Us Versus Them, or What Happens When SF Fandom Can’t See Past Its Own Blinders

Recap: a few days ago, Slate published an article by Laura Miller with a few good points and much more numerous flaws.

SF/F writer Jason Sanford posted a response to the article and took to Twitter to counter it, focusing on its implication that science fiction and literary fiction are mutually exclusive. While my post is somewhat a counter-response, I have no quarrel with (most of) his specific words. Sanford correctly points out that literary fiction and mainstream contemporary fiction are not the same thing. (While part of its definition is subjective, literary fiction, like young adult, is a category rather than a genre and exists in all genres.) Obviously I agree with Sanford and others that the Slate article is largely asinine. There are precepts, though, that seem to lie behind some arguments and are definitely part of the speculative fiction field’s and fandom’s zeitgeists that I profoundly disagree with. 

This is a good example of some pretty pervasive nonsense that keeps coming up, demanding emotional labor and obfuscating actual problems. So while lukewarm takes like Miller’s make my eyes roll just as hard as the next geek, I wish that rather than go along with this silly false dichotomy, we’d ignore the shit out of it? Being provoked into us versus them responses like this (see also: the Melancholy Canines) inhibits us from collectively examining the problems in the field, of which there are many. An attempt to document those problems exhaustively would result in my literally never leaving the computer, but some that this conversation either reinforces (by ignoring them if nothing else) or seems to take as tacit assumptions:

  • An awkwardness throughout Sanford’s arguments and to which people with hegemonic power are prone (and of which I am certainly frequently guilty) is the conflation of the form, the field, and the fandom. The form spans widely across both space and time; the field, for historical reasons unable to be severed from colonialism and associated hegemonies of economy and culture, narrowly condenses in a particular set of publishers and is subject to the constraints thereof; and the community is not actually a community, but multiple overlapping communities with substantial differentials in networks per individual.
  • (I use the first person plural throughout this post, so in order to not add to this confusion: except where I refer otherwise, by “we” I mean the center-to-left fandom social media bubble.)
  • Given the above, that access to much of the field and the fandom is both based on privileges of geography and shaped by historical violences, perhaps waving an imperial flag over the tools is something we should stop doing?
  • Adjacent to points Silvia Moreno-Garcia made that are linked in the following bullet point: I can easily imagine a hypothetical writer insisting, for example, that their work not be described as SF, but rather metafiction, or allegory, or surrealism not because they’re Snobby McSnobsalot but because they simply don’t approach fiction through the framework of genre. Genre is far from the only paradigm with which to classify or consider art, and I see no reason it’s either inherently superior or inferior to any other. I do suspect the historical reason behind the fact that we Americans and Brits and such default to it to a much greater extent than other possibilities is simply because it’s most market-efficient for us.
  • The SF/F field creates literary aesthetic convergences that cater to whiteness and reinforce white supremacy and empire. I’m not as qualified to speak on this as the linked writers, but what I zeroed in on in Miller’s article was her comparison of post-apocalyptic fiction to westerns with no mention of the link each genre has to colonialism. I personally find it bizarre that any lengthy engagement with her work would ignore this.
  • Or, for that matter, the definition of “hard science fiction” she uses — “idea- rather than character-driven” — which is also a false dichotomy and historically has been used by fandom to dismiss science fiction written by women.
  • There’s some denial going on in this discussion: unacknowledged is the fact that SF/F fandom marginalizes the hell out of work that is not explicitly marketed to it. This includes SF/F that’s marketed by category rather than by genre, not only literary fiction but also women’s fiction and young adult. It’s easier to not get ass-chapped about this particular false dichotomy when your definition of “literary fiction” isn’t a quality metric (mine concerns introspection, and there’s certainly a lot of shit out there that just encourages useless navel-gazing), but putting those three categories on the same list shifts the paradigm, yes?
  • Following the preceding point, it seems to have entirely escaped this conversation that part of the reason for the misconception that speculative fiction and literary fiction are mutually exclusive might have origins in SF fandom. This is astonishing, considering that one of Sanford’s contributions to it describes fandom’s marginalization of Kurt Vonnegut.
  • As long as we’re on the subject of the term “literary fiction” meaning different things to different people, I don’t think it should be forgotten that during the Sad Puppy Hugo debacles, it became manifestly obvious that it’s sometimes used as a dogwhistle for “girl cooties” and/or “brown people.” While the former is not implicit in Sanford’s post (I’m unqualified to much of an opinion regarding the latter, but if it’s implied within I can’t see it), how this term has been used over the years has rendered it loaded in a way that his privileges likely make easy to either forget or never realize in the first place.
  • Some people came to this field by way of Tolkien and LeGuin, and some people came to this field by way of Atwood and Vonnegut. (And in case it doesn’t go without saying, there are many other paths, too.) Sanford’s arguments (likely unintentionally) send an implicit message that the latter don’t belong here as much as the former. Since that’s me, I would just like to note for the record that one of the potential side effects of us being manipulated into these “us versus them” measuring contests discussions is the alienation of “others” who are trying to make the field and fandom more inclusive.
  • (A side effect in which I’m usually inclined to be less generous in my assumptions regarding intentionality. So I hope I don’t come across as either antagonistic or cruel to Sanford, whom I don’t know personally but have seen around and seems like a perfectly nice guy; if this were just about his Slate response, I wouldn’t arse myself to write such a lengthy screed. This pattern — in which somebody, usually but not always a white dude, Has Opinions seemingly carefully calibrated not to threaten the interests of proximal power and then we get all stirred up — is oft-repeated and predictable. As a social ritual of solidarity, it would be fine but for the fact that the phenomenon seems almost designed to inhibit collective growth and which at least serves to, to a greater extent than the Howling Hounds could ever hope to accomplish themselves.)
  • Some people read primarily by category before genre; that’s valid. Hell, that’s also me. I don’t write in this blog much anymore (having become acquainted with a much more aggressive problem than the marginalization of women in general), but it concerns the intersection of women and SF/F, and hate to break it to y’all, but if I did have to choose between only being able to read women’s fiction — that is, fiction about and for (and usually, but not always, by) women — and only being able to read speculative fiction, I’d choose the former over the latter every time. (There’s a good deal of overlap, of course, which was again the original subject of this blog.) The fact that I will never not find Historical Novel About Ann Boleyn #82,641 more appealing than A. Whiny Doggo’s Macho Libertarians In Space doesn’t make me any less of a fan, and to suggest otherwise would imply that I should choose “the community” (read: white male interests) over myself. This particular kerfuffle, for me, feels like a loyalty test.
  • Speaking of, perhaps my biggest problem with Sanford’s arguments is also the most subtle and the most complicated: they reinforce the demand for participation in the “SF community” as necessary for legitimacy. I’ve got a lot of problems with the term “SF community,” some of which are noted in this post’s first bullet point, but what communities, capitalism, and organized SF/F fandom all have in common is that they are built with and depend largely on the unpaid labor of women. Participating in the “community” is work, and the dynamics of (1) who is compensated (2) by how much (3) for what work are highly gendered and highly racialized. The attitude that people owe “the community” unpaid labor (organizational, emotional, etc.) is very common, systemically manifests as an imperative, and has white entitlement and male entitlement as a foundation.
  • As to the two prior points, I’ll reiterate something I’ve said elseweb that somehow always seems to become relevant around Hugo season: gentlemen of SF/F, I am not here for your rockets.
  • (Broadly applicable.)
  • Seriously though, how do we not see that we’re exhibiting attitudes similar to those of the Sad Puppies?? While simultaneously obfuscating the fact that things they said that we rightfully condemned (their statements on diversity) or mocked (“Nutty Nuggets”) are actually pervasive field-wide problems?

There are other reasons why falling prey to these “us versus them” provocations are not a good idea, such as that such reductive views of literature are bad for artistic health, but the fact that the outcome is exclusionary should be enough. And the above problems are doing far more harm to our field than some snotty critic ever could.

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6 Responses to Us Versus Them, or What Happens When SF Fandom Can’t See Past Its Own Blinders

  1. Pingback: Friday Links (crayons of all kinds editions) | Font Folly

  2. thcyo says:

    “unacknowledged is the fact that SF/F fandom marginalizes the hell out of work that is not explicitly marketed to it. ”

    You know when people look for science fiction books they go to the part of the bookstore where they can find said books. If the book, for whatever reason, is marketed as not science fiction it won’t be found in that part of the bookstore. It’s very east hen to point and say “Ha, this book not marketed towards science fiction fans is being marginalized by science fiction fans.”
    There are also plenty of examples of books that aren’t science fiction that are celebrated as such because they were marketed as them.

    I mean is there any way that we can talk about genre, fandom, or science fiction with out actively bringing politics? I mean SF seems to have turned itself into patchwork landscape of various entrenched critics and fans who basically add nothing to SF except trying to redefining as theirs and not yours.

    • cecilykane says:

      *raises eyebrows*

      As this: SF seems to have turned itself into patchwork landscape of various entrenched critics and fans who basically add nothing to SF except trying to redefining as theirs and not yours.

      was, like, my entire point, and this:

      I mean is there any way that we can talk about genre, fandom, or science fiction with out actively bringing politics?

      assumes there is any such thing as science fiction that is inherently apolitical — as opposed to, say, espousing politics with which you agree and/or find invisible — I really can’t find the substance of your argument, here.

      • thcyo says:

        I’m more interested in celebrating the art of science fiction, since it is literature rather than a town hall meeting. But that’s not what people seem to want, instead what they do is use science fiction as a way to push their own politics into the field.

        And your article is not free of that. Your idea of equating sf “community” as white male interests is just that same old, “my politics vs your politics.”

        There is no reason to break up the genre and the fans who read with in the genre into some kind of political units, as you do.

        What I see is the Sf field becoming more and more political, from people asking for diversity quota’s on SF awards to sad puppies hijacking the awards. Sf should be, and perhaps still is, about a celebration of the art, not about pushing personal politics through a keyhole.

      • cecilykane says:

        Unfortunately, nested comments seem to have run out of room, but addressed to thcyo:

        There is no science fiction that is apolitical.

        There is no such thing as science fiction that doesn’t use itself to push politics into the field.

        There are merely politics with which you already agree, or are unable to see because they reside in hegemonic power that you hold.

        Which I am guessing is the hegemonic power of the white dude, because literally no one else in this society is acculturated with such a sense of entitlement to use the comments section of a personal blog to explain a blog post to its writer.

        The little mental energy I have spent on this is already far more than it is worth, so: laterz.

  3. thcyo says:

    Ah I see your point. Didn’t know if you liked people commenting. Feel free to delete if you wish.

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