Why Our Heroine Does This Stuff (And Not Something Else)

8 February 2004

As I said yesterday, I got an e-mail from a new journal reader asking about why I write this stuff. Actually, the premises he works from seem interesting to me. So here's the question in front of us verbatim, kids: "And, what intrigues me most, why have you chosen this genre in which to work? Your diligence, discipline and reflections on writing and craft demonstrate a laudable seriousness. But surely you must be aware of a generalized sense that the genre (I mean the genre qua genre, and not your own work in particular) fails to merit serious scrutiny. Thus, I ask: how and why did you, and do you, opt to work in your chosen genre?"

Let's append to this question that the reader is going out of his way to try to avoid giving offense. He seems genuinely curious. He really doesn't seem to understand. While I think it's tempting for Sensitive Artist Types to ask those who question the form of their work to take along walk off a short pier, I try not to be a Sensitive Artist Type. And I had to be a @#&$*# Ambassador For Womankind/Scientistkind the whole time I played Marissa Lingen, Girl Physicist. It got me kind of used to the ambassador role. (Plus, it's good to remember that if we bite the heads off the curious, it doesn't really encourage the questioning role we like to say our genre plays.)

So let's start out with this: I understand that you, New Reader, believe that my genre(s) as a whole has/have failed to merit serious scrutiny (from, I believe it is implied, the literary establishment). I agree that there are some fairly popular works in the field that are lacking in the merit department -- let's go with Terry Brooks' endless Shannara series as an example. This is not a series with much to recommend it in any sense or dimension I've seen, and it's sold scads and scads of copies of each volume over the years. But there are also volumes published in literary or mainstream fiction -- volumes upon volumes upon volumes -- of fiction lacking entirely in merit. And there's a lot of really good stuff coming from us. I would contend that it is not purely merit that determines whether fiction is considered literary or potentially canonical vs. speculative/science fictional/fantastic/etc. Take Rushdie: he writes fantasy. He doesn't always write fantasy, and it's usually short on elfses, but the only arguments I've heard against his work being fantasy are 1) his sentences are purty (so?) and 2) he ain't from around here (so?). His fantasy is considered literature. It's swiftly joining the canon. That's fine. But that doesn't make him somehow not a fabulist.

Further, I think that the assumption that speculative forms have failed to be considered for inclusion in "the" canon is dated at best. I just don't think it's true any more. Speculative fiction does appear in lists of The Best or of One Ought To; it's in serious course curricula. This is not 1950. And, of course, we have our own canon. We have our own critics and our own critical journals and our own academic conferences.

But all that aside, why me, why this particular genre?

The easiest answer to why I write science fiction and fantasy is that that's where I get my ideas. I have an idea for an historical novel and a few for mysteries, but for the most part, my ideas have nifty technological changes or freaky magical happenings or different worlds entirely or...a central conceit that is not the same as the historical or scientific world as we've been able to determine it to date. When I look at the world of idea monkeys, mine are the ones with the neon fur, the gills, the watchmaking fingers. When I hear about block-long snow sculptures, my brain decides it must be magical, not merely metaphorical. That's just how it goes with me. It's how I think.

That doesn't really answer why I get my ideas in those areas, though, because I've cultivated that tendency. I've fed it. I read other sorts of books, but I am a spec fic person in my heart and my bones. I'm not sure how much it was genetic, how much environmental, how much choice...but it wasn't entirely without choice on my part. I'm a storyteller by nature, but maybe I could have steered that away from speculative directions. Maybe.

Still, let's look at my environment. My father read me Tolkien and organic chem texts before Mom gave birth to me. (He only recently confessed to the orgo.) While Mom looked askance at some of the specific books I brought home, ours was not a household in which genre fiction was looked down upon. Not to be outdone by Dad's Middle-Earth, Mom urged The Once and Future King upon me. Grandpa reads mysteries and Westerns and spy novels, pops 'em like M&Ms. Genre was a way to talk about books in my family, not a reason not to read them. No book was beneath anyone in my family. There were books you liked and books you didn't, but there was no category of books not worthy of your time. (Well, there was the category of "Ugh, I've read that, it's not worth your time." But I don't think that counts.)

And when I found that there was an entire section for grown-ups that was composed entirely of the type of books I loved best, that all that stuff had a name, I was giddy for a week. I dove in and swam around in the craziness. It's what I love. And I'm capable of doing it myself. If you look at art that speaks to your heart and your brain all at once, art that wraps around you and consumes you for awhile, and then you discover that you're capable of doing it -- why on earth not?

Then there's my other environment: I spent years learning to be a physicist. Science is important to me. Most literary fiction I've come across likes to pretend that science doesn't exist, or that it's nasty and distasteful somehow, or that it's a metaphor for something. Sometimes it's fine not to be thinking about science, but excluding it from literary possibility or consideration entirely...no. No, thanks. No.

Also: the other day I was talking about dogs with a friend of mine, who suggested that poodles were not "manly" dogs. (No, really, this does relate, stick with me.) It's probably true that they don't make the "ten butchest breeds" list. But I don't think my dad felt he had to consider that when we got Booboo, lo, these many years back. As far as I can tell, Aaron isn't worrying about whether people will impugn his manhood now that he has a Yorkie/poodle mix, and Mark and Timprov and Dad and Grandpa are all looking forward to playing with the smart little poodle-dog I will be finding in the next few months. (C.J. is, too, but he's still lobbying for a corgi.) My point is, people who are not particularly defensive about their manhood also don't have to be worrying about whether their dog is appropriately manly. And people who are fairly confident that they are smart, dedicated people who are attentive to the intricacies of their craft don't have to prove their intelligence or dedication by choosing something that Everyone Knows Is Serious Business. They may choose it anyway, just as a manly-man can buy a St. Bernard. But they have the room to make it a choice and not a compulsion.

Also: I think it's more harmful for art to be stuffy than to be silly. Dignity is not an artist's friend. In any of the arts, you have to be willing to look like an utter fool -- in fact, I might go so far as to say you have to be an utter fool -- to get much of anywhere. Blue-faced aliens are far, far better than, "Oh, I could never have a blue-faced alien in one of my stories. Why, just fancy! A writer of my caliber!"

I'm not the only one doing this job in this way. Most of the other speculative fiction writers I know are bright people, hard-working, dedicated, serious about crafting the best fiction they can. (Go check out the links page. There are lots of us on it.) It's not like it's a genre composed of me and the hacks. I would be really surprised if anyone who thinks so had read...well, much in the field, really. And anybody who gets to judge speculative fiction on the basis of "The Phantom Menace" has to sit still while I judge the non-speculative stuff on the basis of "Dumb and Dumberer." With incremental adjustments for greater exposure on both sides, of course. I don't feel I have to issue an apologia for the genre in general, because I think the works speak for themselves, if people only let them.

Some literary types get confused because they think speculative fiction is trying to do the same thing as non-speculative fiction; or rather, that we're trying to do only the same thing as they are. They think that we're aiming to be them but somehow getting tangled up in all this spaceship and unicorn stuff along the way. Oops! I tripped over the alien sentience and got my feet wrapped in the cord, so I had to drag it with me; sorry about that. But no. Speculative fiction is concerned with what-ifs, with ideas. Idea is largely atrophied as an aspect of literary fiction. Asking me why I write spec fic when I could be writing literary fiction is like asking me why on earth I would want to travel when we have a Target and a grocery store and restaurants, too, all within a few miles of my house. Sure, there's useful, convenient stuff around here. I spend time around here and enjoy it. But it doesn't mean that it's the only place I want to go.

Or worse than that: it's like asking why on earth I bother to make up characters when I could just use the Commedia Dell'Arte lineup. The novels that could be written with those characters...hmm. Probably not finite; certainly not a small number, and nowhere near what's already been done. But -- so limiting! To look forward at the rest of a life of writing novels and know that no matter what else I come up with, it'll be nothing but Pulcinella and Columbina and Pantalone for the rest of my days...no. Thank you, but no. That's an entire aspect of the story neglected or atrophied, and I don't care to do it that way.

Also: there's a special frustration to being a spec fic person (reader, writer, editor, critic, whatever) and listening to some news program flailing around: "There's water on Mars! Whatever could this mean?" Or, "Cloning technology is advancing! Whatever shall we do? Moral dilemmas! Legal quandaries! What about the following deeply stupid scenarios you-all rejected as implausible in the early '60s?" We clutch our heads in despair when people act as though the future just came up and bit them on the ass, because in many cases we were talking about that future years ago. We jumped up and down and shouted, "Look! There's a future behind you! Careful so it doesn't bite your ass!" We couched it in pretty prose, we put it right out there in crude but expressive imagery. We did what we could in a dozen ways. Not only is the world changing quickly, but so is the rate of change. We think about it. We wish you would, too.

Speculative fiction creates a population of people who think about possibilities. I like asking how the world could be different. I think it's a good thing, a smart thing, something worthy of dedication and hard work and talent and all of those things, in more abundance than I have.

There's elbow-room in here.

And there's this: sure, there will be people at WorldCon (that's the World Science Fiction Convention, which also includes other speculative genres) dressed up as Klingons, people dressed up in all silver lamé or chainmail or green alien-head masks. But my parents have a friend who layers on Minnesota Vikings undies, T-shirt, sweatshirt, socks, jacket, and cap for every televised game. When the Vikes are losing, he yells and takes off a piece of memorabilia at a time, so he isn't invited to anyone's houses to watch football any more. This is the norm, compared to which Klingon-impersonators should cringe with shame? People are a weird lot. Humans on the whole are just deeply strange. I mean, yes, okay, this is a friend of my parents, so you can still go back to blaming my upbringing. But I don't see why I should buy into the notion that a 12-year-old girl with unicorn pictures on her walls, pining after Legolas, is somehow inherently weirder than a 12-year-old girl with concert pictures on her walls, pining after a boy band member who may as well be in Mirkwood for all she's concerned. I tend to give that one a hearty, "Sez you!" and move on.

Even in high school, I didn't chase after the admiration of the self-proclaimed cool kids, the ones a lot of people didn't actually like at all. I talked to the members of that group who were genuinely nice, interesting people, and the rest I ignored or sneered right back at. Now, as a certified grown-up, should I regress to a literary version of high school, where I spend hours on my hair to try to look like the head cheerleader? I think you all know the answer to that. Some of you like my hair the way it is. Some of you just like my metaphorical hair. But I don't accept that other people should get to choose a literary crowd whose acceptance I have to yearn for. I didn't buy it then, and I haven't seen any compelling arguments since.

These freaks are my freaks. Their concerns are my concerns. Their excesses -- may not be my excesses in every specific case. But it's a lot closer. A lot closer indeed. I have a lot more sympathy for the costumer who spends hours getting every detail right for the sheer joy of creating something beautiful or weird (or ideally both) than for someone who sneers at the costumer. We dive in. We have enthusiasms. We make things, we like things, we love things. We are not afraid of seeming too weird if we conceive of a passion for origami or Russian splinter religious or even -- dare I say it -- Finnish history.

We're not writing to be admired. We're writing to be loved, and we're writing to be read; we're writing to make people think and feel and dream. If we also get admired along the way, that's lovely. But it's not what we're doing this for.

I know, I know: this was supposed to be about me, why I write speculative fiction. But I don't feel like I'm alone. I'm not the only one who doesn't have to prove how serious and respectable I am; I'm not the only one who doesn't want to feel limited in the ideas I can address. I'm not the only one who wants to think about how the world is and how it could be different, how people are and how we could be different and how we could keep the important bits at the same time.

I feel like I've been asked, "Why don't you limit yourself more? Why don't you narrow your horizons? Why don't you just stop thinking about an entire category of questions? Why don't you act like the nice kids do?" And the answer to that is, "Because I don't have to." I don't see any reason at all why I should. With the way I view the world, I can write whatever I want: whatever genre, for whatever age group. I don't have to decide story ideas are unworthy unless they don't interest me as stories. I can get around to writing my straight-up historical novel someday; I can get around to mysteries; I can write what I love, whatever that evolves into being. If I was to adopt a worldview that ruled out genres on the grounds of past canon or respectability, I would be giving up entire realms of possibility for...ashes. There is no way to guarantee that the book you're writing will become canonical anyway, try though you might. There is no way to guarantee that it will be respectable, that you will be lauded by the "right" people. All you can do is write the best book it is in you to write.

The best book it is in me to write right now drips with geekery and magic. I delight in that. I really, really love what I do. I'm glad some of you are with me there. For the rest of you -- well, if you've given it an honest try and you really just can't get into the better writers in my genre, I'm sorry to hear that. No book is for everyone, not even mine. I'm certainly not going to reshape my career around trying for that particular impossibility. I hope you understand.

Enough ranting for today? Gosh, I hope so. Yesterday we had a good time at the Winter Carnival -- pictures soon, tomorrow maybe -- and I pennied the Leafs sculpture for Karina. They'd gone around and taken the pennies off the day before to make room for more. Mark pennied the Sharks. The Wild sculpture was sufficiently pennied already. (You lick pennies and stick them to the Ice Palace, and this year also to your choice of NHL team sculptures to indicate approval/support. The Stars sculpture was chipped away at. Apparently our Minnesota Niceness only goes so far.) The ice sculptures and the snow sculptures were really fantastic. I have to say I would have been a bit disappointed with the Ice Palace if it had been the whole of the attractions: they'd said you could walk through it, and what they meant was that you could walk under the wings. Not at all the same thing. But I was still very glad we went. And very glad we got hot beverages after.

I finished reading The Child That Books Built; didn't care much for the ending. It felt like it just tapered off, and even a paean to Ursula LeGuin couldn't perk the last chapters up. Also, "Wyrd Sisters," the cartoon, was bad, but not as bad as "Soul Music." And now I'm reading Wizard's Holiday, and so far it's good fun. Stella and Mike and Roo are coming over this evening, so I should get the chili going for that and maybe see to mopping the floor around the door again. (Stupid gravel. And I can't even look forward to spring, because spring means mud. Stupid non-floating boots.)

Back to Novel Gazing.

And the main page.

Or the last entry.

Or the next one.

Or even send me email.