Read the essay before you join the reaming



A while back The New York Review of Science Fiction accepted an essay of mine called "Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment's Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction." Well, I guess the essay has been published because I've already infuriated the first subscriber of that wonderful publication (not that infuriation was my intention).

Matthew Cheney writes a blog called "The Mumpsimus" and evidently my essay caused him to spend "the last hour yelling at all of the various moving boxes" in his apartment. He also has a lot of other truly unique words to express his view of my essay. Cheney's rebuttal consists mainly of arguing that there isn't a true literary establishment and that I'm part of the "special, marginalized club" of science fiction writers who have martyr complexes over not being accepted by the greater literary world.

Now, anyone who knows me will laugh at this last statement. Through my work with storySouth and the Million Writers Award, I have tried to show that the best writing exists outside of genre. While I’m a firm believer in Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything is crap, the remaining 10% can be an amazing thing to behold, whether or not its classified as literary fiction or speculative fiction.

A number of people have since commented on Cheney's blog attack, including authors L.E. Modesitt and Eric Bosse. Personally, I agree with Modesitt, who says there's more a sense of "cultural indoctrination" among the literary elite than any single monolithic literary establishment.

But that actually brings me to the irritating point about all this—how people are commenting on the essay without having read it. Obviously Cheney and Modesitt read the essay. But I'm not sure the other online commentators discussing Cheney's attack have (and since the essay's not available online, I can't give readers a link). Despite Cheney’s words, the essay isn't about whether or not there is a literary establishment; instead, the essay focuses on how literary fiction is now appropriating the themes and tropes of speculative fiction.

As stated in the essay, literary trends in recent decades have veered toward the unreadable subgenres of metafiction and “small novels.” Metafiction is, at essence, fiction about fiction. This fictional form is laced with large amounts of irony and self-conscious reflection, with David Forest Wallace’s Infinite Jest being one of the best-known recent examples. As for the small novel, perhaps Pulitzer-Prize winner Gail Caldwell best described this type of fiction as the “myopic sensitive heart-rending personal blah, blah, blah, blah, blah small novel.”

As a result of focusing on these types of fiction instead of stories which offer actual plot, character development, and insight into life, fewer people than ever before are reading literary fiction. In an attempt to change this, some of the top literary writers (like Cormac McCarthy) have been producing novels that take on the larger-than-life ideas and themes found in speculative fiction. Despite this change, and despite the amazing reception these literary speculative fiction novels have received, most of the people who make up the literary establishment (such as top-level book reviewers) continue to praise literary authors who write speculative fiction, but denigrate books on similar themes by spec fic authors. The essay explores all this through the reaction to The Road, McCarthy's amazing Pulitzer-Prize winning post-apocalyptic novel, and how the very people who praised that novel felt quite comfortable ignoring the previous spec fic novels in this subgenre which influenced McCarthy's book, like Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Some of these reviewers even showed their ignorance of literature by instead acknowledging such questionable influences on McCarthy as the Night of the Living Dead and Mad Max films.

Before people praise the “smackdown” Cheney supposedly laid onto me, grab a copy of the NYRSF and read the essay for yourself. I think you’ll find that the reports of my reaming have been greatly exaggerated.

Update: While I disagee with David Moles' view of my essay, I have to give him credit for this hilarious book cover mockup.

Jonathan McCalmont also offers an interesting analysis of all this in Sanford and Cheney on Genre and the Literary Establishment.