Book Post! Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Cunningham talk genre prejudice and broadening fiction



"I feel like the most prominent aspect of this period is what I suppose I’ll call “broadening.”
Broadening in the sense of a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously."
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"And the labels stick. As you say, a lot of people still maintain genre prejudice. I still meet matrons who tell me kindly that their children enjoyed my books but of course they never read them, and people who make sure I know they don’t read that space-ship stuff. No, no, they read Literature—realism."


Michael Cunningham: Writers are always, pretty much by definition, writing within a historical period, though that period may not acquire a name until later. I don’t believe the Victorians thought of themselves as the Victorians. OK, the Modernists thought of themselves as Modernists, but still…

I wonder sometimes what period we’re in, in 2014. I personally don’t find “post-modernism” very satisfying.

Although I don’t have a name for it—I’ll trust history to provide that—I feel like the most prominent aspect of this period is what I suppose I’ll call “broadening.”

Broadening in the sense of a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously.

I think of “broadening” not only in terms of race and gender, but in terms of what has long been labeled “genre” fiction.

I believe that some of the most innovative, deep, and beautiful fiction being written today is shelved in bookstores in the Science Fiction section. That that section probably contains more fascinating books than does the… what to call it?… mainstream fiction section…

Could you talk about that? About the breaking-down of the barriers between “genre” books and the books that are generally piled on the front tables at Barnes & Noble? This is especially important to me, in that I’m always trying to talk readers into venturing into genre fiction, and still encounter a surprising degree of resistance. The line, “I don’t read science fiction” emanates from a surprising number of well-educated, erudite mouths.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Well, you’ve said much of what I’d have said, and I’m delighted to hear it said by a writer whose fame is not within a “genre” but in what is still called literary fiction.

And that, of course, is the lingering problem: The maintenance of an arbitrary division between “literature” and “genre,” the refusal to admit that every piece of fiction belongs to a genre, or several of genres.

There are very real differences between science fiction and realistic fiction, between horror and fantasy, between romance and mystery. Differences in writing them, in reading them, in criticizing them. Vive les différences! They’re what gives each genre its singular flavor and savor, its particular interest for the reader—and the writer.

But when the characteristics of a genre are controlled, systematized, and insisted upon by publishers, or editors, or critics, they become limitations rather than possibilities. Salability, repeatability, expectability replace quality. A literary form degenerates into a formula. Hack writers get into the baloney factory production line, Hollywood devours and regurgitates the baloney, and the genre soon is judged by its lowest common denominator…. And we have the situation as it was from the 1940’s to the turn of the century: “genre” used not as a useful descriptor, but as a negative judgment, a dismissal.

“The genres” were ignored altogether and realistic fiction alone was left as literature, in the minds of the men who controlled criticism and teaching. Realism is of course a tremendous and wonderfully capacious literary genre, and it has dominated fiction since 1800 or before. But dominance isn’t the same thing as superiority. Fantasy is at least as immense as realism and much older—essentially coeval with literature itself. Yet fantasy was relegated for fifty years or sixty years to the nursery.

These days, I love to remember Edmund Wilson, king of the realist bigots, squealing “Ooh those awful Orcs!” and believing he’d made a witty and cogent critical point.

As you see, I bear some resentment and some scars from the years of anti-genre bigotry. My own fiction, which moves freely around among realism, magical realism, science fiction, fantasy of various kinds, historical fiction, young adult fiction, parable, and other subgenres, to the point where much of it is ungenrifiable, all got shoved into the Sci Fi wastebasket or labeled as kiddilit—subliterature.


And the labels stick. As you say, a lot of people still maintain genre prejudice. I still meet matrons who tell me kindly that their children enjoyed my books but of course they never read them, and people who make sure I know they don’t read that space-ship stuff. No, no, they read Literature—realism. Like The Help, or Fifty Shades of Grey.

But the walls I hammered at so long are down. They’re rubble. I like your term, “broadening,” for what’s going on. I agree that “postmodern” is a truly flabby word. But I guess I don’t really want a label for the new place we’re in. Labels turn into cages. I love to see people like Michael Chabon and Kij Johnson and David Mitchell and Jo Walton—and above all, old José Saramago!—waltzing around the literary landscape, freely using fragments of genres to build up their beautiful stories, finding unclassifiable forms for irresistible narratives. And to see the literary reputation of great nonrealists like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino holding steady or rising—along with the status of the Author of the Awful Orcs, and some obscure writers of that space-ship stuff, such as my Berkeley High School classmate, Philip K. Dick. Vive la Révolution!

MC: It’s been written of Samuel R. Delany’s work that, “By imagining a new gender and resultant sexual orientation, the story allows readers to reflect on the real world while maintaining an estranging distance.”

The story in question was, “Aye, and Gomorrah,” but it could be said of other work by Delany, and certainly of some of your own work, very much including The Left Hand of Darkness.

You needn’t focus specifically on the advantages of claiming the right, in fiction, to re-imagine genders, though that would of course be interesting. You could also talk a bit, if you like, about other freedoms offered when a writer releases herself/himself from what I suppose I’ll call the “natural” world—that is, from the planet Earth, its denizens and conventions.

UKLG: I think Delaney was using Darko Suvin’s very useful concept of “cognitive estrangement” for what is perhaps the characteristic gesture of science fiction: Giving the reader a new place from which to look at the old world. Or, as Suvin said, a mirror in which you can see the back of your own head. Stendhal, that dour realist, boasted that his novels were “a mirror at the side of the road” reflecting reality. But such a mirror can’t show you the world or yourself from a viewpoint you never saw it from before, as science fiction does.

The thing to remember, however exotic or futuristic or alien the mirror seems, is that you are in fact looking at your world and yourself. Serious science fiction is just as much about the real world and human beings as realistic novels are. (Sometimes more so, I think when faced with yet another dreary story about a dysfunctional upper middle class East Coast urban family.) After all, the imagination can only take apart reality and recombine it. We aren’t God, our word isn’t the world. But our minds can learn a lot about the world by playing with it, and the imagination finds an infinite playing field in fiction.

Along in the sixties it became important to a lot of us, especially women and gays, to try to get a better idea what exactly “gender” consisted of. “Him Tarzan, Me Jane” no longer seemed quite adequate. The science-fiction mirror offered itself to me (and Theodore Sturgeon, and Samuel R. Delaney, Vonda McIntyre, Joanna Russ, and many others) as a great way to get a different angle on the whole thing. Cognitive estrangement can help you develop new cognitions, wider understanding.

And that, as you say, offers a writer a desirable freedom. To me, though, it’s not a release or escape from our world. My world is all I have to make my stories from, my people are the only people I know. But by making up worlds and peoples, I can recombine and play with what we have and are, can ask what if it were like this instead of like this—What if nobody had a fixed gender, as on the planet Gethen? What if marriages, instead of two people and one couple, consisted of four people and four homo- and heterosexual couples, as they do on the planet O? If nobody in a world had ever waged war, how would people and daily life in that world differ from ours, and in what ways?

Much of my science fiction is, in this sense, anthropological. My father was an ethnologist, who learned from the Indians of California that California could be inhabited in a very different way from how we inhabit it—many different ways. I send imaginary people to imaginary planets to learn other ways in which we might inhabit our own. I feel some urgency in obtaining this information, since we’re inhabiting our planet in an increasingly destructive and unwise way.

Rest at Source
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