“The Hierarchy of Contempt”

After watching his excellent Bloggingheads dialogue, I stumbled across the website of Canadian science fiction author Peter Watts, which also happens to include free digital copies of his novels (so far, I’ve only gotten through Blindsight, but if hard science fiction is your thing, I think you’ll enjoy him). For the League’s scifi and fantasy aficionados, here’s a blistering essay from Watts on genre fiction’s respectability problem. An excerpt:

Start with a metaphor for literary respectability: a spectrum, ranging from sullen infrared up to high-strung ultraviolet. Literature with a capital L (all characters, no plot) sits enthroned at the top. Genre fiction, including science fiction (all plot, no characters) is relegated to the basement. Certain types of fantasy hover in between, depending on subspecies: the Magic Realists get loads of respect, for example. Tolkein gets respect. (His myriad imitators, thank God, do not.) Down in the red-light district, science fiction’s own subspectrum runs from “soft” to “hard”, and it’s generally acknowledged that the soft stuff at least leaves the door open for something approaching Art—Lessing, Le Guin, the New Wave stylists of the late sixties—while the hardcore types are too caught up in chrome and circuitry to bother with character development or actual literary technique.
I call it The Hierarchy of Contempt, and although you might point to exceptions at any wavelength, it seems a reasonable approximation of the literary “credscape”—according to the current regime at least, who hold the realist novel to be the benchmarkagainst which all else is judged.

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7 thoughts on ““The Hierarchy of Contempt”

  1. Meh. I love science fiction and fantasy, but to be honest, I am left less than impressed by Watt’s takedown of Atwood. I mean, he has a point about the mental gymnastics, but the larger point remains that almost everything that gets published under the rubrick of science fiction and fantasy is really, really bad. Cardboard-cut-outs-shake-their-heads-at these-characters kind of bad. It is understandable, if not particularly honest, that she wouldn’t want to be associated with that.

    Also, claiming that science fiction is disrespected because it is “all-plot, no character” seems to me, frankly, to be bunk. It is disrespected when it is poorly written, the plot clunks like a bloody Yugo, and the prose is purple as posies. Often, the only thing worth paying attention to in sci-fi is the neat toys and interesting theories the writer tinker with, because that is where the author’s love and affection resides. This can make for interesting concepts (and fantastic wish fulfillment), but horrible reading.

    This is similar to the reason I find his assertion about science fiction’s greater relevance than ‘literature’ questionable. First, I am not sure if it is still science fiction once we actually have the doohickie’s of the future in hand, at least not by the classic definition. Second, people are ultimately what matter about stories. If you can’t right worth a lick about people—and most sci-fi and fantasy writers simply can’t—then your technological wizardry will not make you relevant.

    Watt is juggling terms to make the prejudice against sci-fi to be nothing more than mere snobbery, when it’s often, sadly, based on simple good taste. There is no artificial demarcation that holds down books, no matter how well-written, in the basement of literary esteem. In the long run, although there are exceptions, good books tend to get recognized, regardless of genre, and bad books tend to get binned.

    A Brave New World, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Slaughterhouse 5, 1984, to Say Nothing of the Dog, Love in the Ruins, American Gods, the Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Cloud Atlas, hell, even Frankenstein are just a few books that fall within the realm of science fiction or fantasy that I consider to be very good books. Most have received recognition both inside and outside the genre, because they are well-written. To give a more specific example, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won the Man Booker prize and the Hugo on its release. It is a book about wizards. These books use the fantastic or sci-fi elements for the advancement of the story, which generally speaks to something in the human condition. Surprise, surprise; critical and popular acclaim resulted.

    Now, he has a real point that there is a reluctance to consider good works of sci-fi and fantasy to actually be sci-fi and fantasy, but my own personal feeling is that aside from the obvious snobbery involved, and the desire to avoid being tainted by an often terrible body of work, this is the case because good books tend to transcend their genre, regardless of what it may be. It almost seems wrong to pigeonhole them. In any case, this is something that is already changing as better works of sci-fi and fantasy continue to be released. We need to remember how young the sci-fi and fantasy genres are compared to how long the novel has been around. As they continue to mature, I imagine we will see some sort of harder demarcation between literature sci-fi and fantasy, and pop works.

    There is no need to complain about snobbery, as Watt does. It’s like the field of dreams. If you write it, and write it well, they will come.

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      • @North,

        Man, I know. I am so afraid to go back and read books I loved as a child, or even sci-fi others have recommended to me. Even some of the old Hugo winners are completely unreadable (the quality of the award winners has skyrocketed over the years, although I stillhave a special place in my heart for Philip K. Dick). I read Larry Niven’s Ringworld for the first time a while ago, as well as something or other by Philip José Farmer, and I could barely believe how bad the writing and the plotting was. Mind you, I felt the same way the first time I read a John Grisham novel.

        The Mote in God’s Eye, on the other hand, was just a lot of fun, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read an interesting sci-fi classic.

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