Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Strange Fiction 2

2. Look, It Just Is: or Authorial Intent, Reader Experience And The Buck

A brief digression to deal with a sentiment I've voiced myself on occassion, when questions of SF's nature get truly tedious:

"Who cares? It's just a fucking marketing category, anyway."

It's appealingly simple, I admit, and it short-circuits all the essentialist strictures my thrawn experimentalism rebels against. If SF is just a label slapped on a book to position it in the marketplace then ultimately a work "is" SF only because the publisher/bookseller has decided so. I don't have to worry about it. You don't have to worry about it. Authorial intent and reader experience are factors in their decision, but ultimately what matters most is whether more units will shift if you put it in the SF section. Any bookshop that puts, for example, Orwell's 1984 in the SF section is ignoring authorial intent and (a huge proportion of non-genre) reader experience, and saying, fuck it, I can sell this as SF, so it is SF.

This is the So Fuck idea of SF: fuck it, it's just a marketing category; if they want to call it SF, then it's SF. As an attitude it's pragmatic and sensible on one level, but it drops us into a circularity comparable to the oft-repeated maxim that "if it's SF, it can't be good; if it's good, it can't be SF".

Why is it SF? Because it will sell as SF. Why will it sell as SF? Because it is SF.

The field is thus established as a zone of commercial viability, with the most popular (and therefore exemplary) at the centre and the most unpopular (and therefore exceptional) at the margins. Popular and unpopular don't necessarily map to shit and shinola, of course, but in the world where Dan Brown sells fuckloads and Guy Davenport is out of print (to name two writers of a hypothetical but similarly spurious marketing category of History Fiction), is it any wonder that outsiders buy into a vision of SF with shit as the exemplar and shinola as the exception? Writers and readers pass the buck to publishers and booksellers, the buck stops at the bottom line, and the bottom line is the lowest common denominator, savvy?

So let's ditch that So Fuck idea and see if we can look at SF as an aesthetic form. That circularity seems instinctively awkward anyway, in the context of a field where works not sold as SF are often claimed as SF by readers, while works sold as SF are often rejected as "not really" SF. Works like 1984 continue to cause arguments over whether or not they're SF, regardless of how they're sold. Works like Dune continue to cause similar arguments over whether they're "really Fantasy". The core question then becomes whether a work being SF is a matter of consensus or conformity -- i.e. is that aesthetic form defined in terms of negotiable conventions or in terms of non-negotiable requirements.

Is it a poem or a sonnet?

We can call pretty much any text a poem; while we expect a poem to display certain characteristics, those conventions are constantly renegotiated by the very texts which are presented as poetry. You can take a chunk of prose and chop it into lines and declare it a poem. Some readers will accept that this is a poem but other readers will argue. This doesn't rhyme, they'll say. Poetry doesn't have to rhyme, you'll say. Yes, it does, they'll say. Hopefully other poets will decide they agree with you and start doing similar "experimental" -- which is to say, non-rhyming -- poems. If you're lucky, after a decade or so, the naysayers will have no choice but to grudgingly accept that this non-rhyming stuff is still poetry.

The same with SF. SF does seem to fit the negotiable-conventions model of genre. A work is SF, one might well argue, because those who participate in the decision-making -- the readers, writers and publishers -- are in agreement. Well, pretty much in agreement. Most of the time. Um, sometimes. I guess. But hey, it's only where the consensus breaks down that you have to decide who has the final say, author or reader, right? And then it's really just a matter of who wins the argument at the end of the day. So some New Wave writer comes along and does some weird-ass shit riffing off sociology rather than physics, calls it SF. The argument kicks off, with a whole host of naysayers arguing that it's not SF; but other writers like this New Wave stuff and join in. When the dust finally settles you have a new consensus, a genre (re)defined in terms of (re)negotiated conventions.

Problem is, this model of genre as constructed from negotiable conventions is completely bollocksed up. There is no consensus. Instead we have a bunch of camps -- see "SF as a Subset of SF" for characterisations of what I call scientistic fiction, scientific fancy, soul fiction, speculative fabulation, symbolic formulation... and so on. Within each of these, there's generally a coherent idea of what does and does not constitute SF, but these camps are often deeply opposed to each other's views. While negotiation of conventions may take place within those camps, the talks between them often break down into stalemates as positions ossify and negotiable conventions are proclaimed non-negotiable requirements. A reader of scientistic fiction, for example, might reject the work of a writer of scientific fancy as "not Science Fiction". That's Fantasy, they might well say. But I've covered that argument elsewhere so I won't go over it again.

Anyway, each of these camps has, to a greater or lesser extent, transitioned from a model of SF with negotiable conventions to a model of SF with non-negotiable requirements. Returning to the poetry analogy, when we call an unconventional text a poem we are making an assertion. Others can disagree, but we have the right to persuade them, because poetry's conventions are negotiable. We can only call a text a sonnet, however, if it has 14 lines and a volte; those requirements are non-negotiable. It doesn't matter if you meant to write a sonnet; if the poem is in that form, then it's a sonnet. It doesn't matter if a reader has never heard of sonnets, doesn't know he's reading one, and simply thinks of it as a "poem"; it's still a sonnet. Hell, even if the writer has never heard of sonnets and doesn't know he's writing one, if it has fourteen lines and a volte, if it fits the aesthetic form, then it's a sonnet. Each of these camps is looking for similar formal characteristics of SF, features that are as objective and as necessary as the structural requirements of the sonnet-form rather than the shifting conventions of poetry.

I'd have to say that I find the actual definitions offered by these camps too narrow and restrictive. They simply don't strike me as accurate and representative models for the field as a whole. I would suggest that this sort of feeling is wide-spread and that this is why the default model of SF is so often a So Fuck model, one not pinned down to unneccessary requirements. The end result, though? The Gordian Knot of SF's ongoing argument over what constitutes SF is simply cut by the publishers and booksellers, who side-step this argument entirely and just impose their own notion of SF as a marketing label.

And we're back to Square One.


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