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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
Notes toward a Taxonomy of ... 
14th-Jul-2007 08:58 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
ROSENCRANTZ: I don't know how the next scene starts! Shut up!)

peake posted yesterday about this attempt to define a "slipstream canon." Or possibly I mean a "slipstream" "canon." Or, well, here. Have some quotation marks--""""""""--and punctuate as seems best to you.

I have to admit I agree with a lot of what peake says. The list, qua list, is an awesome agglomeration of novels/short stories/plays; the stuff on it I haven't read, I now want to read, just by association. So, you know, on that level, fantastic!

But on the level of defining either a genre or a canon, it's like handing someone a world atlas when they've asked you how to find the interstate from here. "Here! It's all in here someplace!" And while I am all in favor of appropriating "mainstream" texts (and, hoo boy, here we go with the quotation marks again. Got any left?) into sffh (we're touching you! we're getting our grotty fingerprints all over your clean white respectable shirt! WE'RE STILL TOUCHING YOU!!!11!!1!), there comes a point where, once again, you have lost the ability to map the forest for the sheer overwhelming abundance of trees.

Do I think slipstream is, or should be, a genre?

Well. Ahem. There are some problems here. The first of which is that I think "genre" is the wrong word for a lot of what we're talking about.

A genre is, very broadly, a kind of writing. Used to be, it was divided up by how you put the words on the page: narrative, poetry, drama. And it still is, but--crazy pattern-making primates that we are--we've divided and subdivided and gotten confused with marketing categories, and now we use the word genre informally to mean a kind of story. (Or a kind of poem. Or a kind of play. Etc.) So the bildungsroman is a genre; the mystery is a genre. The romance is a genre. The middle-aged-awakening-sexual-or-otherwise is a genre. The quest is a genre, and not just a genre of fantasy. "Heart of Darkness" is a quest. So is Are You My Mother? We put things together in a genre because the stories they tell work in the same sorts of ways. They share concerns and cultural work.

The problem with calling sffh a genre is that in fact it's a lens. It can be, and has been, applied to any and all of the genres of story. Mysteries, romances, bildungsromans. One of my favorite middle-aged-awakenings is Larque on the Wing. Another is Paladin of Souls.

Even if we say a genre is texts which share a collection of common narrative or thematic elements, rather than going with the vagueness of "a kind of story," you'll never get to a definition of science fiction--or fantasy--that way. You might get to a definition of horror. More about that in a minute. Because what makes a book science fiction or fantasy isn't the kind of story it tells or the narrative elements it uses. It's the fact that its setting is in some way counter to Life As We Know It.

I wrote an article for Broad Universe about world-building in which I argued that, in science fiction and fantasy, the setting isn't just setting. It's the only genre marker that counts. Because any story can be put in sfnal terms. Therefore, "genre" for science fiction and fantasy is always an intersection where the narrative elements of the story cross the contrafactual elements of the setting.

(Horror, otoh, is defined by its narrative elements. You know it's a horror novel because certain things happen in certain ways. Also, horror can be perfectly realistic. (We Have Always Lived in the Castle.) It does not require a fantastic or sfnal element. Fantasy and science fiction--definitionally!--do.)

Now, I am not saying that science fiction, fantasy, and horror don't make up a category of literature. They do. But I think it's less a genre (a kind of story) than it is a thing for which there isn't a word, but which I'm going to call a modality. Realism is a modality. Pararealism (which is my own coinage for stories in which nothing exists counter to LAWKI but which nevertheless are not realistic. Pornography is pararealistic. So is satire. So are sitcoms. Etc.) is a modality. Contrarealism--or unrealism--(science fiction, fantasy, supernatural horror, magic realism . . . slipstream) is a modality. Because these things inflect a story on a level a priori to the narrative itself. If a genre is a kind of story, a modality is a kind of approach to a story. You can tell the same story in any modality. E.g., Cinderella. You can tell it as Coal Miner's Daughter (realism). You can tell it as a pararealistic Horatio Alger story. (Which I suppose some may argue is what Coal Miner's Daughter is. Not actually having seen the movie, I can't testify personally. The new Will Smith thing about the homeless man who becomes a stockbroker is also Cinderella. Realistic or para-?) Or you can tell it as a fantasy (Disney!). (I'm sure also that you can tell it as a science fiction story ... ooh, wait. Psion.) The narrative elements will not change. (Whereas, if you tell Cinderella as a horror story, the narrative elements do change. Hence we conclude that horror is a genre. QED.)

So sff isn't a genre. (It is, however, a marketing category. They aren't the same thing either.) And slipstream is a fascinating concept and useful for reevaluating canonical (if you'll pardon the pun) assessments of texts with contrarealistic elements. But it isn't a genre, either. (Which is not a value judgment. Being a genre is not the ne plus ultra for a categorization.) And that fantastic list proves pretty emphatically why "genre" is the wrong way to think about it.

There's no point in having a piece of critical terminology if it doesn't help you understand what's going on. I think "slipstream" as a term does help, because it's a way to talk about the slippage between realism and contrarealism in certain texts, but "slipstream" as a genre doesn't. Personal opinion only. YMMV. But I hope the preceding makes it clear why I think what I do.

Now, having used up the world supply of parentheses and (hopefully) said what I set out to say, I'm going back to my book.

(ROSENCRANTZ: There! See? I'm writing. Satisfied now?
GUILDENSTERN: [reading over ROSENCRANTZ's shoulder] No.)
14th-Jul-2007 03:16 pm (UTC)
This is incredibly satisfying and chewy.

What I'm trying to tie in with this conception of SFF is the evolution of a specialized audience, and then the evolution of writing for that specialized audience.

I just took a writing class, for the hell of it, since it was there and I could take it for free. There were no a priori objections to "genre writing" when we began, but two weeks into the class (which was a 5-week intensive), the professor started having issues with my story because there were aspects that he had to work harder than he expected to to follow. I tested a hypothesis by getting a bunch of people who habitually read SFF to read it and tell me what it was about. (I wouldn't just ask them to tell me if it was confusing or not, because they would all say "no" because this was LJ.) They had no trouble with it. I concluded that the problem was not that my professor was stupid, because he wasn't, nor that my story built on ideas that are common in science fiction and only being referenced by short-hand (which I did think might be it until I evaluated carefully) but that it expected to be read in a certain way - with a specific kind of fairly acute attention to world-building and setting - which isn't how my professor read at all.

If SFF is a lens, then I'm trying to find the vocabulary for the kind of reading SFF develops in its readers. Am I making any sense at all, here?

In any case, your post is useful and interesting. Thank you.
14th-Jul-2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
Oh yes. I had the same experience when I was teaching creative writing. I gave my students one of my own stories to critique, and they were hopelessly confused by it. (It wasn't a particularly good story, but it was not confusing if you could just get your head around the sfnal setting.) And they were, in fact, very bright and motivated students. They just didn't get the necessary reading protocols.

My experience has been that sff readers enjoy solving puzzles and they are pleased when their narratives give them puzzles to solve. Non-sff readers tend to see puzzles as failures, either theirs or the author's.

There's a marvelous book I used in my dissertation, which I highly recommend if you haven't read it already:

Rabinowitz, Peter J. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.
14th-Jul-2007 03:58 pm (UTC)
Going on my recommended reading list. Thank you.
14th-Jul-2007 04:25 pm (UTC)
Beat me to the punch with the Rabinowitz citation. *g*

Non-sff readers tend to see puzzles as failures, either theirs or the author's.

I see what you mean by this, but I wouldn't state it in quite this way. I mean, what about mysteries? Plus, novels like Midnight's Children or Foe (or hey, let's just say metafiction generally) are also puzzles of a sort — not, I grant you, the same sort as either SFF or mysteries, but still.

I would actually say that *any* text is a puzzle in the sense that the author supplies the pieces and the reader puts them together: we track and respond to characters, anticipate and react to plot developments, and otherwise connect the dots. As Rabinowitz points out, even before we open a book we apply our knowledge of genres (and, we might add, modalities), the aggregations and mutual influences of texts that share assumptions or traditions.

So I think it's not that non-SFF readers don't like solving puzzles; it's just that the puzzles they expect to solve are frequently not the puzzles (or not the only puzzles) with which SFF presents them. One way of thinking about this is that, with SFF, the reader is expected to supply more of the pieces themselves — but again, this is not unique to SFF (hello, historiographic metafiction!)

It occurs to me as I type this that idea of narratives as puzzles offers one potentially interesting approach to answering the question of why so many recent metafictional novels incorporate elements of what mainstream critics and reviewers insist on calling "magical realism"; certainly this is the case with Midnight's Children and Foe. I would not call either of these novels SFF (though MC has its moments), largely because of the settings, but they do point in that direction rather more than most mainstream literary fiction.
14th-Jul-2007 04:37 pm (UTC)
Okay, that's fair.

(I meant to say that I thought one of the reasons there's a pretty heavy overlap between mystery readers and sff readers is exactly the commonality of the puzzle-solving, but it dropped out the bottom of my head.)

There ought to be a way to articulate the difference between litfic puzzle solving and specfic puzzle solving . . . although I realize as I type this that actually, one of the reasons I enjoyed Foe so much is that I could read it as specfic. Which is the same phenomenon pameladean describes in Tam Lin when Janet discovers that Paradise Lost is science fiction. So the question is, why doesn't it work in reverse?
14th-Jul-2007 05:18 pm (UTC)
...one of the reasons I enjoyed Foe so much is that I could read it as specfic.

Yeah. Though -- continuing our conversation from last winter -- I'm inclined to see this overlap as rhetorical in addition to (and possibly even more than) generic: Coetzee is not interested in the modality markers of SFF, but he *is* interested in encouraging the audience to do a certain kind of work that is perhaps most familiar from, though not limited to, SFF.

I think, too, that it's worth considering *which* SFF we're talking about when we talk about puzzles. I was going to propose that one way in which litfic and SFF puzzle-solving differ is that in SFF there is more potential for being presented with an entirely *new* puzzle (as opposed to a new iteration of a familiar puzzle), and I still think that's a reasonable starter hypothesis, but I also think that the gap between "potential" and "actual" matters kind of a lot. I mean, think of all the Extruded Fantasy Product out there that is precisely *not* much of a puzzle, which is why those books are so interchangeable. The interchangeability is frustrating for some (or became so at some point), but clearly enjoyable for others.

So the question is, why doesn't it work in reverse?

Well, I think your essay about setting points towards some answers. SFF settings are a turnoff for some folks, the same way the setting and premise of a litfic novel about a fiftyish suburban guy having an affair might be a turnoff to, say, me. And then there's the question of interpreting setting: if one regards the setting merely as "dressing up" the story, which tends to be the case in much litfic (though not, for example, Gothic novels), then the whole thing is just baffling; whereas if one regards it as intrinsic, if worldbuilding is a large part of the *point* (for whatever reason), then, you know, bring it on. (Of course, litfic does worldbuilding too, and can do it either well or badly, but the ostensible mimesis of domestic realism means that most litfic readers don't think in these terms; it is, as you point out, precisely not a genre marker.)

And then -- back to rhetorical situation here -- there's the matter of audience perception of SFF as marketing category and what it means to be tagged as a writer or reader of SFF, ergo the phenomenon of mainstream authors who are happy to borrow all sorts of settings/puzzles/whatever from SFF but don't want to be classed as such.
14th-Jul-2007 05:26 pm (UTC)
Oh, and:

(I meant to say that I thought one of the reasons there's a pretty heavy overlap between mystery readers and sff readers is exactly the commonality of the puzzle-solving, but it dropped out the bottom of my head.)

True, and an excellent point -- although of course the readership overlap is far from total. I'm a case in point, as you know; I like SFF puzzles and litfic puzzles, but mystery-flavored puzzles are not my bag, as a rule. And certainly there are many people who read mysteries but not SFF. I think you're right that there's a meaningful kinship there; it's just that I think of that kinship as cognitive rather than limited by genre.
15th-Jul-2007 07:25 am (UTC)
The other day, I saw a barefoot guy wearing a shirt and pulling the kind of shopping bag on wheels old ladies use, and he was clean and smart but had a beard and his feet were dirty on the bottom but not very. And I wondered what his vstory was, and I thought that there were probably ten possible boring mundane explanations for why he was wearing a skirt and etc, and there were also a hundred genre explanations which were just, all of them, more interesting. To me. And I think this relates to this because non-genre readers are only open to the first lot of explanations and they think the others are silly.
14th-Jul-2007 04:15 pm (UTC)
I participated in some of the background for that panel on slipstream, or rather, I was asked to contribute a title or two, and required my interlocutor to explain to me the difference between slipstream and interstitiality. Which, actually, I got a really good explanation and it clarified a great deal of confusion in my mind.

One of the things it clarified, for me, is that slipstream is, as you say, not a genre. It's a technique. It's a technique for creating and sustaining uncertainty in the reader as to modality (as you define modality). Which is why that long list of novels is such a harebrained and diverse list: it's like listing all the novels that use first-person narrators. What else do they have in common? Anything! Possibly nothing!

And that made me happy, that after 4 years of con-going in my adult life, where there was always at least one slipstream panel (and at least one, separate, interstitiality panel), I finally understand what exactly it is the slipstreamers (and, to a lesser extent, interstitialists) are talking about, and why they call other people to themselves to show what new cool thing they can do with the literary yo-yo.
14th-Jul-2007 04:38 pm (UTC)
Which is why that long list of novels is such a harebrained and diverse list: it's like listing all the novels that use first-person narrators.

Yes, exactly! Thank you!
14th-Jul-2007 08:29 pm (UTC)
Now, I am not saying that science fiction, fantasy, and horror don't make up a category of literature. They do. But I think it's less a genre (a kind of story) than it is a thing for which there isn't a word, but which I'm going to call a modality.

The best laying-out of this argument I've seen is Farah Mendlesohn's introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction -- well worth seeking out.
15th-Jul-2007 08:40 am (UTC)
Slipstream = stuff guys in cars do, or even guys on bikes with no leghair and lots of 'A' drugs.
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