A Sideways View of F&SF and "The Literary Establishment"

Earlier today, Mathew Cheney [whom I’ve known on and off since he was in something like fifth grade, and since he’s over 30, that might tell you that we’ve both been in this field for a while] wrote a piece in his Mumpsimus blog reacting to Jason Sanford’s article in The New York Review of Science Fiction. To stir the pot a bit more, I’m going to say that I think, in a sense, they’re both right in some fashions and totally missing the point in viewing the larger “literary” picture.

As I understand it, Jason makes the point that F&SF “don’t get no respect” from the so-called literary establishment, and not only no respect, but not even any acknowledgment. Matt makes the point that in real terms, there’s no such thing as a monolithic or even an oligopolistic literary establishment or an agreed-upon literary canon. Matt goes on to point out that, even if The New York Times attempted to impose such a canon, its reviews effectively amount to less than a thimble full of liquid in an ocean of ink.

Over the past almost fifteen years, I’ve lived in a slightly alien culture — Utah — where the prevailing faith dominates the local media, the local events, the laws, and even the scheduling of athletic events. Yet, Utah has a state constitution which prohibits strongly any religious interference in government on any level, and while the LDS Church occasionally makes pronouncements, essentially it doesn’t have to interfere, because the cultural indoctrination is more than sufficient for its purposes.

In a similar sense, since its very beginning, science fiction has had to battle a similar cultural indoctrination, one that I’ve become aware of on a very personal level as a writer. Over the years, I’ve had a number of highly intelligent people attempt to read my books… and fail. One of them was my own father, who was not only a brilliant attorney, but an accomplished pianist and sometime composer. The only book of mine he actually understood and liked was The Green Progression, which was a very near-future political/legal/regulatory thriller. For all of his intelligence, his wanting to read and enjoy what I had written, his stylistic mastery of the English language, and his wide reading of historical and contemporary fiction, he had one problem — he was so deeply grounded in the here-and-now that he could not accept worlds or futures based on anything that he did not know to be “real” and true.

In that sense, he was a member of that large group of people from which Sanford would claim the “literary establishment” arises, an establishment which Matt denies exists. The plain fact is that this group of people, many of them highly intelligent, does exist, but not as an organized group or conspiracy. No, most of them are not reviewers and literary critics, but some of them are. The problem isn’t that of a “literary” establishment, but the fact that any culture is composed almost universally of individuals whose thought processes and preconceptions are tethered to the present reality in which they live. That present reality is the basis of their preconceptions. Some can speculate slightly beyond the here and now. An even smaller number is comfortable in reading farther beyond the “now.” But… the farther one goes from the comfortable here and now, the fewer individuals there are who will make that leap, and even fewer who are comfortable with it. Even in the theoretically more open society of the United States, there are tens of millions of people who cannot conceive of, let alone accept, any sort of domestic arrangement besides a two-partner paternalistic, heterosexual union sanctioned by a religious body. There are possibly more than a hundred million who have no understanding of any theological system except those derived from European Christianity. Effectively, the vast majority of individuals from such backgrounds are self-alienated from science fiction and to a lesser degree from fantasy.

Fantasy gets around some of that barrier for many people by claiming, right from the outset, that nothing is real in fantasy and never can be… or that fantasy is based on folk-tales and the like and is merely cultural fancy. The fact that fantasy sells far more titles than does science fiction supports, I believe, my conjecture that alternative cultures, worlds, that postulate possible other realities are far too uncomfortable for most people. Even so, the current best-selling Harry Potter books, I recently read, annually total only some 10 million copies a year in English-speaking markets of some 400 million people.

There is no conspiracy or determined effort by a literary establishment to attack science fiction and/or fantasy, but individual attacks have occurred and will continue to occur. Because scholars, critics, critiquers, reviewers are all drawn from the literate population of a culture at large, the majority of whom are uncomfortable with alternatives and futures beyond the here and now, most of those scholars and reviewers will simply be unable and/or unwilling to comprehend alternatives beyond their comfort zone. Rather than admit such discomfort, they will ignore or denigrate that which they do not understand.

At times, this discomfort is so great that it blossoms into outright prejudice, where talented F&SF writers cannot teach at certain institutions or where critics blindly lambaste all fantasy and science fiction. This prejudice does not arise from a tight literary clique, as Sanford would apparently have one believe, but, contrary to what Matt has implied in his blog, from a large segment in society firmly and irrevocably socialized against science fiction and fantasy, and indeed against anything outside their “this-is-real-and-acceptable” mindset. Unfortunately, the majority of critics and reviewers tend to fall into this category, not because they are a literary clique or because they are “out to get” science fiction and fantasy, but because of a socialization they either cannot or will not transcend.

The “bad” news is that little we as writers can do will change adult minds already closed. The “good” news is that, in our society, we can still write and reach those who are open to re-socialization and an understanding that the universe is far wider and wondrous than those who will not can possibly imagine.