Novelist J. Robert Lennon wrote recently on Salon.com that young writers should avoid reading much contemporary literary fiction because most of it is terrible. (The essay, in fact, is headlined: "Most Contemporary Literary Fiction Is Terrible.") It's a well-argued piece, worth reading, but what really caught my attention was this passage:

But a fiction writer ought to engage with other parts of the culture, too. This includes reading outside one's genre — I happen to favor sci-fi and mystery, but I think it's fine for literary writers to read YA, romance, fantasy or whatever they please. Literary writers are in the privileged position of being permitted to raid any genre for tools to subvert and repurpose.
The emphasis there is mine, on a sentence I find troubling. I certainly support Lennon's contention that writers—all writers—should read widely, and read what they enjoy. What's problematic to me is that word privileged, as if writers of "literary" fiction inhabit in some class superior to writers of other genres, and they're the only ones permitted to reach down and rummage through the toolboxes of their inferiors, and then only for purposes of upending genre conventions.

This is a limited, and limiting, view of genre. It implies that no genre but literary fiction can amount to more than the sum of its tropes, and that the tropes of genre fiction are only useful to the literary writer insofar as they can be employed to ironic or postmodernist ends.

Both those implications are false. Central to Lennon's essay is the proposition that most of contemporary literary fiction is stuck in an insular, navel-gazing loop—in other words, that it continues to reinforce and perpetuate its own tropes. A few works might break out of that cycle and transcend it, Luminarium by Alex Shakar but if we accept that most works in the category are stuck inside a constraining boundary of accepted elements, then we are defining literary fiction as a genre. And if any works in that genre are capable of transcending its limitations, then why can't works in any other genre do the same?

Editor Moshe Feder once described the processing of borrowing and lending between genres to me in terms of blood types. (He in turn had borrowed the metaphor from someone else, and I'm sorry I don't recall from whom.) He said that genres all have different capacities for giving and getting. At one end of the spectrum is the mystery genre, the Type O or universal donor of literature, which can lend its tropes to any other genre. At the other end is speculative fiction*, the Type AB or universal recipient, which can take in tools and techniques from all other genres. Arrayed between are all other genres, including romance, western, spy, crime, and, yes, literary, each of which can give and receive to a greater or lesser extent.

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh This is a useful and pleasing metaphor in some ways, but things are really more slippery and complicated than all that. I've always thought of the universe of fiction as a multidimensional spectrum, with all genres free to commingle and exchange their DNA. For every literary novel like Time's Arrow by Martin Amis that borrows fantasy tropes to ironic ends, there's one like Luminarium by Alex Shakar (last year's L.A. Times Book Prize winner for fiction) that imports science fictional tropes and treats them seriously and realistically. Likewise we have The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh, When We Were Real by William Barton, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, and any number of other works of speculative fiction that borrow liberally from what we might call literary techniques to varied and stunning effect. (And need I even mention George Saunders these days?)

In fact, I like to take my spectrum one step further imagine something along the lines of Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel or Neil Gaiman's Dream Library—an infinite library containing all possible works of fiction. The portion of this library containing works set entirely within the world of our consensual reality would be vast, of course—but relative to the size of the library as a whole, it would be vanishingly tiny. A smaller portion of that tiny portion of the library would correspond roughly to what we think of as literary fiction. Everything outside of that? That would be what we think of as speculative fiction.

Viewed this way, speculative fiction becomes the superset of all possible fiction. What this implies is that for a writer of speculative fiction to work at the absolute top of his or her game, that writer must be able to employ all the tools, tropes, and techniques of all other genres of fiction. Far from inhabiting a literary ghetto, we really inhabit the outer sphere of all possible genres, encompassing everything else—or so we should aspire.

But even that view is too limiting and elitist. What I really want to say is that all writers should feel free to employ the most expansive palette they want. Artificial bookstore distinctions aside, good writing is good writing, and that should be the pursuit above all else for any writer. It's what the writers I like and admire the most have been doing all along.

Ultimately, we are all writers of speculative fiction.


*A more inclusive and descriptive term for what you might know better as the science fiction and fantasy genres.

#SFWApro


Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
This poem was written for Tina Woelke, a donor to the Chicago Writers Conference Kickstarter campaign. One of the reward perks available was an original poem composed by me on a topic of the donor's choosing. Tina chose "reading," and I debuted the poem at a special edition of Tuesday Funk on Friday, September 14, 2012.


The telegraph was not invented in 1836
but three thousand years before Christ,
when the first writer took up a pointed stick
and traced out on papyrus the careful,
casual chain of coded symbols that
transmitted meaning across time and space
directly into a brain equipped to decipher it.

The telephone was not invented in 1876
but over five thousand years ago
when the first writer took up a pointed stick
and scratched out the vibrations in clay
that tickle the tympanic membrane of the heart
with thoughts conceived in days older than dirt.

Telepathy was not invented in 2170
but forty thousand years before Christ
when, by the light of smoky torches,
the first writer poured out his heart
in ochre, hematite, and charcoal,
unable in any other way to express
the experience of stalking a god,
and slaying it with a pointed stick.


Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
A quick update about "Strong Medicine," tonight's fiction-and-dance event at Writers WorkSpace in Chicago. Due to unfortunate unavoidable circumstances, Asimina Chremos (the dance half of Microgig) will not be able to appear in person tonight. However, she will appear on video accompanied by live cello improvisation from Fred Lonberg-Holm, making the evening even more science-fictional than it was before. Don't miss it!

We look forward to seeing you tonight at 7:00 pm at Writers WorkSpace, 5443 N. Broadway in Chicago. (Doors open 6:30.)

For more information, please visit: http://www.shunn.net/medicine
STRONG MEDICINE: A Program of Fiction and Dance
Writers Workspace, 5443 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640
Friday, October 16, 7:00 pm (doors 6:30 pm)

Writers WorkSpace is pleased to host a free evening of fiction and dance in the spirit of October, featuring sound-and-movement duo Microgig and science-fiction writer William Shunn. On a mission to bring dance to places it's not normally found, Microgig members Asimina Chremos (dance) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (sound) will stage their haunting improvisations in this unusually close and intimate setting. Bookended by chilling short stories read live by William Shunn, the evening will be one you won't want to miss. Space is limited, so arrive early. Light refreshments will be offered.

(See an earlier Microgig performance, from the beer cooler at Chicago's famous Hideout, below.)

Many of you may have heard already, but John Klima has started an online book club dedicated to reading and discussing all twelve volumes of Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle over the course of this year. I'm one of the board admins, together with Christopher Rowe and Mark Teppo.

If you're up for an ambitious reading project this year, please join us! Each month's novel should be read by the 20th in order to leave plenty of time for discussion. For January, the selection is of course The Shadow of the Torturer, and there are only six days left to read it. Fortunately, it's one of the shortest books in the series, so you shouldn't have much trouble keeping up.

For more information, and to sign up, please visit GeneWolfeBookClub.com.

Doorstops

Sep. 11th, 2008 03:43 pm
My distraction of mind of late has been such that I haven't been able to finish reading many novels for a few months now, but for at least a year or two I haven't even attempted to read any novels of doorstop dimensions, finding them far too daunting to contemplate. But suddenly, praise Dickens, I can read again! And not only that, but I'm reading big books. The breakthrough novel for me was Clockers by Richard Price, which I raced through last week. This week I'm reading the even bigger Acacia by the gentlemanly David Anthony Durham, and I couldn't be happier.

I might even feel up to attempting Anathem next week.
Epidode #49 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill, in an outtake from THE ACCIDENTAL TERRORIST, recounts the fate of the modest vinyl collection he'd amassed before leaving on his mission. Also, freethought is vigorously defended, in the context of gay weddings and dying fathers.

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=49

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.

Epidode #48 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill attempts to convince you to order his brand-new six-pack chapbook—only five bucks!—and a definition for the term "chapbook" itself is sought.

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=48

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.

Epidode #47 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill reflects on sex and the modern Mormon missionary, with illustrations from his own post-Canada mission service. Live from Balticon, more or less!

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=47

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #46 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill reads his first published professional short story, "From Our Point of View We Had Moved to the Left," on WBAI 99.5 FM's "Hour of the Wolf."

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=46

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #45 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill reads the third and concluding part of his Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated novella "Inclination." Plus, special violence, sex, profanity and music episode!

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=45

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #44 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill reads the second of three parts of his Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated novella "Inclination."

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=44

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #43 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill reads the first of three parts of his Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated novella "Inclination."

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=43

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #42 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill attempts to tie off a few last dangling threads and bring the whole enterprise to a poignant yet thematically satisfying conclusion.

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=42

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #41 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill, after only a brief taste of freedom, is told to sit down, shut up, take the money, get on the plane, and pretend the past week never happened.

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=41

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #40 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill faces sentencing at the hands of a philosophical judge, while Joseph Smith faces martyrdom at the hands of an angry mob. Special cameo appearance by the guy who blows up planes!

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=40

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #39 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill faces a bail magistrate, finds himself compelled repeatedly to pantomime his strip search, and contemplates the deep philosophical question of whether or not God protects missionaries. Special "existential dread" episode!

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=39

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #38 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill gets booked into Calgary's big downtown jail, encounters hardened criminals and guards, revises his opinion of both, and begins questioning some of his life's basic assumptions. Longest episode yet! (As if that's any reason for pride.)

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=38

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #36 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill, rather than beating a hasty and prudent retreat, takes more bad advice from the same wrong people and runs afoul of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Will the Mounties get their man? Snarkily recorded in stunning Rhinoviraphonic sound!

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=36

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.
Epidode #35 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill, against his better judgment, accompanies a runaway Elder Finn to the airport, where he experiments with phrases you must never use whilst frequenting such establishments. In other words, this is the episode you've been waiting for!

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=35

See also [livejournal.com profile] shunncast.

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