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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" 
Subject: Re: (urth) Generic Considerations
Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2003 17:03:44 -0700

> > This reverts to the subect/object orientation of SF/MF. SF expends
> > much of it discursive energy on the level of the object, creating
> > and analyzing things that do not exist in the "consensus" world. MF
> > need not do this and uses more of its discursive energy creating
> > and analyzing the subjectivity of characters. But the subjects of
> > attention and analysis in MF are no more (or less) "real" than the
> > objects of attention and analysis in SF; though one could reasonably
> > claim, I suppose, that they represent a kind of thing that exists
> > in the consensus world, where deliquescing doors and transporters
> > do not ...

>You talked about how an SF reader tends to decode the language used
>in different ways from an MF reader, and here you talk about the
>focus of the writer's discursive energy.  I'm still not sure I
>completely agree with your characterization of SF.

A fussy point: Actually, I didn't say anything about the "writer's"
discursive energy. If you recall, I put some emphasis on the expectations
a reader brings to a text based on genre. The energy of the discourse
is provided, not by the writer, nor by the text, but by the reader.
As I said: The story doesn't exist unless someone reads it. A writer's
skill is to produce a text with which a skilled reader can interact to
produce an interesting-to-the-reader discourse. This means that the
text provides direction to the reader's energy.

One example of this skill is efficiency: a writer who says something
thing in fewer and less complex words will generally provide more
pleasure to more readers than a writer who says "the same thing" in
more and more complex words -- a wellknown principle, best and most
often summed up in Strunk's Rule Seventeen ("Omit needless words").
This is a simple economic rule, which works as it does because the
reader expends a certain amount of energy decoding each word and
fitting it into the textus/web/discourse of the read text; more words,
and more difficult words, mean more energy expended.

This doesn't mean that a complex or ornate style is necessarily bad,
but that there has to be a commensurate payoff for it - if the
complexity doesn't add some pleasure to the discourse, the reader
gets less for her investment of time and energy. (Note that style
can itself be a source of pleasure for some readers, but in today's
world, where most readers are harrassed workers [including middle-
class workers], rather than the leisure class, relatively few readers
ever learn to enjoy the pleasure of style as such -- which is, among
other things, one reason why modern poetry and the "average" reader
have become more and more alienated from each other. It is also why
Gene Wolfe wins the occasional Nebula and WFA but no Hugoes. His
fiction is too much _work_ for a significant fraction of the SF

>I'm not an expert on genre criticism, especially in book form, but
>in film criticism, some critics define genres by the semantic and
>syntactic elements of the films which comprise it's body.  The
>semantic elements are the individual story items whereas the
>syntactic elements are the structure and themes of the story.  To
>use Westerns as an example, some semantic elements are the Western
>landscape, cowboy hats, six-shooters and horses.  Some syntactic
>elements are the struggle between law and chaos and the journey
>of a solitary hero.  It's important to note, of course, that not
>every work representative of the genre will include all of the
>elements, merely that they will draw from the pool of elements
>typical to the genre.

This is rather different from the linguistic conception of semantics
and syntax. I think it would take a while for me to wrap my head
around it.

(On the other hand, they come close to what I would think of as
paradigmatic and syntagmatic...)

At any rate, you're describing a labeling of genres by manifest
content. This is possible but problematic. But then, every attempt
to define genre, that I know of, turns out to be problematic;
which is why I suggested, early in this conversation, that a
genre (and particularly SF) is best described as a fuzzily-bounded
group of texts produced by a fuzzily-bounded set of writers, working
in awareness of each other so as to produce a metatextual tradition
and dialog.

Two simple and fairly well-known examples of such dialog:

o THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is clearly written as part of a dialog
  that also features Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" stories.
o Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR is an explicit and radical reply
  to Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS.

This is not to say that SF speaks only to other SF. It speaks to SF
readers, and it speaks to the "real" (consensual) world.

>A lot of "soft" SF is mainly focused on the subjective experience
>and emotional state of the characters.  For example, most of the
>works of Orson Scott Card.  True, he does spend some portion of
>each story explaining the SFnal semantic elements it includes, but
>the vast majority of the text is concerned with the subjective
>experience of the characters and the ways in which their situations
>affect them.  How different, then, is an SF writer like Card from,
>say, John Irving?

I would say, radically different. Taking a "best-known" work of
each of them:

ENDER'S GAME is a war story. (As such, it's also in dialog with
-- fairly explicitly -- STARSHIP TROOPERS, but that's a side point.)
It does, yes, deal with the subjective experience of Andrew Wiggen.
But the focus of the text is not on Ender's subjective states, but
on the objective occurrences in his world. In fact, the principal
irony of the story -- and I do hope everyone's read it, because I'm
blowing off the ending for anyone who hasn't -- is that his subjective
experience is falsified. He is led to believe that he's playing war
games, practicing, but in objective fact, he's delivering a fatal blow
to an entire alien race. ENDER'S GAME -- like much "soft" SF --
deals with the play of the subjective and the objective.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP is an absurdist mock biography. I think
of Irving as an existential humorist. A number of Bad Things happen
to Garp and those around him in the course of the story, but the
focus of the book is on what they mean to him and what they make
him -- it's kind of a bildungsroman in that sense -- and how, in the
end, it don't mean sheeyit. The objective events in the story have
an odd, almost mechanistic, feeling of fatalism: you can trace a line
of cause and effect, but it has nothing to do with desert. Shit just

>Card spends a certain amount of energy explaining
>the futuristic technologies and exotic settings in his stories, but
>no more so than Irving spends discussing the history of certain
>small New England towns in his.  But that exposition is not the
>point or main thrust of either narrative, rather, it is merely the
>setting or external actions that influence the characters. Both writers are 
>far more concerned with the actions and emotions of the characters than 
>anything else.

This implies a misunderstanding of what I mean by subject-orientation
and object-orientation.

Irving uses objective events to trigger and validate Garp's
subjective reactions and realizations that are the principal focus
of his story, what he analyzes.

Card uses Ender's subjective reactions and realizations to valorize
and intensify the objective events that are the focus of his story,
what he analyzes.

(Ender's emotions serve, in part, to present Card's analysis of the
objective events. Irving doesn't use Garp's emotions this way.)

>Syntactically, "soft" SF has a lot
>in common with a lot of the more plot-driven MF out there.  I think
>that your characterization seems very appropriate for the more
>"high-brow" parts of MF and for "hard" SF, but I'm not sure that
>it includes "lighter" works into each genre that should be included.

Perhaps I've given the impression that I'm considering this as a
binaristic opposition. I don't mean it that way. The discourse of
most (all?) fiction plays back and forth between the object and the
subject. Sometimes the subject is emphasized to the point where the
object becomes insignificant, as in Kafka; sometimes the object is
emphasized similarly, as in Clarke.

In MF, and especially of the "literary" variety, the focus and
analysis tend to privilege the subject; in SF, and especially hard
SF, they tend to privilege the object. The rhetoric of each has
developed accordingly.

One could draw a sort of spectrum. Taking some of the writers
who've been mentioned in this discussion as data points:




>Unfortunately, it seems that what constitutes a genre depends
>highly on who is asked, and should that be the case?

Again, very much so - in my first or second post in this thread,
I pointed out that "genre" means very different things to a reader,
a critic, a publisher, and a bookseller.

>To me, Vonnegut _has_ written SF, even if he doesn't think so, because he 
>uses certain semantic elements that are a part of the SF genre.

He published some of his early work in SF magazines. That's the
other thing I keep trying to emphasize: a genre isn't noun or
pigeonhole; it's an adjective, and can be combined with other
adjectival genres to describe the same text. Nora Roberts, as
J.D. Robb, writes a series of novels that fit any reasonable
reader's generic expectations for at least four genres: "Hot
romance," "Social SF," "Suspense thriller," "Police-procedural

We have this particular prejudice, where we want to place SF
in a binaristic opposition with MF. I don't think it quite
works that way. (ARROWSMITH, anyone? MAROONED? THE ANDROMEDA

>Marketing differences and the disdain of certain critics for
>genre fiction should not be the defining characteristics of the
>genre.  Thus I consider people like Vonnegut and Crichton to be
>SF writers.

I consider them writers. I consider some of their texts to be
descriptable as SF -- not all. (MOTHER NIGHT, possibly Vonnegut's
finest novel, has absolutely no element that anyone could plausibly
label STFnal; ditto for GOD BLESS YOU, MISTER ROSEWATER and a number
of short stories. Crichton has written several such books also.)


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