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  1. #1
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Last bastion of philosophical writing

    I just read an article in Details or Wired, can't remember now, by Clive Thompson subtitled 'Why sci-fi is the last bastion of philosophical writing.' And he asks "So, then, why does sci-fi, the inheritor of this intellectual tradition, get short shrift among serious adult readers?" The intellectual tradition he's referring to is that of thought experiments a la Socrates, Hobbes and Beauvoir. He claims that there are "only so many ways to describe reality" and that contemporary literature is getting boring. So, if you want to "read books that tackle profound philosohical questions, then the best -and perhaps only-place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas."

    Any thoughts?

  2. #2
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    First, since he's mentioning Narnia and Pullman's stories, etc. he's got a very broad definition of SF, which I think is worth pointing out on a SFF forum, where terms are usually more fine tuned.

    Second, the impression I got was "holiday effect". Wherever you go for a holiday people are living mundane lives. The point is: I'm not sure if SF would still be the great literature of ideas, if you've grown up on genre tropes, as I have. (I read SF before I got into literary fiction.)

    That said, I do agree that SF (or "speculative fiction", which is what most around here would call what he's really talking about) can contain ideas to ponder. And I wouldn't want to turn anyone off the genre.

  3. #3
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Well, my first problem with these things is that they call them "serious adult readers." Exactly how does one get to be a "serious" adult reader? Is it the number of books you read or which ones you read? Is there some monitoring board that tells you that you're serious or not? Well, they read the serious fiction. Unfortunately, no one agrees what that is.

    I was having a discussion the other day with a pal, a university professor, about how Philip Roth kept coming up recently in television shows I was watching as the writer intellectual people read and know, and my friend said, in agreement with several prominent spokespeople of the intellectual whom she cited, that Roth was pureile and not intellectual at all. So is Roth an over-rated, pseudo-intellectual, self-absorbed male navel-gazing writer or is he a serious fiction writer? Is Stephen King, who was awarded a prize for literary achievement by one group of "serious" folk and derided for it by others?

    And then there's the idea that serious fiction is philosophical and that this is what serious adult readers are most concerned with. Mostly, they're not. What "serious" readers tend to extol is poetic use of language -- the "literary" style -- more so than theme or character focus. Secondary to that is political commentary, which can be said to be philosophical somewhat, but could just as well be argued to be a separate aspect. We see this also happen in SFF, where any story that is focused on the political is considered by some to have more heft than those that do not.

    But what is really meant by "serious adult readers" in these things is people who don't like us, especially those who may have academic or journalistic credentials, but also just the rank and file folk who say, "I am a serious adult reader and I think SF is piffle." To continually concentrate on these people and to give them credence is to rudely ignore the thousands of "serious" folk, many of whom have academic or journalistic credentials, who do like SF and advocate it as literature, teach it in universities, etc. Yet, like politicians chasing after extremists to win their votes, we fixate on the malcontents, who have numerous different reasons to dislike SF, ranging from the fact that its titles are in mass market paperback to a belief that non-realistic elements in fiction lead to moral decay. And given that the Mundane SF fans and advocates feel that writing about inter-stellar space travel will cause people to give up trying to save the Earth's environment, we can hardly call that a strange view.

    Contemporary fiction has not gotten rid of the philosophical or of studying the human condition. Contemporary fiction hasn't gotten boring. We don't have to trash one area of fiction to advance another. Rather than calling SFF the last bastion -- when in fantasy's case, it was really the first bastion -- we just need to continue to stress that SFF deserves and in fact has a seat at the table. And for many serious adult readers, it does.

    Now that I've had my rant, I'll say that any article that advocates SFF as literature certainly helps, in category or out, so I don't have an objection to it. But I do snort at it a bit.

  4. #4
    Where's Tonto zorobnice's Avatar
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    Serious Adult Readers, now there's a concept. For many years my wife has believed that thee stuff I read is, well actually, trash. It goes above her organised realistic mind to believe anything else. One day I mentioned to her that Gary was coming to Cape Town, and then we got to discussing his books, followed by Bakker, Erikson and a few others. It was only at that stage that she realised what we read were not fairy tales, but clever stories, written by clever people. People who had ideas, beliefs and convictions. She is still not totally convinced, but I have to say that I have found more food for thought in our genre then in the stuff she reads, Grisham, Balducci, and others. I deal with real life every day, this is the way it is in my line of work, coming home to read about far off places and ideas keeps me out of thhat rut of living and thinking run of the mill ideas. There is more to life, we need to expand our horizons, who better than fantasy authors to question the hereafter, to make us think of other possibilities. They are not constrained by the rules of reality.

  5. #5
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Ouch. Don't tell your wife, Zorobrice, but Grisham and Balducci are considered trash, hack writers by many. There are a lot of people who are very invested in creating two divisions -- commercial writing, which sells well and is purely for entertainment, and literary writing, which sells poorly and is about art and thought. SFF is placed in commercial for two reasons -- it's mostly paperback, and its connections to children's market, comics, and films. These divisions don't work, especially as literary writing sells very well and commercial writing is studied in universities, but people still like to make the distinction, usually based on their personal preferences. As the two forms of unrealistic story-telling, SFF and SFF horror are easily separated from the pack and so can go in the one division whole hog.

  6. #6
    Where's Tonto zorobnice's Avatar
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    KatG I agree with you wholeheartedly on the Grisham, Baldacci issue. We have on some threads discussed why people read what they read, and well in this case we cannot understand each other's reading taste. The only thing we both like reading are home magazines (which I don't really think counts). But on the topic, I do believe that with the licence that Fantasy authors have they do breach moral and philosophical issues, which in turn makes you think about them. I do not read almost any books not in this genre, so I don't think I am qualified to comment too loudly on other fiction.

  7. #7
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    I think in a lot of ways this goes back to the general rejection of the novel in the first place. Fiction is not as good as non-fiction, so the argument goes. With the establishment of the fiction novel as an art form, the non-fiction-is-all-important "what can reading fiction tell us about reality" argument swings up and down all the time.

    I recently read Dave Eggers' "What is the What?" (sold as fiction) and then followed it with Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Home" (non-fiction). The books are fairly similar, and Beah's in particular has been well promoted to the Oprah watching crowd (being the non-"serious" readers -- market victims -- I imagine).

    The qualitative difference between the two is that "What?" is the non-fiction story of Valentino Achak Deng told through a fiction novelist, using a fairly standard fiction form, and not every element of the story necessarily happened precisely as described... It's been tidied up and it's had some stuff added and omitted for effect. "Home" is non-fiction, so in theory it's accurate to reality.

    Between the two, I'd say the quasi-fiction "What?" is the better story. It was more effective, better written, and explores serious questions about morality, national and international politics, urbanization, culture, and survivalism fairly head on. "Home", by contrast (though real) seemed to skirt the real meat of the bigger issues, and where it addressed them the relationship of the issues to the individual wasn't nearly as impactful.

    One of the best things about "What?" for me (and maybe this is my background as an SFF reader coming through) was that it rendered a lot of Achak's experiences into the realm of "magical" -- or at least "otherworldly." This was definitely deliberate on the author's part -- based on an interpretation of the survivalist mentality that Deng had to take on in order to survive his ordeals in crossing Sudan. But by making it "magical" it made it more powerful.

    Thompson's gripe about general fiction's tendency toward describing what we already know is something I see as a pretty valid point. Magic (which, let's face it, is what "advanced science and technology" really means to a lot of people) gives us another way to look at things. I personally like books that incorporate elements of magic, whether its Susanna Clarke, Bakker, Eggers, or Haruki Murakami. The access point to the world is different, so it's easier to examine the bigger issues by recasting them. But it also makes the "bigger issues" implicit to the system simply by virtue of contrast against our own "real" worldview. That doesn't always mean that "magic" makes for philosophically endowed literature.

    So, I don't know that I agree with Thompson completely. There is still good general fiction out there. I tend to gravitate toward the slightly more "magic realism" styles, but that's just one subset of a much much larger genre than SF. SF is very specific, and there's just as much in the way of bad SF as bad general fiction. Per capita though, I'd say SF ranks a little higher since there's so much less of it. Even though there's literally too many shite fluff titles to mention in general fiction.

    How far into the philosophy hole are we talking here, though? Like are we going to the level of Sartre and Kafka, etc -- and do we even read them as general fiction to begin with?

  8. #8
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    I'm in a mini reading group with two other authors. Well, one actually because Hal kind of fell off before we began. Hal Duncan and Scott Bakker. We each pick a book, read it and discuss it. Basic concept. We've read Last Call, Kite Runner and now Magic Mountain, all incredibly different books. They're perfect examples of the state of literature today. KR is one of the most pppular books of the decade and critically acclaimed. For me it was no more than Grisham without the suspense. In fact, I think Grisham is a better story teller. Last Call was interesting but not envelope pushing. Then there's Magic Mountain....

    Part of today's problem is that many of the great books, the books that we may or may not love but certainly recognize as great for a number of reasons, would never get published today. Or at least they wouldn't get published in the form that they originally were published in. They'd be edited and edited and shaped into more commercial packages.

    MM is astounding in many respects. And Mann takes his time, builds his story, his characters, his ideas. It's not splashy or sentimental. It's not bloody or graphic. It wasn't written with a screen play in mind.

    It never used to be the case that philosophical ideas couldn't be the basis for literary fiction. In fact, it was more often the case than not. So what happened?

    I'm convinced that we get away with it in SFF because those 'literary' critics don't have a clue as to what many of us are really about, so we pass under their radar. They shrug us off as unimportant or inconsequential, while at the same time, the marketplace has turned literary fiction into hoards of Kite Runners.

  9. #9
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    So is the real issue here the Oprah Book Club?

  10. #10
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    I suppose it is!

    Look, I'm all for everyone reading anything and everything. I'm not an elitist when it comes to books. I read all kinds of books and I enjoy all kinds of books, on many and various levels.

    But that doesn't mean I don't see differences between books on many and various levels.

  11. #11
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Oh please, do not buy into that the books of the past would not get published today because they aren't commercial enough crap. The novels that got published in the past were just as much a mix of high action and quiet drama as there is today. It is actually easier for a quiet drama to get published today than it was in the past, especially if you don't have academic credentials which created a barrier for authors in the past, and it's easier for a high action novel to get into hardcover. They don't do any editing today, whereas in the past, they edited and edited and did a lot more shaping and pushing authors around about it than they bother to do now.

    This is an old saw that comes up every few years or so. The community of the fifties complained that the new novelists of the sixties had no soul, no art, no philosophy, nothing important to say and were too commercial, too cinematic. The community of the sixties said the same thing about the new writers of the seventies, and so on and so on. It's part of the true fiction is dead routine and my generation was so much better than these new folk dances. Whereupon the new writers claim that the older writers are stodgy, stagnant, out of touch, no longer have anything to say, etc., which isn't true either.

    Look, I agreed with Scott's thinking at WFC in part, that SFF offers dynamism and interesting literature and that what people are being taught in academic fiction programs is often just to copy each other. It's part of the problem of the perpetuating of writing rules -- that there's one way to write fiction that everybody should follow for it to be good and literary, which if people actually do that, you get a lot of books that are well-crafted but just sort of lay there for many readers. And for that matter, I'm not sure that Clarion doesn't have the same problem.

    But general fiction titles don't just come from university or writing programs. They come from all walks of life, all cultures, and the ones that do come from writing programs are not necessarily the same, so I don't agree that all general fiction is without philosophy or art or whatever complaint is being levied. It's again trying to put all the goodies in one basket, which never works.

    And it's so unnecessary. The rest of general fiction doesn't have to be dead for SFF to be better appreciated. And again, the appreciation for any piece of fiction is going to vary. I thought The Kite Runner was excellent and certainly far better in facility of language and theme than anything by Grisham (and I say this as someone who has read and liked some of Grisham's books.) If Last Call is Tim Powers' Last Call, I thought the book was good, but got a little out of control, especially towards the end, and wasn't as strong as his Declare or Expiration Date.

    But my views do not then have to be turned into the representative views of the wider world. They do not give me authority to speak for large groups of people. They do not explain the social culture under which the novels were written, nor should they be the guide by which the novels should be viewed. If I think some general fiction titles are not so good, didn't do it for me, that doesn't mean that general fiction has a problem, especially as I'm only reading a small percentage of what's out there. It seems to me that sometimes people are so intent on constructing theories about fiction that they forget about the actual stories.

  12. #12
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    KatG, I think you're wrong.

  13. #13
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    It seems to me that the sheer volume of published fiction means, by default, that general fiction (being largest group) will have the most weeds. And that if it's easier to get published now than it was in the past, by volume the quality of the weeds is going to be .... weedier.

    The best analogy I can think of is professional hockey. There used to be 6 teams in the NHL. Arguably, the quality of the hockey was A+++. Then the expansion began to happen, and the skilled players were distributed across something like 30 teams. To fill the ranks of the other 24 teams, they brought up players who didn't make the cut for the original 6. The net result being lower quality hockey overall, but the same number of truly great players.

    If you assume all the players in the original 6 were great players, that's roughly 120 great players - 100% great players. Divide them up by 30 teams, then it's only 4 great players per team. 20% great players, 80% not-so-great players. It's a total reversal in quality.

    So if it's easier to get published these days, it seems to me that the overall quality of the literature likewise drops accordingly. That is, of course, assuming that editors are the equivalent of coaches in the analogy and really did try to make the books better...

  14. #14
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Who said it's easier to get published today?

    Your theory would make sense if the premise is correct.

    Many more people are writing books today because with word processors etc it's easier and faster to write books. But that doesn't mean it's any easier to get them published. Does anyone have any statistics on how many books are being published these days as opposed to 30 years ago? And then we need to ask what support, if any, the publishers are giving to the titles they're releasing.

  15. #15
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    According to this article, there are roughly 170,000+ new titles published each year in the US, based on sales in 2005.

    According to this article, in the 1950's there were about 15,000+ new titles published every year.

    US population in 1950 was ~150million. Today it is ~300 million. So, that's 1 book published for every 1000 people in 1950, compared to 5 books published for every 1000 people today. So... mathematically, it's more books per people.

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