13 May, 2009

Editorial: Unearthing the Origins and Replication of Bias in Speculative Fiction

     Welcome to the first part of an analysis of the bias against speculative fiction. As eluded to in my introductory post the reasons for bias are both past and present. While some of these have unjustly clung to the genre, others have are indeed merited.

The Past: The Origins of Bias against Speculative Fiction

     Some of the bias against speculative fiction undoubtedly stems from its humble origins in early pulp magazines. "Pulp" magazines, as their name suggests, were printed on cheap wood pulp paper, as opposed to family oriented publications, which were printed on better quality paper and thus were known as "glossies". Pulp printing began in as early as 1900 and at their peak in the 1920's and 1930's sold over a million copies per issue. Despite their success, it is fairly easy to see how the association of 'cheap' and 'fiction' became ingrained in the popular consciousness.
     Additionally, even before the pulp fiction movement, the literary world was already looking down its nose at speculative fiction. The general air of condescension  is exemplified by a critical review of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1831). The critic describes the work as: "a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity". To be sure, there were a few complimentary reviews, but most followed the vituperative of our nameless critic. The subsequent popular success of Frankenstein is testimony to the general appeal of well written speculative among the general public. 
     The divide between critical and popular reception has generally been the saving grace of speculative fiction as a whole. As my introductory piece alluded through LeGuin's rant, respected critics often fall prey to old prejudices when reviewing works of science fiction and fantasy. Inevitably, this leads readers to adopt, internalize, and spread a generally unjustified view of speculative fiction as somehow below 'genuine' literature.

The Present: The Good, The Bad, and The Literate

     So far I have failed to draw a distinction between good works of speculative fiction and bad ones. I have avoided this because I am loath to brand any author or work as good or bad, but I am afraid that in the context of this editorial it is necessary. If science fiction and fantasy are to have a respected place among other genres, then they must objectively merit that place.
     I fear that much of the current condescension towards the genre is invariably linked to a daunting overabundance of unimaginative 'pleasure' reading (you know what I'm talking about here). Publishing is, after all is said and done, about maximizing profit. If publishers can cheaply crank out ten market worthy books and turn a profit on them, they will do so. This doesn't mean that a truly good science fiction or fantasy book won't perform much better, but profit is profit.
     Publishers will often want a finished manuscript and at least another book in the series partially completed before they will consider the first. This reduces the likelihood that a great standalone work will get noticed and published. The logic is fairly simple: if its easy to sting fans along through an entire series, let make it a series! To my great disappointment, this happens all too often. A series will start out great and then take a sharp turn downhill. Whether or not this is due to publishers forcing sequels down the throats of their writers or the writers themselves catering to the market is uncertain.
     There are great science fiction and fantasy series out there, but all too often they are hidden on the bookshelf by trilogies that just barely deserve the paper they are written on. I feel that this gives the genre a certain mass market/trashy aura that is not entirely undeserved. This often leads to readers hiding their interest in science fiction and fantasy and thereby further propagating the bias associated with speculative fiction. 

On Norms: The Personality Type of Speculative Fiction Readers

     I could make this a whole other editorial, but I am endeavoring to be brief. It has often been inconclusively speculated that only a certain type of individual reads science fiction and fantasy. In an interesting blog post, Carol Pinchefsky speculates that the Rational personality type is more open to enjoying science fiction and fantasy. She admits however that nurturing plays a significant role in ones predisposition towards the genre.
     More generally, and in America at least, there is a generally accepted norm that pushes individuals to be rational and realistic. Since science fiction and fantasy requires the "willing suspension and disbelief", they can thus be understood as a guilty pleasure that deviates from generally accepted norms. I could go into a whole diatribe here on American norms and values and how they affect society's view of speculative fiction, but I will spare you the academic discourse.
     Thats all from my end. I hope you enjoyed the brief look at bias in speculative fiction. I am sure that I missed a lot, and I hope you will point it out. I am very interested in your opinion here, so let me know why you think there is still a generally pervasive view of science fiction and fantasy as a guilty pleasure. 


Fun at the Library said...

Your essay is well written, but it doesn't break any new ground in SF literary criticism. It doesn't even lay a foundation for critical evaluation of what is "good" or "bad" sf. I would maintain that in the long run, "good" sf is what the readers like, not what the so-called critics or academics like. And that can be judged objectively by sales figures. I maintain there is no objective standard of good or bad literature--it's all point ov view.

bloggeratf said...

@ Fun at the Library

I disagree somewhat about your good vs bad argument. There are measurable and, I believe, objective qualities that make for a 'good' book. Among these are originality, style, plot, pace, ect. These qualities generally do translate into sales though, so I guess your "sales figure" pitch is accurate enough.
If there were no "objective standard" though publishers would have little idea of what to publish besides going with their personal like or dislike of a book.
I guess that our views are fairly similar in this respect and I am surprised that that did not come across stronger in my piece.