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A Clumsy Martian, Indeed
October 6, 2011 1:55 PM   Subscribe

Margaret Atwood defines science fiction "Is [the term science fiction] a corral with real fences that separate what is clearly 'science fiction' from what is not, or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way? If you put skin-tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jetlike flames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work 'science fiction'? What about dragons and manticores, or backgrounds that contain volcanoes or atomic clouds, or plants with tentacles, or landscapes reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch? Does there have to be any actual science in such a book, or is the skin-tight clothing enough? These seemed to me to be open questions."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi (228 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Atwood continues to moan about her guilt of liking genre fiction more than literary fiction in public. Bleah.
posted by GuyZero at 1:58 PM on October 6, 2011 [5 favorites]



Atwood continues to moan about her guilt of liking genre fiction more than literary fiction in public. Bleah.
posted by GuyZero at 1:58 PM on October 6 [+] [!]


Really? I don't read it that way at all. My impression is that Atwood has mellowed a lot, and she's very thoughtful and generous these days. I say that in contrast to a slightly more hard edged, sharp tongued Atwood that I remember from my youth.

It is fairly consistent with the expectation that her books not be "labeled" but it extends that respect to other authors, who also don't want their works to be judged by the cover, even if the cover was penned by Frank Franzetta.

Massive respect for the woman.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:01 PM on October 6, 2011 [13 favorites]


tl;dr: Science Fiction means talking squid in outer space, and nothing that Atwood would deign to write. Bleah seconded. Why does she persist in picking at this? Someone give The Handmaids Tale a retroactive Hugo to shut her up.
posted by Artw at 2:04 PM on October 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


Thought provoking! I'm no fan of io9 (gawker - blech) but this is probably one of the best articles I've read there in months. By the way Atwood's book can be pre-ordered here. on Amazon
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:06 PM on October 6, 2011


To me, that's not quite her argument, which is actually that she feels that sci-fi readers want to read about spaceships and aliens, and her books don't have those, so she doesn't want to mislead them into reading her books. Of course, that's an argument based on ignorance--and it sounds like Ursula Le Guin tried to set her right on that front. But that it didn't do any good, and Atwood is simply insisting this is an example of a slippery definition rather than a definition borne out of ignorance of the actual genre.

Also something about tinkertoys.

I find it funny that she's insisting that books with dragons on the cover can't be "speculative fiction" as she defines it or "science fiction" as Le Guin defines it because dragons aren't plausible or realistic. But I'd say that, say, McCaffrey's version of genetically engineered dragons in her books are as plausible for the science of their time as the genetic engineered mutants in Oryx and Crake. But she doesn't sound that well read in the genre, I suspect, is the real problem, and this is just another example of that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:09 PM on October 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


And let it be said, that her story about the Berlin wall always massively amuses me:


"Then there was the case of the former Soviet Union. No sooner did the Wall come down in 1989 than pornography flooded across the one-time divide. Porn had hitherto been excluded in favour of endless editions of the classics and other supposed-to-be-good-for-you works, but forbidden fruit excites desire, and everyone had already read Tolstoy, a lot. Suddenly the publishers of serious literature were hard-pressed."

"Thus it was that The Robber Bride appeared in a number of Soviet-bloc countries with covers that might be described as-at best-deceptive and-at worst-as a Eurotrash slutfest in flagrante. How many men in raincoats purchased the Robber Bride edition sporting a black-satin-sheathed Zenia with colossal tits, hoping for a warm one-handed time in a back corner, only to heave it into the bin with a strangled Foiled Again."
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:12 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Atwood continues to moan about her guilt of liking genre fiction more than literary fiction in public. Bleah.

It took you three minutes to read that entire article to come to this conclusion?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:12 PM on October 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


It took me that much time to read the first part of the article and realize she's just rehashing all the same things she's said in public several times before.
posted by GuyZero at 2:13 PM on October 6, 2011


I should add, this is not a new issue for her, nor is this a new position. it's merely saying it with more words.
posted by GuyZero at 2:14 PM on October 6, 2011


My feelings ten to run with the quoted Le Guin definition of science-fiction ("things that could actually happen") as one of the key defining elements. I don't think flying dragons can actually happen (genetically engineered or not) . Flaming Pterodactyls maybe but that's not quite the same thing really ;)
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:14 PM on October 6, 2011


It took me that much time to read the first part of the article and realize she's just rehashing all the same things she's said in public several times before.

Don't worry, reading more of it doesn't help.
posted by Artw at 2:16 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


"But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, through a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy, and Slipstream Fiction: all of them might be placed under the same large "wonder tale" umbrella."

This doesn't sound terribly dismissive, acid, or condescending to me.
I think somebody is projecting their own attitudes onto her.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:16 PM on October 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


She does not seem to have substantially changed her message or tone:
[Le Guin's] 2009 Guardian article began with a paragraph that has caused a certain amount of uproar in the skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities-so much so that scarcely a question period goes by at my public readings without someone asking, usually in injured tones, why I have forsworn the term science fiction, as if I've sold my children to the salt mines.
She'll always be a fine writer, but the squids-in-space thing remains to be silly. Sci-fi readers have a fairly broad definition of what sci-fi is. People who don't read very much sci-fi think it's all like bug-eyed monsters and flying saucers. Literary agents and PR critters and such have their own definition of sci-fi between those poles, for their own reasons.

Meanwhile, Atwood has her own distinctions which have perfectly solid internal logic, but they don't seem to fit within...well, anyone else's definitions.

I'm not sure why she's confused that this keeps coming up, especially since she keeps addressing it. If she kept asserting that her novels could not possibly be described as novels, she'd keep getting puzzled questions about that, too.

But she doesn't sound that well read in the genre, I suspect, is the real problem, and this is just another example of that.

Yeah, that sounds about right. Reminds me of Iain M. Banks' article in the Guardian, which some people think was directed at Atwood in particular.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:17 PM on October 6, 2011 [17 favorites]


Well, in the McCaffrey novels the dragons are genetically engineered from a smaller indigenous lifeform on an alien planet into something that resembles the human concept of a dragon. Which really isn't all that different from the Crakers in Atwood's book.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:17 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


I really don't read this as Atwood being dismissive of SF or her attempting to provide a single definition of what SF is. Rather, it is an explanation of why she doesn't like her work to be pigeon-holed when people cannot even agree on what the pigeon-hole is. Which is understandable.

I don't know why people get so hung up on genres or categories that are clearly subjective and fluid in nature anyway.
posted by MUD at 2:17 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think this is a pretty accurate taxonomy of some of the literary terms she brings up - although it is interesting that she has Ursula LeGuin be the character to first bring up the term "speculative fiction," a term literary folks use to avoid the multi-eyed Martian ogre evoked by "science fiction."

When I heard her speak last year about her newest book, I thought she was being a little disingenuous by claiming that she is in no way predicting the future, just making observations about what she sees. (Although it is an old trope of SF criticism that SF comments on the present by inventing a future based on current trends.) But this parenthetical comment she makes clarifies her meaning for me: I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an infinite number of roads lead away to "the future," each heading in a different direction.
posted by kozad at 2:18 PM on October 6, 2011


I think somebody is projecting their own attitudes onto her.

This regularly happens in Atwood threads. Best thing, perhaps, is to just move along to the interesting and insightful comments.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:19 PM on October 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


I don't know why people get so hung up on genres or categories that are clearly subjective and fluid in nature anyway.

It's that she refuses to be associated with other science fiction writers because she's a "real" writer of literary fiction. And it's her that keeps bringing it up - it's not like she's being rebuked by any other writers at all. Unprompted she just keeps mentioning how she's not a science fiction writer, in spite of having written a book set in the future about genetically modified people & animals.

Also, being Canadian, I am weary of her near-deification in the country.
posted by GuyZero at 2:22 PM on October 6, 2011 [9 favorites]


It's that she refuses to be associated with other science fiction writers because she's a "real" writer of literary fiction

Even if that were true who really cares? Does it matter what she calls her works as long as they are enjoyable? And if you don't enjoy them yourself why are you so invested in talking about her so dismissively and continually? I wouldn't care if Heinlein wanted his worked to be classed as adult romance novels as I would have enjoyed them just the same.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:25 PM on October 6, 2011


I think this is a pretty accurate taxonomy of some of the literary terms she brings up - although it is interesting that she has Ursula LeGuin be the character to first bring up the term "speculative fiction," a term literary folks use to avoid the multi-eyed Martian ogre evoked by "science fiction."

The sci-fi set would argue in turn that multi-eyed Martian ogres haven't figured prominently in sci-fi for a very long time, and that "speculative fiction" is a fig leaf for people who write sci-fi but don't want to admit it, for fear of being lumped in with the Spaceman Spiff crowd.

And then I would argue that, while someone who writes sci-fi but claims not to is wrong, on the whole it doesn't have much to do with the price of tea in China.

When I heard her speak last year about her newest book, I thought she was being a little disingenuous by claiming that she is in no way predicting the future, just making observations about what she sees. (Although it is an old trope of SF criticism that SF comments on the present by inventing a future based on current trends.) But this parenthetical comment she makes clarifies her meaning for me: I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an infinite number of roads lead away to "the future," each heading in a different direction.

The parenthetical doesn't clear up very much, especially since almost no science fiction actually purports to predict "the" future. Her parenthetical is a hoary old line of thought in sci-fi, and not an innovation.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:26 PM on October 6, 2011


When someone explains a definition of SF that defies the typical, loose cultural consensus about it, it's okay not to take it very seriously, but it's not a bad thing to play with that definition, either.
posted by mobunited at 2:27 PM on October 6, 2011


She wrote one of the foundational books of modern science fiction, hasn't done much for the field since then despite many attempts, and now she clings to bizarre notions that are completely out of step with a lot of her fanbase.

She's sort of like a harmless version of Orson Scott Card.
posted by gurple at 2:27 PM on October 6, 2011 [15 favorites]


Sure are a lot of folks talking about science fiction these days, but not enough people writing good examples.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:29 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think somebody is projecting their own attitudes onto her.

Her argument, whether long or short, is always predicated around keeping her work, which is clearly Science Fiction, labelled something else, for reasons of her own which we can guess as being commercial or shear snobbery but have very little to do with her work or science fiction. Even if it's not a diss on everyone who is honest about writing SF it's at least a deliberate waste of everybody's time.
posted by Artw at 2:31 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


And if you don't enjoy them yourself why are you so invested in talking about her so dismissively and continually?

I was essentially criticized for making a comment too fast and I felt that I should justify/clarify myself. Which isn't quite the same as "talking about her continually". Unless I have some sort of history of Atwood comments around here that I've forgotten about.
posted by GuyZero at 2:31 PM on October 6, 2011


This is going to be like a conversation I had with someone who told me they didn't like science fiction but loved the movie "The Truman Show".

Atwood's insistence that the stuff she writes about "could happen today" tells me it's not so much that she doesn't understand science fiction - she doesn't understand science. We're not going to be making the sorts of custom life forms in Oryx and Crake until we can figure out the emergent properties of genetic changes both ways. The difference between that and terraforming Mars, stellating Jupiter (you know, just for lulz) and sending a colony ship to another star system is that I at least kind of know the direction you'd head in to do those things.

Working phenotypes backwards to genotypes? That's gonna happen about the time someone comes up with a board game that generates new philosophical truths as a side effect of play.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:32 PM on October 6, 2011 [18 favorites]


Really, who cares? I stopped having this discussion after a long ass thread on the old SF-L mailing list.
posted by zzazazz at 2:38 PM on October 6, 2011


I love the fact that Iain M. Banks wrote her the best possible answer in that guardian article while also putting copious amount of talking squids in his books (cf The Affront in Excession).
posted by SageLeVoid at 2:38 PM on October 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


I know a guy who i got into an argument with that was like a fundamentalist (most things he rants about really) with the fact that sci-fi only started with Frankenstein, and nothing before that can be called it, but Dr. Who is totally sci-fi, just because, and don't talk badly about it or else. He is the reason i now hate most sci-fi, well, not the genre, but the fans, and writers mostly. Hell, the character Roman on Party Down is a note perfect version of most of them i've met. I even went to school with a guy who got in a rant about how stupid Star Wars was because "a laser can't destroy a planet" amoung other things.

Frankly i love the ideas in a lot of sci-fi, but they read like creeds or manifestos for whatever the author believes in, and lets plot and characters suffer. I wish we could erase the term sci-fi from our lexicon, it's too broad, and most people have set beliefs in what it means, and get upset when others question that.
posted by usagizero at 2:40 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


And if you don't enjoy them yourself why are you so invested in talking about her so dismissively and continually?

I might enjoy them but after about the tenth or eleventh unsolicited missive suggesting that I am an uncultured hill person, any desire I have had to read them has pretty much been shit all over. And here's another. Swell.

Since she's made it to a point where I'm going to hear about her latest whether I care to or not, I can either be dismissive of her or challenge her to a duel until honour is satisfied (which is wonderfully historic and not the lest bit science fictiony).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:41 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Unless you plan to choose a talking squid as your weapon of choice.

I know I do!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:42 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]



Frankly i love the ideas in a lot of sci-fi, but they read like creeds or manifestos for whatever the author believes in, and lets plot and characters suffer.


It does seem to be used as an excuse for lazy writing, all too often. Maybe that says more about the publishers though, they certainly aren't afraid to talk down to their audience.

I very much enjoy it when it's well written, but that can be difficult to isolate from the cruft. Not that any genre is excluded from that particular condemnation.

How much of the problem is writers, how much is readers, how much is publishers, and how much is marketing?

And hell. Maybe I'm often not the target audience anymore. I ate the stuff up as a teenager, and I wasn't complaining then.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:44 PM on October 6, 2011


What the fuck is supposed to be wrong with squids in space, anyway?
posted by adamdschneider at 2:44 PM on October 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


Yeah the two issues here have always been: 1. Atwood does not appear to be very well read in the genre and so keeps making grievous errors whenever she tries to make broad statements about it, and 2. She insists that the discussion use a definition of science fiction that doesn't seem to match that of anyone else.

These despite the fact that she is a great writer and, by all accounts, a fantastic teacher. It's really quite baffling.
posted by 256 at 2:47 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Working phenotypes backwards to genotypes?

Yes, a lot of the genetic inventions in Oryx and Crake are in the future, but if we can replace the antennae of fruit flies with legs, then Atwood isn't too far off. But that's neither here nor there: Her stories are more about the timeless aspects of how women and men relate and behave (often poorly). The science elements are colorful and decorate the narrative, but it would be badly missing the point to suggest that these are the core of Atwood's storytelling, in the way that they are for someone who is a scifi writer and does write about the equivalent of flying saucers and squids in space.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:50 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


As others have observed, part of the problem with Atwood's (apparent) view of what is and isn't science fiction is that she doesn't make reference to any canonical works that could serve as guideposts -- she doesn't even seem to acknowledge the possibility that we could have an argument over what the science fiction canon might be, and what it might or might not contain.

I won't try to claim what the boundaries of the scienc fiction canon are. After all, canons are out there to be respnded to, argued over, built on, etc. But to ignore the possibility of a canon entirely -- and then to insist upon the point that we NEED "clear definitons" of the genre, which is an exercise that presupposes canonicity in some form -- is just confusing and weird.
posted by Pirx is my co-pilot at 2:52 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Iain M Banks: Science fiction is no place for dabblers
posted by memebake at 2:54 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was essentially criticized for making a comment too fast and I felt that I should justify/clarify myself.

In itself, I don't particularly care how fast or slow you comment. To clarify my criticism, I was (justifiably, as it turned out) expressing skepticism that you had read what she said.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:54 PM on October 6, 2011


The science elements are colorful and decorate the narrative, but it would be badly missing the point to suggest that these are the core of Atwood's storytelling, in the way that they are for someone who is a scifi writer and does write about the equivalent of flying saucers and squids in space.

Except you could say the work about many self-affirmed SF writers. Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood books are just as much about power dynamics in relationships as are Atwood's works (in fact, I'd say Dawn and Power Politics are very much about the same thing. Only in one, the lover is a date-rapey alien).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:54 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh sweet, this post reminded me the new Vernor Vinge book is out on the 11th!
posted by Ad hominem at 2:55 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is Gulliver's Travels science fiction or speculative fiction? It involves a flying city commanded by a nation of scientists...
posted by ennui.bz at 2:55 PM on October 6, 2011


I do think there's a categorical difference between SF and Fantasy, and trying to lump them together under the same term is, I think, inappropriate. It's also what just about every bookstore and library does, more's the pity.

And yeah, there's a lot of bad SF out there. Sturgeon's Law: 90% of SF is crap, but 90% of **everything** is crap. There's a lot of bad "literary fiction" out there too.

As for Atwood, I have no idea. I like some of her stuff, though her style really doesn't do it for me. I find her constant harping about how awful SF is to be annoying, and I find the fact that she, as an SF writer, feels the necessity to constantly harp about how awful SF is to be doubly annoying. I also find it frustrating that she seem unable to even comprehend the objections some of us have to her rather idiosyncratic definitions of what SF is.

Thinking back on it, I've read many SF books in the past year, and only a fraction of them have involved either spaceships or aliens. While they are often part of the genre they aren't even remotely mandated.
posted by sotonohito at 2:57 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is Gulliver's Travels science fiction or speculative fiction?

I's say it was neither. It was a biting socio-political commentary of that times ruling elite cloaked as a fantasy merely so it could be published.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:57 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was (justifiably, as it turned out) expressing skepticism that you had read what she said.

Justifiably in the sense that I need to read every literal word to understand the point she's making (which she has made numerous times before)? Or justifiably in the sense that I must be wrong since I disagree with you?
posted by GuyZero at 2:58 PM on October 6, 2011


I must have read a different article from every body else. But that's okay I guess, at least I enjoyed it.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:59 PM on October 6, 2011


Is Gulliver's Travels science fiction or speculative fiction? It involves a flying city commanded by a nation of scientists...

If it's one, it's the other as well. In general, science fiction has pretty strong affinities to allegory, satire, and other related genres.

I's say it was neither. It was a biting socio-political commentary of that times ruling elite cloaked as a fantasy merely so it could be published.

Huh? Plenty of science fiction does this as well.
posted by Pirx is my co-pilot at 2:59 PM on October 6, 2011


I thought the writing was at least lovely, Stagger Lee. But I think SF readers tend to be very sharp (perhaps overly so) at picking up sly insults, and there seem to be a few in here, at least. We also tend to be pretty astute as to when someone hasn't done their SFnal research. So yeah.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:00 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyone who likes Sci-fi would love Oryx and Crake. Claiming that it's not sci-fi because it's not 'fantastic' doesn't make much sense to me. For one thing, it was actually pretty fantastical although in a way that tried to be 'grounded' in something that might be possible if humans mastered genetic engineering in the near future.

The other thing is that it was quite literally fiction about science. I think if you look at the origins of science fiction, you see a lot of it was really about imagining a future world with realistic scientific progress.

I mean, compare Oryx and Crake with Asimov's robot stuff. I mean that's basically canonical sci-fi and it's very similar. One deals with the future brought by (fantastical at the time) advances in in robotics while the other deals with genetic engineering in the same way.

I don't think the science in Oryx and Crake was very realistic at all, but the book dealt with science a lot. I mean a lot. I mean It has plot elements that hinge on scientific work done by the characters, that sort of thing.

What she's saying is "not Sci-Fi" is actually what sci-fi fans would call "Hard" sci-fi.
posted by delmoi at 3:01 PM on October 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


In itself, I don't particularly care how fast or slow you comment. To clarify my criticism, I was (justifiably, as it turned out) expressing skepticism that you had read what she said.

Well, as it turned out she said the exact same things she always says, so lingering over her every word or not makes very little difference.
posted by Artw at 3:02 PM on October 6, 2011


I don't think the science in Oryx and Crake was very realistic at all, but the book dealt with science a lot. I mean a lot. I mean It has plot elements that hinge on scientific work done by the characters, that sort of thing.

I suspect A Handmaids Tale will weather the test of time as a peice of social Sci-Fi far more than Oryx and Crake and After the Flood because it contains far less in the way of obviously SFnal tropes. TBH Oryx and Crake and After the Flood had enough "Call a Rabbit a Shmeep" and "Gee whizz!" elements in them that excerpts of them felt thoroughly dated upon launch.
posted by Artw at 3:06 PM on October 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


Science fiction is badly named — it should have been called speculative history… Whether you are in a parallel reality or exploring the future, it is all about the implications of change on human lives. The fundamental premise of sci-fi is not spaceships and lasers — it’s that children can learn from the mistakes of their parents.

- David Brin
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:12 PM on October 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


What she's saying is "not Sci-Fi" is actually what sci-fi fans would call "Hard" sci-fi.

No, what she's saying is "please don't shelve any of my books in the sci-fi section."

My honest belief is that she fears her sales will fall if she's labelled as a genre author and that she wants to ensure 'The Handmaid's Tale' always sits next to 'Alias Grace' on bookshelves.

It's for this reason that I'm largely dismissive of her arguments and explanations - I don't believe she's fundamentally interested in the question of what defines science fiction. It's simply self-serving.
posted by GuyZero at 3:12 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Aspects of this discussion remind me of the reception to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. As if no one had ever written post-apocalyptic literature before.
posted by sciurus at 3:14 PM on October 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


She seems like one of those people that I more or less agree with when it comes to ideas and whatnot, but couldn't stand to be around for more than a few minutes.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:15 PM on October 6, 2011


Science Fiction and Fantasy are two 'separate' genres, but there is a very fuzzy, if wide, line between them. The biggest thing that lumps them together and apart from 'serious' lit is an imaginative element that is separate from Reality As We Are Supposed To Know It. So the writers of 'realistic' fiction consider them all below them, no matter how much any specific work says about The Human Condition. The only allowable 'non-realism' seems to be dream sequences.

But then, all categories of literature can be represented as Venn Diagrams overlapping with everything else. Which is why we have hundreds of sub-genres, Hard SF, Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Utopian, Dystopian, etc., etc. You could actually call Science Fiction a sub-genre of Speculative Fiction, but why bother? It's all Literature. The Written Word. Except when it originates as a Movie or TV Show. And where do we put Graphic Novels/Comics in that mix? Categorization sucks.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:17 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, a lot of the genetic inventions in Oryx and Crake are in the future...

But that's my point - they're really not in any foreseeable future. Non-viable genetic train wrecks? Sure. But controlled modifications at the macro scale? That's about as many breakthroughs away as a faster than light drive, gravity control or an ansible. And suddenly we are talking about LeGuin's 'The Left Hand of Darkness' which despite all those things is more story about the timeless aspects of how women and men relate and behave (often poorly).

And cold weather.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:17 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aspects of this discussion remind me of the reception to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. As if no one had ever written post-apocalyptic literature before.

Heh, yeah, I had a big old long argument with one user or another about whether The Road was SF and what could make it not-SF when Mad Max 2 is. Apparently the defining factor of not-SF post-apocalyptic hellscapes is they keep quite about whatever caused their apocalypse, whereas The Road Warrior gives it away and says nuclear war.

No, doesn't make much sense to me either.
posted by Artw at 3:19 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I always think of The Road when discussions like this spring up. Because I have to wonder if the publisher's reasoning for not selling it as a sci-fi novel was because it likely wouldn't have done quite so well with an audience who had seen those tropes before. In that way, an author's objections that their work is not SF also is a protection from a certain type of criticism. It's also a bit of an appropriation, of course--offering up SF tropes for a mainstream audience and claiming they're new and innovating--but I do think these works do better with their literary audiences than they would an audience of SF fans.

Not sure if this is true of Atwood, though. I think most SF fans would like Oryx and Crake mostly, though the liberal use of FutureWords(tm) was pretty atrocious.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:23 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, previously.
posted by Artw at 3:24 PM on October 6, 2011


Apparently the defining factor of not-SF post-apocalyptic hellscapes is they keep quite about whatever caused their apocalypse

So what does that make Riddley Walker?
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:24 PM on October 6, 2011


Sci-f. You learn the source of the apocalypse in there, don't you? Isn't that the whole point of Eusa's Story?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:25 PM on October 6, 2011


I've always liked Kurt Vonnegut's thoughts on Science Fiction, as a genre.
Years ago I was working in Schenectady for General Electric, completely surrounded by machines and ideas for machines, so I wrote a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will. (It was called Player Piano, and it's coming out in hard covers again next spring.) And I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer.

I didn't know that. I supposed that I was writing a novel about life, about things I could not avoid seeing and hearing in Schenectady, a very real town, awkwardly set in the gruesome now. I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled ''science- fiction'' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station.

...

But there are those who love life in this fulsome drawer, who are alarmed by the thought that they might some day be evicted, might some day be known for what they really are: plain, old, short-story writers and novelists who mention the fruits of engineering and research. They are happy in the drawer because most of the people in it love each other as members of old-fashioned families are supposed to do. They meet often, comfort and praise one another, exchange single-spaced letters of 20 pages and more, booze it up affectionately and one way or another have a million heart-throbs and laughs.

I have run with them some, and they are generous and amusing souls, but I must now make a true statement that will put them through the roof: They are joiners. They are a lodge. If they didn't enjoy having a gang of their own so much, there would be no such category as science-fiction. They love to stay up all night, arguing the question, "What is science-fiction?" One might as usefully inquire, ''What are the Elks? And what is the Order of the Eastern Star?''
I don't really like rigid attitudes toward genres, movements and similar works of art. I can't see any reason why a work of fiction can't be science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, slipstream, New Weird, noirish mystery and romantic realism all at once; genres help me identify other things I might like, or group certain themes, moods or styles together but things made to fit into a genre are almost always boring.
posted by byanyothername at 3:26 PM on October 6, 2011 [14 favorites]


But that's my point - they're really not in any foreseeable future. Non-viable genetic train wrecks? Sure. But controlled modifications at the macro scale?

I'm not really sure what that means. But in terms of what is actually in the books Oryx and Crake and After the Flood, genetic engineering is increasingly sophisticated, and so the time Atwood spent discussing her ideas with biologists before writing seems to have been well spent, with her biological-science-themed ideas being woven into her stories in a realistic fashion, even if the actual implementations themselves could not exist today.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:29 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, a lot of the genetic inventions in Oryx and Crake are in the future, but if we can replace the antennae of fruit flies with legs, then Atwood isn't too far off.

But however far we advance and whatever wonders and horrors we beget, nobody will ever, ever name things the way Atwood thinks they will.

CorpSeCorps. Honestly. That alone should be enough to invalidate her opinions all the way back beyond the day she was born and forward unto eternity.
posted by emmtee at 3:30 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


A lot of y'all are sounding pretty stupid in your hasty dismissal of Atwood and her comments. Two of her recent books are very good if not great works of what I would consider science fiction, more so (in terms of fitting with the genre) than Handmaid's Tale. If you're not interested in her or the discussion, then why are you in here? Life is short, MetaFilter is big.
posted by hermitosis at 3:33 PM on October 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


Because her analysis is replete with sly pejoratives and put-downs.
posted by GuyZero at 3:36 PM on October 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


The Road would be a great sci-fi novel, if only Cormac McCarthy went into laborious detail about the race of X'kweuino''tak aliens that fired its planet-destroying weapon at somewhere other than North Carolina. However, because he doesn't really talk at any length about what killed off most of life on earth, perhaps the sci-fi aspect is not the point of the story.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:39 PM on October 6, 2011


Because her analysis is replete with sly pejoratives and put-downs.

You mean in the part you read in under three minutes?
posted by hermitosis at 3:40 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


A lot of y'all are sounding pretty stupid in your hasty dismissal of Atwood and her comments. Two of her recent books are very good if not great works of what I would consider science fiction, more so (in terms of fitting with the genre) than Handmaid's Tale.

Yeah, but.... wait. What?
posted by eyeballkid at 3:41 PM on October 6, 2011


And you're absolutely agree with me once I say I've read it all and double-checked for subject-verb agreement?
posted by GuyZero at 3:42 PM on October 6, 2011


I'm just saying, more than 10% of the comments in here so far are yours. That's a lot of bleah.
posted by hermitosis at 3:43 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


That honestly has less to do with Atwood and more to do with afternoon ennui at work while fill out out a long spreadsheet. Sorry if I'm harshing your mellow.
posted by GuyZero at 3:47 PM on October 6, 2011


A lot of y'all are sounding pretty stupid in your hasty dismissal of Atwood and her comments. Two of her recent books are very good if not great works of what I would consider science fiction, more so (in terms of fitting with the genre) than Handmaid's Tale. If you're not interested in her or the discussion, then why are you in here? Life is short, MetaFilter is big.

This is just as much a conversation about genre definitions as it is about Atwood, or whether or not we like Atwood's books. It is, after all, what her post was about. And the fact that she's written masterful SF books herself doesn't really make her an expert on the genre or the community, as I suspect this article shows.

For what it's worth, I read the whole article. And I thought that characterizing the science fiction community as "the skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities" was both ignorant-sounding and fairly insulting.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:47 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


is my comment quota up yet?
posted by GuyZero at 3:48 PM on October 6, 2011


I'm better than a Greasemonkey script because in addition to tallying, I also judge.
posted by hermitosis at 3:49 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is Gulliver's Travels science fiction or speculative fiction? It involves a flying city commanded by a nation of scientists...

I's say it was neither. It was a biting socio-political commentary of that times ruling elite cloaked as a fantasy merely so it could be published.


Oh, so it's 'Fantasy'... I guess it was written for girls then.

Most "Hard SciFi" is technobabble... real life is boring.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:53 PM on October 6, 2011


Well, she does wind herself up into oh-so-fucking-clever writerly putdowns, just like those SF writers who are touchy about not being taken seriously as writers. So I guess it's milk!
posted by fleacircus at 3:57 PM on October 6, 2011


It may be worth noting that both Atwood's late father and her brother were/are scientists, so I think she has a pretty good idea of 'what science is'. I haven't read any of her more recent work -- I thought Oryx and Crake was pretty unoriginal as an SF work whereas it seemed to thrill the literary critics, much like 'the Road'.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 3:57 PM on October 6, 2011


So, hermitosis, you tell me why Atwood feels compelled to write this piece. She has, literally, nothing to prove, considering she's possibly the top living English-language author. She comes to no conclusion in the piece other than that literary genres have no hard boundaries. And she has done little to no scholarship in researching the area which she discusses, which is what books define themselves as science fiction.

So, given no motive, no means and no method, why do we have a dead body?
posted by GuyZero at 3:58 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


That's gonna happen about the time someone comes up with a board game that generates new philosophical truths as a side effect of play.

Come back to me when you've eaten a fistful of shrooms and played Fireball Island.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:58 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


That is how I was reminded of Vernor Vinge, trying I remember the last SF book I read with spaceships. There are all not very sciencey like Yiddish Policeman's Union or about computers nowadays. Oh wait, I forgot about Anathem.

Does kinda suck being ghettoized, in that one bookshelf near the graphics novels. I can almost see a customer going in to ask about Handmaid's Tale, hearing it is in the science fiction, and saying "whoa, science fiction, no way am I reading that". They certainly aren't going to move science fiction books to the fiction/literature section, don't want the nerds mixing with the normals.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:58 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I couldn't care what Atwood thinks about SF; this ignorant, snotty attitude she has towards genre for years just displays how judgmental and ignorant she is. Consider me at least one SF fan who _did not_ like Oryx and Crake. It would have barely been original forty years ago - her ignorance of the genre shone through those tired cliches like a lighthouse beam, and more's the shame most critics are too narrowly read to realise it. I think Atwood doesn't like SF because she's scared of it. There are writers turning out thought provoking, mature, intelligent metaphysical SF novels constantly; something she's been unable to do for many years, imho.

For sure, I can't call myself a fan of Atwood's; I've read four of her books and they all left me colder than Hoth. But I remain convinced her disdain for the genre is not just simple ignorance but fear. Without the shimmering veils of "literature" with which to drape her work, a hard-eyed audience - both within and without SF - would find little in her books to champion, I suspect. For example, I think Gavriel Kay is a much better writer who could mount a case at least as credible as hers to stay outside of genre. But he's happy people are reading his books in any critical and genre context, and confident the pictures they draw will retain their power in any frame.
posted by smoke at 3:59 PM on October 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


It may be worth noting that both Atwood's late father and her brother were/are scientists, so I think she has a pretty good idea of 'what science is'.

My father's an engineer and my brother's an economist. I know nothing about either of those subjects.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:01 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Consider me at least one SF fan who _did not_ like Oryx and Crake. It would have barely been original forty years ago - her ignorance of the genre shone through those tired cliches like a lighthouse beam, and more's the shame most critics are too narrowly read to realise it.

The thing I find odd was that what I didn't like about Oryx and Crake are the kinds of stuff bad sci-fi is usually called out for. Namely, the characters were kind of flat and wooden and it seemed to be more a story about it's worldbuilding (which I thought was kind of weak) and speculative history (which was better). Atwood's work usually seems particularly "literary" to me in its honesty about humanity and relationships and this fell flat, there.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:07 PM on October 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


My father's an engineer and my brother's an economist. I know nothing about either of those subjects.

But if you wanted intelligent answers for your engineering and economics questions, you'd at least know which people to ask first, presumably?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:08 PM on October 6, 2011


...and so the time Atwood spent discussing her ideas with biologists before writing seems to have been well spent, with her biological-science-themed ideas being woven into her stories in a realistic fashion...

Do you believe there is a gene that controls the shape of your nose, and if we went back to a freshly conceived you and put a different gene there we'd get a new you who was exactly the same except with a different shaped nose? That's reductionism in a nutshell. In fact, most of what we think of that makes a human not be a horse not be a cat are emergent properties. So Atwood's biotechnology is further from real biotechnology than any number of space battleships are from the USS Missouri.

From my point of view, pigoons and snats are no less cringeworthy than if she'd had them get all their genetic engineering secrets from a X'kweuino''tak Biology 101 textbook snatched from a parallel dimension.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:12 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Correct genre categorization is sometimes important to understanding a book. Take Sherlock Holmes. The Holmes stories were written as hard science fiction, precursors of modern forensic science. The fact that they're Verne-era sci-fi explains why film and TV adaptations of Holmes are so exceedingly difficult to pull off well.

Set Holmes in 1887 and you've created a period piece, a backward looking story rather than bleeding-edge speculation about what scientific observation could detect. Holmes set in amber.

Set Holmes in 2011 and you have to deal with the fact that he's got competition. We're in danger of losing what made him special. Sherlock is outstanding, but we can't ignore the fact that Cumberbatch's Holmes is not the only detective in town who's got a monograph on tobacco ash on file. Doyle's Holmes was different in kind from any existing police investigator; any 2011 Holmes is playing the same game as the local CSI, distinguished only by the fact that he's a bit better at the job. It's like trying to sell Nemo 2011: a mad genius with a boat that can sail underwater!

I take it back. Sci-fi is about spaceships and alien planets but Holmes doesn't know that the earth revolves around the sun.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:13 PM on October 6, 2011 [10 favorites]


The thing I find odd was that what I didn't like about Oryx and Crake are the kinds of stuff bad sci-fi is usually called out for. Namely, the characters were kind of flat and wooden and it seemed to be more a story about it's worldbuilding (which I thought was kind of weak) and speculative history (which was better). Atwood's work usually seems particularly "literary" to me in its honesty about humanity and relationships and this fell flat, there.

What I like best about O&C is the characters. I think the book works best as a skewering of scientists. I think she portrayed accurately just how shallow the culture of scientists can be and how beholden they are to power.

Also, re: 'CorpSeCorps' ... Lucent <> hp Na(tional)Bis(cuit)Co(mpany), Altria, formerly known as Phillip Morris.... etc.

Oh wait, I forgot about Anathem

I'm trying to. God, what a terrible book.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:16 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


But if you wanted intelligent answers for your engineering and economics questions, you'd at least know which people to ask first, presumably?

Yes, but the engineering information tends to be interspersed with hours of anecdotes about village life in India in the 1960s.

My point was, a familial relationship doesn't result in total knowledge transfer. And, as others have noted, Atwood's understanding of genetics and other science seems pretty skin deep.

But I worship Ursula Le Guin, and I think I'm just being snippy that Atwood would dare use her as fodder in such a sneering article.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:25 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Once in a while I'd love some SF where scientists aren't always playing god and going too far.
posted by Artw at 4:27 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


just to elaborate.... the "hero" of O&C is a shallow narcissistic fratboy who is allowed to live because his evil genius best friend thinks he's a dupe and a clown: an enduring demonstration of why humanity needed to get wiped out. and the hot asian girl that all the nerds want to fuck is scheming to kill everyone... and succeeds.

subtle no, but i thought a refreshing take on nerd character tropes. she is sneering at the scifi audience, me? and i like it.

(also, her prose is work(wo)manlike but not terribly elegant or, you know, good, but better than your average post-apocalyptic scifi writer... which isn't much of a standard)
posted by ennui.bz at 4:31 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't remember _Handmaid's Tale_ being called sci-fi before she wrote _Oryx and Crake_, and I don't think anyone's tried to categorize her as a 'historical novelist' because of _Alias Grace_ (probably her best book). The fact that most of the sci-fi fans that I know don't like the book suggests that they're not her target audience; she's not trying to write sci-fi.

I think that her sharp acidic voice is just default Atwood, no matter what she's talking about.

And yes, the worst thing about _Oryx and Crake_ is the sodding punny names.
posted by jrochest at 4:32 PM on October 6, 2011


I think she portrayed accurately just how shallow the culture of scientists can be and how beholden they are to power.

Yeah, thank god the poets warned us all about global warming....no, wait, I meant to suggest that you piss off.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:33 PM on October 6, 2011


her prose is work(wo)manlike but not terribly elegant

I may not like Atwood personally, but you're describing an author that has more awards than most authors have published novels here.
posted by GuyZero at 4:33 PM on October 6, 2011


Labeling fiction is just a marketing gimmick; a good read is a good read is a good read, regardless of what shelf it's on.
posted by Renoroc at 4:33 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


It may or may not be about sales, but I suspect it's more about Atwood's perception of Sci-Fi People. Sci-Fi People, in Atwood's eyes, are just perhaps a little too...exuberant, a little too goofy and not serious enough, or at least not serious about the right kinds of things, ergo the hang-ups about big tits and leathery costumes and clumsy martians or whatever.

And of course she is right, on some level, occasionally. Five minutes at a Barnes&Noble will prove that Atwood isn't totally off base in her sneer. But! This is also true of every single other aisle at the book store, even the literary fiction aisle, which itself has plenty of its own equivalent "silly martians and spaceships" kind of books. So really, what's the point in arguing about this?

But if we must argue, I feel this comic should be the final word.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:34 PM on October 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


I admire Atwood's politics, but not her fiction or her prose style, which are never either vivid or surprising, and seldom venture far from some moral she wishes to draw and then thrust upon the reader.

Unlike LeGuin, she isn't really a story-teller, and I can't imagine any of her characters taking on a life of their own and going against the plans she made for them before she sat down to write.

I do wonder how much recent science fiction or fantasy she has really read, since she never seems to say anything detailed about particular works, but instead seems to prefer blurry generalities.
posted by jamjam at 4:35 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


You know, in the midst of all this hilarity, something just occurred to me: why on Earth does Atwood associate skin-tight black and silver clothing, of all things, with pie-in-the-sky science-fiction excess? As if it only occurs on sci-fi covers! It exists today! It's common! Book covers depicting skin-tight clothing are a more accurate depiction of my day-to-day reality than anything Atwood has ever written! I wore skin-tight black and/or silver clothing yesterday. I may again tomorrow.

Na(tional)Bis(cuit)Co(mpany)

YES BUT NABISCO DOESN'T HAVE THE WORD CORPSE IN IT

I honestly believe it is significantly more plausible that Martians will invade and take our skin-tight clothing than that any corporation in the history of anything will name its internal security department something that has the word corpse in it. Oh shit, do you think they might be sinister? Repressive, even? They sure do have corpse in their name. Pretty clever there looking friendly, CorpSeCorps, but you made one fatal slip-up. YOU PUT CORPSE IN YOUR NAME.

If Atwood had been involved, Nabisco would have come out as SecRetLypOisOned or something. MadEofpEopleCorp. EvilBisc.
posted by emmtee at 4:39 PM on October 6, 2011 [19 favorites]


I don't remember _Handmaid's Tale_ being called sci-fi before she wrote _Oryx and Crake_

That would be The Handmaids Tale, winner of the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award and nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award and 1987 Prometheus Award?
posted by Artw at 4:40 PM on October 6, 2011 [13 favorites]


I find her constant harping about how awful SF is to be annoying

What? I also must have read a different article than most of you.

_Alias Grace_ (probably her best book)

Good. I'm reading that right now. I've pretty much liked everything but The Blind Assassin, which felt really gimmicky to me.

In short, what Le Guin means by "science fiction" is what I mean by "speculative fiction," and what she means by "fantasy" would include some of what I mean by "science fiction." So that clears it all up, more or less.

Cute.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:44 PM on October 6, 2011


Yes, but she wasn't being called a 'science fiction writer' for writing it. Yes, it won the Clarke Award. But no, it was not seen as heralding her entry into A Brave New Genre.

Oryx and Crake is, perhaps because it's less explicitly a feminist fable? But they're both fables, and she's done quite a lot of those...
posted by jrochest at 4:44 PM on October 6, 2011


Please. The Handmaids Tale and Oryx and Crake are clearly SF. Atwood's refusal to accept them as such--that she actually wrote SF--has always put me off reading her work. Typical pooh-pooh-shit-attitude to genre from a "literary" author.
posted by New England Cultist at 4:45 PM on October 6, 2011


Paging languagehat...
posted by hermitosis at 4:46 PM on October 6, 2011


I did like The Blind Assassin -- but I like Atwood's writing, so I'll happily put up with the gimmicks. And I still think she's at her best writing about Toronto, present and past.
posted by jrochest at 4:46 PM on October 6, 2011


why on Earth does Atwood associate skin-tight black and silver clothing, of all things, with pie-in-the-sky science-fiction excess? As if it only occurs on sci-fi covers! It exists today! It's common! Book covers depicting skin-tight clothing are a more accurate depiction of my day-to-day reality than anything Atwood has ever written! I wore skin-tight black and/or silver clothing yesterday. I may again tomorrow.

Fiction | Fact
posted by mrgrimm at 4:48 PM on October 6, 2011


Once in a while I'd love some SF where scientists aren't always playing god and going too far.

"These robots... they seem to be... almost human!"
"What? Doesn't that mean we're going TOO FAR?"
"Nah, they seem cool with it."
"SUP DOGGS, I AM A ROBOT AND I AM COOL WITH THAT"
"Oh, great!"
"Hi, robot"
"YO FEEL FREE TO SHUT ME OFF WHENEVER A NEW MODEL MAKES ME OBSOLETE"
"Cool, that's helpful"
"NO PROB, ANYONE WANT ME TO MAKE THEM AN OMELETTE"
posted by Greg Nog at 4:51 PM on October 6, 2011 [23 favorites]


Heh. I saw this on io9 because of the other post, and wondered when it would make it to the blue. Inevitable, really.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:53 PM on October 6, 2011


Oh god I can't help myself I went and looked up more. I read Oryx & Crake about a year ago and honestly I think I'd tried to make myself forget these.

ChickieNobs. HelthWyzer. BIMPLANTS! I'm going to up the stakes here. I honestly believe it is more likely that War of the Worlds will actually happen, in its entirety, than that a fast food corporation would try to market something called ChickieNobs. And succeed.

I wouldn't find these so hilarious if it weren't for the fact Atwood has stated time and again that what separates her work from the pie-in-the-sky flightiness of science fiction is its firm grounding in good old plausible reality.
posted by emmtee at 4:54 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I honestly believe it is more likely that War of the Worlds will actually happen, in its entirety, than that a fast food corporation would try to market something called ChickieNobs. And succeed.

Whoa, really? That struck me as the most realistic thing in the book, to be honest. It's less creepy a name than TeleTubbies, or GoGurt, or Popcorn Chicken.
posted by Greg Nog at 4:56 PM on October 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


This thread is one of the few long thread I have read - OK, skimmed - but it has been very enlightening. Those of us on the Blue are mostly literary enthusiasts, but skewed more toward SF fans. (BTW, S. Lem got pissed off at US SF fans and proclaimed PKD as the only good SF writer years ago. It so happens that, after my teenage years of reading Asimov and his hard SF crew, when discovering Dick in 1970 I stopped reading most SF, so I am admittedly ignorant)

Your comments about Atwood's "snotty" remarks are really interesting. Some genres are almost always escape fiction. SF, less so than all of them, although there are genre novels in all fields that are as least as good as "literary fiction."

The recent kerfluffle about US authors' insularity in light of the recent Nobel Literature prizes - awarded to non-Americans - are germane to this discussion, I think. What is so incredibly wonderful about "literary fiction"? See articles on Slate etc. about this.
posted by kozad at 4:57 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hadn't seen the Banks article before it was linked in this thread, and having read it I would be surprised if it was aimed at anyone else. The manner in which Atwood attempts to define a ghetto in which she refuses to live reveals her ignorance of the subject. Her persistence in picking the scab also leads me to tend towards agreeing with GuyZero: " It's for this reason that I'm largely dismissive of her arguments and explanations - I don't believe she's fundamentally interested in the question of what defines science fiction. It's simply self-serving"

Personally, I find her to be greatly overrated by critics and, apparently, herself. The pearls that she thinks she is dropping before the sci-fi swine have been through many hands before hers, and some of them have worn them better. I don't think she has anything interesting to say about sci-fi literature, philosophy or community and wish she would just stop fucking moaning about it and talk about something else instead.
posted by Jakey at 5:03 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's the section right near mystery only the scent of BO is stronger.

/bookstore employee
posted by jonmc at 5:05 PM on October 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


Paging languagehat...

I'm going to go out on a limb and assume this is a code-word for "I reject your prescriptivist arguments".

My arguments are, such as they are arguments, completely descriptivist.
posted by GuyZero at 5:09 PM on October 6, 2011


I kind of agree on TeleTubbies, but it's different for things aimed at kids (and preschoolers, in that case). GoGurt sounds dumb, but it doesn't include an entire word that's a slang term for the penis. ChickieNobs were McDonalds' Chicken Nuggets with the serial numbers filed off, but she'd gone so far out of her way to make a clever-clever little reference to the KFC-genetic-chickens urban myth and to make them sound unhealthy and gross that I just can't imagine them ever becoming ubiquitous without someone at a boardroom table saying 'you know, I think people just aren't all that into eating nobs of anything'.

That said, I've just undermined myself by glancing left and remembering that the Nintendo Wii is a thing. Keep watching the skies and hang on to your skin-tight clothing, folks.

Funnily enough what this all reminds me of is the neologisms and product names in Transmetropolitan - the Sex Puppets and Long Pig and so on. They worked where Atwood's fall down because Ellis went to the trouble of showing that social mores had shifted in the ??? years between our world and Spider's: there was barely any prudishness or giggling around sex, cloning meant concepts of gross re: food had changed, etc. That stuff was visible in places other than the products that were popular. Atwood could have sold some of these names, maybe, but society in Oryx & Crake doesn't really seem much different to our own. If it was suddenly all the rage for corporate security to have clumsy veiled threats in its name, and food to be called intentionally unappetising-sounding things, she needed to actually do some of that world-building stuff and justify it.
posted by emmtee at 5:14 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was in with the Spaceman Spiff crowd for a while, but when they started waving canons around, it seemed like a good time to blast off.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:18 PM on October 6, 2011


The problem with her essay for me is that it revolves around a distinction between her definition of what she does and the rest of the genre, and her definition "things that really could happen but just hadn't completely happened when the authors wrote the books", is one that just about every sci-fi fan I'm aware of would accept as the definition of science fiction. Although some might be tempted to tack a 'hard' on the front just to keep alt-history and space opera in the fold.

So strip some some amusing commentary on the publishing industries willingness to let some goon from marketing who read a two page summary of the book dictate its cover, and what it boils down to is that Atwood doesn't write sci-fi, she writes this other thing that is different but related and most sci-fi fans would say is sci-fi. If Margeret Atwood weren't that bright, there would be no controversy, it'd simply be a dumb thing she'd said. Since she's a very intelligent woman, and has said some version of this over and over again, people tend to wonder what's motivating it.
posted by Grimgrin at 5:18 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tinkertoys have been motivating it. RTFA.
posted by fleacircus at 5:20 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you believe there is a gene that controls the shape of your nose, and if we went back to a freshly conceived you and put a different gene there we'd get a new you who was exactly the same except with a different shaped nose? That's reductionism in a nutshell.

If you really want to discuss the biology, there are genes that express patterns of factors that differentiate cells — useful for inducing pluripotent stem cells, for example, which are themselves pliable to other ends. So if I wanted something other than a nose, or a nose with certain atypical features, or a new organ to replace the one I lost in an accident, then one day, with the right engineering, I might be able to get those things by expressing the right pattern or set of patterns.

Which is all to say that what Atwood describes in her book is more or less a re-jiggering of developmental pathways in a fictional hybrid organism to accomplish the same kind of result, and what you strangely dismiss as "reductionism" (which I don't even think applies to what she is writing, frankly) is what I would call her reasonably decent lay-person's understanding of modern biology, extrapolating from what researchers are doing today to what bioengineers could do tomorrow.

Certainly, creating a synthetic organism like a "pigoon" is well beyond the current technology, but with the exponential progress in systems biology and computational power, we can say that something like it probably isn't out of the realm of possibility in the next fifty to a hundred years, if not sooner. So I'll state again that Atwood's vision of the future in this respect is not all that far off. Quite unlike, say, faster-than-light travel or teleportation, or any other number of sci-fi tropes that violate basic principles of physics, but which mainly prop up lazy storytelling by other writers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:27 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


ChickieNobs. HelthWyzer. BIMPLANTS!

Atwood is a kind of sci-fi hipster. No, seriously. She's incapable of participating in the genre (and she does participate) without winking at it.

But don't get me started on Hiro Protagonist.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:33 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Greg Nog: "I honestly believe it is more likely that War of the Worlds will actually happen, in its entirety, than that a fast food corporation would try to market something called ChickieNobs. And succeed.

Whoa, really? That struck me as the most realistic thing in the book, to be honest. It's less creepy a name than TeleTubbies, or GoGurt, or Popcorn Chicken.
"

Alright now, I was following along happily, until you had to traumatize me with the reminder of my inability to purchase Fizzixs.

I shall see you at dawn. Who is your second, so mine may call upon yours, sirrah?
posted by Samizdata at 5:41 PM on October 6, 2011


Samizdata: just go get yourself a Calpis Soda.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:43 PM on October 6, 2011


Wash: [about River] Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science-fiction.
Zoë: We live in a spaceship, dear.
Wash: So?

posted by Artw at 6:09 PM on October 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm reminded of an event I attended in the Eighties, in Toronto, a panel featuring Margaret Atwood and David Cronenberg, with Garth Drabinsky moderating.

GB: May I call you Peggy?
MA: No.
GB: Oh, out in the lobby I heard some people addressing you as Peggy.
MA: Well, *Darth,* my friends call me Peggy. You may address me as Margaret.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:14 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


I like squid. Well, calamari, anyway. What was the question again?
posted by storybored at 6:19 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Speaking as one who likes her later works purely for the storytelling, the endless hammer of deconstruction hits as hard as mythical Mjollner.
posted by Mblue at 6:20 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like books that are good to read.
posted by tumid dahlia at 6:27 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I laugh at readers who dismiss a good read.
posted by Mblue at 6:36 PM on October 6, 2011


But that's my point - they're really not in any foreseeable future. Non-viable genetic train wrecks? Sure. But controlled modifications at the macro scale?
Huh? Why not? I mean you can make pigs that glow and other weird stuff today, but for the most part genetic engineers aren't interested in doing stuff like that. I think that most of the stuff that's done with genetic engineering in Oryx and Crake will be done with robots and nanotechnology rather then genetic engineering, but I don't really see why the kind of stuff you see in Oryx and Crake would be impossible in theory if you assume massively powerful AI
CorpSeCorps. Honestly. That alone should be enough to invalidate her opinions all the way back beyond the day she was born and forward unto eternity.
All the trademarks were written ThisWay. I'm not really sure why she decided to that but it but it made things clear when people were talking about corporations. They also served as a source of humor for the reader. I think they were intended to be dumb. Dumb was trying to paint a highly flawed world.

It was a little jarring at first but you get used to it. Honestly I have no idea why people would get so hung up on something so minor.
Do you believe there is a gene that controls the shape of your nose, and if we went back to a freshly conceived you and put a different gene there we'd get a new you who was exactly the same except with a different shaped nose?
Do you believe that genetic engineers will only ever be able to change single genes, rather then whole complexes of genes? Like BC said, you have different genes expressed at different points in the body. So what you do is, you have to find genes that are turned on in the development of the nose and interact with other genes. So what you have to do is find the genes that activate the genes that are active in nasal development and have them activate a different set of genes. If you look you can find mutations in nature there are all sorts of things growing in the wrong spot, frogs with multiple legs, that sort of thing.

In fact genetic engineers actually have been able to do strange things to the bodies of fruit flies by figuring out developmental pathways and altering them.
just to elaborate.... the "hero" of O&C is a shallow narcissistic fratboy who is allowed to live because his evil genius best friend thinks he's a dupe and a clown: an enduring demonstration of why humanity needed to get wiped out. and the hot asian girl that all the nerds want to fuck is scheming to kill everyone... and succeeds.
Wow, someone sound butthurt. I guess we're not worried about spoilers, so here goes: that guy is obviously not supposed to be a 'hero' He's the main character, but in the end he's just some guy. There's nothing special about him, he's a morally bankrupt loser who only succeeds in life because he's friends with someone important, someone the reader is meant to identify with but who ends up being a villain. Also the hot Asian girl wasn't trying to kill everyone, she was used as a dupe.

I read the book pretty recently so I probably remember the plot better then you. If you actually pay attention closely the person most responsible for killing off humanity isn't the nerd, but rather the main character. He knew that Crake had created an antidote, but didn't tell anyone. He chose to save the "Crakers" at the expense of humanity. Out of pure nihilism or whatever.

That said while I like sci-fi I don't really read that much of it. Maybe if I had I would have found it clichéd. The only other sci-fi book I read dealing with genetic engineering as a theme was Jurassic Park, when I was in 6th grade.
posted by delmoi at 6:52 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


But she's basically right. Mainstream, casual science fiction is extremely skewed towards fictional science. Even though I love Star Trek, this is also why I hate it. In television, there's no room for anything other than space opera. And this is to the detriment of our culture.

We need more of the kind of scientific fiction that Atwood is describing. I guess the material is simply too challenging for general consumption.
posted by polymodus at 6:55 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


@Artw Once in a while I'd love some SF where scientists aren't always playing god and going too far.

A couple novels I'm eternally fonda (protagonists not scientists) from the Golden Days of Yore (before the Fantasy invasion):
Ted Sturgeon "More Than Human"
Andre Norton "The Stars are Ours"
posted by Twang at 6:56 PM on October 6, 2011


As to the debate between Atwood and Le Guin, I see it this way: A's strategy is "I'm not "gay"-gay, I just like to fuck men but I'm not interested in flaunting myself or going to pride parades; please do not associate me with this subculture, you should refer to me as post-gay". Meanwhile what LG seems to be saying is "well, you're still gay in the most general sense, and you're kind of rejecting or betraying the community rather than help us re-cast it in a different light". And everyone feels confused and conflicted about this because according to all accounts, sex with A (= reading Atwood's books) is great.
posted by polymodus at 7:05 PM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Baby is Three, the story before the novel.
posted by Mblue at 7:06 PM on October 6, 2011


Wow, someone sound butthurt.

Can we pretty please elevate our critical discourse above lines like that?
posted by smoke at 7:11 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Review - Pretty positive. Oh, and it's dedicated to Usula LeGuin.
posted by Artw at 7:33 PM on October 6, 2011


Ursula - Atwood hasn't resorted to sarcastic misspellings yet.
posted by Artw at 7:36 PM on October 6, 2011


In an alternate universe, I can magically unfavourite 86 percent of the favourited comments in this thread so far, and then continue to listen to Hawkwind...
posted by ovvl at 7:47 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


...But why should I care?
posted by ovvl at 7:52 PM on October 6, 2011


Oh, and it's dedicated to Usula LeGuin.

I thought Atwood and Le Guin were friends. Am I wrong about that?
posted by overglow at 8:08 PM on October 6, 2011


I honestly believe it is more likely that War of the Worlds will actually happen, in its entirety, than that a fast food corporation would try to market something called ChickieNobs. And succeed.

Really? Where TF have you been for the last decade?

I give you one corp, two nasty dishes:

KFC "Famous" Bowls
(Lets' take a bunch of slop, market it in a bucket/trough and see who gobbles it up!)

KFC "Double-Down"
posted by jkaczor at 8:14 PM on October 6, 2011


@greg nog
"YO FEEL FREE TO SHUT ME OFF WHENEVER A NEW MODEL MAKES ME OBSOLETE"
this is actually more disturbing than most sci-fi scenarios
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:25 PM on October 6, 2011


Re: is The Handmaid's Tale sci-fi...

The Handmaid's Tale used to be one of my favorites, but it's probably been a good ten years now since I've picked it up. I don't remember it being particularly "sci-fi" in any sense other than that it is set in the future - was there actual science-y stuff in the book that I don't remember? (The parts that do stand out in my memory, outside of the political elements, are the language jokes and Scrabble and stuff). Or is just being "from the future!" enough? I am really not well-read in sci-fi at all and I don't think I could define the genre properly either. I feel like the thread has had a lot to say about what science fiction is not, but less about what it is - help me out here.

I really, really love most of the Margaret Atwood books that I've read (in addition to Handmaid's Tale: Surfacing, The Edible Woman, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Moral Disorder, and Oryx and Crake - the last is probably the one I was the most meh about). I love her wit and wordplay, and the terrible and beautiful and true things she has to say about human emotions and relationships. It always makes me sad when it seems like she's unnecessarily gone and alienated people.
posted by naoko at 9:08 PM on October 6, 2011


Am I the only one that wishes Evilbisc was real?

0.05% of your daily Evil requirement per serving
posted by Kevin Street at 9:11 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I give you one corp, two nasty dishes:

KFC "Famous" Bowls
(Lets' take a bunch of slop, market it in a bucket/trough and see who gobbles it up!)

KFC "Double-Down"


Yes, but these aren't marketed as KFC TurdBuckets.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:15 PM on October 6, 2011


was there actual science-y stuff in the book that I don't remember?

Social science-y stuff!
posted by Artw at 9:20 PM on October 6, 2011


Thanks to the folks who linked Iain Banks' essay on the subject; I don't believe I had seen it before. The contrast between his thoughtful, reasoned approach and Atwood's piece is quite stark.
posted by Justinian at 9:29 PM on October 6, 2011


The Handmaid's Tale used to be one of my favorites, but it's probably been a good ten years now since I've picked it up. I don't remember it being particularly "sci-fi" in any sense other than that it is set in the future - was there actual science-y stuff in the book that I don't remember?

Is this the part where I get to point out that Atwood's future resembles the one in Robert Heinlein's "If This Goes On—", written nearly half a century earlier?

(Note: haven't read The Handmaid's Tale.)
posted by The Tensor at 9:43 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Being a Canadian I always hear what Atwood says as first being said to the literary crowd up here, and then to the literary crowd in Europe. I think this concern colours her self-concept because there isn't a well-developed Canadian Sci-Fi writing community - it's always referred to as Spec fic here, as if to dress it up as "literarily" as possible. If this is the case, and this is her audience in this essay, she's running interference with this crowd whose opinion she values most - the high-minded Canadian literary scene, which is quite an inward-looking and self-congratulatory bunch, thanks to the Canada Council and other government-sponsored arts-granting institutions who predominantly award more conventionally literary endeavours. This is not so much to comment on the quality of her writing, as to offer a possible way to see why her position on this is a bit baffling and defensive. It may have something to do with who she perceives as her audience. We Canadians can be an insecure bunch, even our Atwoods can protest too much.
posted by kneecapped at 9:53 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, that makes a tad more sense. Of course, it still manages to be the land of Gibson, Doctorow, Ryman and Watts.
posted by Artw at 10:19 PM on October 6, 2011


OK, holy cow, in checking the list of the Canadian sci-fi author you forgot (Spider Robinson! ha!) I discovered the A.E. van Vogt was Canadian! OMG! Who knew?

Atwood re-writing The World of Null-A would be something to behold.
posted by GuyZero at 10:25 PM on October 6, 2011


Heh.

LIST OF CANADIAN SCI-FI AUTHORS NOT GUARANTEED ALL INCLUSIVE.

Wikipedia has one, though (until someone decides to delete it on spurious grounds of course) - Atwood has been listed since 2004, FWIW.
posted by Artw at 10:34 PM on October 6, 2011


Lists of Canadian SF authors tend to include everyone who has so much as spent at least 3 hours at Pearson waiting for a connecting flight. That's Canadian enough!
posted by Justinian at 11:18 PM on October 6, 2011


Talking of Peter Watts... Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of
Contempt
[pdf]
posted by Artw at 11:59 PM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


'I don't know what you mean by "Science Fiction",' Alice said.

Margaret Atwood smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Or talking squids in outer space."'

'But "Science Fiction" doesn't mean "talking squids in outer space",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Margaret Atwood said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Margaret Atwood, 'which is to be master — that's all.'
posted by SyntacticSugar at 2:31 AM on October 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


Talking of talking squids...
posted by SyntacticSugar at 2:33 AM on October 7, 2011


It's that she refuses to be associated with other science fiction writers because she's a "real" writer of literary fiction.

For fuck's sake, the book is dedicated to Ursula K LeGuin and opens with a quote from Octavia Butler.

It is depressing to see so many people - particularly ArtW and GuyZero - who clearly haven't actually read the introduction and are instead just recycling the standard talking points. The standard talking points that Atwood herself addresses in the piece.

I've read In Other Worlds. It is a frustrating book in many ways, chiefly because it is only very recently ("in a public discussion with Ursula Le Guin in the fall of 2010") that Atwood has got her head round what most people mean by science fiction. It is also a book that is clearly engaged with the concept of science fiction from the point of view of someone who both reads and writes it. I don't know how Atwood could be any clearer than her opening paragraph.

As she says, it isn't really a work of SF criticism. Rather it is a blend of literary criticism, autobiography and random rumination. If you are a fan of Atwood's work then there is a lot to get out of it. If you think she is a "silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor" then you probably won't.
posted by ninebelow at 3:26 AM on October 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


Worth noting: in that same Guardian Review issue as Iain Banks' pointed article there was a long profile of China Miéville in which Margaret Atwood is quoted as not only having read The City and the City but maybe also kinda loving it:

Margaret Atwood calls the book "an intricately detailed metaphor for how we live today – ignoring what is right there in front of us but 'invisible' because we choose not to see it".

So, she might be better-read in recent sf/fantasy than some here are giving her credit for. Which, as Peter Watts implies in Artw's link, might actually make her genre definitions even more ridiculously absurd.
posted by mediareport at 4:12 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is also a book that is clearly engaged with the concept of science fiction from the point of view of someone who both reads and writes it.

I think that stuff must appear in other parts of the book. Because the introduction says that it's engaged with the concept of science fiction from the point of view of someone whose "first things I wrote as a child might well merit the initials SF," which later turns out to be what the "skintight clothing and other-planets community" does.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:24 AM on October 7, 2011


The true-fans always get themselves all worked up when Atwood talks about "our" genre (and she generally says about the same thing she says here). I'm not sure I see why what she's saying is so much different from the distinction many of us make between "skiffy" and "ess-eff." For crying out loud, the "speculative fiction" label has been promoted since I was a kid in the 70s by various literarily-inclined sf writers (the New Wave and its American co-conspirators like Ellison, Disch, and Delany). If you read the whole essay it's clear Atwood reads and cares about writing that falls within the rubric of science fiction, or at least the better-written and more literary end of it (the same bias many of us have). She just likes to think and talk about the nuances, about that wide gray area that lies between the core of sf and literary fiction, more than the average self-identified Sci-Fi Fan. I don't see the big deal, myself. Also, a lot of this goes back to the base problem of what a piss-poor label the term "science fiction" really is for the range of writing usually lumped together under it.
posted by aught at 5:41 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Having seen Atwood speak in person a couple times I also have the strong suspicion that in part she enjoys winding people up, on this issue and others, and knows that when she makes ambiguous or ambivalent statements about the sf genre many fans will reflexively get bent out of shape and start pissing and moaning. I always imagine a sly smile on her face at those moments.
posted by aught at 5:44 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


...the distinction many of us make between "skiffy" and "ess-eff."...

I'm not clear what distinction you're talking about. Are you using SF to mean speculative fiction, as separate from science fiction? That's not what I use it for, and I'm sure I am not alone. I have always felt that the supposed differences between SciFi and SpecFic were specious hair-splitting. Even if the differences were clear, are there many people who will read one, but not the other?



...I also have the strong suspicion that in part she enjoys winding people up, on this issue...

After reading that intro to her book, that's about where I landed, too. I think it's a marketing ploy.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:08 AM on October 7, 2011


I'm not clear what distinction you're talking about. Are you using SF to mean speculative fiction, as separate from science fiction?

Yes. This is why people originally started using just the initials, despite the awkwardness, so that it could stand for "speculative fiction" instead of "science fiction" if one were so inclined.

That's not what I use it for, and I'm sure I am not alone. I have always felt that the supposed differences between SciFi and SpecFic were specious hair-splitting.

C'mon, there's more than a hair's difference between a David Weber military sf book and, say, Greg Egan's Zendegi. If one were building genre boundaries today from scratch, I am not sure the two would fall under the same rubric.
posted by aught at 6:23 AM on October 7, 2011


Talking of Peter Watts... Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt [pdf]

It's difficult to read past Watts' ignorant assertion in the first paragraph that Literature-with-a-capital-L has no plot. That's just Dumb-with-a-capital-D.
posted by aught at 6:28 AM on October 7, 2011


Durn Bronzefist: "Samizdata: just go get yourself a Calpis Soda."

I would, if there was anywhere around that carried them.
posted by Samizdata at 6:30 AM on October 7, 2011


But that's my point - they're really not in any foreseeable future. Non-viable genetic train wrecks? Sure. But controlled modifications at the macro scale?

Huh? Why not? I mean you can make pigs that glow and other weird stuff today...


You can make pigs that express gfp in every cell. But to move to the next step - making them glow in tiger stripes - is roughly the difference between making a can of spray paint and making a can of spray paint that makes the wall white with blue polka-dots.

Do you believe that genetic engineers will only ever be able to change single genes, rather then whole complexes of genes?

Uh been there, done that. (Actually, I was more like the cavalry scout to the gene jockys' artillery battery.) The thing is, meat is not like electronics where circuits are discreet. If you switch one thing on, expect other things to change. Remember Vioxx? COX1 and COX2 are different proteins, but apparently not different enough. Does the rat part of the snat use the same keratin isotype as the snake part? Or does the snat carry around twice as many genes as any mammal or reptile in reality?

Anyhow, by Atwood's own tortured definition of what science fiction is, Oryx and Crake is most emphatically science fiction but lots of space opera stuff is not. I can go buy stock in companies trying to build a space elevator right now, but the stuff she proposes is not possible now and is unlikely to ever be possible.

I suspect, if someone sat down with her and explained all this, we'd get another missive in a few months, drawing a new chalk circle around her work explaining why the stuff inside was not science fiction while the stuff out there is - and complaining that science fiction fans were too literal and not imaginative enough.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:57 AM on October 7, 2011


This is why people originally started using just the initials, despite the awkwardness, so that it could stand for "speculative fiction" instead of "science fiction" if one were so inclined.

I don't think so. Nor do at least some others:
In its English language usage in arts and literature since 20th century, "speculative fiction" as a genre term is often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein. In his first known use of the term, in editorial material at the front of the 2/8/1947 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, Heinlein used it specifically as a synonym for "science fiction"; in a later piece, he explicitly stated that his use of the term did not include fantasy.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:46 AM on October 7, 2011


Also:
"Speculative fiction" is sometimes abbreviated "spec-fic", "specfic", "S-F", "SF", or "sf". The last three abbreviations are also used to refer to "science fiction", so they can lead to confusion.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:50 AM on October 7, 2011


Regarding the implausibility of Chickienobs, perhaps you unaware of White Castle's chicken rings? I was actually shocked (and a little delighted) to learn that they were no longer even halfheartedly bothering to pretend that these are actual cuts of meat.
posted by troublewithwolves at 9:10 AM on October 7, 2011


Regarding the implausibility of Chickienobs, perhaps you unaware of White Castle's chicken rings? I was actually shocked (and a little delighted) to learn that they were no longer even halfheartedly bothering to pretend that these are actual cuts of meat.

A friend once compared them to stretching out a chicken's neck and cutting it ra-ta-tat to make the rings.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:12 AM on October 7, 2011


Regarding the implausibility of Chickienobs, perhaps you unaware of White Castle's chicken rings? I was actually shocked (and a little delighted) to learn that they were no longer even halfheartedly bothering to pretend that these are actual cuts of meat.

Yes, but the implausibility we're ranting about here has nothing to do with the food, but the names.

The Margaret Atwood equivalent would be White Castle Kock Rings. Or perhaps KockRings.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:19 AM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I always think of The Road when discussions like this spring up. Because I have to wonder if the publisher's reasoning for not selling it as a sci-fi novel was because it likely wouldn't have done quite so well with an audience who had seen those tropes before.

That reminds me of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow which, if I'm remembering correctly, she wrote explicitly as science fiction (it's about a time traveling Jesuit priest!) and was maybe a little surprised when her agent or publisher wanted to sell the book under a literary imprint instead of a genre one. It's likely the book was better received both popularly and critically because of that, since there are a lot of people that simply wouldn't read sci-fi categorized as such, but will happily read sci-fi masquerading as "literature".

And getting further afield I wonder what Gene Wolfe's career would have been like if he hadn't been stuck in the sci-fi ghetto. I've said it before but he's one of the greatest writers in English ever, and holds his own with likes of Dickens and Nabokov, but seems largely unknown outside of genre circles.
posted by 6550 at 9:38 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Atwood's affection for zany names reminds me of why I really hated Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. I hated it in ways that made me retroactively like even Pynchon's better work less.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:42 AM on October 7, 2011


And what does Samuel Delany have to say about genre writing?
posted by aught at 9:50 AM on October 7, 2011


(it's about a time traveling Jesuit priest!)

s/time/star/
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:50 AM on October 7, 2011


This is why people originally started using just the initials, despite the awkwardness, so that it could stand for "speculative fiction" instead of "science fiction" if one were so inclined.

I don't think so. Nor do at least some others
The use of "speculative fiction" in the sense of expressing dissatisfaction with traditional or establishment science fiction was popularized in the 1960s and early 1970s by Judith Merril and other writers and editors, in connection with the New Wave movement.
(From a part of the "Speculative Fiction" wikipedia page you didn't quote.)
posted by aught at 9:54 AM on October 7, 2011


I know a lot of people who read The Sparrow or The Time Traveller's Wife who absolutely do not read science fiction or fantasy otherwise. I am certain that publishing those as literary novels significantly improved their sales. (Mary Doria Russell was, as far as I know as well, very happy to call her book science fiction (though her other books have not been), and Audrey Niffenegger wrote her next book about ghosts.)

I cannot really judge authors for wanting to get their books shelved out of science fiction.
posted by jeather at 9:55 AM on October 7, 2011


I cannot really judge authors for wanting to get their books shelved out of science fiction.

See also, Kurt Vonnegut (who was also often decried as the Judas / sellout by many science fiction fans who enjoy feeling dissed by Literature).

And getting further afield I wonder what Gene Wolfe's career would have been like if he hadn't been stuck in the sci-fi ghetto.

I do often see Peace and Castleview in the regular fiction section of used book stores. (But of course none of the New / Long / Short Sun books get mistaken.)
posted by aught at 10:02 AM on October 7, 2011


As shown in the quoted piece by byanyothername, Vonnegut's reasons for wanting out of the SF shelves seemed to have been twofold: he felt he wasn't getting the critical attention he deserved by "serious" critics, and he felt that sci-fi writers were merely being joiners by being labeled as such.

I think the latter reason is pretty lame and/or petty. The former, I'm not sure about. But my instinct is much more, "Eff those guys," when it comes to "serious" people not taking me "seriously."

Is it really a matter of sales? It's the writers of YA paranormal romance that I see getting the big advances in PM these days, not the literary novels. If it really was about sales, you'd think Atwood--and Niffenegger, too, probably--would have wanted to be published as romance novelists. Those sales are comparatively through the roof.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:13 AM on October 7, 2011


I think it would be hard to change a lot of these books to YA. But given a book -- The Sparrow, The Time Traveller's Wife, The Night Circus -- it can often fall into a few genres, and I think all of those are likely to do better if not shelved in fantasy or science fiction. Genre readers will probably hear about them anways, and non-genre readers won't be scared off. There's a big difference between Atwood et al preferring to be shelved out of SFF because sales are better for the same books they write anyhow and deciding to write YA dystopian paranormal romance trilogies because those are hot now.
posted by jeather at 10:19 AM on October 7, 2011


I probably shouldn't mention the distinction between novels and romances that Atwood gets into in the book. SF - including her own - falls into the latter category.
posted by ninebelow at 10:21 AM on October 7, 2011


No, no, I'm not saying that they should have been marketed as YA. What I'm saying is that I haven't seen any evidence that literary novels sell "better" than sci-fi or fantasy novels. Perhaps these books reach a different set of readers, but (as I think one of the Neilsen Haydens have said), the money of geeks is just as green as everyone else's. I don't think the sci-fi ghetto is a "ghetto" because of economics, but rather because of the public perception of the people reading and writing in them. Romance is similarly ghettoized, despite outselling other genres by a huge margin.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:23 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, what she's saying is "please don't shelve any of my books in the sci-fi section."

Yeah, I don't get why people are discussing her comments as if she's trying to start a literary discussion of genre when she's clearly just talking about marketing strategies.
posted by straight at 10:26 AM on October 7, 2011


I haven't seen any evidence that literary novels sell "better" than sci-fi or fantasy novels. Perhaps these books reach a different set of readers

I don't know enough about the actual number of sales of any books, but we're not talking about things that are, let's say, not-literary-sff (a genre I like, but that people who don't read SFF are unwilling to read, maybe Mieville would be a good example), and not-sff-literary, we're talking about the smaller group of books that could be shelved in either group, books that only have a little bit of sff in them. I think -- based mostly on anecdata -- that those particular books will do better shelved in literature than in sff.

I don't think the sci-fi ghetto is a "ghetto" because of economics, but rather because of the public perception of the people reading and writing in them. Romance is similarly ghettoized, despite outselling other genres by a huge margin.
I agree. Compare mystery -- not ghettoised, though it's shelved separately -- to either of those other genres.
posted by jeather at 10:31 AM on October 7, 2011


Hmm. If the recent Borders closure is anything to go by SF is a more comerically viable genre than Literature - it's shelves emptied faster and they had to discount it less. The top end the Literature genre is certainly a prestiguous and money making place to be, but there is a steep drop off from there to crap no one cares about as soon as it stops being plugged.
posted by Artw at 10:38 AM on October 7, 2011


(Mystery did almost as well as SF, Romance they discounted the hell out of and still couldn;t shift it from the shelves)
posted by Artw at 10:39 AM on October 7, 2011


If you scroll down here, 2010 sales in various genres are stated: I agree that many of these cross-over books wouldn't stand as much of a chance in the SF sections. Oryx and Crake, The Road, and Never Let Me Go stand out in my mind as titles I've heard SF fans complain quite a bit about. But on the other hand, some of these literary SF/F titles have already been marketed heavily to a cross-genre audience from what I've seen. Ready Player One and The Night Circus are two recent examples. The Time Traveler's Wife has already done fairly well with the Diana Gabaldon romance/fantasy crowd. And I've heard very few SF fans complain about The Handmaid's Tale, despite Atwood's objections that SF fans wouldn't want to read her books because they're sans aliens. I think these things are all very subjective, and can only be judged on a book-by-book basis. But I honestly think courting certain readers and certain types of prestige are part and parcel of it, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:40 AM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hmm. With Romance selling so well I wonder why it's so hard to liquidate.

Everyone just ignores Westerns, you can see why McCathy wants to keep himself off of that shelf.
posted by Artw at 10:44 AM on October 7, 2011


Thinking about sci-fi and literariness reminds me of a bit from Ian Watson's article about working with Stanley Kubrick:
What a magpie Stanley was, seizing on whatever I might mention. A book I owned about The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: he must borrow it. Papal Indulgences; and I was faxing him information. I had written a novel entitled Inquisitor set in the wacky far-future world of Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000; he wanted a pre-publication printout right away. "Who knows, Ian?" he mused. "Maybe this is my next movie?" I arranged for Games Workshop to send him samples of their games and artwork and obtained for him from fantasy artist Ian Miller a portfolio of drawings of monsters. Anything could be grist to the mill, now or at some future date.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:46 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, I wonder how much of sci-fi sales are part of licensed series (e.g. Star Wars).
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:48 AM on October 7, 2011


Obviously, the biggest sales will be those inspirational romantic mystery/sci-fi crossover novels.
posted by 6550 at 10:51 AM on October 7, 2011


Personally I tend to dislike labels because some people think of labels as little (or not so little) boxes, and so something has to be in one box, and that means it cannot be in another box. But a book can be in many genres.

And when you get right down to it, all fiction is fantasy, in that it is made up. It isn't real. But that doesn't work well when you want to describe a book to someone, so we use genres.

I tend to use sff to describe science fiction & fantasy, and I think of it as a continuum rather than a straight off definition. So something might be set a few days in the future, thats still sff to me. Not all it is though.

And books can be in more than one genre. I mean I'm reading Blackout by Connie Willis at the moment. It is sci-fi in that it features time travel, but you could also describe it as "war fiction" because a lot of it concerns WWII, and for the same reason I would have no problem in calling it historical fiction.

One label does not exclude another also applying.
posted by Fence at 10:52 AM on October 7, 2011


The two shelves at the end. It's difficult to read past Watts' ignorant assertion in the first paragraph that Literature-with-a-capital-L has no plot.

I dunno, I think we should use it as the basis of a snobby divide between serious, weighty Literature and lesser works with plots and stuff that are clearly more concerned with prosaic matters like telling a story than anything of real philosophical import. You know, like everything by Atwood.
posted by Artw at 10:52 AM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Obviously, the biggest sales will be those inspirational romantic mystery/sci-fi crossover novels.

i.e. Twilight.
posted by Artw at 10:54 AM on October 7, 2011


Jonathan Lethem has a great piece about the sci-fi ghetto in this month's Harper's. Not so much a genre examination as a take on "identity politics," but still great. And similar.

It's not online, but this blogger has a crack at it with some short excerpts ... "Radisson Confidential"

I left my copy @home or I'd quote some of my favorite parts...
posted by mrgrimm at 10:54 AM on October 7, 2011


Also, I wonder how much of sci-fi sales are part of licensed series (e.g. Star Wars).

Well, plenty of SF writers make solid money writing licensed titles, despite the stigma it has. I've been chatting with a writer-friend who is doing Starfleet Academy books for CBS, and as he put it, it's a chance to get national placement, gorgeous covers and, for certain series, almost a guarantee to make the best-seller lists. But he still has to, you know, write the things. I don't think the presence of those books in SF&F really invalidates the sales there, unless you assume that the merit of these books is zero. But the readers and writers of them would likely disagree.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:54 AM on October 7, 2011


(Of course, I'm speaking as someone who would happily write books about Spock for a living if I could.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:56 AM on October 7, 2011


I don't have anything against licensed SF titles or their authors. I'm just curious as to how much they make up in terms of sales, as contrasted against author-created series or standalones.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:02 AM on October 7, 2011


Well, that might be difficult with these stats, since most romance novels are part of packaged series, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:04 AM on October 7, 2011


And getting further afield I wonder what Gene Wolfe's career would have been like if he hadn't been stuck in the sci-fi ghetto.

It's not like he's exactly hurting career-wise. That said, do you really think something like The Book of the New Sun could possibly have broad appeal?
posted by Justinian at 11:34 AM on October 7, 2011


Broad appeal? Maybe not. Literary recognition during his lifetime of the sort Nabokov received? Maybe so.
posted by 6550 at 11:45 AM on October 7, 2011


I probably shouldn't mention the distinction between novels and romances that Atwood gets into in the book. SF - including her own - falls into the latter category.

You mean Romance as in Romance as in the precursor to the novel?

Fuck, what a pretentious snob. Clinging to the most antiquated terminology possible if it's something she learned in her Bachelor degree then feeling free to make shit up for anything else.
posted by Artw at 11:53 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think we should use it as the basis of a snobby divide between serious, weighty Literature and lesser works with plots and stuff that are clearly more concerned with prosaic matters like telling a story than anything of real philosophical import. You know, like everything by Atwood.

But that's exactly my problem with what Watts was doing in the opening of that essay. He's either too ignorant to know that many literary works have plenty of plot and action in them, or he knows full well they do and thinks his geeky sf-reader audience is too poorly-read to know that, in which case it's more cynical than dumb. I have to say, Watts has never struck me as dumb in other essays or contexts, though he has struck me as a hothead who'll say extreme things for effect, so maybe that's what he's up to. But that's the tactic of someone who'd rather fight than understand what the other person is saying.

Fuck, what a pretentious snob. Clinging to the most antiquated terminology possible if it's something she learned in her Bachelor degree then feeling free to make shit up for anything else.

Art2, no offense intended, but I think you need to step away from the keyboard for a while. I mean, "learned in her Bachelor degree"? She's been a well-respected novelist and essayist for decades. You really are attributing the worst possible motives to anything at all associated with Atwood and her comments.
posted by aught at 12:14 PM on October 7, 2011


That said, do you really think something like The Book of the New Sun could possibly have broad appeal?

It doesn't even have broad appeal within the science-fiction community! The only sf work I can think of that I've heard more people actually say that they hated is Dhalgren.
posted by aught at 12:17 PM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Art2, no offense intended, but I think you need to step away from the keyboard for a while. I mean, "learned in her Bachelor degree"? She's been a well-respected novelist and essayist for decades.

Well, being that none of her works are in verse or anything, and are in fact a long fictional prose works, which is what anyone with an undergraduate degree in literature will tell you is the definition of a novel, if she is seriously arguing they are romances and not novels then she is both pretentious AND wrong. Now, if she's calling her novels romances, or even scientific romances (the prototype genre for what we now know as science fiction) she might have a point. Doesn't sound like that. Sounds like she's playing silly games with definitions again.
posted by Artw at 3:07 PM on October 7, 2011


It's that she refuses to be associated with other science fiction writers because she's a "real" writer of literary fiction

Even if that were true who really cares? Does it matter what she calls her works as long as they are enjoyable?


If someone refused to be categorised as a feminist writer because "feminists have hairy legs and hate men" again and again, no matter how many times it was pointed out to her that this is not true, do you not think that other feminist authors and fans thereof might have some basis for becoming tired of it? Annoyed, even?

The Road would be a great sci-fi novel, if only Cormac McCarthy went into laborious detail about the race of X'kweuino''tak aliens that fired its planet-destroying weapon at somewhere other than North Carolina. However, because he doesn't really talk at any length about what killed off most of life on earth, perhaps the sci-fi aspect is not the point of the story.

I can't tell whether you're trolling, as stupid about sci-fi as Atwood is, or whether this is another one of your fetishes where you'll defend whatever inane party line is spouted to the death.

Either way, it's an absurd paragraph.

but I don't really see why the kind of stuff you see in Oryx and Crake would be impossible in theory if you assume massively powerful AI

Which equally applies to the Culture novels.
posted by rodgerd at 12:51 AM on October 8, 2011


ArtW 1: Clinging to the most antiquated terminology possible if it's something she learned in her Bachelor degree

ArtW 2:Well, being that none of her works are in verse or anything, and are in fact a long fictional prose works, which is what anyone with an undergraduate degree in literature will tell you is the definition of a novel

So which is it? She is stupidly sticking to something she learnt in her undergraduate degree or she is too stupid to know what every undergraduate could tell her?

I'd suggest that since in addition to her undergraduate degree she has a Masters degree and started work on a doctorate entitled "The English Metaphysical Romance” before teaching English Literature for many years in universities across North America whilst becoming one of the world's most respected novelists and critics writing in English it is possible her thinking is more nuanced than yours.

Now, if she's calling her novels romances

She is. As I said.
posted by ninebelow at 2:38 AM on October 8, 2011


She can claim they're romances all she wants, it's if she claims thety are not novels that things get weird.
posted by Artw at 7:01 AM on October 8, 2011


The Road would be a great sci-fi novel, if only Cormac McCarthy went into laborious detail about the race of X'kweuino''tak aliens that fired its planet-destroying weapon at somewhere other than North Carolina. However, because he doesn't really talk at any length about what killed off most of life on earth, perhaps the sci-fi aspect is not the point of the story.

By that reasoning, S. M. Stirling's Dies the Fire isn't science fiction because he doesn't explain how or why the Change happened.
posted by Lexica at 1:58 PM on October 8, 2011


Yeah, the whole "the point of science fiction is the technology!" reductionism apparent in the bit you quoted is kind of annoying. The so-called "sci-fi aspect" isn't the point of the story in the majority of SF, and in the vast majority of good SF. Let's see... decent stories where the SF aspect is the point...

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin.
Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement.

Um. Various Niven&Pournelle for extremely broad values of "decent"? Like Mote. I dunno, seems like the set of stories where the technical aspects are the whole point is an extremely limited set.
posted by Justinian at 2:32 PM on October 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd suggest that...it is possible her thinking is more nuanced than yours.

The thing is, she's not saying that GuyZero, Artw or my definition of science fiction is all wrong. She's saying that virtually everyone's definition of science fiction is wrong. I suppose it's possible that her thinking is more nuanced than that of the entire commonwealth of letters put together. That's a lot harder to swallow.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:55 PM on October 8, 2011


She can claim they're romances all she wants, it's if she claims thety are not novels that things get weird.

Scientific romance
posted by aught at 6:57 AM on October 10, 2011


I'm familiar with the term - so is she saying "scientific romances" are not novels?
posted by Artw at 8:38 AM on October 10, 2011


Scientific romance.

To me, whether something is sci-fi/fantasy or not is whether or not it follows the "rules" of our universe.

By that reasoning, S. M. Stirling's Dies the Fire isn't science fiction because he doesn't explain how or why the Change happened.

By my rationale, Dies the Fire would be sci-fi/fantasy and The Road would not, because Dies the Fire implies an unexplained change in the rules (to technology) whereas The Road just seemed like a pretty standard nuclear winter.

Infinite Jest, despite its unlikely giant feral babies and culte de la prochaine train or whatever is not sci-fi, because it still follows the fundamental rules of our universe (obviously debatable).

I just tried to read Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil (which I found absolutely horrible, fwiw, and could not finish). The basic premise--man's brain implanted into a young female body in a specific future--doesn't necessarily make it science fiction, but the other stuff (the persistent voice of the deceased woman; the crazy stuff at the end) don't follow the fundamental rules of our universe.

But yeah, Atwood is basically saying that the genre definitions mean very little because they mean something different to everyone. Which this thread sort of proves.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:44 AM on October 10, 2011


To me, whether something is sci-fi/fantasy or not is whether or not it follows the "rules" of our universe.

This is the weirdest definition of science fiction (not fantasy) I've ever come across. It directly contradicts the traditional definition as formulated by John W. Campell, Jr:
"It's Science Fiction, if, presuming technical competence on the part of the writer, he genuinely believes it could happen."
I'm not a fan of that definition for a great many reasons but it should at least be taken seriously as a jumping off point. You're positing that any story fitting that definition would not be science fiction.

So, for example, Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama would not be SF. Hal Clement would not be SF. Hal Clement! Mr. Rocketships and slide rules himself!
posted by Justinian at 3:07 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Both Campbell's and Atwood's definitions rule out Bradbury as a science fiction author, which is going to be a tough one to justify.
posted by GuyZero at 3:34 PM on October 10, 2011


Well, Bradbury would probably be fairly happy at that: "First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see?"
posted by Artw at 4:37 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hm, well, so much for the rocketships and silver suits definition then.
posted by GuyZero at 4:42 PM on October 10, 2011


Bradbury's defiantly a fan of the old-school Campbell definition, which is a bit of a relic, though I still like stories that embrace those values. I tend to go with Damon Knight and his "science fiction is what we point to when we say it", which is quite fuzzy and diffuse, but I think everyone would agree the Campbell is the classic, core SF which the rest radiates out from.

Atwood, of course, would exclude that core and only accept the fuzzy halo around it.
posted by Artw at 4:47 PM on October 10, 2011


To me, whether something is sci-fi/fantasy or not is whether or not it follows the "rules" of our universe.

...

This is the weirdest definition of science fiction (not fantasy) I've ever come across. It directly contradicts the traditional definition as formulated by John W. Campell, Jr:

"It's Science Fiction, if, presuming technical competence on the part of the writer, he genuinely believes it could happen."


Men setting up colonies on the moon is almost as far fetched these days as Bradbury's fantasy. That's what plenty of science fiction is. Also, Left Hand of Darkness, not sci-fi? Really? Or could that happen?

George Saunders' Civilwarland in Decline: Sci-fi? Fantasy?

Donald Antrim?
posted by mrgrimm at 2:52 PM on October 11, 2011


Men setting up colonies on the moon is almost as far fetched these days as Bradbury's fantasy.

I'm going to create a new category of books called "economic fiction".

This will include:posted by GuyZero at 2:59 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you want to go ultra-purist there's always Mundane SF.
posted by Artw at 3:11 PM on October 11, 2011


I'm a little late to the conversation, but out of curiosity I tried to track down the conversation between Atwood and Le Guin that was mentioned. I can't find any video or transcripts, but it seems to have taken place at the Portland Arts & Lectures series; the Oregonian has a general report on it, and this article at io9 touches on the discussion about genre, although oddly it claims that both authors sort of danced around the subject.
posted by whir at 11:54 AM on October 13, 2011


Well, hats off to the science fiction community, you have successfully goaded Margaret Atwood into producing a volume of SF criticism. This is a frankly bizarre state of affairs, something that just a couple of years ago I would have found impossible to believe, but Atwood's introduction makes very clear that this is not an exaggeration.
posted by Artw at 1:54 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and she really *does* claim that a romance cannot be a novel:

Atwood must be a hell of a speaker and I wish I had heard her deliver these at Emory University itself. Apart from such intermittent gems, we are also casually given the key to understanding her own science fiction, particularly Oryx And Crake (2003) and The Year of The Flood. This comes in the form of a distinction between the novel (as "we got into the habit of calling all examples of long prose" in "the mid-twentieth century" (p.57)) and the romance (modern examples of which she gives as Life Of Pi by Yann Martel (2001), The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003), Twilight by Stephanie Meyers (2005), and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)). It is a distinction she returns to in a later piece self-explanatorily entitled "Ten Ways Of Looking At The Island Of Doctor Moreau":
"Romance," in today’s general usage, is what happens on Valentine's Day. As a literary term it has slipped in rank somewhat—being now applied to such things as Harlequin Romances—but it was otherwise understood in the nineteenth century when it was used in opposition to the term novel. The novel dealt with known social life, but a romance could deal with the long ago and the far away. (p.157)
So she's a pedant, a showoff AND broadly incorrect, since we did not "get into the habit of calling all examples of long prose novels", it's the very definition of novel these days.
posted by Artw at 2:01 PM on October 17, 2011


What? Any long prose is a novel? No.

Good review.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:35 PM on October 17, 2011


Any fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism, according to the OED.

There is no modern reading of the term in which any of her example Romances are not also novels, except her own.
posted by Artw at 10:02 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


So it isn't just with SF that Atwood ignores pretty much literally every single person who participates and just makes up her own terminology and expects everyone else to go along, it appears that's her general approach to all things literary.

Nevermind if there's a perfectly good term around, make something up. Nevermind if everyone else is using a term in a particular way and your way is radically different, use your term and (this is key) never explain that you're using that term in a radically different way just assume everyone agrees with you.

What a jerk.
posted by sotonohito at 7:52 AM on October 18, 2011


pretty much literally every single person

*raises hand*

"Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy"

too true, lol.

There is no modern reading of the term in which any of her example Romances are not also novels, except her own.

i'll give you that one.

if you're looking for a somewhat interesting introduction to Atwood's nonfiction, The Tent is good. and Alias Grace was a lot better than I expected, fwiw. a romance indeed.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:20 AM on October 18, 2011


China Mieville, relatedly.
posted by aught at 9:56 AM on October 20, 2011


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