MFA Poet turned SF writer’s ‘Apology’ for going genre.

i09 linked to an essay by Science Fiction writer Alan DeNiro (who has an MFA in poetry), titled “Why I Write Science Fiction: An Apology.”

The essay itself is hosted at Bookspot Central.

Read both of those? Great. Here’s some analysis of the essay and the i09 commentary.

DeNiro’s MFA means that he has a serving of alphabet soup that serves as cultural capital in the ‘literary’ fiction world. But he’s also a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop (sister-workshop to the Clarion West Writers Workshop, of which I am a graduate), which grants him cultural capital in the speculative fiction world. DeNiro is a crossover writer, and by his own admission, writes in a mode that might be more accurately described as slipstream or interstitial. But he’s identifying as a science fiction writer, which means he’s on my radar.

Landscape as character — DeNiro talks about how in sf, landscape acts as a character unto itself. It does, sometimes literally as he says, but also figuratively. But setting/landscape is a character in any kind of fiction. Setting is, however, one of the major tools for commentary/speculation in fiction, often and sometimes expertly-used in science fiction/fantasy/horror/speculative fiction. The setting of Battlestar Galactica is clearly speculative, and much of the story’s drama comes out of the cultural, historical, and technological differences between that setting and our own world. But in another way, the stories of Battlestar are very familiar.

Literalization of the metaphor — The i09 article gives credit to DeNiro as follows:

[DeNiro] sets out a few building blocks of a new theory of appreciating science fiction. For example, he talks about the way in which science fiction turns the metaphorical into the real, and allows the author’s observations to become more vivid or heightened

The idea of SF as a literalization of the metaphor is not new to DeNiro.  Samuel R. Delaney established years ago that SF allows for the literalization of the metaphorical, and thus, that critical tool is already established in the SF scholarship community.  It is a valuable one, but not one new to DeNiro, though Delaney is already a member of the SF community embraced by the Academy.

DeNiro references Ursula LeGuin (another Literarily-accepted SF writer), who in an introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness said “I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing.” — SF does not need to predict the future when it can comment on the present.  Not all SF is written to that intent, but the conventions and possibilities of the genre allow for writers to bring in any number of strange elements to contextualize a story, create a setting, and create a narrative environment that allows for a persuasive and entertaining commentary on the world we live in.

Suvin and Cognitive Estrangement

SF critic Darko Suvin spoke of science fiction as a genre of cognitive estrangement. The difference between our world and the world(s) of Battlestar would be part of the estrangement, but it is matched, tempered by the commonalities, identifiable by cognition.

This interplay between cognition and estrangement can be seen as a continuum, with Cognition/Similarity on one end and Estrangement/Difference on the other. A story could be plotted on this continuum, identifying the balance between elements/aspects of the setting/story that are similar to our own experience and those which produce estrangement as we reach across a cognitive gap to understand those differences.

Some SF shows are more familiar/close to our own setting, things like the comic DMZ, Y: The Last Man, or PD James’ Children of Men.  Those kind of narratives make one extrapolation from our world and then examines the social/political/etc. results of a world with that change.  The audience is only asked to swallow one new thing (or Novum), be it a new American civil war, the end of human fertility, or a virus that kills male mammals.  The degree of estrangement is low, and readers can easily identify with the world (Much more Cognition than Estrangement)

On the other end are narratives where a great number of things are different, and readers cling to the elements that are the same as a way to understand that world.  This would cover New Weird stories like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, Jeff VenderMeer’s The City of Saints and Madmen, Post-Modern genre re-combinations like Astro City,  etc. In these worlds, the reader is asked to believe a great many things to immerse themselves in the story, like a world with a handful of unknown non-human species, magical-technological transmogrification as a tool of punishment, dream-eating monsters, etc. (Much more Estrangement than Cognition)  With High-Estrangement stories, the New Things (Nova) in the world create a mood and establish thematics, enter into a dialogue with established genre tropes, and more.  High-Estrangement stories can provide a high barrier to entry for readers, often requiring a wide knowledge of genre tropes to fully understand what is going on in a story.

The genre label of science fiction or speculative fiction applies to stories from throughout this continuum.  Stories with less Estrangement and more Cognition tend to be those more recognized by the Literary Establishment as Real Literature (Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union).  This seems to be the kind of SF that DeNiro himself writes.  DeNiro also acknowledges the fact that valorizing one sub-section of fiction over others is foolish, but for all that DeNiro admits having ‘gone genre’, he seems to be more in the slipstream/magic realism area.

More important to me is the fact that the title of the essay is still ‘An Apology,’ assuming that one must apologize for writing speculative fiction if one is to maintain Literary Cred.  For all that SF has gained in recognition from the Academy, the acceptance seems to thus far extend mostly to the ‘more realistic’ High-Cognition, Low-Estrangement parts of SF.

I’m glad that writers are identifying the literary and ideological possibilities of SF, and pointing out that ‘realistic fiction’ is a oxymoron.  Each genre of fiction has its own qualities, possibilities and limitations, just as do genres of music, graphic art, dance, and more.  It is again telling though, that in this case DeNiro feels he must ‘apologise’ for it, though I agree with him in hoping that in a few decades or less, no one will have to apologise for choosing to write within any genre.

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