“Not Real”


Yesterday, on Salon Futura, Cheryl Morgan published an essay called What is Genre Anyway? Personally, I disagree what a lot of what was written and hold a slightly different view on what genre is. I feel the argument presented was a work of apologetics rather than definition. But perhaps this is symptomatic of my age, upbringing and increasing feelings of alienation from “The Conversation.”

Those feelings aren’t going to be discussed here. What I want to counter is an idea presented four paragraphs into the essay. I don’t think that the wrongness of what was written invalidates Cheryl’s entire argument. Although it did reduce my sympathy for what followed.

The paragraph I disagree with is:

Another common complaint leveled at science fiction and fantasy is that they are “not real”. Apparently far more skill is required to set a story in the real world than in an imaginary one. This is a bit odd, because the job of a writer is making things up. Making up imaginary worlds is hard, at least if you want to impress discerning science fiction fans. Then again, I know people who complain that the likes of Picasso and Dalì are bad painters because their works don’t look like anything real. “Why can’t they paint like Constable,” such people ask. It is an opinion, but it is not one you’d find expressed by serious art critics, so why do serious literary critics cleave so to the real?

I disagree. I disagree with every fibre of my being. Everyone has an imagination. Everyone day dreams. Every night thousands of people spend their free time inventing stories in groups playing table-top role-playing games or writing stories of their own. Making things up is the most natural thing in the world for humans to do. It is an important component of what makes us all intelligent creatures. Even if a person is not creative with their imagination they still dream. To say otherwise is to demean others from a position of insipid and false superiority. The art of impressing “discerning science fiction fans” I believe is less about inventing fantastic imaginary worlds, but instead finding how far the real world can be pushed until it becomes not credible to the “discerning science fiction fan”.

When an author is attempting to write about the real world, that author has to look at the world and their position in it. For an author to produce a work of fiction which carries some measure of truth involves looking very hard at themselves as an individual and considering how exactly to represent their place in the the world. It involves a level of introspection that I believe is missing from most science fiction even so long after the transrealist manifesto. In some societies when the work is actually about real life this has a tendency to get the work banned or even the writer imprisoned.


So yes, I think the act of writing about the real world ungarnished by the fantastic is harder because it forces the writer to confront who they are with nothing to hide behind. Writing about the real world is at the very centre of every good story written, fantastic or not.

Where the hell is science fiction’s Raymond Carver?

5 Comments

  1. kev mcveigh January 19, 2011

    It’s not that ‘making up imaginary worlds’ is easy or hard, but conveying that world, real or imaginary, to any discerning reader is a trick many struggle with.

    where is SF’s Raymond Carver? Where is LitFic’s Howard Waldrop?

  2. Cheryl Morgan January 19, 2011

    I see you point, and where I could have expressed myself more clearly, but really I’m not trying to apologize for anything. I also suspect you may have internalized some of the silliness we get from mainstream critics.

    The argument you appear to be making is that authors retreat into writing fantastical narratives because they are not good enough to write about the real world. That’s a variant on a standard dismissive meme of “you write X because you are not good enough to write Y”. It gets applied a lot to all sorts of fiction labeled as “genre”, and also to children’s literature. But how do you prove it? Even if you could sample all of the fantastical literature in the world, and all of the non-fantastical, and show that on average the non-fantastical is better, it may be that all you have proved is that better writers gravitate to those forms of literature that attract greater financial rewards and social status.

    So let’s go back to the art argument. I’ve heard people claim that Picasso and Dali are “bad artists” because they “can’t draw real people”. But serious art critics don’t make that point. They know those men went through the same learning process as any other great artist. They don’t make realist art, not because they can’t, but because they choose not to.

    The skills that you ask for: the ability to understand yourself, other people, how they interact, and many other abilities, are the basic skills of any fiction writer. As you say yourself, “Writing about the real world is at the very centre of every good story written, fantastic or not”, and that’s because you have to start from that point before you can be any good at all. To do fantastical literature well you then have to create a different world, new types of creatures and so on.

    It is a bit like the point that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but she did it walking backwards in high heels.

    I’m certainly not trying to claim that all fantastical writing is good. Much of it is pretty awful. The only argument I was making at that point in the article is that assuming that a book is, by definition, inferior, simply because it has a fantastical setting, is sloppy and stupid.

    Ultimately all books are about the real world. What matters is how well they are done, and how well they get their message across, not where they are set, of whether one of the characters happens to be a squid.

  3. Will Ellwood January 19, 2011

    I have to leave the house soon. So I can only give a few quick points. I believe the point that serious art critics also make is that Picasso and Dali could draw real people and objects exceptionally well before they started to create non realist art. To try and paint abstracted or surrealist art without the skills to render reality dooms an artist often to shallow mimicry.

    I believe that it is also fair to say that many writers start by writing fantastic fiction without attempting to write anything based on real life. Is it then only right for serious critics to ask of writers to posses ability to demonstrate the basic skills of fiction writing? This, I hope, is not me saying, “you write X because you are not good enough to write Y”, but instead, “you write X badly because you have not tried to write Y, and have no interest in Y and supporters of X are often happy to overlook and support that. Even if the best writers of X have also dabbled in or paid serious attention to Y.”

    The only argument I was making at that point in the article is that assuming that a book is, by definition, inferior, simply because it has a fantastical setting, is sloppy and stupid.

    You do this by sneering at anything not fantastic. In effect by dividing the discussion into mainstream verses genre you are also internalising a lot of the silliness that comes from both sides heavily invested in their camps. I desperately don’t want there to be divisions or labels. Ghettos start hurt everyone more the longer they exist. I want there to be writers writing good fiction who keep getting better without worrying about squids or kitchen-sinks. So if I’ve internalised any of the silliness which comes from “mainstream critics” I’m sorry, but while this straw man may be painting broad, inaccurate brush strokes against genre they may have points that are worth considering.

    Ultimately all books are about the real world. What matters is how well they are done, and how well they get their message across, not where they are set, of whether one of the characters happens to be a squid.

    We agree on that.

    (In fact I am now very late.)

  4. Cheryl Morgan January 19, 2011

    I think we agree on just about everything. Which suggests to me that you are only pursuing this for the purpose of picking a fight.

  5. Will Ellwood January 20, 2011

    I disagree with you when it comes to general attitude and outlook towards genre. I wish to see good work of all fiction as fundamentally being equal because they have something realistic, be it emotional or environmental, at their core. In your essay you presented the argument that the fantastic is superior because it is harder to produce, which, as I have said, I believe is false.

    I am sorry that you see this as me pursuing this to pick a fight when my intention in replying is to clarify myself after being told that I have “internalized silliness”. I doubt there is any further value in continuing this discussion though because we hold opposing view points, even if we both want good fiction as an eventual outcome and may agree on occasion what is good.

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