Jul 19 2011 12:28pm

Genre in the Mainstream: Summer 2011 Issue of The Paris Review

In Ray Bradbury’s fantastic book Zen In the Art of Writing, he took a few pot-shots at more “literary” publications insofar as he felt that the aspiration to be published in one kind of journal over another was immaterial to the budding writer, science fiction-leaning or not. And while I am one of the biggest Bradbury fans on the planet, and love this particular book, the pseudo-sneering at the literary intelligentsia is, in my opinion, becoming something of the past.

Through this column, I try to explore all the various instances where genre musings are taking place in more literary corners of the writing universe. And sometimes, very mainstream journals like The Paris Review turn their attention to a serious discussion of SF. In the most recent issue both Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson are interviewed. And their insights on writing, genre, and social issues are fascinating.

Of the two interviews, Delany’s is more revealing in an autobiographical sense than Gibson’s. Delany speaks on a variety of subjects, including how his race, sexuality and unique position in the culture shaped his writing. Perhaps his most interesting assertion is when he speaks about writing in a time when innuendo was necessary to describe more risqué scenes or actions. In talking about Bester’s Tiger, Tiger and Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Delany bemoans a problem he encounters with some of his contemporary students.

“If he raped her, why didn’t the writer say so?” “If they shot her, why didn’t Conrad show her fall dead?” my graduate students ask. It makes me wonder what other techniques for conveying the unspoken and the unspeakable we have forgotten how to read over four of five thousand years of literacy.

Delany also talks about what kinds of science fiction books he has attempted to get onto the various reading lists for the courses he teaches. He speaks about his victories to get Theodore Sturgeon or Thomas Disch or Joanna Russ assigned to his classes in place of some of the more “middlebrow” texts most casual fans of SF are familiar with. While I’m not sure that I think Asimov is any less literary than Thomas Disch, it does seem particularly important that a writer of Delany’s stature is making sure that the alphabet of science fiction writers doesn’t end with Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of Delany’s interview is the picture one gets of how singular of an individual he is. As a young man writing in the 1960s, Delany was black, gay and a science fiction writer! And for someone who has experienced all kinds of prejudices and biases, his tone and attitude towards his past is completely upbeat and unpretentious. Which is saying something considering that at one point Delany explains the correct reading of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

Though also very autobiographical, the interview with William Gibson dives into genre and sub-genre discussions almost immediately. The Paris Review interviewer kicks things off by asking Gibson “what’s wrong with cyberpunk?” Gibson replies:

A snappy label and manifesto would have been two of the very last things on my own career want list. That label enabled mainstream science fiction to safely assimilate our dissident influence, such as it was. Cyberpunk could then be embraced and given prizes and patted on the head, and genre science fiction could continue unchanged.

While I’m not sure Gibson totally intends this parallel, I find this statement to be particularly striking as an analog for the public perception of all genre in general. I’m certainly not the first person to realize that putting something into some kind of genre box will prevent certain circles from taking it seriously, but when a sub­-genre is created and isolates certain art even further from potential wider audiences the overall effect of categorization of fiction seems to be more keenly felt. Naturally, Gibson making statements like this, or even having the discussion in the first place combats this kind of isolation, but the notion is still a little jarring.

Like Delany, Gibson started writing at a very early age and notes that he was influenced by living in a small town, and thus had to cultivate his imagination in ways to avoid boredom. One particularly nice anecdote finds Gibson imagining an innocuous brick building in town to be where Sherlock Holmes lives. Also like Delany, Gibson seems to harbor a slight aversion to some of the more popular science fiction writers of the 20th century, specifically Philip K. Dick. Famously, Gibson avoided seeing Blade Runner while he was writing his novel Neuromancer. Earlier in the interview, Gibson mentions he was a never a huge fan of Philip K. Dick to begin with.

I was never much of a Dick fan. He wrote an awful lot of novels and I don’t think his output was very even. I loved The Man in the High Castle, which was the first really beautifully realized alternate history I read, but by the time I was thinking about writing myself, he’d started publishing novels that were ostensibly autobiographical, and which, it seems to me, he probably didn’t think were fiction. Pynchon worked much better for me than Dick for epic paranoia…

Gibson goes on to talk about whether or not certain aspects of his work are or are not dystopian. To this, he feels as though many readers, who consider these various fictional universes to be dystopian, simply are living more fortunate lives. To me, in this way, Gibson is illustrating just how relevant science fiction can be. Cyberpunk or dystopia is not a label you can put on fiction. The ideas that cause those labels come from real life. And that’s what guys like Delany and Gibson are always writing about.

Pick up the current Summer 2011 issue of The Paris Review for the complete interviews with Gibson and Delany and original fiction from Jonathan Lethem and Roberto Bolano.

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Damien G. Walter
1. Damien G. Walter
Not all science fiction is genre. Neither Gibson or Delaney are genre writers. The people who imitate their original ideas are genre writers. That's why Gibson and Delaney are in Paris Review. Many people who love science fiction aren't interested in genre at all.
Ryan Britt
3. ryancbritt
I'm not sure I understand the distinction you're making. Part of my goal with this column is to discuss how x interacts with y. I know the difference between mainstream "literature" (x) and "genre" fiction (y). But you imply there is a distinction between SF and "genre" that is clear to everyone. But mabye it's not clear to me. :-)
Damien G. Walter
4. Damien G. Walter
Hi Ryan,

Perhaps what I'm suggesting then is that Gibson and Delaney are actually part of mainstream literature (x) rather than genre fiction (y). If the PR had run an equivalent feature with, say, Richard Morgan and Peter F Hamilton, then it would be interacting with genre fiction. But it won't ever do that because those wrters are clearly "generic". Science Fiction is part of mainstream literature, genre fiction isn't. In many ways it's odder to see an article about Delaney and Gibson here on Tor.com, sandwiched between features on Robert Jordan and and StarTrek.

Damien G. Walter
5. Eugene R.
I appreciate the distinction in literary skills and/or challenges that Mr. Walter identifies when looking at William Gibson and Samuel Delany as "part of mainstream literature". However, I would contest the use of "genre fiction" as a pejorative instead of a descriptive. I think that we can usefully deploy "genre" as a term that helps illuminate a relationship among a group of works by folks like Gibson, Delany, Morgan, and Jordan, in their case gathered together as "speculative" fiction (fiction that postulates a distinct change in the world and uses said change to investigate or explore the human condition).

Additionally, I hesitate to remove or separate our favorite authors or ourselves from "genre" (and I do not say "transcend", that dirty word!) since I believe that the consequences of removing the term will produce damage to the associated concept of "genre as community" (often taken as the defining characteristic of genre, as per David Hartwell). If we lose our "genre" identity, I see us also losing our community, including active websites like this one and the regular gatherings at conventions. Mainstream literature produces little or nothing akin to these genre social networks, save for more professional academic meet-ups like the ALA convention. If we jettison genre, we risk social atomization.

Oh, and I quibble with the adjective form of "genre" being "generic". While they both derive from the Latin "genus", their current usages are antithetical, i.e., "genre" means "kind, sort, style", hence identifiable, where "generic" connotes non-specific, undifferentiated. If anything, "mainstream" literature, being a catch-all category (cf. "miscellaneous") is more "generic" than genre fiction.
Ryan Britt
6. ryancbritt
@4 Damien

Thanks for the clarification. And I suppose odd is what I try to do here! I think I understand your disntiction a bit better. Though, I suppose I like the power of the word "genre" and how it challenges people into thinking it's something "generic" and so I suppose I'm trying to subert that.

@5 Eugene
I think I agree with EVERYTHING you are saying other than one point. As somone who is around lot of different kinds of writers, I have to say your asseration that mainstream literary writers don't have social networks is totally untrue. As someone who runs in many circles; it's way more than profesional acadmeic meet-ups and ALA conventions! By a lot! :-)

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