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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 1995)
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Genre Camps and Literary Values

by James Patrick Kelly
Copyright © 1995, James Patrick Kelly

From "Brief Encounters: The Magazine Review. Century, Number 1," by James Patrick Kelly [Originally in New York Review of Science Fiction, April 1995]

In an essay introducing the new magazine Century [See review this issue.--Ed.], editor Robert Killheffer writes, "We want to blur some of the artificial boundaries between genres. With higher literary values, speculative fiction might well attract more readers of general fiction, but that's not the main purpose behind Century 's philosophy. We emphasize literary complexity because it makes for better stories--stories that are more fun to read, and give readers more for their time and money." Sci-fi--no, strike that!--speculative fiction has always had an uneasy relationship to what Killheffer calls general fiction, but is more commonly referred to hereabouts as the mainstream. Writers trying to cross the boundary from one side to the other have been greeted with suspicion and, at times, outright hostility. In my experience, the sharpest criticisms have been content-oriented; literary values or lack thereof have usually been side issues. We sci-fi types have been mocked for our outlandish aliens, our W.W.II space navies shoring up improbable galactic empires, our mighty-thewed dwarves and sensitive new age unicorns.

Our content is said to be escapist, therefore frivolous.

Similarly, let a Doris Lessing or a Margaret Atwood or a Paul Theroux fabulate on our turf and they are accused of ignorance and/or dilettantism: their futures don't add up because they haven't done their extrapolative homework, and besides, don't these people know that Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Walter Miller or one of our other greats covered this exact same territory back in the Golden Age? However, I don't recall anyone in sf claiming that Margaret Atwood's characters were wooden, or that her prose was clunky, or that she couldn't plot her way out of a paper bag.

Now it is true that mainstreamers have been known on occasion to allege that sf writers couldn't create convincing characters, that our stuff was all action and no subtext, that we dwell in "a domain of hacks," to quote Gordon Van Gelder quoting Hugh Kenner. But we live in a time when the likes of Disch, Ballard, Fowler, Shepard, and LeGuin (to name just a few) have clearly established themselves as some of the finest stylists writing anywhere.

I would hope that thoughtful readers on either side of the boundary between sf and the mainstream can agree that what separates us intrinsically has less to do with differences in literary values than in what we choose to write about.

As I read David Hartwell's editorial in NYRSF 76, he is coming at this same issue from another direction, when he calls for a new critical standard: How about testing out lines like, "The characters are well developed but the setting is inadequate--lacking in cultural detail, external detail that differentiates it clearly from the mundane world and technical detail that creates a deeper plausibility so desirable in good sf"? The alternative is to deny the value of sf at all.

It seems to me that the boundaries between genres are not artificial at all, but real and observable. Sf is about things that could happen but haven't yet; fantasy is about things that will never be. Horror tries to scare us, mysteries focus on crime and its aftermath. The mainstream wants to describe the world as it is, historicals are about the world as it might have been. What is artificial is the notion that any one of these genres has a monopoly on literary values. In an ideal world, writers of all artistic attainments would be able to cross genre boundaries at will and be judged solely on their intentions and the quality of the work, rather than on their bibliographic baggage.


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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