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April 11, 2013

Speculative fiction: the superset of all possible literature

Novelist J. Robert Lennon wrote recently on Salon.com that young writers should avoid reading much contemporary literary fiction because most of it is terrible. (The essay, in fact, is headlined: "Most Contemporary Literary Fiction Is Terrible.") It's a well-argued piece, worth reading, but what really caught my attention was this passage:

But a fiction writer ought to engage with other parts of the culture, too. This includes reading outside one's genre — I happen to favor sci-fi and mystery, but I think it's fine for literary writers to read YA, romance, fantasy or whatever they please. Literary writers are in the privileged position of being permitted to raid any genre for tools to subvert and repurpose.
The emphasis there is mine, on a sentence I find troubling. I certainly support Lennon's contention that writers—all writers—should read widely, and read what they enjoy. What's problematic to me is that word privileged, as if writers of "literary" fiction inhabit in some class superior to writers of other genres, and they're the only ones permitted to reach down and rummage through the toolboxes of their inferiors, and then only for purposes of upending genre conventions.

This is a limited, and limiting, view of genre. It implies that no genre but literary fiction can amount to more than the sum of its tropes, and that the tropes of genre fiction are only useful to the literary writer insofar as they can be employed to ironic or postmodernist ends.

Both those implications are false. Central to Lennon's essay is the proposition that most of contemporary literary fiction is stuck in an insular, navel-gazing loop—in other words, that it continues to reinforce and perpetuate its own tropes. A few works might break out of that cycle and transcend it, Luminarium by Alex Shakar but if we accept that most works in the category are stuck inside a constraining boundary of accepted elements, then we are defining literary fiction as a genre. And if any works in that genre are capable of transcending its limitations, then why can't works in any other genre do the same?

Editor Moshe Feder once described the processing of borrowing and lending between genres to me in terms of blood types. (He in turn had borrowed the metaphor from someone else, and I'm sorry I don't recall from whom.) He said that genres all have different capacities for giving and getting. At one end of the spectrum is the mystery genre, the Type O or universal donor of literature, which can lend its tropes to any other genre. At the other end is speculative fiction*, the Type AB or universal recipient, which can take in tools and techniques from all other genres. Arrayed between are all other genres, including romance, western, spy, crime, and, yes, literary, each of which can give and receive to a greater or lesser extent.

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh This is a useful and pleasing metaphor in some ways, but things are really more slippery and complicated than all that. I've always thought of the universe of fiction as a multidimensional spectrum, with all genres free to commingle and exchange their DNA. For every literary novel like Time's Arrow by Martin Amis that borrows fantasy tropes to ironic ends, there's one like Luminarium by Alex Shakar (last year's L.A. Times Book Prize winner for fiction) that imports science fictional tropes and treats them seriously and realistically. Likewise we have The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh, When We Were Real by William Barton, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, and any number of other works of speculative fiction that borrow liberally from what we might call literary techniques to varied and stunning effect. (And need I even mention George Saunders these days?)

In fact, I like to take my spectrum one step further imagine something along the lines of Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel or Neil Gaiman's Dream Library—an infinite library containing all possible works of fiction. The portion of this library containing works set entirely within the world of our consensual reality would be vast, of course—but relative to the size of the library as a whole, it would be vanishingly tiny. A smaller portion of that tiny portion of the library would correspond roughly to what we think of as literary fiction. Everything outside of that? That would be what we think of as speculative fiction.

Viewed this way, speculative fiction becomes the superset of all possible fiction. What this implies is that for a writer of speculative fiction to work at the absolute top of his or her game, that writer must be able to employ all the tools, tropes, and techniques of all other genres of fiction. Far from inhabiting a literary ghetto, we really inhabit the outer sphere of all possible genres, encompassing everything else—or so we should aspire.

But even that view is too limiting and elitist. What I really want to say is that all writers should feel free to employ the most expansive palette they want. Artificial bookstore distinctions aside, good writing is good writing, and that should be the pursuit above all else for any writer. It's what the writers I like and admire the most have been doing all along.

Ultimately, we are all writers of speculative fiction.


*A more inclusive and descriptive term for what you might know better as the science fiction and fantasy genres.

#SFWApro

literature | reading | science fiction | writing

April 5, 2013

On two of my idols: Iain [M.] Banks

Amid the staggering news of other losses this week, I want to remember to say a few words about Iain Banks, one my literary idols. (Two of my literary idols, really, if you care to think of his Iain M. Banks byline separately.)

I, like many of you, I'm sure, was stunned to tears on Wednesday morning by the news that Mr. Banks is suffering from late-stage cancer and probably doesn't have long to live. He broke the news in typically straightforward and mordant fashion, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

Iain Banks Iain Banks is an important writer. I can't think of another writer who so consciously, so prolifically, and so successfully divided his output between serious mainstream fiction and rigorous hard science fiction. He proved, at least in the U.K., that one need not confine oneself to a single genre or style of fiction in order to maintain a brilliant career. It would have been impossible to guess from his twisted 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory, that just three years later he would affix a giant M to his chest like some superhero of letters, fly into space, and bring Consider Phlebas back to Earth, introducing us to what may at the time have been the most mind-expanding and humane future society ever invented, The Culture.

And Iain Banks is an important writer to me. His books can be found all over our house—on the science fiction shelves, on the mainstream shelves, almost always in the to-be-read pile on my nightstand, and even, in the case of his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, on the alcohol shelf. He's a model of professional productivity, putting out a book nearly every year, and he's as fearless in his contemporary novels as he is visionary in his science fiction. (In 2002's Dead Air, he was already riffing on the meaning of 9/11 before other writers dared even think about it.) And his work is a constant inspiration to those of us who find ourselves attracted writing in more than one world.

I had always hoped to meet him, and never moreso than when I was bumming around Edinburgh drinking whisky with some of his friends. The news that I probably never will, and that the forthcoming The Quarry will likely be his last novel, is heartbreaking. I hope it's not true, but even if it is, Mr. Banks, you've already accomplished more than most of us ever will, and in doing so have always made the implausible look more than possible. Thank you.

cancer | death | literature | science fiction | writers | writing

August 23, 2012

The Quiet American: a cocktail

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jeff Lang sent me a link to Studio 360's listener cocktail challenge—create a cocktail inspired by and named after a classic work of literature.

I wanted to give it a try, but I wasn't able to work on it before the August 12th deadline. Last night I had some spare time, though, so I cobbled together a drink I'm calling the Quiet American. I combined 1.5 oz. of Laird's Applejack, 0.75 oz. of Créole Shrubb liqueur, and 1.5 oz. of blood orange martini mix (blood orange, key lime and cane sugar), stirred with ice, and strained.

The result was not bad—sweet and orange-y with a slightly bitter undertaste. It gets that name because of the distinctly American spirit (the applejack) getting all into the poor tropical country's business (in this case, Martinique). Of course, it was Vietnam in the novel, so my cocktail inhabits the entirely wrong part of the world, but hey, it was the best I could do.

Laura thought it needed more of something tart, like lime juice or a twist. I'll keep meddling with it, like a good American.

alcohol | contests | liquor | literature | novels | politics

January 16, 2012

Shaun of the dead of the dead

UPDATE!  After this blog entry was written, I emailed the text of it to John Hodgman on a whim. A few hours later, to my surprise, I received a response. His Honor told me he would endure my "gut punches" if I disagreed with him, but that I should not ask him to answer for Martin Amis.
Dear Judge John Hodgman:

I must take great exception to your summary judgment in a recent episode of the "Judge John Hodgman" podcast, to wit, that Shaun of the Dead is a comedy only and not a horror film.

Your Honor, this opinion is, if you'll permit me, patent hogwash. If we are to accept your definition of a horror film as one designed to provoke terror and dread in its audience and to help that audience confront and process their own existential fears as their on-screen proxies battle horrors from beyond the grave, then in what way does Shaun of the Dead not meet that definition? Yes, we may be laughing at the same time, and we may chuckle wryly here and there in recognition of nods to earlier classics in the zombie canon, but that in no way reduces our identification with Shaun, Ed, and the rest of our heroes, nor does it diminish our well-justified fears for their safety or our investment in their fates. Whatever yuks may be afoot, these characters are in very real peril, and we can't help experiencing that peril along with them. Shaun of the Dead clearly manages the feat of being effective comedy and horror both, at the same time.

shaun-meta-david.jpg I am weary to my bones of the tired assertion that a thing that is one thing cannot also be another thing, particularly when the one thing is seen as high art and the other as low. I recall years ago attending a lecture by literary enfant terrible Martin Amis at the NYU library. His New Yorker short story "The Janitor on Mars" had just been named by Locus Magazine as one of the year's top works of science fiction. During Q&A, a young woman asked Amis if the publication of that story meant that he was now a science fiction writer. Amis hemmed and hawed, eventually asserting that, while he had read and absorbed copious amounts of science fiction as a youth and certainly wasn't embarrassed by that fact, "The Janitor on Mars" merely deployed the tropes and language of science fiction to a higher literary end. It was not itself, he claimed, science fiction.

This, Your Honor, is so much mealy-mouthed rot. Something that quacks like a duck, though it may do so in an erudite, hipper-than-thou cadence with its bill raised snootily in the air, is nonetheless still a duck. There may be some "meta" purpose at work, but if we po-mo roughnecks have learned nothing else in the course of our rude existences, is it not that the very definition of "meta" is to be the thing being referenced? Have we failed to heed the lesson of the yin and the yang, which is that a thing can, nay, must embrace, embody, and give rise to its apparent opposite?

They in their towers of ivory glass may not like it, but I'm sure such an enlightened nerd as Your Honor must agree that science fiction can also be literature, that comedy can also be horror, and that from time to time even a judge can be wrong.

Yours humbly,
William Shunn
Science Fiction Writer

comedy | film | genre | horror | literature | podcasts | science fiction

March 1, 2011

Tonight's reading, and more

I don't say enough here about Tuesday Funk, the reading series at Hopleaf that I co-produce and co-host with Sara Ross. We have a great show coming tonight, with a lineup that includes Joe Weintraub, Keith Ecker, Maggie Kast, Steven H Silver, and Jenny Seay. I'll even read one of my poems (which is what I normally do, at least when I'm not reading someone else's).

We bill Tuesday Funk as Chicago's Eclectic Monthly Reading Series. We feature essays, poetry, short stories, and less categorizable performances in all genres of writing, but since being asked to help out with the series I've tried to shine a light where I can on science fiction. This month I'm very pleased to have [info]shsilver on the bill, and in future months we'll have [info]brad_beaulieu, [info]finitemonkey, and even a night featuring participants from this summer's Wellspring Workshop.

All of which is by way of saying, please come out and hang with us tonight! Hopleaf is at 5148 N. Clark St. in Chicago. The reading takes place in the upstairs lounge. Seating begins at 7:00 pm, the reading at 7:30 pm. Arrive early or stand! Click the image below for more info:

tf-postcard-2011-03.jpg

chicago | hopleaf | literature | readings | tuesday funk

September 9, 2010

My funky Tuesdays

One of the most exciting and unpredictable reading series in Chicago is Tuesday Funk, which takes place the first Tuesday of every month upstairs at Hopleaf Bar in Andersonville. Tuesday Funk has hosted wild-eyed poets, doe-eyed troubadours, and more excellent fiction, verse, and essays read live than you could shake a blue pencil at. I've been fortunate enough to have been asked to read there four times in the past couple of years myself, and I'm proud to have been considered an adjunct member of the Tuesday Funk family.

Reinhardt Suarez and Hallie Palladino of the Gothic Funk Nation have run the eclectic series with scary efficiency for nearly three years, but they're both moving on to greener pastures. I'm very pleased and more than a little humbled to announce that I will now be co-producing Tuesday Funk together with Sara Ross. We hope to keep the same great mix of genres and disciplines that has made the series so much fun in the past, while throwing in some curve balls to keep things fresh and interesting. We have some big shoes to fill.

While I never want the series to get away from its roots as a showcase for Chicago writers, I'd love to bring more out-of-towners into the mix too. So if you're a writer (or something similar) and plan to be in Chicago the first week of any given month, please drop me a line and I'll see if we have room for you. We'd love to have you.

Oh, another thing. Chicagoans, please mark your calendars for our next reading on Tuesday, October 5, 7:30 pm, at Hopleaf. I'll be reading again that night, together with a full slate of compadres, but most importantly we need to keep our attendance high so we can continue using Hopleaf's upstairs bar month after month. More reminders will follow, but I hope to see you there.

And finally, thanks to Hallie and Reinhardt for all their hard work, for their continued input and advice, and for entrusting us with their baby. We don't plan to let you down.

appearances | chicago | events | fiction | hopleaf | literature | non-fiction | poetry | readings | tuesday funk

March 1, 2010

Reading at Hopleaf tomorrow, March 2nd

Hey, Chicagoans! I have a reading coming up tomorrow, Tuesday, March 2, 2010, as part of Chicago's Tuesday Funk Reading Series at Hopleaf.

It's my fourth appearance at Tuesday Funk, where I'll be appearing alongside Lisa Chalem, Reinhardt Suarez and (my Writers Workspace colleague) "Etiquette Bitch" Marianna Swallow. I'll be reading a segment from my collaboration with Derryl Murphy, Cast a Cold Eye.

The event takes place in the upstairs bar at Hopleaf, which opens at 7:00 pm. The reading itself begins at 7:30 pm. The address is:

Hopleaf Bar
5148 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60660
That's just south of Foster, in the Andersonville neighborhood.

Hopleaf is one of my very favorite bars, specializing in Belgian ales but with a menu of over 600 craft beers from around the world. (It's cash only at the upstairs bar, which features a smaller but still extensive beer list.) All that and excellent Belgian food too. The readings are always excellent and varied, and I hope to see you there!

Tuesday Funk Reading, March 2, 2010

chicago | events | hopleaf | horror | literature | readings

January 8, 2010

Book launch party tonight!

Flowers for the grave (um, the one in the book) Just a quick reminder of my book launch party for Cast a Cold Eye, this evening in Chicago. All the event details are here:

http://tinyurl.com/coldeyeparty

Hope to see you there. The nice checkout women at Trader Joe's gave me free flowers for it this morning (I was there buying lots of wine), and it would be a shame for the bouquet to go unappreciated!

chicago | events | horror | literature | publications | readings | science fiction | writing

December 30, 2009

Cast a Cold Eye Book Release Party!

The problem isn't that Luke sees dead people. The problem is that dead people see Luke.

CAST A COLD EYE BOOK RELEASE PARTY
w/William Shunn
Friday, January 8, 2010
7:00 to 9:00 pm

Time and Again
1239 W. Cortland St.
Chicago, IL 60614
site | map

Come out to Time and Again in Chicago to celebrate the hardcover release of Derryl Murphy & William Shunn's new novella Cast a Cold Eye! Mingle with fellow book lovers, browse unique treasures from the era of the story in an elegant setting, and sit back with a glass of wine while William Shunn reads chilling selections from the book. (Readings begin at 7:30 pm.)

Cast a Cold Eye is the story of Luke Bryant, a troubled Nebraska orphan who lost his parents in the Spanish flu, and his apprenticeship to itinerant spirit photographer Annabelle Tupper. Fright.com says it's "well written, solidly characterized and imaginative ... works largely because of its richness and unpredictability." And World Fantasy Award winner Charles de Lint urges in the book's introduction, "It's past time for you to discover its treasures for yourself."

This event is free. Copies of Cast a Cold Eye will be available for purchase for $20, along with a few $40 limited editions signed by Derryl Murphy, William Shunn, and Charles de Lint. Please bring a friend, please forward this email, and please RSVP to feedback AT shunn DOT net.

Time and Again is a new, unique shop featuring something for everyone. Selections include fine Victorian antiques, vintage jewelry, clothing and collectibles, watercolor art and more, all housed in a funky, reclaimed space in the Clybourn Corridor.

The shop is located on Cortland Street, just west of Clybourn. Take the Brown Line to Armitage, or the Armitage bus (#73) to Cortland & Kingsbury.

chicago | events | horror | literature | publications | readings | science fiction | writing

October 27, 2009

Reading in Chicago, Tuesday, November 3rd

Hey, Chicagoans! I have a reading coming up just a week from today, Tuesday, November 3, 2009, as part of Chicago's Tuesday Funk Reading Series.

I'll be appearing alongside Robert Duffer, Lynn Suh and Chris Sweet. It's my third time at Tuesday Funk, where I'll be reading another sequential installment from my memoir The Accidental Terrorist. The reading begins at 7:00 pm sharp upstairs at:

Hopleaf Bar 5148 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL 60660
That's just south of Foster, in the beating heart of beautiful Andersonville.

Hopleaf is one of my very favorite bars in the world, specializing in Belgian ales but with a menu of over 600 craft beers from around the world. All that and excellent Belgian food too!

This is only Tuesday Funk's second time at Hopleaf, so by coming out and supporting the reading you'll help ensure that the series can return to this beautiful bar month after month after month.

I hope to see you there!

Tuesday Funk Reading, November 3, 2009

chicago | events | hopleaf | literature | memoir | readings

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