Sorry, I write fiction, not essays. I've grown dependent on mere causality to supply my transitions.
- Plainly, the answer to the Sci Fi Ghetto is to embrace the ghetto, and to flaunt deviation from the canons of mainstream "literary" fiction as the sign of authenticity. It works for hip-hop. I mean, yo, it ain't my fault if the critics can't accept that I bust mad infodumps, straight off the books; I guess I just too street, just too geeked out, too 'hood. You feel me?
I'm only kind of kidding. A., because "Sci Fi 'Hood" sounds awesome (and writing those last two sentences was really fun), and B., because mainstream literary canons suck worse than the most whitebread of mainstream, suburban boomer-approved pop. No, that's still no excuse for the infodumps to interfere with the flow of narrative, or have bad characters, but then neither does the banality of pop excuse the bitches-n-hoes nonsense.
- The reason that mainstream lit fic doesn't use infodumps, is that the writer can assume his audience knows the workings of the story's world. Which is, I'm convinced, why so much lit fic actually sucks in that regard. Haven't you ever noticed how unbelievable the people in lit fic are? I certainly hope you find the behavior of the characters in Bridges of Madison County, for instance, to require an explanation.
Well it's because the writers were assuming. Having to write infodumps for everything you feel like including, means you have to get into the habit of justifying things. And thus, SF characters, if they are characters at all, are generally far more believable. Louis Wu is much more relatable, despite being a 200 year old man from the 29th century, than any character in any lit fic I've ever been unable to avoid reading. The same goes for Speaker-to-Animals and Nessus, and they are an 8-foot, neon-orange wolverine, and a three-legged headless dear that keeps mouths in its eyestalks.
Also, lit fic writers: I know you think your bundle-o-neuroses characters are so gosh-darn wonderful. But if my main reaction is to want to write Cupcakes-style fanfiction about them, you've not just screwed the pooch, you have rocked its freaking world.
- There is a very famous essay by Ursula K. LeGuin, presumably written by dictation, called "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown", Mrs. Brown being an old lady Virginia Woolf saw across from her in a train once, and who she chose to treat as some kind of exemplar of the common people, because that's not snobbish in the slightest. In the essay, LeGuin asks the question, "Can a science fiction writer write a novel?"
Why, Old Bossy, would one want to? Novels are emphatically the literature of the aristocracy, romances that of the people—the people prefer to read about heroism and deeds, while the rich or priggish prefer to wallow in the supernal subtlety of their feelings. "But," as the rich once whined, "of course we need to loot the monasteries and enclose common lands. You just don't understand, we're really complicated!"
As if that weren't enough, the absolute most insidious form of novel is that which lets the rich (or the merely priggish and snobbish, like LeGuin) believe that they understand the people. And sympathize with them. Consciousness-raising, completely divorced from any meaningful action—the absolute nadir of our political discourse—was born of novels. Woolf and LeGuin both are, in essence, talking about having their consciousness raised, and wanting to do it to others.
Romances are better, not only because their approach to story is fundamentally healthier, but because their stories themselves are healthier. Rather than presuming to unveil the private sorrows of the oppressed poor, romance, traditionally, has been about avenging them.
- Put another way, the romance is essentially prose epic (there is no verse equivalent to novels, that really ought to be all you need to know about them). And here's an excerpt from the best epic in modern English, not that it's got any competition, the Ballad of the White Horse. It's the scene, preserved in legend, of Alfred the Great being struck by an old woman for burning her cakes (she mistakes him for a beggar, and lets him have some food if he'll watch the fire).
And Alfred, bowing heavily,The second to last stanza is a deliberate reference to a the buffet given to a knight during the accolade. The best thing about it, though, is that while Alfred is imagining he understands the poor woman, he screws things up for her—a king, too, must remember his place, and not presume with his peasantry.
Sat down the fire to stir,
And even as the woman pitied him
So did he pity her.
Saying, "O great heart in the night,
O best cast forth for worst,
Twilight shall melt and morning stir,
And no kind thing shall come to her,
Till God shall turn the world over
And all the last are first.
And as he wept for the woman
He let her business be,
And like his royal oath and rash
The good food fell upon the ash
And blackened instantly.
Screaming, the woman caught a cake
Yet burning from the bar,
And struck him suddenly on the face,
Leaving a scarlet scar.
King Alfred stood up wordless,
A man dead with surprise,
And torture stood and the evil things
That are in the childish hearts of kings
An instant in his eyes.
Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,
Like thunder in the spring,
Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,
And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,
And the startled birds went up in streams,
For the laughter of the King.
"Now here is a good warrant,"
Cried Alfred, "by my sword;
For he that is struck for an ill servant
Should be a kind lord.
"He that has been a servant
Knows more than priests and kings,
But he that has been an ill servant,
He knows all earthly things.
"This blow that I return not
Ten times will I return
On kings and earls of all degree,
And armies wide as empires be
Shall slide like landslips to the sea
If the red star burn.
"One man shall drive a hundred,
As the dead kings drave;
Before me rocking hosts be riven,
And battering cohorts backwards driven,
For I am the first king known of Heaven
That has been struck like a slave."
LeGuin, Woolf: Mrs. Brown just bitch-slapped the chieftain of the west Saxons, and it was in the precise opposite of a novel—more, it was because he was thinking like a novel. That bread ain't the only thing got burned.
- Compare also Virginia Woolf's nonsense about an old woman she met on the train, with the things Belloc wrote about people he met in his (significantly more extensive) travels. E.g., On a Man and a Dog Also, The Singer, The Election, The Griffin, The Guns, On Conversations in Trains, On a Fisherman and the Quest of Peace, On a Hermit Whom I Knew, On a Southern Harbour, On Death, The Ironmonger, Mr. The Duke: the Man of Malplaquet, and The End of the World.
- Speaking of Belloc, anyone who says genre should be tolerated "because I recognize that people need to earn a living" should read his essay The Public. And then be beheaded.
For instance, the publisher will say, as though he were talking of some monster, "The Public will not buy Jinks's work. It is first-class work, so it is too good for the Public." He is quite right in his statement of fact. ... Jinks has a very pleasant up-and-down style. He loves to use funny words dragged from the tomb, and he has delicate little emotions. Yet hardly anybody will buy him—so the publisher is quite right in one sense when he says, "The Public" won't buy Jinks. But where he is quite wrong and suffering from a gross illusion is in the motive and the manner of his saying it. ... He talks of it as something quite external to himself, almost as something which he has never personally come across. ... Now, if that publisher would wander for a moment into the world of realities he would perceive his illusion. Modern men do not like realities, and do not usually know the way to come in contact with them. I will tell the publisher how to do so in this case.Literary fiction is, quite simply, about people just as boring and depressed (and depressing) as you, being as boring and depressing and depressed as you. Yeah, no wonder people don't like that. In other news, photos of your back-acne aren't going to sell many prints.
Let him consider what books he buys himself, what books his wife buys; what books his eldest son, his grandmother, his Aunt Jane, his old father, his butler (if he runs to one), his most intimate friend, and his curate buy. He will find that not one of these people buys Jinks. Most of them will talk Jinks, and if Jinks writes a play, however dull, they will probably go and see it once; but they draw the line at buying Jinks's books—and I don't blame them.
The moral is very simple. You yourselves are "The Public," and if you will watch your own habits you will find that the economic explanation of a hundred things becomes quite clear.
Literary fiction is not less popular than genre fiction because it is better, and anyone, in an ostensible democracy, who says otherwise, ought to go to the guillotine for counter-revolutionary agitation. It is less popular because it is less pleasing to the people, and it pleases them less because it is not as good.
- There's a whole 'nother level to that issue, namely the people who assume that the canons of lit-fic—of the novel—are the standard of "literary quality". A whole bunch of people, debating the lit-fic/genre dispute, claim that "the best genre work" gets acclaimed by lit-fic, albeit with denials all round that it was ever genre in the first place.
Bullshit. Time-travel stories and whiny, strawman dystopias are not the best science fiction, actual science fiction is. Larry Niven and C. J. Cherryh produce, far and away, better stories than are to be had in the entirety of lit fic, and they've never been acclaimed by the lit-fic establishment. To return to my rap analogy, they too damn 'hood—they scare whitey.
Quite honestly, get me in a bad enough mood, and I'd probably say the first couple of Xanth books are better than lit fic. Yes I'd be lashing out—Piers Anthony is to genre snobbery what Woody Allen is to anti-Semitism, the guy bigots can point to and say "See? Just like our stereotype!"—but the fact is, art's sole purpose is to be aesthetically pleasing.