Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Are You Not Entertained? Are You NOT Entertained?

I disagree with Jay and Kelly that our genre insulates us (or excuses us) from writing about emotional truths, and I think that suggesting that it does plays into a stereotype about science fiction that annoys me. I think that a lot of readers don’t pick up science fiction (or fantasy or horror) novels because they think that we’re not saying anything important. When I tell my Loft students that I believe that science fiction is a very subversive and political genre, I get a lot of blank looks. All they can think about is ray guns and space babes.

Not that there’s anything wrong with ray guns and space babes, but I tend to agree with Elizabeth that the best science fiction and fantasy stories illuminate something about the human condition. I think that while they do provide a distance – that distance is necessary, it can provide a somewhat “safer” medium (ie the future, the not-now, the not-here) to explore really important issues of gender, race, class, religion and politics. Everyone disses the original Star Trek episode with the guys with the half-black/half-white faces as being too overtly (and painfully embarrassingly) polemic, but the truth of the matter is that when that show aired there were race riots in America. Where else could we have talked so openly about how stupid it is to judge people by the color of their skin? (The answer: in fantasy children’s stories, like “The Sneetches.” A place that is not here, not now.)

I think there is a lot of value in writing a ripping good yarn, but I do think it’s important to have something to say – even if it’s something like “the world is a ugly cruel place, isn’t that funny?” If a story has nothing to say, why write it? How do you, as a writer, propel yourself through 500 manuscript pages of nothingness? There must be something you’re trying to express, right?

Even when I’m writing romance, I have an agenda. I’m exploring something about the human condition, the bigger questions, like: is it ever okay to be a murderer? This, however, may be part of why my fiction has failed to capture a larger percentage of the popular audience.

This last point leads me back to why this whole issue ticks me off. I think that even some of our great young writers like Jay Lake can be found posting in the comments of Kelly’s rant that he thinks that much of what is written today is completely useless. Our genre is popcorn. Stupid. Without value. (Okay, Jay, I’m paraphrasing, but you did suggest that most of what is written today is written to entertain… not to plumb the depths of one’s psyche.)

I think that fiction, particularly genre fiction, should be entertaining, but I don’t think it should be without message, without a point. I think the best work is both fun and important. I think we can write plainly about the truth, and we can write about things that aren’t egregiously MEANINGFUL and still have meaning. I think, for instance, that it is a radical act to write women as heroes, people of color as existing in the future, and about class. These things I suggest aren’t earth shatteringly deep, but they can elevate our genre our of the popcorn ghetto. I think science fiction writers have a duty, as Elizabeth Bear suggests, to write something of substance. I think readers expect it, and I think that when they find it, they appreciate it.

Of course, my sales suck.

So WTF do I know?


Unknown said...

Yanno, entertainment is not useless. Far, far from it. As for my own work, I nourish sadly trite literary ambitions. But simply by the numbers, I think *any* genre -- romance, mystery, sf, fantasy, etc. -- sells more to entertain than to enlighten. Otherwise Gene Wolfe would have Terry Brooks' numbers.

And I certainly didn't say "useless," "stupid" or "without value." Do you suppose I count my own writing that way? I certainly write to entertain, among other things.

Counterargue all you want, that's kind of the point here, but please don't put words in my mouth, especially not perjorative ones.

Anonymous said...

Are we talking about what SF/F is, or about what it should be? Because if we are talking of the former, then it is light and airy, deep and turgid, dangerous and meaningless and fun in the wide swath it cuts.

And if we are talking of what it should be, then we are idiots. It should be all of what it is, and we should argue about it, pull and strive for our various factions, knife one another in the dark alleys of the web, and in the end, the readers will sally forthand defend their own preferences. Story is too wide a universe, and SF/F too large a galaxy within it, to be too rigidly defined.

Kelly McCullough said...

Woah, woah, woah. Where did you get the idea that I think F&SF shouldn't be about something? Or that it insulates or excuses us from writing about emotional truths? What I said is that I'm a storyteller first, that I write to entertain and lift us out of ourselves.

Of course you have to have something to say. I just feel that self disection and emotional/character centered writing is not the only way to do the deed.

And for that matter, entertainment and escapism IS important.

To quote something I said when you interviewed me:

I think human beings have a need for story and wonder, for tales of heroism, of hope against the darkness and great deeds in the face of impossible odds. I've heard fantasy referred to as the fiction of escapism in a derogatory way, but I think escapism is really a way for us to transcend the occasionally dismal ordinariness of day to day life, something that allows us to feel as though we are part of some greater world of myth and legend. Escapism is a fundamental part of being human and not something to be taken lightly.

lydamorehouse said...

I am sorry if I misquoted you, Jay. I don't think entertainment is useless, either. I think, though, that when we don't strive to write about those emotional truths you got us all thinking about in your first post, I think we are doing a disservice to our genre, which has always been about BOTH entertaining and _informing_.

I think I reacted more to one of your commenters who suggested that the reason he didn't read SF/F is because he didn't think the genre was a shield from exploring emotional truths.

Anonymous said...

And, hearkening back to an earlier post, what a great pseudonym 'Ray Gunn' would make.

Naomi said...

Where else could we have talked so openly about how stupid it is to judge people by the color of their skin? (The answer: in fantasy children’s stories, like “The Sneetches.” A place that is not here, not now.)

To throw out a contemporary example: how else can you tell a story that forces an American audience to truly identify with a suicide bomber? Battlestar Galactica, having sucked in its viewers by offering a war where the bad guys were TRULY evil and where the good guys rationalized torture, flipped it around and showed the kind of desperation that makes terrorism a rational response. (In kind of a heavy-handed way, but still, I was impressed.) Viewers had already let their guard down because these were the good guys: Starbuck, Tigh, Tyrell, and Callie were us. You can trick people into letting their guard down when it's Not Here and Not Now. That's the magic of the fairy tale.