In Borderlands Between the Clans

By Matthew Cheney

In 1950, Isaac Asimov, whose first science fiction novel, Pebble in the Sky, had recently been published, attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at the suggestion of Fletcher Pratt, a prolific and polymathic writer who had himself published a fair amount of science fiction, and who served on the faculty at Bread Loaf.

In the first volume of his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, Asimov wrote:

The faculty at Bread Loaf recognized my established writer status and didn't lump me together with the other students. Bill Sloane, without warning, called me to speak on the nonhuman heroes of science fiction, and I gave a one-minute impromptu speech that went over well.

In 1971, Asimov returned to Bread Loaf as a faculty member, invited this time by his friend John Ciardi, who was coming to the end of his reign as director of the conference. By now, Asimov had published more than one hundred books on a wide range of subjects, and was about to return to science fiction, a field he had not written prolifically in for a decade. He returned again to Bread Loaf in 1972, the last year of Ciardi's directorship.

In David Haward Baine's history of Bread Loaf, Whose Woods These Are, Seymour Epstein says:

I remember [Asimov] saying something to the effect that I must teach him how to create fully dimensioned characters, and my thinking that I would be happy to try it if he would teach me how to make even a fraction of what he made on his writing.

The worlds of popular fiction and literary fiction often look with jealousy and annoyance at each other. [1] Partisans of either side often have simplistic views of how things work in the realm they disdain. For instance, I know writers of literary fiction who assume that all science fiction writers are making at least $100,000 with each novel. I had a friend who once said he was going to stop writing anything he considered artistic for a year and just write a novel that was as "bad" as the one Stephen King book he'd ever read, because then he could sell it and live off the profits and write what he wanted. He spent a week trying, then gave up in despair. "How does he write that crap!" my friend screamed. "It's killing me!"

"He'd say the same thing about the sort of stuff you write," I said.

It takes a particularly strong and masochistic type of person to write something they hate writing. Stephen King is successful for many reasons, but one of them is that he loves the kind of writing he does. I can't imagine what Asimov would have said to Seymour Epstein if Epstein really had asked him how to write books that made money, but I'm sure it would have been advice Epstein was unlikely to be able to use, because it would have meant having to write in a way he did not respect, or that did not interest him. Similarly, I can't imagine Asimov creating characters with much depth and resonance, because doing so is less a matter of technical trickery than it is of an entire way of viewing the world and art. (It's not one that is essential to literary fiction, either—in fact, when people told him he wasn't creating characters of depth, Asimov should have replied that actually he was putting into a populist form the techniques of the anti-Freudian literary avant-garde. That would have shut up the critics!)

Michael Chabon has recently become the most prominent writer with literary fiction credentials to advocate the benefits of popular fiction, first through his two McSweeney's anthologies, and then with The Best American Short Stories 2005, in which he includes stories by such writers as Kelly Link, Dennis Lehane, Cory Doctorow, and Tim Pratt alongside the work of such stalwarts of the literary mainstream as Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Joy Williams. Chabon's efforts have had mixed success, but they are nonetheless worthwhile, because they create a borderland where multiple definitions of "good writing" can mingle.

Chabon's edition of The Best American Short Stories is, I think, his most successful attempt to create this borderland, because reprinting previously published stories allowed him to point out what is already going on in the world of short fiction instead of trying to manufacture something by commissioning new work. The anthology shows readers some of the many approaches writers can take toward their subject matter, and how their choices of diction, style, tone, and pacing all affect the basic content of their tales. For just one of many possible comparisons, read Dennis Lehane's "Until Gwen" and then Alice Munro's "Silence." Both stories explore the relationships between parents and children over a long period of time—in Lehane's story, it is the relationship between a father and son; in Munro's it is the relationship between a mother and daughter—and both stories evoke the aching pain of scarred lives. Yet few editors other than Chabon would have thought to include both stories in a book of "the best" of any year, because Lehane's story is a taut and brutal tale of crime and criminals, a story with careful plotting and a surprising ending, while Munro's story uses details of moments from relatively ordinary lives to build toward an ending that concludes very little of the plot (such as it is), but which is nonetheless emotionally devastating.

It would be easy to say that Lehane's story is inferior to Munro's, because Lehane's story is so much about the little shocks it administers, it doesn't have much emotional depth, and it probably doesn't reward rereading to the extent that Munro's story does. It would also be easy to say that Munro's story is slow and unlikely to appeal to a large audience, because large audiences don't tend to have much patience for subtle and discursive writing, no matter the rewards it can offer. It takes a bit of practice to learn to appreciate a story like Munro's, while the pleasures Lehane's story offers are available to just about anybody able to understand a narrative written in English.

So what? If we want to take bets against posterity, I'd bet that Munro's story will be read and appreciated longer than Lehane's, but by the time posterity gets around to judging either story, I hope to be either dead or worried about other things, so it's not a question that much interests me. There was a time when I aspired to be a writer of literary fiction, and so I wanted to make sure I wrote for posterity, but trying hard to write Deathless Prose tends to produce prose that's dead on arrival.

Is there SF that can hold its own against the best contemporary fiction? Absolutely. And it's important that it does so, because such writing opens new possibilities for both popular and literary fiction. There's nothing wrong with writers of SF aspiring to play at the litfic game, but I don't understand writers who have no interest in literary fiction trying to gain acceptance in a club they have no respect for. I get frustrated when some SF writers and critics both bash literary fiction and whine about how they aren't respected by "the literary elite," that they don't get the big grants and awards, that they don't get to be in charge of the writing programs at Ivy League colleges, etc. This is the equivalent of an experimental writer who disdains mass audiences complaining about not being a bestseller. The literary world represented by those grants and awards and writing programs is a community with as many prejudices and proclivities as the SF community, one equally given to introspection and self-abuse; it is not a representation of everything going on in the world of fiction any more than the Hugo Awards are. It can be a fun and inspiring community to be part of, and it can be exasperating. An SF writer who is happy to be an SF writer doesn't gain much by trying to be a part of that community, any more than a writer of mainstream literary fiction who is content with that world would be happy as an SF writer.

Between those two communities, though, is a world that grows more and more exciting each year for those of us who are not content with the particular restrictions of either one type of writing or another. The borderland teaches us new things about how to value what we read, and it illuminates much of what is most worthwhile about the communities it stands between.

In an interview in Locus last year, Michael Chabon offered an insightful view of "the ghetto mentality":

It's quite obvious to me that so much of what goes on in the world of science fiction has analogies with a ghetto mentality, with a sense of clannishness and that ambivalence that you have: on the one hand wanting to keep outsiders out and identify all the insiders with a special language and jargon so you can tell at a glance who does and doesn't belong, and on the other hand hating that sense of confinement, wanting to move beyond the walls of the ghetto and find wider acceptance.

Plenty of readers and writers are perfectly happy within the walls they have built around themselves, but the desire to turn the walls into barricades and set cannons on them is mysterious to me. I find myself most excited by efforts such as Chabon's Best American Short Stories, because such a book creates a borderland where readers are challenged to discover ways of appreciating the different but considerable accomplishments of both Dennis Lehane and Alice Munro, rather than either one or the other. This isn't relativism—both stories live up to high standards—so much as it is the disavowal of clanthink. For the clans to intermingle, for borderlands to be established, we need more Asimovs to go to Bread Loaf, and more Chabons to be interviewed in Locus.

Notes:

[1] The terms themselves are problematic—neither type of fiction has an exclusive right to the adjective describing it—but they are as adequate as any other possible label for the amorphous and contradictory realms inhabited by Asimov and Epstein.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Read more of his columns in our archives.