Saturday, November 16, 2013

Book Notes: Controversialists At Loggerheads

Sorry, Gentle Reader. If I write more about politics just now, my brain is likely to explode. As I expect to need it for a few more years, I'll dedicate this fine morning to one of my other fascinations.

When I'm not haranguing you about some political, sociological, or religious subject, I'm writing:

There are "gray zones" along the edges of all the genres mentioned (and unmentioned) above...well, except for C++, which has an ANSI specification, though most compiler vendors think nothing of violating it. The "gray zones" are where a story more-or-less inside one genre incorporates elements from another one. When the proportions approach equality, we speak of "hybrids," as in SF/fantasy, SF/horror, and most controversially today, SF/romance.

Writer/commentator Theodore Beale, perhaps better known on the World Wide Web as "Vox Day," has some rather strident opinions about that last mixture:

I must confess that I am rather enjoying the way in which my original assertion from 2005 has now become an established meme in the science fiction community. Sure, they intend it in an ironic way, but the publication will almost certainly provide additional supporting evidence for my hypothesis that women have destroyed the SF/F literary subgenre by feminizing it.
Women Destroy SF — Special Issue

September 5, 2013 — It could be said that women invented science fiction; after all, Mary Shelley wrote what is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel (Frankenstein). Yet some readers seem to have this funny idea that women don’t–or can’t–write science fiction. Some have even gone so far as to accuse women of destroying science fiction with their girl cooties.

So to help prove how silly that notion is, Lightspeed is proud to announce that in 2014 we’ll be publishing a “Women Destroy SF” special issue, with a guest editor at the helm. More details to come soon, so watch this space!

Now, for starters, Beale/Vox obviously has rather high opinions of himself and his own work. I disagree with both -- I was unimpressed by what I read of his fiction, and his opinion writing is aimed mainly at stirring up controversies -- but then, most writers think well of themselves, and to blather onto the Web one must believe one's opinions to have some merit. Anyway, most of us aren't as smart or as skillful as we think we are.

Being an opinionated sort myself, I decided to challenge Beale/Vox with a few pointed questions:

You're treading on rather swampy ground here. While I too disdain, generally, bait-and-switch tactics of the sort to which you allude, there are some gaping gaps in your position as implied by the above statement:
  1. Are you prepared to state that an SF story should not have any romantic elements in it? If not, what are you prepared to say, distinctly and definitively, about the admixture of romantic elements into an SF novel?
  2. Whatever your opinion on question 1, are you prepared to offer a "template" for an SF story, in terms of allowed and disallowed plot elements, motifs, character types, stylistic choices, and so forth? If not, doesn't the whole contretemps come down to divergent tastes?
  3. If we retreat from the intensive, and traditionally frustrating, effort to create a bright-line definition of what SF is (and therefore, what it is not), are you willing to give us an extensive -- i.e., by example and tabulation -- approach to distinguishing it from other genres?

In closing: Pub World -- i.e., the conventional publishing houses and their support structures -- are oriented to the market in a way more terrifying than most persons are aware. (I say that as one who gave up trying to batter my way through their gates some time ago.) They cannot know beforehand whether a book will attract a sufficient audience to be profitable. There's simply no good way to probe that question, which is what gives rise to the editors' maxim "Give us the same, but different." By implication, their receptivity to the sort of SF/romance hybrid you deplore must be satisfying the empirical test of profitability. No matter what that might say about the shifting tastes of readers who shop at the SF shelf, that vindicates both the decisions of the writers and the judgment of the publishers rather conclusively.

Beale/Vox replied:

I don't think so, Francis. Allow me to answer your questions.
  1. No. Yes, to the extent that a novel that is primarily focused on romance and contains neither intellectual speculation nor science should not be considered a science fiction novel. Unless you are willing to go so far as to deny the existence of literary genres and sub-genres, you are indulging in little more than rhetorical hand-waving. It is not at all difficult to discern the difference between a science fiction novel like Frank Herbert's Dune, a romance novel like Danielle Steele's Matters of the Heart, a thriller like Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, and a mystery like Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.
  2. No. And no, it does not all come down to divergent tastes. Genres are observably distinct and one would have to be a complete fool to deny it. Now, cross-genre books do exist, but the point is that they are a mongrel literature, they are cross-genre rather than pure.
  3. You are simply incorrect here. The publishers are not profit-driven, as evidenced by their continued failure to pursue very profitable markets. You are confusing the motives of the publishing company with the motives of their decision-making employees, which are entirely different, and in some cases, in direct opposition. Neither of the two decisions to which I referred had anything to do with profit; both publishers knew that picking up the books would be very profitable for them. That's why they were talking to me in the first place.

As I've previously noted, I will have to get to around 100k sales+downloads per year before the profit motive will begin to overwhelm the ideological one. The gatekeepers are ideological and short-sighted, but they're not completely insane.

that vindicates both the decisions of the writers and the judgment of the publishers rather conclusively.

First, note that your logic is circular, as you suggest that whatever the publishers publish must be the optimal decision by virtue of their deciding to publish it. Second, that is obviously false when the writers are getting increasingly smaller advances while the publishers are selling fewer and fewer new books.

Rather than batter the poor man unmercifully for his inability to confront actual logic -- after all, there are...persons who maintain that that logic stuff is merely a tool of patriarchal capitalist oppression -- I'll simply note the following:

  1. To say that a category exists requires either an intensive definition or an extensive -- i.e., by example -- one. An intensive definition requires a genus and a differentia. To refuse to provide an intensive definition demands that one allow that there are "gray zones" around the category. To refuse to do either is to evade the question. This is the case regardless of what sort of category one addresses.
  2. Any approach to a subject that fails to provide specific postulates, evidence, and logical assertions consistent with one's postulates and evidence is inherently a matter of opinion. Others, being entitled to their own opinions, need not accept it.
  3. Publishers, like most of us, are in business for several reasons, but in the case of entertainment publishing, one of the dominant ones is to profit. A publisher that fails to do this will require either external support or a course correction, lest it fail. That some publishers -- mainly the ideologically-fixated ones -- are externally supported, and some others are failing as we speak, does not vitiate that statement. Neither does publishers' treatment of writers vitiate it; the reduction of advances and so forth are merely part of publishers' profit-seeking. Indeed, one of my agents used to brag that she specialized in getting advances for her clients that were unlikely to "earn out" in royalties. She noted that every agent strives to do exactly that...which is a large part of the reason for publishers' change in treatment of writers.

Ultimately, the entire subject is about divergent opinions and divergent tastes. I have opinions of my own on the subject, but I'm willing to call them exactly that -- my opinions -- and refrain from castigating those who disagree, or shoveling contempt onto writers who, secure in their own opinions, elect to "practice as they preach."


A Reader said...

Now that I think about it, the Dune Chronicles are completely devoid of romantic themes. Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine Jessica were completely indifferent to each other. They were so completely indifferent to each other that Jessica derailed a ten thousand year effort to heal the blood feud between Harkonnen and Atreides just for kicks. Leto wanted a son, while the Bene Gesserit wanted a daughter, so for no reason at all, she had a son. There was also no love lost between Usul and Chani. They had Ghanima and Leto III entirely by accident and without any complications or conspiracies to get in their way.

Francis W. Porretto said...

(chuckle) Romance is one of the fundamentals of drama, just as love is one of the fundamentals of life. It's certainly possible to write a romance novel, sprinkle a few SF trappings on it, and then fraudulently market it as SF. I wouldn't approve of such a book, and I doubt most other readers would. But it's quite difficult to write an emotionally effective novel that contains absolutely no romance. I can think of a couple, but I don't remember them all that fondly.

Glen Filthie said...

Sorry, Francis, but Vox dispensed with you rather handily in my opinion.

Asking somebody to quantify literature in measurable quantities is ludicrous. Art, literature, taste - all are matters of opinion.

As a former SF addict I find the genre has suffered hugely at the hands of women and short sighted publishers. I have come across far too many novels that are no more than boring promotions of homosexuality, feminism, environmentalism and other leftist claptrap. It's so bad that the SF sections in the bookstores around here only carry Star Trek, Star Wars and classics for the most part. The genre needs a kick in the arse and Vox is about the only guy that seems to be having any success in that.

We need more voices and talents like his.

PS - why did you shut down Eternity Road?

Francis W. Porretto said...

You're entitled to your opinion, Mr. Filthie – is that your real name? – but your comment is self-contradictory, as your own second sentence makes clear. It moves me to wonder whether you actually understand what I wrote.

The entire point of the exercise was to demonstrate why Beale/Vox’s opinion is an opinion, not a logically irrefutable position. Your comment actually reinforces my point.

Writers tend to have strong opinions about such things. As I said, I have my own. But I’m heartily amused by persons who strive to elevate their opinions to the status of unchallengeable truths – and I’m especially hard on persons who deride others for disagreeing with them.

Really, it comes down to this: If you're going to make a hard-edged assertion -- e.g. "Women are destroying science fiction" -- you had better be ready to cope with questions about your personal definitions, your postulates, and the margins of the subject where those things might become murky. Refer to Plato and his "featherless biped" for a good example. Beale/Vox is more interested in keeping the controversy hot than he is in such distinctions. In that regard, he's doing his fans a disservice by presenting you with an opinion you find attractive, and treating it as a proven doctrine rather than a statement of preference. That sort of card-palming rhetoric is unacceptable in discussions between intelligent, honest men.

Ironically -- and somehow I doubt you're aware of this -- I'm more in agreement with Beale/Vox's opinion than otherwise. I too deplore many of the books being inflicted on the SF world by writers who'd apparently rather write horror, or fantasy, or romance, or do-it-yourself guides to mounting an infantry invasion, but are attracted to the idea of having a position on the SF shelf. But I will admit that I deplore it for reasons of taste. This is called self-awareness; I heartily recommend it.

Glen Filthie said...

Pardon me, Francis - I ain't that bright and will happily defer to my moral and intellectual superiors with regards to my marginal intellect. I question you for enlightenment, not to mock or ridicule.

Just curious and the other mouth breathers up here in the Peanut Gallery would hold you to the same standard you want to hold Vox to.

How about YOU define what is/and isn't science fiction in hard terms? Remember your commitment to cold, hard truths...! And keep in mind your lofty disdain for mushy opinions!

How about you and Plato explain to us how it is that the publishers are losing market share and profits if the quality of their product - according to you - hasn't suffered at the hands of the authors producing it?
Why are men bailing out of the recreational reading market en masse?

Could it be that men share certain 'personal tastes' in SF that is not shared by women? And if so, doesn't that make Vox right? We know this is a market trend. Why is Vox's assessment of it so contemptible?

I dabbled in self awareness once. I looked in the mirror and saw a hairy, overweight old man and gave it up in disgust!

Francis W. Porretto said...

Your reading comprehension needs some work, Mr. Filthie. Once more, with feeling:
-- I never claimed that my opinion is any more than that: an opinion.
-- I don't disagree materially with Beale/Vox's assessment of the state of SF; I'm merely amused by his assertion that he knows and is privileged to say what is and is not SF, though he's not willing to define SF itself. People with high opinions of themselves are prone to that sort of error.
-- I'm equally amused by your high dudgeon at my daring to quibble with him. It suggests that you allow yourself no opinions that clash with his pronouncements. (I hope none of my Gentle Readers feel that way about me; it would be too great a blow to my still-inadequate humility.)
-- The only position strengthened by repetition is "I can repeat myself until I'm blue in the face!"

If it makes you feel any better, you're not the only one of Beale/Vox's acolytes to upbraid me. Why that should make you feel any better, I cannot say, but now and then people need the reinforcement of knowing that their opinions are shared by others, and the more the better. As I expect to stand alone before God in a very few years, and as I am aware that on that day no one's conduct -- or opinions -- will matter but mine, I try to resist the seductions of crowds.

"Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one." -- Henry David Thoreau

A Reader said...

Mr Poretto - I understand. Somehow everything I write has romantic overtones, even when I'm attempting upper-middle fantasy and despite the fact that I read very few romance novels. My favorite romances are Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, so the "vampires and werewolves and time travel Oh My" dreck filling the shelves these days doesn't work for me.

Anonymous said...

I picked up on of Vox's books on one of those one-day-freebie things on Kindle. I couldn't finish it. His opinions, referred to liberally in the dextrosphere, no longer interest me. Bring on the sexual tension in SF, just please fade to black on the particular scenes ... as the golden-hearted cad once said "I can imagine a lot." Thanks for listening.

Xealot said...

I will have to respectfully disagree with you in this matter, at least somewhat. Mr. Beale, I suspect, is referring to the fact that a lot of what is passed off these days as science fiction is just thinly-disguised romance or outright literary pornography (there was an example of Time Travel Dinosaur sex I came across once -- really foul stuff). Now, I am not enamored with Mr. Beale's writing abilities either, although he's much better than I am (I'm still trying to learn the craft), but his Fantasy work is at least bereft of this sort of drivel. For the record, although it isn't terribly relevant here, I am of the opinion that your writings are far superior to Mr. Beale's, though Vox does have some very thoughtful philosophical and political musings and I have a great deal of respect for him.

It's difficult to say, but I suspect the truth is somewhere in between your respective views. Obviously romance can be an integral part of a story, such as the aforementioned Dune novels. But Science Fiction doesn't use romance as a crutch, and Isaac Asimov proved that it is possible to write meaningful Science Fiction that is utterly devoid of romantic subtext.

Creative genres, as much in fiction as in music, are highly subjective things. But Metallica is not Classical, and Mozart is not Top 40 Pop. Neither, then is a great deal of modern Science Fiction anything more than romantic drivel, and poorly written at that. But romance within a Science Fiction novel does not necessarily dilute it, as long as the actual Science Fiction elements remain strong.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Xealot, you and I don't disagree on that. I was, and am, making a different point. It's very early in the morning, so I shan't belabor it just now. But I suggest you read the relevant bits again.

I'll return to this later, possibly with a second post.

Xealot said...

Perhaps so, Francis. Admittedly it's difficult to make sense of a debate that spans multiple websites. If your point is that Mr. Beale is erroneous in labeling himself as the arbiter of what is and what is not Science Fiction, we can agree on that. No one can lay claim to more than an enlightened opinion on the subject. But Mr. Beale does have a valid beef with self-declared Science Fiction authors who categorically are not.

If we can agree on that, then I will retract my earlier statement.

Anonymous said...

Ehhh, Heinlein's "Time Enough For Love".