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You should be ashamed... Very, very, ashamed. posted 27 Oct 2005, 16:10 by Cu'jara Cinmoi, Author of Prince of Nothing

NOTE: Harboutfront is in Toronto. The International Festival of Authors is a BIG deal, bringing in luminaries from the world over, and gaining all kinds of press coverage. They usually have only one token genre writer in attendance any given year (I think it was Kostova this year). I wrote this to [i:3cryih0w]The Globe & Mail[/i:3cryih0w], one of the festival's primary sponsors, knowing all the while that they would never use it. From Harbourfront to Hinterland (and Back Again) This past weekend, at the same time as the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront, the Philosophy Department of Brock University hosted an interdisciplinary conference on ‘The Uses of Science Fiction.’ The keynote speaker was none other Robert J. Sawyer, one of Canada’s bestselling authors, and a tireless proponent of both genre fiction and science education. At the end of his keynote talk, Rob was asked a variant of the old 'but is it real literature’ question. The problem with much science fiction, the individual suggested, is that it’s too invested in ideas. The idea becomes a tyrannical thing, flattening the characters, and snuffing out the particularity that makes literature ‘real.’ After commenting on the vexing nature of defining the term, Rob suggested that the best way to determine whether a work was ‘real literature’ or not was to simply ask readers what it was about: If they answered with a plot summary, then there was a good chance it wasn’t literature. If they answered with something other than a plot summary, then there was a good chance that it was. This, without a doubt, has to be one of the better definitions going. In many ways, we humans are painfully predictable. Since we have difficulty with complexity, we tend to simplify things with evaluative labels. Since we’re egocentric, we tend to rationalize things in flattering ways. Since we’re social, we tend to be keenly attuned to the vagaries of status. These tendencies are so fundamental that most of us are entirely unaware of the ways they dominate our day to day lives. But dominate they do. And taken together, they become variables in a very strange, and sometimes very troubling, calculus of human interaction. Take me, for instance. I write epic fantasy. While I was in grad school, however, I would always say ‘speculative fiction’ whenever I was asked what I write. For me, ‘epic fantasy’ was the genre that dare not speak its name. The only people I dared say it to were those who looked at least as geeky as I did. It wasn’t until I was published that I screwed up the courage to shout it from the rooftops. (At the time I told myself I was doing it for affirmation’s sake, as a way to ‘own’ my label, but as Rob pointed out in his talk, using euphemistic labels is self-defeating once you’re published, because the inevitable follow-up question is, "Where would I find you in the bookstore?" Now I’m inclined to think the whole ‘owning my label’ thing was just a flattering rationalization.) Twice, now, I’ve been invited to participate in local literary book festivals, and almost without exception, every time people hear me utter those words, ‘epic fantasy,’ their eyes hesitate, click to the surrounding crowd (as though looking for a fire exit), then click back in pity and embarrassment. Once, one woman suddenly shouted "Bob!" over my shoulder, then said, "I’m sorry, but I must speak with Bob." Since writing epic fantasy is what I do, I obviously think it’s the most important writing on the face of the planet. At the same time, I’m keenly aware of the status others attribute to the label ‘epic fantasy,’ that educated people whose opinion I otherwise respect, simply assume that I write formulaic tales about living lawn ornaments. As a result, I’ve developed an arsenal of defensive rationalizations, and I’ve copped an attitude of iconoclastic disdain. When I saw the photo of Jonathan Safran Foer on last Wednesday’s Globe Review, for instance, I was seized by paroxysms of wicked laughter. The velvet blazer, the scarlet-and-lime scarf, the Sears catalogue stare–everything seemed to confirm my compensatory animus. The shitty thing is, I know I’m doing this. I know I suffer a classic, Nietzschean case of ressentiment. But I can’t help it, not after seeing just how deep the pigeon hole goes. Which brings me back to Rob’s excellent definition of literature. It reminded me that literature is not so much a set of rules as a kind of personal event. It’s the readers, not the characters, who conjure truth and transformation out of mere words. It’s the rewriting of real assumptions. And this is why I think that in North American culture, the truly important literature, the transforming literature, is happening in the hinterlands and not at the harbourfront. In genre and not the literary mainstream. It’s Rowling, not Salinger, that’s on the pyre now. I worry that a greater part of the world is drifting away, that as the years pass, our culture is becoming more and more ornamental, more and more a kind of vast flattery feedback mechanism. I worry that events like the International Festival of Authors, which openly profess to occupy the cultural heights, simply reinforce and perpetuate the calculus of status, self-congratulation, and labeling that convinces the up and coming Jonathan Safran Foer’s of the world to write only for those already schooled in ‘serious literature’ and so least in need of it. I worry that the shame that made me hide what I wrote is an example of a more general incentive to sing yet more songs to the choir. There’s a telling difference, I think, between overturning to cater and catering to overturn. view post


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