Why SF Is not Welcome In the Parlor

                     by John Kessel

(first published in SHORT FORM, 2, 2, August 1989)

"Any writer who presents an American home today where the television is not the head of the family is living in a fantasy world." -Kurt Vonnegut "


The Best American Short Stories, 1988. Selected by Mark Helprin; series editor Shannon Ravenel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988. Trade paperback. $8.95


Let's start with an observable fact: no matter how well an sf writer writes today, if he publishes in an sf magazine he can't get into this book.

The collection reprints 20 short stories each year, along with a list of "100 Other Distinguished Short Stories." In the back of each volume is a list of magazines consulted, including Asimov's, Analog, F&SF and Omni. Over the last eleven years, no story from a science fiction magazine has even made the also-rans list, let alone gotten into the anthology. NO STORY. Nothing by Bruce Sterling or Gene Wolfe or William Gibson or Lucius Shepard or Kim Stanley Robinson. No Nancy Kress, Kate Wilhelm, Connie Willis, Karen Joy Fowler. Etc. Ursula K. LeGuin and Michael Bishop have had stories in the anthology, and Le Guin (5 times) and Thomas Disch (twice) have made the Distinguished Story list, but significantly, only for stories that originally appeared in places like The New Yorker or the Missouri Review or the Kenyon Review or Shenandoah.

We must conclude that, according to Shannon Ravenel and her guest editors, of the best thirteen hundred stories published in the United States in the last decade, not one has appeared in an sf magazine.

Why? Well, the most likely answer is that, despite her listing the sf magazines among the works consulted, Ravenel never reads them and knows none of the fiction they publish. But I suspect that even if she did, sf's representation would not rise much. In a minute I'll suggest why, but let's look at the anthology first...

In the last issue of Short Form, Lew Shiner attacked Mark Helprin's introduction to the 1988 volume of this series. Lew was angry about Helprin's attack on "minimalism." Helprin didn't define what he meant by minimalism, but I've read enough in recent years about the "movement" to produce a likely indictment (which mayor may not be what Helprin had in mind). Here it is: minimalism is plotless, contentless fiction that deals with too narrow a range of subjects. Minimalist stories concentrate too fixedly on the surface of things. They do this because they have nothing to say about the world or people in general. Minimalist writers merely manipulate certain overfamiliar counters around the game board of their plotless narratives. They're not about anything other than a few limited topics (marital infidelity, childhood disillusionment, urban violence), limited details of observation (brand names, clothes, personal hygiene) and stylistic tics (first person, present tense, flat affect, anticlimax). They contain too many rootless yuppies, angst-ridden suburbanites, and trapped working-class Americans.

If thatís what Helprin is arguing against, the contents of the 1988 volume he's selected don't offer much alternative. From the point of view of the sf reader, Helprin's idea of strong story values doesn't look much different from the minimalists' noodling. It's as if Helprin and the minimalists are duking it out over there in the same tight circle, while we sf types are out here somewhere else, not even in the Venn diagram. Stories like "Dede," "The Water-Faucet Vision," "Waiting for Trains," and "Entrechat" read long despite their brevity. Even when they aspire to carry mass they pack little impact. A story like "Banana Boats" (by Mary Ann Taylor-Hall) rambles on for 28 pages of shapeless reminiscence from the point of view of an old woman from Chicago, finally arriving at a beautiful recollection of a scene observed from a hotel window in Brazil fifteen years before. Despite fine writing and a wealth of observation, there is no structure to this story, and to an sf reader (me) the luminescence of the final scene does not compensate for the self-indulgence of the previous 10,000 words. Gardner Dozois would send these pieces back to the writers for more story. They depend for their appeal entirely on quirky voice, evocative prose style, slice-of-life accuracy of observation, strange characters, or an unusual milieu.

Helperin includes a couple of stories that are so odd in their structure or viewpoint that they do carry me along. "Still Life with Insects," by Brian Kitely sketches the entire life of its hero, an amateur entomologist, through a few brief excerpts from his collection notebooks. Rick Bassís "Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses," a twisted southern story about a weightlifting redneck existentialist poet, succeeds through absurd excess.

Then there are the conventional stories, among which I would name 'The Natural Father," by Robert Lacy, "Smorgasbord," by Tobias Wolff, "Way to the Dump" by E.S. Goldman and Robert Stone's powerful "Helping." You might like these as much as I did: they have plots, characters, narrative drive and tension.

Lewís answer to Helprin's attack on minimalism is that minimalist fiction presents "how things really are." Now, Iíll agree, it's undeniable that many of the things found in minimalist fiction are accurate portrayals of the surface of contemporary American life, but a steady diet of minimalism can starve you to death. There's no fiber in these meals. There's not much that extends beyond the page. Despite the fact that the stories he offers aren't much better, that's what Helprin's complaining about in his introduction.

Coincidentally, that's also what many sf readers find stultifying about literary fiction. We want resolution, we want drama, we want to know what things mean, or at least that actions have meaning and consequence. We have the idea that we can represent "how things really are" without focusing mindlessly on the minutiae of consumerist daily life.

It happens that the leading writer generally labeled a minimalist, Raymond Carver, edited the 1986 volume in this series. In his introduction, Carver said, "short stories are closer in spirit to poems than they are to novels." Shortly before he died last year, Carver also expressed an interest in the "longer" short story, by which he meant the story of five or six thousand words, instead of the "normal" length of three or four thousand.

Which brings me to why, whether it's being edited by a Carver or a Helprin, sf is not in The Best American Short Stories. You'd be hard-pressed to find a half dozen sf stories each year that "are closer in spirit to poems than they are to novels." And few sf stories come in at under five thousand words. Short sf typically is at its strongest at the novelette range. Carver's assumption of the "normal" length for a short story shows how odd we are.

Worse still are the two reasons sf stories are longer . First, sf has become, without knowing it, one of the last outposts of the traditional short story. It's hard to tell a conventionally structured short story in fewer than five thousand words. While mainstream writers--minimalists or not--have concentrated on saying less and less, in less and less space, sf has consistently pursued conventional narrative. Sf stories have the dreaded beginning, middle, and end. Rising action, climax, resolution. Good or bad, in storytelling methods modern sf short stories have more in common with the stories of Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, FauIkner, Hemingway, O'Connoróor O. Henryóthan they do with the stories in The Best American Short Stories. Sf stories are old-fashioned.

Second, the sf writer is often more interested in the idea behind his story, in some abstract theory or imagined background, than in close observation of the surface of reality. Along with shrinking the scope of their narratives, modern mainstream writers consciously avoid making large statements, drawing cosmic generalizations, defining moral implications. A minimalist may get Vonnegut's TV into the family, but he keeps his focus tight and avoids drawing conclusions. Sf writers, often to the detriment of their stories, love to pursue such phenomena as the Vonnegut television. We think day-to-day existence is illusory. Weíre into large social movements. Vast expanses of time. Technological change. Philosophical or metaphysical issues that transcend the here and now.

If the weakness of mainstream fiction is its deliberate smallness, the weakness of sf is its puffed-up size, its gauzy immensities. SF often pays so much attention to cosmic ideas that the story's surface is vague. Too much sf suffers from a lack of tangible reality. Muzzy settings, generic characters concocted merely for the sake of the idea, improbable action plots tidily wrapped up at the end. Too much preaching, not enough concrete, credible detail. An sf writer can get published without mastering certain things that most mainstream writers canít evade: evocative prose style, naturalistic dialogue, attention to detail. Refraining from editorializing, over-explaining, or pat resolutions. To us, the contents of The Best American Short Stories seem paltry and timebound. To them, the contents of Asimovís are overblown and underrealized.

Itís no wonder that sf never makes the Ravenel collection. SF is habitually strong in areas considered unessential to good mainstream fiction, and weak in those areas that are considered essential. It doesn't matter that to the sf reader most contemporary fiction is so interested in "how things really are" in tight focus that it missed "how things really are" in the big picture.

SFís different standards make it invisible to mainstream readers, not in the literal way of H.G. Wells's invisible man, but in the cultural way of Ralph Ellison's. It's not that they canít see us, it's that they don't know what to make of what they see. What they don't know about sf, and worse still, what they think they do know, make it impossible for them to appreciate our virtues. We are like a Harlem poet attempting to find a seat at the Algonquin round table in 1925. Our clothes are outlandish . Our accent is uncouth. The subjects we are interested in are uninteresting or incomprehensible. Our history and culture are unknown. Our reasons for being there are inadmissible. The result is embarrassment, condescension, or silence.


Helprin titled his introduction 'The Canon Under Siege." The "canon" is the accepted list of "great" literary works taught in universities. The guys doing the sieging are the new schools of criticism in English departments:  structuralism , post-structuralism, linguistic studies, reader-response theory, revivified Marxism, feminism and a new psychoanalytic theory. These new criticisms, because they challenge older ways of reading fiction, are attracting serious study to previously ignored forms of writing—most often books by women and blacks, but also genre forms like the detective story, westerns, romances, and yes, science fiction.

The radicals ask why these types of fiction have historically been considered unworthy of serious attention, and suggest the reason has been certain arbitrary assumptions about what constitutes "art" on the part of an entrenched critical establishment. (If you want to read an illuminating book on these issues, look up Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which, although it is primarily about writing by women, by analogy has a lot to say about sf.)

Despite the fact that Helprin has written a fantasy novel, Winterís Tale, I don't know what he thinks about genre sf and fantasy, but he clearly doesn't like this questioning of traditional literary standards. If Helprin is worried about blacks, women and genre authors invading the canon, then he's a reactionary and deserves a Bronx cheer. On the other hand, there are aspects of postmodern criticism that would make any writer wary. The upside may be these critics are bringing serious attention to sf, but the downside is that it's not because they see sf writers as serious artists—it's because they're undermining the whole notion of "serious artists" in the first place.

Postmodern criticism tends to relegate the author and his inspiration to a subsidiary role. The idea of the author as the autonomous creator in control of his own work is seen by most of these approaches, for various reasons, as a romantic fantasy. Not very flattering to us writers, to be reduced from a prophet to a linguistic automaton or a sociological machine or a psychosexual milk cow, ridden by motives over which we have no control, fatally compromised before we even set electron to screen. Read some of this criticism and you'll get the impression that there's not much comfort to be had from the tearing down of the elitist cannon. And besides, sf is not very high on the list of abused minorities.

A couple of years ago, dewy-eyed and optimistic, I attended a conference at Duke University on "Canonicity and the Politics of Literary Value." Although mostly about the processes and rationales by which works by women and blacks have been ignored by the white male English professors who have decided what is "good literature," there were discussion groups on "SF and Fantasy" and "Crime Fiction." Sounds pretty open-minded, right?

During one discussion session a critic named Annette Kolodny answered a conservative's protest that there was no room for new works in the typical college lit survey course with a long, impassioned plea to the effect that the open-minded scholar should teach whatever he or she feels to be good, and that that standard of goodness is relative, certainly not what is traditionally taught in lit departments. But Kolodnyís last sentence was (I paraphrase, but not by much) "Besides, if I don't reach these students in my class, instead all they'll ever read is science fiction."

Science fiction still had a long way to go. Sf may gain some respectability by being dragged along in the wake of other forms of lit in the postmodernistsí attack on the literary establishment. These new schools of criticism are at least able to see that certain groups have been excluded from the literary parlor. In theory, at least, they ought be better able to grant us respect on our own terms. But, as with white liberals who fought for black civil rights in the 60s, one can't automatically assume that understand our experience, and we shouldn't be surprised if they have their own agenda, in which sf plays a minor role, at best. They're still white and we're still black. For the foreseeable future we should expect condescension and smug incomprehension along with whatever attention we may get.