« I Don't Know If It's Art, But I Like It | Main | Jane Yolen »

As Others See Us

So, I'm reading a book on writing: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Art, by Janet Burroway (6th edition, 2003). Michael Bishop used it as the text when he taught creative writing at LaGrange, so I got curious to see it. Used my librarily powers to get a copy through interlibrary loan, and started looking at it the other night. Well, flipping through it (I have a tendency to blow right past the writing exercises in those things). It's...uh, interesting. Not the advice on writing itself, which seems sound, but the additional material on genre. That's especially illuminating.

Here, allow me to quote (at length) from Appendix A: "Kinds of Fiction."

Science fiction, the most recently developed and still developing genre, similarly deals with ambivalence about technology, the near-miraculous accomplishments of the human race through science, the dangers to human feeling, soul, and environment. The surge in popularity of fantasy fiction can be probably be attributed to nostalgia for a time even more free of technological accomplishment and threat, since fantasy employs a medieval setting and solves problems through magic, whereas science fiction is set in the future and solves problems through intelligence and technology.
Hm. Not too bad. She doesn't think SF is dead, which is always a pleasant change of pace from what you usually hear. She calls it "developing," which seems a more accurate way to look at it. Of course, development means change and something changing means it's no longer what it was and could by some be then considered to be "dead," etc and forever amen. [And I see that Ben expresses the same opinion, only at greater length and much more verve] Always remember, it's a form of literature, not your Aunt Bernice.

The descriptions are pretty superficial, however. She's obviously not heard of alternate history, for instance. And while medievalesque settings are quite common in fantasy, that does not mean it's required. Still, these are quick one-sentence descriptions, not a complete detailing of the various flavors of speculative fiction.

But then she continues:

It is relevant that science fiction usually deals with some problem that can be seen to have a counterpoint in the contemporary culture (space travel, international or interplanetary intrigue, mechanical replacement of body parts, genetic manipulation), whereas the plots of fantasies tend to deal with obsolete or archaic traumas--wicked overlords, demon interlopers, and so forth. Because of this contemporary concern, science fiction seems capable at this point in history of a deployment much more varied and original than other genres, and more often engages the attention of writers (and filmmakers) with literary intentions and ambitions. Among such writers are Octavia Butler, William Gibson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, and Doris Lessing.
Oh, I see. So....science fiction's primary function is to be used as a metaphor? A metaphor to solely relate to current events? And since fantasy fiction can never be used that way, it has limited use?

Uh huh. Yeah, that holds up, unless you think about it. But we get off light. She's even worse with romance fiction.

Readers of the romance genre, for example, will expect a plucky-but-down-on-her-luck heroine, a handsome and mysterious hero with some dark secret (usually a dark-haired woman) in his background, a large house, some woods (through which the heroine will at some point flee in scanty clothing), and eventual happy ending with the heroine in the hero's arms. These elements can be seen in embryo in the literary fiction of the Brontë sisters; by now, in the dozens of Harlequin and Silhouette romances on the supermarket rack, they have become formulaic, and the language is similar from book to book.
Now, I don't read romance novels, but even I, with my limited male awareness, can tell how stereotypical that is. According to the Romance Writers Assocation, all that's required is "a central love story and an emotionally satisfying ending." And that's it. It seems she has confused the window dressing with the window itself, if you see where my metaphor is going. And other genres, such as horror, don't even get that much consideration:
In any case, the many other genres, including but not confined to adventure, spy, horror, and thriller, each have their own set of conventions of character, language, and events. Note again that the very naming of these kinds of fiction implies a narrowing; unlike mainstream fiction, they appeal to a particular restricted range of interest.
Please excuse me while I pound my head on my desk for a few minutes.

And then she finished things off here:

Many--perhaps most--teachers of fiction writing do not accept manuscripts in genre, and I believe there's good reason for this, which is that whereas writing literary fiction can teach you how to write good genre fiction, writing genre fiction does not teach you how to write good literary fiction--does not, in effect, teach you "how to write," by which I mean how to be original and meaningful in words. Further, dealing in the conventions and hackneyed phrases of romance, horror, fantasy, and so forth can operate as a form of personal denial, using writing as a means of avoiding rather than uncovering your real concerns. It may be fine to offer readers an escape through fiction, but it isn't a way to educate yourself as a writer, and it's also fair to say that escape does not represent the goal of a liberal education, which is to pursue, inquire, seek, and extend knowledge of whatever subject is at hand, fiction no less than science.
Ah, I see. Now it's all so clear.

For the 7th edition, perhaps Ms. Burroway should consider actually doing some research. For example, talking to writers who actually do work in genre first, rather than just printing whatever unexamined beliefs she happens to hold. That might help fulfill her stated goal to "pursue, inquire, seek, and extend knowledge of whatever subject is at hand."