Wednesday, October 05, 2005

NYTBR Odds and Ends

I've never been a big fan of Robert Heinlein (I think I hit the limit with Stranger in a Strange Land), but it's nearly impossible to read SF without becoming aware of Heinlein's influence. He's a controversial figure. Over the years, folks have accused him of being sexist, racist, fascist, you name it. In this week's New York Times Book Review back page essay, author M.G. Lord argues that Heinlein's earlier work qualifies him as a feminist (Heinlein's Female Troubles, NYTBR 10/2/05). It's an interesting (and well written) essay, and I encourage you folks to take a look at it, even if you are not SF fans. Elsewhere in the NYTBR: Eric Weinberger reviews George Saunders' The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil without ever using the words science and fiction in close proximity of one another. The plot is plainly SF (um . . . all the action takes place on another planet, and concerns a variety of weird aliens), so what's up? Weinberger chooses to call it satire. I don't know if I have a problem with this. I asked Karen yesterday, "When are you going to blog again?" Since we're an old married couple, she heard me when I telepathically added, "You know, you'll never build your readership if you only blog once a week." "I'm not blogging to get more readers," she said. "I do it to help organize my thoughts." I suppose that's what I'm doing right now -- trying to figure out how I feel about this. As SF writers, should we cheer when one of our own gets reviewed in the NYTBR, even if the SF-word isn't used? Should we give Margaret Atwood a big stage wink when she slams science fiction? Okay, Romance lovers: do you have a Margaret Atwood in your ranks, i.e., an author who aspires towards the literary and shuns the Romance label, even though that's exactly what she is writing? How do you feel about her? (Or him. As Stephen has taught me, there's a few blokes out there.) Here's what I think. Although some science fiction novels are written purely for escapism, many authors are writing social commentary. Hell, a good novel can do both. Just because the author has something to say -- as Atwood did in The Handmaid's Tale -- the novel should not automatically pass Go, collect $200, and rate as satire (don't nobody say SF). If "genre" has any utility at all, it's to help the reader know what to expect. To me, "serious literary fiction" is, as I mentioned to Pat recently, "boring pointless stories about characters with boring pointless lives who, in their inevitable epiphanies, find meaning in said lives." The last thing I want is for a bunch of truly excellent SF writers to worm their way into the ranks of those literary doofuses. Because, you know something? If they do, I'm not reading them any more. Thank heavens Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music was filed in SF. That's all I'm saying. D.


Blogger THIS! Christine said...

I read across most genres and the only common factor I can think of is a gripping plot, or characters with gripping conflicts.

Because of this preference most 'serious literary fiction' is uninteresting to me.


10/05/2005 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

I'm wracking my brain, trying to think of any 'serious' modern lit that I enjoyed. J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians -- that's about it. I don't read much of it, but I do browse it occasionally (if I'm in a Borders bookstore & notice an author or title I recognize). Why does NYTBR slant their fiction reviews so heavily towards the serious crap? It's about 3:1 serious:genre, at least.

10/05/2005 11:01:00 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Sigh. I really get sick of defending "serious literary fiction", so I'm not going to do it here. Just, ya know - pot, kettle, plank-in-eye, glass houses, etc.

In Romance, one of the big deal "I Do Not Write Romance" authors is Diana Gabaldon. She's been writing her Outlander series for years (I'll be engrossed in the 6th book this weekend), and the first book was very, very heavily marketed as Romance. They even gave out a ton of copies at the RWA conference that year, and the book/author was constantly spoken of in the context of Romance. The book is about a LOT of things - including some sci-fi and some pretty hardcore history - but is also about the development of the romantic relationship.

Gabaldon has made MILLIONS offa these books. And she really is an excellent, excellent writer (in desperate need of an editor but hey, aren't we all). Some years back, she began very loudly denying that she writes Romance, she's never written Romance, the publishers put her book into Romance over her screaming objections, she doesn't have a problem with Romance but it's just not what her books are.

I think she's partly right, but who frelling CARES where your book are shelved? Clearly the publishers mde the right choice, since the woman is a famous and bestselling bamillionire. She comes off as yet another pathetic genre snob. And her fans who agree with her? Are even more infuriating. (They say things like "I'm always SO mortified that I have to go to the Romance section to get her books.") If she and her fans are so upset, they should be comforted with the knowledge that they're responsible for the Romance-in-a-kilt trend, and the romance shelves are poorer for it. Way to take revenge on a genre, by hoisting it on its own petard (if that's the phrase I'm looking for).

Also unendingly annoying to me are the genre-defenders who hate Gabaldon's work on principle and refuse to read it, just because she's "betrayed/badmouthed a genre that made her who she is." Romance types tend to view themselves as a community, see, and you know what women can be like if their lovingly baked Welcome Wagon bundt cake is refused.

Ah, genre wars.

And that's enough rambling for me, at least until I get more coffee.

10/06/2005 04:58:00 AM  
Blogger mm said...

Jamie Fraser... sigh... I started a thread about him once, but it deteriorated into who would or wouldn't enjoy a spanking from Jamie (most would), a conversation I didn't mind except I was afraid who such a thread would wind up attracting to my blog, so I took it down.

Gabaldon doesn't know she's writing romance? Oh puh-lease, Diana, yes there's a ton of history and science, but I read it for the sexy Jamie scenes.


10/06/2005 09:24:00 AM  
Anonymous fiveandfour said...

OK, is this the part where I get pelted with copies of Harlequins and Silhouettes because I have to admit I haven't read Margaret Atwood (yet)? I have a very random method of picking the books I read, and she's just never come onto the radar thus far.

As for the genre thing, it is a bit frustrating to me because while I generally try to just read what interests me without worrying too much about which shelf I found it on at the bookstore or library, I do have a problem in inspiring my husband to read certain things based on the covers or where they are shelved. Exhibit A was the Stephanie Plum series which I knew he would enjoy, but because it was written by a woman and I was recommending it he assumed it was romance or chick lit and refused to even touch it. Then a family member recommended it and he started reading them and, of course, loved them.

For many reasons, not just this one, I think my husband is pretty representative of the average reader out there and thus many people refuse to even give things a chance due to the choice someone made in placing a book into a genre which may not best (or most completely) describe it.

It's a Catch-22 to my mind. People want to know something about the entertainment they're picking up and one of the fastest ways to communicate that something is to assign it to a genre. On the other hand, some things clearly cross into several genres and being assigned into one category means it's been given an opportunity to succeed, but it's also been given a label which will automatically turn away a portion of its potential audience.

The Outlander books Beth mentions are a perfect example of this, to my mind. It's another thing I'm pretty convinced my husband would like, but until they are shelved in the Sci Fi or Historical Lit sections (or recommended by someone that's not me, apparently) he won't even consider the possibility that they could be anything more than several books blathering endlessly on about wuv.

10/06/2005 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger crissachappell said...

True. It's not always up to they market your book (and to whom)

10/06/2005 10:38:00 AM  
Anonymous PBW said...

I've never read Heinlein (another sin of mine) but I saw one of the movies based on his books, and it sucked (the production was nice, actors were great, but the story? Sucked.) That cured me of ever wanting to read Heinlein.

I have read one of Margaret Atwood's novels, the handmaiden one, because it wasn't billed as SF (I know, but I'm easily fooled.) I don't know what it is -- read like bad slipstream grafted onto Brit SF, with a dash of menopausal hysteria -- and I thought it sucked, too, and I've never read anything else of hers.

I don't think it matters if you shun your genre, embrace it, or are touted as la creme. Read what you enjoy, write what you enjoy, and ignore the rest. That includes the prissy old labelmakers at the NYTBR.

10/06/2005 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Kate R said...

NOTHING to do with the subject, everything to do with your bad fashion post. It's awesome

10/06/2005 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Maureen: thanks for bringing all those spanking fetishists my way, too! They'll be in good company with the bent arm fetishists.

Kate: they yanked that image off ebay. You'll have to describe it.

As for my serious responders, I'm still cogitatin'. More later.

10/06/2005 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger mm said...

You're welcome, Doogie. ;-)

10/06/2005 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

In Germany, Gabaldon is shelved under Historical Fiction, which imho, suits the books better than Romance despite their shortcomings on some levels re. history. But I don't think it's a prudent move to rant against the genre that made you big.

In case of Atwood I have some suspicions she's pissed that her books won't qualify for the Noble Prize. ;)

BTW If someone looks for a fast paced literary book, try Gunter Grass' 'Crabwalk', it's a lot better than his other stuff.

10/06/2005 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger Kate R said...

WHAT? It was a perfectly good bit of clothing. A prom tuxedo and hat made from duct tape. Very stylish.

10/06/2005 04:44:00 PM  
Blogger Robyn said...

Gabaldon is a great example. And I'll still read her books and enjoy the VERY obvious romance in all of them.

I enjoyed Heinlein's Friday, about the female android; can't think of any serious lit I actually read through to the end lately. Maybe I'm just lowbrow.

And you can't call her books literary, but I've had a few good laughs when Danielle Steele denies she writes romance.

10/06/2005 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

The RNA's Romantic Novel of the Year award has a long history of winners taking the money and then denying that they write romantic fiction (although, having slagged off one winner for this I subsequently found that she had joined the RNA and was being very positive about the genre, so there is still hope.)

I think that the nearest UK romance has to an Atwood-style denier must be Tony Parsons.

On the SF front I should flag up Simon and Schuster, who in 1980 or so published Russell Hoban's brilliant Riddley Walker, which is excellent post-apocalyptic SF, but they did everything they could to prevent anybody from calling it SF, for fear that it would "taint" the book and its author.

10/07/2005 12:26:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

On the other hand, there are books like Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor, which gets shelved as science fiction, but has a hell of a lot in common with Romance. I loved that book, by the way.

I think it's unfortunate when folks shun their literary roots. Doesn't genre sell better than 'serious' fiction? Doesn't a writer want to be read more than anything else? Why would you crave recognition in a category that seems to doom you to less rather than more readers?

Reminds me of the way certain comic actors (Steve Martin comes to mind) try to achieve success in non-comic films. Comedy must be far more difficult than drama. How many "serious" actors go on to distinguish themselves as comic actors? Damned few.

10/07/2005 07:55:00 AM  

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