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March, 2008 : Essay:

The Ghetto

Once upon a time there was a little boy who liked science fiction.

He liked stories about space battles, alien monsters, and also stories about dragons, wizards, and talking animals. He read everything he could get his hands on, which included every single book on every single shelf in a certain section of the local library. At first relatives encouraged this enthusiasm: reading, after all, was A Good Thing. But eventually they gently tried to steer him toward fantastical literature of more widely regarded merit: Homer's Odyssey, Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe. He liked Poe quite a lot.

This boy grew up a bookworm, no doubt about it. He underperformed in school because he was more interested in his private literary pursuits than in drab assignments. And much of the stuff school wanted him to read was excruciatingly drab. Faulkner! What was the point? (Although occasionally something would lure him out of genre, as attested by his avid Jim Thompson, Mark Twain, and James Joyce phases1.)

Nonetheless, like many an avid reader before him, he came to the conclusion that he wanted to write the stuff, too. Despite enthusiastic forays into 20th century traditions of experimental and mimetic fiction, this kid still loved stories with monsters, aliens, space stations, and extra dimensions. The wizards-n-dragons stuff had gone tepid over the years, but there was other fantasy out there: Gormenghast, Elric, and Severian all made deep impressions on the (slowly) maturing fellow. So, he went to college. He studied "English."

Welcome to the Ghetto

Odds are, you're familiar with "the Ghetto." This is where academia keeps its unsavory genre writers (and critics).

Academia does have a fairly progressive "Don't ask, don't tell" policy: if the distinguished professor of 19th century criticism unwinds with a paperback mystery before bed, that's her business. So long as there are no John D. MacDonald references in her published work, then there's no problem.

It is rumored that there are even little utopian islands carefully sheltered in the sea of respectable academic thought where the genres are taken seriously, and serious fiction is open to the possibility of fun. But few who have found those rare havens of bliss have ever ventured back out onto the stormy waters, and so their location remains a shrouded secret2.

Our young man did not happen upon any such utopia, and soon found himself quite explicitly forbidden from squandering his intellect upon trash.

But, what about Edgar Allen Poe? he asked. Disinterested shrugs. Of limited historical interest.

Of course, he attempted to point out that there is science fiction of literary worth. He began with the no-brainers: Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin, Walter M. Miller Jr. He received blank stares.

He tried the end-run tactic: George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Mary Shelley, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Swift?

Son, that's satire.

Apparently, anything accepted into the literary canon was, by definition, not science fiction; and anything published as science fiction was, again by definition, not literature.

Our hero, if I may call him that, also took some writing classes. There he found a mixed reception. Apparently people teaching creative writing in college aren't held to quite the same standards of intellectual rigor as their more professorial counterparts. Nonetheless, of those who would allow him to write the stories he loved, the only criteria of merit appeared to be "popular appeal," and "marketability." An eloquent passage, or an intriguing philosophical dilemma, or a symbol rich with archetypal power might or might not be noted, but if the story didn't hook, if it didn't snapwell, what was the point of writing in genre? (And, with some decades of experience under his belt, this fellow will now tell you that those teachers had some good advice: because really, if no one wants to read your story, What Is The Point?)

In any case, this young man soon realized that—although it was not called such in those days—he was on the verge of being relegated to the Genre Ghetto. In addition to finding himself outside the potential approbation of civilized company, he discovered that the food was bad, the denizens largely unhygienic, and the clothing barbaric.

He attended a convention or two, but something didn't fit. He had read all the same books as these people, so why didn't he feel at home? He could trade Monty Python quotations, Twilight Zone episodes, and Star Trek trivia. He had other pre-requisites: he had played Dungeons and Dragons. (And Traveller, and Gamma World.) He had read Cerberus the Aardvark, The Watchmen, and Sandman. He could explain Aragorn's genealogical connection to Isildur, his affiliation with the Dúnedain, and the age-old enmity with the Witch King of Angmar, lord of the Nazgûl. So...why did he feel like an outsider?

As colorful as the ghetto was, perhaps he just couldn't stand the idea of being confined.

Literature as Subculture

The point of this story isn't to talk about one man's psychology as an outsider, but rather to point to the peculiar degree to which two distinct kinds of reader have created a culture around a particular body of work.

Fandom is a fairly well-observed (if not widely-understood) phenomenon. Allow me to cast out a few generalities, but feel free to extend this discussion in the forums:

Science fiction fandom began as a sub-culture of enthusiasts, a loose-knit nationwide club of people who found their friendships and often their family in the companionship of others immersed in the same body of literature. It began as a band of outsiders who found more common language with other readers than with the popular culture of their various locales. Historically ghettos are formed from two forces: a desire to confine those who are different, but also a desire to have your own kind as neighbors. If there is a "science fiction ghetto" might it be partly the result of this banding together of outsiders?

The model of fandom—clubs, zines, conventions—grew and sub-sub-cultures grew within the community, or emulated it. Anime fans, comic book fans, gamers, rpgers, furries, costumers: there is no single body of literature, and if you converse with random convention goers you will find actual science fiction readers may well be a minority.

It's worth noting that for the most part, other genres don't now and never did inspire this kind of cultural bonding. Mysteries, thrillers, romances: there are a few conventions here and there, but they tend more toward conferences of working professionals.

However, there is one entirely unrelated group of readers who have formed a tightly-knit community of non-conformists all conforming to a common language. They even have a (loose, hotly debated) canon of literature. I refer, of course, to the academic elite. If you consider the cultural politics in a given university English department, you will find it has a lot more in common with a group of die-hard science fiction fans than, say, any random assortment of avid mystery readers. Even if you go into the mystery sub-forms: the cozy, perhaps, or the whodunit, or the talking-cats-who-solve-murders...these readers might enjoy sipping tea and comparing notes on the latest exploits of Joe Grey, feline P.I., but they are unlikely to take it further than that. (Unless they are furries, and it wouldn't surprise me if they were.)

Culturally, these two are miles apart, of course. Academics enjoy a position of respect and esteem in the larger culture, while fans tend to run negative on the respectometer. The difference between ivy-covered buildings on the one side and shabby airport hotels where most conventions end up could hardly be more pronounced. The language is different; the criteria for success is different. These two cultures simply don't have much in common.

Oh, it's tempting to draw facile correlations. I made a list of similarities along the lines of "At ceremonial occasions, both tend to dress in wizard's gowns and funny hats," but that's mere coincidence, not true common ground.

One thing that is true common ground, however, is an isolation from wider culture. Compared to our science fiction ghetto, the "Ivory Tower" that academics dwell in is really no different. Whether looked up to or looked down upon, the isolation is real. These are both cultures that draw people who don't care so much for "real life."

Things may be changing. The utopias referenced above are real; and even outside these particular institutions, some individuals have bridged the gap, have found ways to be insiders of both subcultures, Michael Chabon being the poster child here. Many others exist in both worlds, but uneasily.

One person who didn't find a way to bridge that gap, however, was the young man described in the opening paragraphs of this essay. But in his case, it's more likely pathological. I get the feeling he's the sort who wouldn't belong to any club that would accept him as a member.

He has been known to crash their parties, from time to time.

Copyright © 2008, Joe Tokamak. All Rights Reserved.

About Joe Tokamak

Joe makes his living by folding the universe into eleven dimensions. Or at least, that's the theory. Yes, he is named after a plasma containment technology.


Mar 19, 03:10 by IROSF
Have a comment on Tokamak's latest essay?

The article can be found here.
Mar 19, 22:55 by bob sale
I have a degree in English like the hypothetical chap in the essay. Can the same person enjoy the novels of Jane Austen and the novels of Isaac Asimov? How about the works of Anthony Trollope and those of James Tiptree? It seems to me that there is a profound difference in sensibility between the works of traditional novelists like Austen and Trollope and those of mainstream science fiction. I find that the more of the former I read the more difficulty I have enjoying the latter. Am I alone in this or do others experience the same thing? Can the state of the art science fiction we read diminish our capacity to enjoy the more rarefied pleasures of the novels of a Henry James or a Proust? Or rock music blast to bits our appreciation of Beethoven?
Mar 19, 23:09 by Bluejack
Perhaps some fill find the simpler pleasures of rollicking good story ruined by exposure to more elegant forms of writing while some may not. But even for those, I think there are writers of literary distinction working within the genre whose writing stacks up against any traditional form.

For my own part, I find I can enjoy a wide range of authors. Asimov, in particular, I think needs to be read with an eye toward his historical context, but certainly the same can be said for most authors. Putting Thackeray or Swift or Trollope or Dostoyevski into the context of their time and/or culture certainly deepens the appreciation of their accomplishments.
Mar 20, 00:04 by Lois Tilton
I can attest from personal knowledge that there are vast hordes of SFnal authors who adore the works of Jane Austen. There have been dozens of SFnal Shakespeare stories. A recent story by Howard Waldrop, now on the Nebula ballot, is based on the life of Flannery O'Connor.

If the literary world has disdained SF, the SFnal world has embraced the literary.

Mar 20, 10:25 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Indeed, "The Jane Austen Book Club" has a strong SF thread in it.

The cowboys and the farmers CAN be friends. :)
Mar 20, 13:57 by Lois Tilton
And Karen Joy Fowler has been an SF author.
Mar 20, 15:08 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I agree with Bluejack, there are S/F authors whose command of the language is equal or superior to past writers considered masters (Gene Wolfe comes to mind), and others have stories of such depth as to compare to epics (Herbert's Dune). There is much in S/F that can, and should, be considered literary. There is, however, much to deride as well.

The recent proliferation of media tie-in novels are what most literary people see when they look at S/F. It's hard not to when the majority of retail shelf space is devoted to them. These books cannot be considered literature and they help to perpetuate the pulp stereotype that S/F has had since the 1930s (and arguably earlier). This is not to say that they aren't fun to read since most genre people seem to like them (I demand a little more than they can provide however).

Literary S/F has had a terrible struggle to be taken seriously. I have had the good fortune to attend a university with a fairly progressive literature department that offers not just one, but two regular courses on speculative fiction; one on Fantasy Literature (focusing on Children's Lit.) and one on Science Fiction proper. S/F writers, and readers, have become increasingly sophisticated and the academy is beginning to reflect that (and about damn time too).
Mar 20, 15:26 by Donna Royston
I personally wonder why anyone cares whether some academic or literary types segregate SF/F into a ghetto? I mean, seriously, I'm asking the question. What does it take away from those of us who read it?

Read, enjoy, write, immerse yourself in the literature that you like. Disregard what doesn't matter.

Bobsale, I would say that reading the authors you mention -- excellent writers, because time has winnowed out the bad and left us with Austen and Trollope and so forth -- can make you impatient with poor writers of any genre. Some people don't like to be winnowers, but if you're going to read current fiction, that's what you'll have to be, or else stick to the literature of the past.
Mar 20, 16:04 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
You are right, Donna, we shouldn't care what some academic people think about S/F, and for the most part the general reader doesn't. The problem is in the fact that those of us who have made careers in the academic study of literature suffer from this segregation. It means that several excellent critical works will never be published, or if they are, not taken seriously by peer review. Academic journals are not just reluctant to publish critique of S/F, they in many cases actively avoid it. In the rarefied world of academics, the rule of publish or perish still holds sway and it is unfortunate that our chosen material is so ill regarded.

But as I mentioned in my post above, this attitude of superiority on the part of the 'literary types' is changing. The increasing sophistication of both the authors of the genre and those reading and criticising is forcing this change on the greater academy. Journals such as Science Fiction Studies, The International Review Of Science Fiction and this site itself, are garnering more respect and creating a reputation for serious academic discussion.

The issue of the ghettoezation (is that even a word?) of science fiction and fantasy is a problem. Granted, it may only exist for academics and literature majors, but it does exist. As much as I would like to disregard the opinions of the snooty literary 'experts', sometimes my paycheque depends on them!

You are right on another point too- we have to winnow. Considering just how much new fiction is published in any given year, let alone S/F and Fantasy, too much time will be spent on bad books if you don't. You should check out Locus if you haven't already. Essential for the S/F and Fantasy winnower.
Mar 20, 19:27 by Donna Royston
Brian Aldiss recently opined on SF/F getting no respect or mainstream attention:

The refrain is so common that it's almost a universal theme among SF writers. I just think too many readers and writers obsess uselessly over it.
Mar 20, 22:00 by bob sale
I would like to thank those readers who sent a response to my query about enjoying SF and the classic works of western literature. I wanted an intelligent discussion of the issues raised and that is exactly what I got. I still wonder if reading books that are set primarily in the past-which is where most of the classics reside-does not effect the ability to enjoy those which reside primarily in the future. I do know one thing. The rush you get from reading SF is more intense than the rush you get from any other form of literature. Yet I wonder-do you ever get something for nothing?
Mar 23, 17:17 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I still get a charge, as it were, out of certain classic novels. Frankenstein or Dracula spring to mind (though these are arguably genre) I can't say much about most of what people call classic, though. War and Peace was one of the most excruciating reads I have ever done. The less said about Thackery the better in my opinion. For real excitement in classic literature I have to turn the clock back, way back. Beowulf, The Mabinogion, Norse sagas and the poetry of Middle English (such as "Sir Orfeo"). These works give me the same chills as science fiction and horror (and, I think, one could argue that they are horror and fantasy).

I do not think you can get something for nothing in science fiction, however. The most exciting reads were also the most challenging. Dune, Cryptonomicon, anything by Phil Dick. These were difficult and rollercoaster rides of reading. As enjoyable as Honor Herrington may be, they do not give me the same charge as Baker's Company stories. In my mind, the more challenging the work, the greater excitement I gain from reading it. This isn't always true; a good example would be Zemyatin's We. Challenging, yes, but not exciting.

It all comes down to personal taste, in the end. Whatever makes your blood race, whether pulp or literature, is what you enjoy the most. I suppose even Jane Austin can make some people's blood race.
Mar 28, 16:56 by bob sale
It seems to me that this concern about the SF "ghetto" is misplaced. SF and fantasy have won the most important battle. In the marketplace. Since Star Wars,SF and fantasy have gone from strength to strength. It is classic literature that has been marginalized. I know very few people who read it unless they are either required to for a class or are going for an English degree. The readership for the novels of Tolstoy or Thackeray is vanishingly small. Far from being a threat to the SF and fantasy field it is classic literature that has been endangered. People need to be exhorted to read the classics. They already read plenty of SFfantasy.
Apr 10, 17:02 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
While the popularity of S/F&F has certainly increased, it still represents only a small fraction of booksales. Even if look at only fiction sales as a whole, S/F&F accounts for approximately 14% or so (according to last year's numbers in Locus, as I recall. I wish I could fact check that, but I am at work right now). Most fiction sold is 'literary' fiction like White Oleander, The Life of Pi or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. There may not be a large readership for Thackery or Tolstoy anymore, but there is a very large readership for modern literary novels. To say that genre fiction has won the battle of the marketplace is not entirely correct. When was the last time you saw an outright S/F or Fantasy novel on Oprah?

"Classic" literature of the War and Peace kind may be endangered, but non-genre fiction rules supreme at the bookstore. Block buster S/F&F novels may now make the bestseller lists, but their contribution to overall fiction sales is vanishingly small.

If I have the above number incorrect, please let me know. I am quite confident, though, that S/F&F sales are nowhere near as large as literary fiction (and literary fiction sales are nowhere near as large as non-fiction sales).
Apr 10, 23:58 by bob sale
Thanks for the sales info. I based my opinions about book sales primarily on the sales figures of tradeused book stores in the city where I live. Classics sell like last year's newspapers in those stores. Contemporary nongenre fiction apparently sells pretty well. I do think the classics are having a hard time. We live in a present tense culture which believes that yesterday's books, mores. and values are completly irrelevent. Sometimes I think SF encourages that kind of mindset. So we are left with the problem I mentioned before. How do we integrate enjoyment of SF with a respect for the past?
Apr 12, 00:37 by Bluejack
It's interesting that despite the ineffectiveness of the marketing machine in specific (publishers have no way to "guarantee" a blockbuster: there are as many flops of major marketing efforts as there are surprise successes of sleepers), the fact that people just don't try to *sell* the classics almost certainly reinforces the sales cycle of new material. What's new = what's hot. Everyone wants to be on top of the latest buzz. But that's got to be at least in part due to the fact there's very little emphasis on selling the "greats."

Still, in any oevre, however you define it, there is going to be a common language. SF fans are probably going to pick up "I Robot," "Foundation," "Dune" etc. because there is a common language amongst readers and fans that is substantially predicated on this canon.
Apr 14, 18:15 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I spent several years working at a 'big box' bookstore in Canada during my third tour at university, bob is almost right on the money. The classics did not sell very well, but they did sell. Part of the problem with the 'so-called' classics is that everyone either already owns one or knows someone who owns one, or only buys one under duress at their university bookstore for some literature class. The classics don't really sell, although there are times when they will. For instance, I remember when the rumours of a film version of Lolita starring Natalie Portman were all over the news. We couldn't keep Nabokov in stock. But I digress.

While I will agree that it is our present tense culture that is in part the issue, it is not entirely to blame. All cultures are present tense. Rather, it is the fact that at one time higher learning was considered a mark of distinction and was widely appreciated (late 19th early 20th Centuries), but no longer is. Anyone gradutating from a university would have at least a passing familiarity with the classics of literature if not a solid and deep grounding in them. This is no longer the case, for two reasons. First, universities have, over the last century, become horrifyingly compartmentalized. University graduates no longer have a generalized education, but rather study one discipline only. Ask a business major who wrote Pride and Prejudice. They would be lucky to even recognize the title. Second, education and intelligence are no longer desirable commodities in a society that worships money, American Idol and Britney Spears. In such a society, there is no reason to even try to sell War and Peace. It is hard enough to get people to use proper spelling on job applications.

While science fiction can be part of the problem, and here I am refering specifically to media tie in s/f and fantasy, I don't think that it is really to blame. In my opinion, the average s/f reader is more likely to be familiar with the classics than not. Sounds counter intuitive, I know, but in my experience genre readers (specifically fantasy, science fiction and horror) tend to be more sophisticated than not (although I could point to any one reader's preference of authors to counter this arguement).

Even those s/f readers who have graduated from a university in a specific discipline (say engineering) are more likely to seek out the classics by way of authorial quotations/plot points/mentioned influences et cetera. (I once had a young man ask my advice on finding a good translation of Beowulf to purchase because he had read a second hand copy of Niven, Pournelle and Barnes The Legacy of Heorot.)

I would say that most (serious) readers of s/f and f already have struck the balance between "respect for the past" and enjoyment of the new.
Apr 2, 00:07 by
routing number and account number on check
Great artcile, yet it would be better if in future you can share more about this subject. Continue posting.

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