Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Sirens of Titan versus Lolita

I was at a book festival recently where I was on a science fiction and fantasy panel with another author. He represented science fiction and I handled fantasy. The moderator did an excellent job asking probing questions and encouraged the audience to join the conversation. However, one of the last questions she asked disturbed me. I don’t remember the exact wording, but basically she asked how adults like me and my fellow author could write science fiction and fantasy. The implication was that these two genres did not produce serious literary work and were mainly meant to entertain those with juvenile tastes. It wasn’t something grown-ups did. Unfortunately, I answered as if the genres were mere pop entertainment and not true literature. I said that I hadn’t grown up yet and never intended to. I meant my answer to be a defense of imagination, but really it was a cop out and worse, a betrayal. It wasn’t until after the panel and the book signing were over that I realized what I’d done. By then, there was nothing I could do. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to point out that Science Fiction and Fantasy are not and were never intended to be juvenile literature. Nor are they genres of any less importance than any other genre. Literary fiction and Non-fiction are genres that carry no more weight intellectually than Science Fiction and Fantasy. I dare any literary fiction author to look at the works of science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, and Harlan Ellison (to name a precious few) and tell me that their books don’t have literary significance as great as books by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. And while I’m at it, let me list a few important fantasy authors like Michael Moorcock, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, and Fritz Leiber. There was a time when these authors’ books weren’t considered anything less than great literature. Would anyone claim that Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” were mere horror books meant to give teenagers the heebie jeebies? But over the years, Science Fiction and Fantasy have gotten a bad reputation. The use of imagination seems to be their worse sin. But doesn’t all fiction require imagination. Jay Gatsby and Humbert Humbert are the creations of their authors. Their lives were plotted out and on a certain level the worlds they existed in had to be built. But still, Science Fiction and Fantasy get no respect from the “serious literary world.” Part of the reason may be jealousy. These genres have rabid fans who lspend hours dissecting everything about them. You don’t see people going to conventions dressed as characters from “The Corrections.” Another thing that annoyed me about the moderator’s question was that she was a genre writer herself. She wrote crime fiction. It isn’t considered literary fiction either, but I suppose it's considered appropriate reading for grown-ups. I used to enjoy reading the short author interviews in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. But then, I began to notice how often authors dissed science fiction and fantasy. There would be a question about what kinds of books does the author read and the author would go out of his or her way to state that they would never ever ever crack open a science fiction or fantasy book implying that it was beneath them. I would love to see a popular fantasy author state that he or she would never waste their time on a literary novel because of the mountain of pretentious bullshit inside. The bottom line is that all literature is either good or bad depending on the quality of the writing, not the genre. Ideas are expressed, imagination is at work, and the reader whether he or she is a grown-up or a child reaps the awards.