old spoke Elizabethan English as his second language, and sometimes reverts.) Also I had a transgender character, mostly because sonnets, but if you squinted you would think it was politically correct.
My Magical British Empire would probably be considered Literary, if it weren’t for Regency Romances having tainted the era and made it low brow. (Those books are actually Victorian, but judging from stock photo sites, knowing the difference between Victorian, Elizabethan, and Medieval (let alone regency) is a skill of the privileged few.
John C. Wright has no hope of ever being considered anything but literary. It’s the dense packing with meaning, the symbolism and the depth of language. He could write a story about space lizards and scantily clad barbarian princesses (please, John?) and it would still be considered literary.
This makes perfect sense if you think of literary as aspirational and positional and generally “things college professors tell themselves they like.” If you have to have a massive vocabulary and WORK it to read a book, the book will be “literary.”
The origins of this are that “literary” used to refer to “old books that are still read” (this occasions another confusion mentioned later and those usually take some amount of work to interpret/get into. Hence, if you need to do some work to enjoy a book, it must be “literary.”
Beyond that the book can be anything, from deep and interesting to the sort of thing that makes you want to watch paint dry, as a lively change. It doesn’t matter. It’s still shelved under “literary” or tagged as “literary sf/f.”
If you hear a sneering tone in my description of difficult language as a way to earn that mark you would be wrong. I do sometimes enjoy a densely packed linguistic experience, and word pictures painted in obscure terms. Sometimes the right word IS obscure, and you should always use the right word.
I do however despise “thick” language for its own gratuitous sake.
Look, language is the one writing gift I get naturally. Usually the more tired or out of it I am, the denser and more difficult my language gets. This works fine for some books, but not for others. If I’m writing about Shakespeare, yep, a certain amount of poetry is justified. If I’m writing about a chick who likes hitting people on the head with shoes, in space, not so much. Struggling against my own tendency to polysyllabic latinate words is the cross I bear, okay? Sometimes it takes me three passes to readable colloquial English.
Which brings us to what annoys me about denseness of language and high faluting vocabulary. It annoys me when I can see the writer sweat. Those are the books that fly like birds to kiss the wall, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
Other than that, I have to be in the proper mood to read the denser books, while the ligher ones I consume like popcorn while unpacking boxes or you know… cleaning the house.
And by lighter, I don’t mean a lot of those books don’t pack a punch of meaning, character growth and symbology that goes with me after the book is closed. That would be maligning Pratchett and Butcher and yep, Heinlein and Simak and Asimov and heck Rex Stout and Agatha Christie, too.
If you return to a book and read it multiple times — heck, if you remember the book’s name and the author’s — it probably is not just meaningless drivel.
The idea that “literary” means better comes from confusing it with “books that have survived the centuries.” It’s slightly crazy, because most of the books that have the same markers (difficulty of language and self-conscious hitting of the present day’s intellectual “elites” obsessions) not only haven’t survived the DECADES but won’t. It’s notable that Shakespeare was considered low-brow entertainment in his day and that most of the high-brow writers haven’t survived.
But being a positional good it is impossible for the “elites” not to posture about liking it. After all, their “refined tastes” are what divides them from us peons.
Same as it’s ever been, same as it will ever be.
However and fortunately, the elites tend to be what passes, while solid writing and entertainment (whether linguistically gifted or not) remain.
So smile politely at their claims of superiority and go on enjoying what you consider good. Who is right only time will tell, but if we’re both alive, I’ll be willing to collect on as large a bet as they care to make.
And now, I go unpack and talk to the very confused-looking comcast rep.