Thursday, March 15, 2007

EITHER-OR/NEITHER-NOR

No, this isn't a grammar lesson. It's more a kind of prolonged sigh at a kind of attitude in genre circles that wants everything to be black-and-white. This is particularly silly in a profession that is by definition subjective.

The attitude is this: if you publish an experimental fantasy anthology, you must hate pulp fiction. If you publish a novel that's "New Weird," for example, you must dislike "Old Weird."

This attitude isn't new. When I put out the first Leviathan in 1994, some people saw it as an attack on traditional fantasy and SF. All I thought I was doing was creating a niche for unclassifiable stuff that couldn't find a home otherwise. I might as well have called the series "Refugees".

Of course, if you're passionate about the books you help create, your words in support of those books can seem like an unofficial manifesto. I understand that.

But lately I've seen too many instances of people saying "Jeff hates X, Y, and Z" with no evidence whatsoever to back it up. Even more ironically, I've seen people say China Mieville hates pulp fiction when, in fact, the opposite is true. China loves a lot of pulp fiction. Heck, he even wrote an introduction to a Lovecraft book.

One reason the pirates anthology has been a joy to edit is that it has allowed Ann and me to indulge in our love for more traditional fiction. For example, Garth Nix story we've taken contains more than a nod and a wink to Howard and to Leiber, which is great. Yes, that's right naysayers--I like a lot of Howard and I love Leiber. I have problems with about half of Lovecraft's output, but love some of his work.

The reality of creativity in the service of producing books is often the same as the reality of the marketplace: focus and niche are very important. To be too diaphanous and various is to accomplish less. Not to mention that refugee quality. If you see cool stuff being left by the wayside because no one else is willing to publish it, publishing it does not mean you're in opposition to the status quo. It just means you like other stuff as well.

For pleasure, I read everything from noir mysteries to tea-cosey mysteries to westerns to space opera to horror novel to lit. mainstream to gonzo to...whatever. I like anything that isn't a fifth generation generic copy of something else.

So, in short, there's no either-or about it. I remember walking around the Associated Writers Program conference book fair in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago and thinking to myself, "If genre traditionalists who refer to the 'literary mainstream' could see this display of vitality and diversity, would they ever use the term again?" It really was amazing--so many different voices and so many different views of the imagination. And it's the same in SF/F. So many voices, so many views, and the majority of them interest the hell out of me.

If, as an editor or writer, I sometimes have to be more specific, more focused, then that's just part of the creative process. The absence of something does not necessarily mean that the excluded thing is disliked. This kind of inference is the result of shoddy thinking.

Jeff

14 Comments:

At 7:56 AM, Anonymous Stephen Segal said...

Well said, Jeff.

 
At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Scott William Carter said...

Yeah, Jeff, good insight. I've been guilty of that sort of thinking myself, so your post made me rethink my prejudices. Though I do wonder if it's the field's incessant need to categorize that creates these unnecessary conflicts. Most people who profess a hatred of slipstream I'm sure like a lot of slipstream when it's not labeled as such.

 
At 9:51 AM, Blogger Jeremy said...

Great post, Jeff. I especially like the part about the vitality.

 
At 10:48 AM, Anonymous Paul Jessup said...

Hear, hear. I just wish this would end and we the blogosphere would move past it. There are so many interesting writers out there, doing interesting things. No matter what subgenre or whatever they are doing.

I'm just sick of hearing how "fantasy is being ruined".

 
At 11:59 AM, Blogger Rajan said...

Very enlightening. But clearly your love of all types of fiction means that you are adamantly against non-fiction. As a non-fictional person, I take issue with that.

 
At 3:10 PM, Blogger Lou Anders said...

Well said.

 
At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Jeff.

Some people in horror/fantasy complain about the prejudice they receive by the snooty literati with their wicked mainstream novels. Unfortunately, that's just another form of prejudice. There are plenty of great mainstream, or literary, novels out there. And I think genre writers especially should be reading them. If you don't read outside your genre, there's something seriously wrong. I've frequented plenty of message boards, and you'd be surprised by the number of struggling horror writers who only read horror, or sf writers who only read sf.

Genre itself is completely subjective. Sure, China Mieville may write New Weird, but that doesn't mean his readers will classify it as such. I doubt if most readers even know what "New Weird" means. There certainly aren't any New Weird sections in any of the book stores I've ever frequented.

I've always said the Great Genre Debate is only of interest to writers. Readers, by and large, don't care about this sort of thing. And then it's only the writers who don't have anything better to do with their time (like, say, writing?).

Some writers take pride in not classifying their work (oooh, I'm so deep, you can't label my work, it's THAT original), whereas others have a hissy if you call their books by the wrong genre. My work isn't horror, it's DARK FANTASY. To which I say, la-dee-frickin-dah.

I don't really care about the genre of the books I read, or the books I write, just as long as the story is good. That's the whole point, isn't it?

Ian

 
At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Jeff.

M. Lincoln Schuster (one of the founders of Simon & Schuster) once wrote: "the most dangerous disease for a publisher is hardening of the categories."

This could also be applied to readers. It must be a natural human condition to want to put everything in smaller and smaller categories and then generalise about them. Resist it if you can!

If you work across children's/YA as well as SF/F as I do, you get category-based assessments coming from all directions, usually arrived at without having read any of the text in question.

The presumption that a book will not work for a given reader based upon its supposed category rather than on its own qualities is a real closing of the mind.

"I don't read romance."
"What about Austen and the Brontes?"
"Oh, I read them . . ."

On a different note, the story I wrote for the VanderDuo's Pirates antho probably owes a bit to L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt as well as Leiber and Howard. Not to mention Sabatini and Pyle and Conan Doyle (his historical novels, not Holmes) and many others.

(Like all writers my work emerges from the corpus of everything I've read -- hoping that I am reinterpreting and reimagining, not resurrecting faithless clones.)

Garth Nix

 
At 4:52 PM, Blogger Joe said...

What I heard was that what Jeff VanderMeer really hates is other people saying what sort of writing he really hates :-).

Years back I did an author event with Michael Marshall Smith; one reader pointed out his work straddled a number of possible genres, from thriller to crime to SF and different bookstores had him in SF, Crime or general fiction - which would he prefer to be listed under? Mike gave the perfect answer - the labels are just there for booksellers and librarians (and the readers) to help organise where the books live so that people who want them can find them. As long as those folks can find them he doesn't care what label is applied.

BTW, I have just had all your books moved into our Quantum Weird subsection and moved China's next to the Hello Kitty merch. I'm sure he'll love that.

 
At 6:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Garth:

Oh, definitely, I can see touches of those writers. But the great thing is, having read the best work of those writers, I still found your story original and fresh and a great read. Like you say, reinterpreting and reimagining.

Joe:

You're demented and mad, but I love you.

JeffV

 
At 9:20 PM, Anonymous John C said...

It's dismaying watching the areas of fiction that are supposed to be about wild imagining subdividing themselves into rigid taxonomies like those you see among sexual fetishists or metal fans ("We play Melodic Gothic Metal! How dare you accuse us of playing Black Viking Metal!"). Some people seem to forget to easily what the word "fiction" signifies, that it can be anything it wants.

I seem to recall China's comments about what he calls "the Weird" (New Weird was M John Harrison's term) as being a means to escape this kind of stratification and restrictive labelling. SF, fantasy and horror can all be "weird" to a greater or lesser degree; having an umbrella term that's admittedly pretty vague allows for greater diversity at the writing level.

In this respect, creativity is subject to the same laws as genetics: species need to mix their genes with each generation in order to create new mutations and evolve. Too much inbreeding leads eventually to stagnation and extinction.

 
At 5:26 AM, Anonymous Will Ludwigsen said...

Gulp. I may have taken yours and Ann's name in vain in my own recent post about my take on the New Weird. My apologies if I'm one of those people contributing to the either/or problem!

Your post clarifies a lot of things for me, though, and I don't think we disagree. I think the best position for a writer is to be a genre of one, with the leeway to follow one's peculiar interests in one's peculiar style. Everything else is marketing.

Will

 
At 5:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John:

Yep--completely agree. And our NW antho is basically treating the term as referring to a very narrow period of time that had ripple effects. Rather than as something rigid.

Will:

Nope. I read that, but it didn't spark this post. I thought it was an interesting post.

JeffV

 
At 2:45 PM, Blogger Steve Buchheit said...

Wait, you mean we can like more than one thing? Well, how will we form cliques and get to decide whose in and whose out now unless we are restrictive? I mean, that could mean our whole view of culture is wrong? (end sarcasm)

Say, where did I put my copy of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"? Ah, yes, quality. It's all about the quality.

 

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