From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes"
Subject: Re: (urth) Generic Considerations Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2003 17:03:44 -0700 Me: > > 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 ... Hitsuji: >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 readership.) >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 happens. >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: PRIVILEGED OBJECT Clarke Asimov Card Clancy Wolfe Crichton Irving Proust (Nabokov?) Vonnegut Kafka PRIVILEGED SUBJECT >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 mystery." 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 STRAIN?) >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.) --Blattid _________________________________________________________________ The new MSN 8: smart spam protection and 2 months FREE* http://join.msn.com/?page=features/junkmail --