So…I’ve been thinking.
This post started (as many things these days do) as a Twitter rant, which was then followed by a very thoughtful conversation between many parties (storify here).
Actually, let me backtrack a little bit. This all started when I read an article called The Problem of Engagement written by Baen Books publisher Toni Weisskopf and later posted on According to Hoyt. As a bit of context, this article has surfaced following the controversy surrounding Jonathan Ross and his brief stint as official Hugo Award MC for this year’s Loncon. If you don’t know what I am talking about, here is a brief recap.
There have been many troubling aspects surrounding the Hugo-Ross controversy. One of them is the way that the surrounding narrative has been reframed in a way that calls those who voiced their concerns about Jonathan Ross hosting the Hugos “bullies”/“the PC crowd running wild”/“oversensitive zealots” who are always offended by things without any thought to the context in which their concerns are voiced. (Kameron Hurley has written an incredible post about this phenomenon: Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum.)
The fact is, I’ve been following this conversation from the very beginning (being up early here in the UK), I watched it all go down. I also watched as Big Media relayed events in such a way that was completely out of context, so unwilling to listen to the actual facts of the conversation, that it soon became clear to me:
This is history being rewritten in front of our very eyes.
Reading Toni Weisskopf’s article was a bit like wandering through fog (or wading through mud, if we take into consideration some of the more abhorrent comments left after the post). I was not exactly sure as to what was the point of the article. It appears to be an earnest call to unite the different “sides” of fandom involved in Ross-Hugogate. Of course, this call for unification would have been much more effective had the article refrained from referring to one of the “sides” as “fuggheads” who are “politically correct, self-appointed guardians of […] everything” and participate in “fooforaws.”
The post also calls for calmer minds and sings the praises of classic authors like Heinlein:
Of course we all read Heinlein and have an opinion about his work. How can you be a fan and not?
My favourite part of this argument is the way it reminisces an idyllic time when folks thought that fandom ought to have “nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction.”
Here is the problem with Wisskopf’s presentation: when you use words like “PC” or “fuggheads” to describe groups of people (e.g. women, people of colour, LGBTQIA folks) – people who have been trying to become fully accepted members of what you call Science Fiction Fandom – you are not only delegitimizing their fight but also reframing the narrative of the fight itself.
This is history being rewritten in front of our very eyes.
In addition: when you decide to use those charged words to describe those people? That’s a choice. It’s a choice to engage in the conversation in a certain way that has everything to do with “greater world politics” and very little to do with “loving Science Fiction”.
I’ve been thinking about all of these things, and about history. And I have many questions, but not many answers.
It seems to me that there’s this idea that Science Fiction – as genre and as fandom – has a “history.” And that (real) fans should know this particular history.
My main question when hearing this argument is: “history” as perceived by whom? As defined by whom?
Why is it that this early history of Science Fiction fandom is presented as “idyllic” when we know for a fact that large groups of people stood outside looking in? Isn’t that history being rewritten in front of our very eyes? Try this: when you Google “best Science Fiction of all time” or “essential Science Fiction novels,” you almost invariably get lists featuring works by the same group of people. Very few contain writers who are not white and male. The narrative that chooses this subset of people as the only worthy “masters” of the genre? Isn’t that, too, rewriting history in front of our very eyes?
It is obvious to me that this idyllic period of Science Fiction “history” is told largely from an American, white, male perspective. It might be an important part of a historical narrative, but it is not the whole narrative. Surely, it can’t be. If we choose to brand only those works “masterful” and “classic” and “essential”, what are we saying?
What about a bit more of personal context: I am Brazilian. MY history is that I’ve had little to no access to those “masterworks” of science fiction. Am I a lesser Science Fiction fan if I have not read Heinlein or many other “classic” authors?
But what about my other hats? Am I a lesser reviewer or editor? I am torn about this. As a reviewer, I completely appreciate the point that it might be useful to be well versed in at least some of the tenets of the field in which you are reviewing. Even if some of those classics are racist, misogynistic, dated, and terrible, like I said before, context is always important.
But then I go back to the point: What is this “context”? Does “classic” SF really represent the entire extent of the genre? If I, as a reviewer, read only what has been branded “classic” to become aware of our “history” am I not choosing to be limited to a certain demographics? Where do the paradigms and criteria used to define “masters,” “history” and “fandom” come from anyway? Are those ideas so easy, so simple to grasp and define?
(It seems to me that this is easy only if you believe you are approaching science fiction from a mythical objective place that is apart from “greater world politics” – but we know that that is history being rewritten in front of our very eyes).
When someone says to a piece of criticism “but have you read X [work of classic SF]?” isn’t that a way of silencing criticism? This reminds me of something that happened when I was at university, when a History of Art teacher had an argument with another student over criticism theory. The student made very good points, but teacher shut him down by saying, “You haven’t read Foucault, do not talk to me until you have.” I was horrified.
Can’t we criticise “new” without knowing the “old”? Is our reading “narrow” if we don’t allow for the weight of “history”? This is coming from someone who tries to play catch any chance she gets. But here is another question: can anyone have read everything there is to read? To me it seems that there will be always blind spots you don’t see.
At the end of the day, I am worried about the idea that one must do or read X in order to be a “real” critic/fan/aficionado. I understand wanting to read the “classics” for any number of reasons: for research, for context, for fun, for whatever. I also equally understand NOT wanting to read them for any reason at all. Because you want to frame your reading in a different way, because the “classics” do not represent you or worse: misrepresent you. I fully understand not wanting to spend time reading something that equals being punched in the face. I myself dislike that immensely.
I don’t want the latter to define a “worse” type of reader or fan or critic than the former.
Am I a lesser reviewer because of that? I am filled with angst at the thought that what I write here means nothing at all because I have not been a part of fandom for long and I have not read a lot of “classics”. Does that make my opinions and thoughts on new books or my involvement in fandom any lesser? I am also Brazilian (am I outside fandom?). A woman (am I outside fandom?). English is not my mother tongue (am I outside fandom?). I am not very young either (am I outside fandom?). I am a blogger (am I outside fandom?). I read YA and Middle Grade and Fantasy (am I outside fandom?).
I know very little and I have few answers. I do know one more thing: that what I am saying here is not new or original and that many, many others have been talking about this since forever. I know this and I say this because I am not rewriting history in front of your eyes.
BookgazingMarch 12, 2014 at 3:55 am
What confuses me (the most – a lot of the argument around this confuses me) is the idea that historical analysis and linked text analysis is the only ‘deep’ way to perform literary analysis. To me it’s just one way – texts have always been analysed in a variety of ways and many of those ways take the text in isolation but bring factors other than past literary history in to provide context. Academic feminist analysis, for example, does not always have an element of literary history in every critique although some academic feminist criticism does. It’s really a matter of what your starting point is, what you want to analyse and whether it’s most appropriate to point to the literary historical context or a wider historical context or some other kind of context to draw out what you want to talk about.
To say looking at texts in light of texts that have gone before them is the only way to go just baffles me. And to say that without this historical context critics lack something well… it’s just one layer and every critic is partial in some way. They have to be because their brains are not super computers/they tend to be because of their backgrounds and specialisations.
Anyway I had a lot of thoughts about this. I wish I had time to write about it.
CelineMarch 12, 2014 at 4:35 am
Terrific essay. In relation to what constitutes a ‘real fan’, I think it’s worth saying that even as a creator of SFF, I feel outside of fandom – and for all the reasons you’ve listed. My reading has always been cross-genre and eclectic (there’s a lot of biography and history in there)but the fiction I read is mostly SFF – this is where I consider my fandom to lie. Within the SFF spectrum, though, I read a lot of magic realism which seems to exist in its own little bubble off to the side somewhere in fan terms, and rarely seems to come up in wider conversation. This means there’s little chance for me to get into as deep a conversation as seems to be expected in order to be considered an SFF fan. I feel uncomfortable accepting seats on panels, for example, because my love of fantasy doesn’t come with an encyclopedic knowledge of its minutia or history – or even a clear idea of what’s currently ‘hot’ – I feel this marks me as less of a fan. I feel capable of discussing the books I read within context of the writing craft or within their standing as a social instrument, but not within the broader context of the history of genre – this makes me not want to discuss them at convention level because I feel inadequate to do so(and I AM inadequate to do so – at least in my experience -in that I can discuss the individual books I love and the genre as a social tool and art form – but not the genre as an historical movement or in its entirety) I think for all those reasons, yes, I would be considered a lesser fan despite the books I write being all SFF, and despite the majority of my reading being within the fantasy genre. Not sure this is any fault of fandom though, and more a case of some fan interests/behavior being peripheral to the general understanding of what it is to be a true genre fan.
NiallMarch 12, 2014 at 6:59 am
I think bookgazing has it right: it’s all contextual. No book or writer is essential for every SF reader, everywhere, everytime. Many books and writers are essential for specific SF contexts, questions or discussions.
So Heinlein is an essential figure in the history of American genre science fiction. He won too many awards, was too widely read, influenced too many writers, and has been railed against by too many others, to be anything else. I haven’t read much of his work myself, and I don’t care for much of what I have read, but saying he’s not essential, in that context, would be rewriting history as well.
But at this point, being a fan of SF is a much broader church than just being a fan of American genre science fiction. So to answer some of your rhetorical questions: of course one can criticise “new” without having read “old”; if someone tries to say that a review (or any opinion of a contemporary work) is invalid because the reviewer hasn’t read X, that’s rubbish. There are many histories of SF to be a part of, many angles of attack.
(Although if someone asks, “but have you read X?” I’d say that’s the start of a conversation, rather than silencing.)
As for being a “better” or “worse” reviewer — assuming “reviewer” means someone who aspires to offer useful informed opinions for the benefit of others, rather than someone just jotting down their reactions to a book — well, “better” and “worse” should also be contextual terms, for me. I think they depend on the work under review, the audience reading the review, and the purpose of the review.
For example: for people who read contemporary YA, and want to know what YA to read next, you’re a better reviewer of YA than I am, because you’ve read vastly more of it. You are more able to identify originality, point out zeitgeisty themes, and so forth — more able to provide context. When Pure came out, for instance, there was a quite obvious divide in my friends group. Those of us who only read the occasional YA thought it was great, because we loved the imagery and language; those of us who read much more YA thought it was weak, because they found the plot familiar to the point of being distractingly predictable. (Of course I see from Googling your review that you quite liked it! Still, the general point stands, I think.)
That’s not to say that I think my opinions on contemporary YA are worthless. And for other YA dabblers they might be useful. But for people who read a lot of YA, and want a steer on whether to read a YA or not, I think my opinions are less likely to be useful than your opinions. I don’t have to be engaging in historical analysis of YA for this to be true.
So for some reviews, for some audiences, for some purposes: yes, I think in principle you will do a better job if you can bring some knowledge of the Heinleinian tradition to bear. Of course the same goes for the cyberpunk tradition, the dystopian tradition, the feminist SF tradition, the afrofuturist tradition, the New Wave tradition, the scientific romance tradition, for various non-US/UK traditions, and so on, and so on. All of those histories are “essential”, and none of them are. And within the broad church of being “an SF fan” you can engage or not with whichever you choose.
I’m torn because on the one hand I don’t want anyone to feel their opinions are invalid, whatever their reading background — I feel that anxiety quite enough myself. But on the other hand, I take reviews seriously, I want reviewers to take their job seriously, and I feel like actually not enough SF reviews include history or context of any kind. As someone who picked up a lot of SF historical knowledge — for numerous traditions — through reading reviews, I’m sad that sort of criticism feels harder to find now.
Perhaps what I’m saying is that most of the time I don’t care what context you’re bringing to a work, but I want you to talk about it!
Mieneke van der SalmMarch 12, 2014 at 7:14 am
Wonderful essay, Ana. And profound questions. What bothers me most about these prescriptive definitions of fandom as they are displayed in the Weiskopf article is that it means that a) young people will have to read completely inappropriate works at a too young age to be a “proper” and b) it means that any young, new fans will be old before they will be allowed to call themselves “proper” fans as if they have to read ALL of the relevant historical SF works and keep up with what’s being currently published they’ll be reading for decades without being taken seriously. It’s an attitude that feels like “Get off my lawn” and essentially means stay off. It’s exclusionary to the point of slow self-destruction as no one, except the extra-ordinarily privileged, will have the time and funds to meet their criteria.
And I find myself trying to add a caveat that I hope it makes sense, because you know non-native speaker (am I outside fandom?) and I’m not as well read as some are in the classic SF-works (am I outside fandom?), which is probably directly linked to the angst you describe above.
Andrea KMarch 12, 2014 at 7:30 am
I guess my primary response is “what do we mean by essential”? What is the cost of not having read those essential books?
If a book comes out this year, that happens to be a Heinlein pastiche, will I fail to enjoy it if I haven’t read Heinlein? Or if I’ve only read the juveniles, and skipped most of the “yay, sex” books? I’m still likely to enjoy a kid trying hard and loving science story.
The one impact of knowing the history of the genre I _do_ see has been in the last couple of years where I see x book or y book held up as amazing or incredibly original, and then come across a handful of posts where people say: “It’s not a bad book, but I don’t get all the squee – it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before.”
There _is_ a divide of reading history that changes the experience of books. I will never feel the same way about Harry Potter as people who first encountered the genre through those books. I enjoyed them, but I had read Diana Wynne Jones, and The Books of Magic, and, oh, a lot of other books before them, so my experience of them is simply different.
But then, I don’t think that’s a big deal. No-one can possibly read all the books of any genre. Everyone will start at different points, be drawn to different books, love them or hate them, talk about them, avoid them, do wonderful snarky gif posts, or devote thousands of hours to fan art and cosplay.
Possibly the best fan letter I ever received was from someone who started reading science fiction because of my Touchstone Trilogy. She went on from me to Anne McCaffrey. I am that person’s Heinlein.
Can’t be many things cooler than that.
NataliaMarch 12, 2014 at 7:50 am
I have been reading sci-fi and fantasy my whole life as well as lots of other genres although sci-fi and fantasy is my favorite. I have a read a smattering of these so called classics. Some I liked some I didn’t but for me they were not what made me a fan in fact not being a white man from the fifties sometimes they were alienating and problematic. Heinlen, Asimov and Clark are “the cannon” why not LeGuin, Bulter and McCaffrey? There are so many ways to be sci-fi fans the genre is vast and multiply layered to reduce to one strand is not just dismissive but everyone loses so much richness. Sci-fi and Fantasy (at least to me) is about opening up new worlds and expanding imagination not shutting it down.
Karen MahoneyMarch 12, 2014 at 8:53 am
Amazing essay, Ana! (This is why I tell you that you have a gift for non-fiction. THIS essay. So there. ;))
I don’t have answers either, but I just wanted to echo (and follow on from) Natalia’s comment: I, too, have been reading SFF my entire life. And yet I have never read a single book by Heinlein, Clarke or Asimov. I don’t wear that as a badge of honour or anything – just stating it as a fact. The first thing that made me a sci-fi fan was Star Wars. Went to see it when I was 5, when it first came out, and that was my Gateway. Fantasy gateway: the Dragonlance books several years later. When I first started reading ‘actual’ SF, it was Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, etc. that I gravitated toward. I had no interest, even then, in the books by the Grand Masters of SF. Maybe I had an intuition that they just wouldn’t be for me, I don’t know.
Years later, do I think I SHOULD have read them in order to have an opinion on SFF or on fandom, or whatever? Of course not! I have gravitated more toward fantasy the older I become, but I still think I’m absolutely allowed to read a new science fiction novel by a new author and have a valid opinion, and a place in the discussion around these things.
I remember very well when Tricia Sullivan won the Arthur C. Clarke award for her third novel (in 1999), and there was genuine shock in some publications. GASP! She’s a woman. GASP! She’s only 30. GASP! It’s only her third novel. GASP! She’s published no short fiction. GASP! She hasn’t read all the Grand Masters. That confirmed to me, somehow, that I am both inside and outside fandom – but I don’t care because I know what I love and I’ll talk about it anytime I want to.
MatthewMarch 12, 2014 at 9:40 am
It seems to me that if you want to write an academic paper on SFF then you should probably know the “classics.” However, to be a great reviewer you really just have to have a love of the genres and great critical skills. If it is necessary to have read Heinlein to properly appreciate and understand modern SFF then modern SFF writers are writing for a shrinking audience… Who knows if I would have ever read as much Heinlein as I did if I hadn’t attended a high school with a tiny library mostly full of old books? And then, when my father saw me reading my first Heinlein he got super excited because HE read Heinlein as a kid and bought me a bunch more?
These classic authors are authors of just a generation or three ago, so isn’t saying that to be a true fan you must have read them really saying, “Well I was a FAN before YOU were, so I matter more?” I mean, it’s not like they are saying classic as in Lord Dunsany’s “Gods of Pegana” from 1905 (which, if I remember correctly, inspired all kinds of fantasy authors and Lovecraft) or older. Heinlein was still publishing in the 80s and it’s not like even his earliest works are outside someone’s lifetime here.
You do a wonderful job reviewing books — 9 times out of 10 if you love a book, I love it too. Even more, reading your reviews makes me THINK a lot more about what I read so that I’m not just consuming entertainment without considering the implications.
green_knightMarch 12, 2014 at 2:13 pm
I grew up in Germany, although I read in English fairly early on – whatever books I could find. Which meant a lot of classics and genre mystery. My entry to SF was Jules Verne; for a while I read Perry Rhodan (hardly any English-speaking SF reader knows the series, it’s huge in Germany), and then I started with CJ Cherryh and moved forward from there.
‘The golden Age’ is such a narrow band of so few authors; it canonises a handful of writers and ignores oh-so-many. Will you have a better understanding of SF if you have read Heinlein but never read Kafka? Or [insert author of choice]? If ‘understanding SF’ were as easy as reading Heinlein, more people would, and would be able to talk intelligently about it. Evidently, that’s not the key.
Fangs 4 the Fantasy (@Fangs4Fantasy)March 12, 2014 at 2:56 pm
I have a dislike for any work deemed “classic” in any genre precisely because these classics are nearly inevitably set by cishet white men. And are written by cishet white men. And overwhelmingly feature cishet white men
Then, because they are “classics” they become the “template” for good sci-fi (or work in that genre) and inherently put such overwhelmingly cishet white male dominated stories on a pedestal or as the thing we are meant to aspire to. Everything else is less – everyone else is less, twists on this glorious templates, perversions even of “what it should be”. It’s gatekeeping by the back door – not saying “you’re not allowed” but saying “you’re not as good/as real/as authentic”
I also loathe nostalgia in all its forms. Not only is it deceptive, it’s inherently privileged – there’s a very narrow subset of the population (predominantly cishet white men of a decent class advantage) who can look back 50 years and decide things were BETTER then. Better for who? Because for people who aren’t cishet white men it most certainly wasn’t
JoelMarch 12, 2014 at 4:59 pm
“Fandom” slants towards hard, classical SF, written mostly by white men. There’s historical reasons for that, and there’s some good stuff there (yes, I’ve read plenty of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Niven). To make an analogy, it’s like eating only classic American food. Yes, it can be done very well, but it’s limiting not to explore other cuisines. Fantasy, YA, middle-grade; works with more feminist/LGBT slants — there’s lots good stuff there too, and I’m exploring more of it, partially thanks to this blog. Basically, the problem with “fandom” is that it’s tough to change, to be more inclusive, for any organization. Even one which is nominally open-minded and creative.
Sara AmisMarch 12, 2014 at 6:53 pm
Guess this is still relevant: http://saracamis.blogspot.com/2011/06/opinion-in-five-facets.html
The thing is, THERE WAS NEVER a time when SF was politics-free. That, too, is history being rewritten. It’s also plain old bullshit.
Jo RhettMarch 12, 2014 at 7:25 pm
You quoted her first two sentences without the remainder of the context. Toni paraphrased what was being said, then she called it ridiculous.
I agree with most of your points, but you’re failing just like the “big media” organizations you blame when you grab two short sentences and ignore every word around them. Toni was making the exact same points you were about the lack of a single coherent view of fandom.
hapaxMarch 12, 2014 at 9:23 pm
A “real” fan? A “good” review? Real in what paradigm? Good for what purpose?
These aren’t simple questions you’re asking, but require a good deal more context.
Yes, to appreciate the nuances of certain excellent SFF works, it really helps to have read the generally accepted canon (Jo Walton’s superlative AMONG OTHERS is a good example.) It also helps to understand the history of influences, for example, why Tolkien-derived tropes so dominate the epic fantasy subgenre (or even to recognize that they ARE Tolkien-derived, instead of inherent to the basic concept of “fantasy”!)
Yet familiarity with other genres is just as useful; it’s hard to get what that same Jo Walton is doing in TOOTH AND CLAW without some familiarity with Regency romance, and Bujold’s CIVIL CAMPAIGN is explicitly a homage.
And *too much* incestuous self-reference is just as bad; I could never get on the bandwagon for Jim Hines’ BIBLIOMANCER books (although I like some of his other fantasies) because I kept feeling like I was being pandered too: “You recognize all these references! You must be one of the Kewl Geeks!” and it was rather creepy,like being hit on by a clueless guy at a party.
I do prefer reviewers (especially critical reviewers) to be aware of the generally accepted major works, their themes and tropes and models and descendants (which is NOT the same as reading them, let alone loving them), just because they provide a common vocabulary among SFF readers that facilitates communication.
(Also, because it avoids tiresome arguments about whether or not Rowling’s stories were all that “original”. No, it wasn’t, but who cares? Neither was Shakespeare’s, or Homer’s. I’m more interested in what an author *does* with a character or a plot or a setting than how unique it is. Common familiarity with such shorthand as “A redshirt’s view of STAR TREK” or “Asimov’s Galactic Empire, but with dragons!” is an easy way to skip the more [to me] tedious parts of the review and get to the good stuff)
But *the* *most* *important* part of any review (for me as a reader, not as a library selector, which is a whole nother issue) is “How does this reviewer READ?” That is, is s/he more concerned with character, plot, or setting? Emotional arc, or sensawunda, or political/social/economic themes? What subtexts does he pick up on? What are her pet peeves? How does language resonate with him? Oh, and yes, is her own prose graceful and entertaining?
That’s what makes particular valuable (or not) for me. In comparison to these factors, I couldn’t care less about their reading lists.
Kate & ZenaMarch 13, 2014 at 2:03 am
I guess the real question is “Is there such thing as a true fan?” or “What constitutes as science-fiction?” I’m not a big fan of genres just for the fact so many books overlap so many genres. It starts to get very confusing when you start labeling everything. I purposely don’t have my bookshelf divided by genre or age group (oh wait, that’s a genre!) for that reason. It goes by author’s last name, first name. The only thing separated is my encyclopedias, reference material (because of the lack of author names) and picture books as they tend to be too big for the regular shelves and need to be on the bottom or on top. No genres on my bookshelf because I don’t believe in them and because I believe that to be a fan of any genre, you have to be a fan of books first!
StaceyMarch 13, 2014 at 2:25 am
Thank you for this. As an exercise, I’ve started compiling my own “must-read” list. I’m surprising myself with who is not included. 🙂
Ros JacksonMarch 13, 2014 at 7:28 am
Excellent article, Ana. It seems strange that one of the best-read bloggers in our genre is asking “am I outside fandom?” It implies there’s something wrong with the question, and there is.
I think we’ve got to get beyond the stage of having “essential” reading lists, and recognize them as nothing more than sales tools, or maybe a bit of fun (fun which affects authors’ careers, however). There’s no way anyone can read all of the prominent authors in a genre (starting when? in which country? which subgenre? etc, etc), but moreover it isn’t desirable. To quote Haruki Murakami, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
HappyMarch 13, 2014 at 7:58 am
I had a period of time when I was a fanatic classic reader, and I felt ever so proud of myself for being “a girl who liked classic SF”.
At some point though, I just got so tired of the patriarchy. I got tired of the slut shaming (I’m looking at you, McCaffrey!). I got tired of seeing gay people only as predators or victims. I got tired of the assumption that space will only be colonized by white people. I got tired of a world where there were one or two women who were “sassy” and “badass” (but all in the same familiar ways, and all too ready to swoon into the hero’s arms as his quest reward.)
I’m just over it. If given the choice between a classic and a brand new debut novel by an unknown writer, I’ll take the new one every time. I may be disappointed by the new book, but I’m much more likely to find a world I’m comfortable being immersed in for a few hours of my life.
steve davidsonMarch 13, 2014 at 8:41 am
I agree that this is a very thought-provoking article. Particularly for me, coming as I do from a background in “da classics” and also as one who as advocated the continued engagement with the “history” of the genre.
For the record and to alleviate anxiety: no, I don’t think that one must be immersed in the classics to be able to be an effective reviewer; it’s quite possible to review a work without referencing it’s potential connections/influences from the past. (And – context – one year of publishing these days is roughly the equivalent of a decade’s worth of output from the past, so there is plenty of contemporary history to reference in a review if one wants to go that way.)
I am bothered though by the selective recollection that sometimes crops up: when the “classics” are dismissed as being largely the product of white cishets’ works being lauded by white cishets, (I like that abbreviation) it overlooks Shelley’s contribution. More recently, it also overlooks the participation in those selections of author/editors like Judith Merrill and Kate Wilhelm.
“History” is not what actually happened; it’s the events that happened that we choose to highlight, presented and interpreted within the current context.
While the history that has been presented previously may be largely dominated by white cishets and has been contextualized for a white cishet audience, dismissing it entirely (for whatever reason) will deny us the opportunity of discovery. We’d not know that one of the earliest SF club’s meetings were hosted at the home of a person of color, or that the letter columns in the early magazines were filled with letters from female fans (I will admit that commentary on their letters did often take the form of surprise that a woman was interested in math and physics and astronomy – but it was positively couched); we’d not remember that The Skylark of Space – the first genuine space opera – was co-authored by a woman. Or that one of the early contributors to the first SF magazine was a woman.
We’d overlook early efforts at expanding the cultural reach of the genre expressed through works like the Soviet Science Fiction anthology, or the translation and publication of Lundwall’s “Science Fiction: What’s It All About.
Through foreign language contributors to Amazing, I’m learning all kinds of history about the origins and early days of SF in places like Bolivia. That history exists, even if it is overlooked here. We can still access it and make it relevant to today (and judging by the reception of such, I’d say that most people these days are receptive to learning about it).
It’s also instructive to remember that SF, like history, is a continuum. Those writing now are largely authors whose foundational experience of SF literature are “the classics”. Octavia Butler, as one example cited previously: “According to the Norton Anthology of African American Literature she was “drawn early to [science fiction] magazines such as Amazing, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy and soon began reading all the science fiction classics.” (Wikipedia). She herself is considered to have influenced many ‘next gen’ authors. Octavia used her knowledge of those classics and her own reactions and reception of them to begin a new variation on their themes. (She read them and was influenced by them, but she did not have to and did not buy into the mainstream culture they represented in her own works. I do not believe that she would have been as effective an author of SF without that knowledge of the classics.)
So to sum up: I think one can effectively review without a vast and deep knowledge of the classics. But I also think that reading them and studying their history can be instructive, can reveal hitherto unknown information and best of all, reading them does not automatically induct you into a club you’d probably rather not be a member of. Instead, it may give you tools that will help address those things that need changing.
Ian SalesMarch 13, 2014 at 9:55 am
“generally accepted canon” (from hapax’s comment)
Isn’t that the whole point? Who agreed on this canon? Who picked the books that have been deemed canonical? Why have other books, many of which were equally influential or successful, been written out of the genre’s history? Why are we having to reclaim such works now, thirty or more years after they were published?
KMontMarch 13, 2014 at 10:00 am
If we all had to subscribe to someone else’s opinions of how to be the best this or that, we’d probably never get anywhere. Instead we’d be too worried whether we were stuck up their butts enough or not. I’ve tried to read Heinlein, it didn’t work for me at that time. I will try again. When I’m ready. Not before. I did watch Stormship Troopers, and wrote, I feel, a pretty funny post on how it just tickles the stew out of me. And got man-splained why that was stinky poop and I needed to actually read Heinlein. Dudes who must man-splain, shut it. I can find the flashlight on my own. So can pretty much everyone else. Someone might actually have some good advice for us, and sure, we can learn from that if it’s actually useful (and not condescending bull), but look, we are all who we are who we are who we are. I haven’t ever felt like I needed to jump into Heinlein after posting that movie-love-fest blog post. I agree reading some of things could potentially help readers and reviewers have more insight down the line, but yeah, come on. We can’t all read everything and anyone claiming you must do this or must do that hasn’t done it all either. I’ve never understood the propensity for these fandoms or groups of any kind, whoever they are, needing to tell others how things should be or horror of horrors, you can’t join their club. People – what made you think we aren’t already in it? I am a sci-fi, fantasy-reading person and I say I am.
Ana, this post rocks. You rock.
KMontMarch 13, 2014 at 10:01 am
And by Stormship Troopers, I OF COURSE meant STARSHIP Troopers. 😀
GMarch 13, 2014 at 10:49 am
Disclaimer: I’m no fan of Heinlein and have read, to date, exactly five of his books. Of those five, I’ve moderately enjoyed two (Stranger in a Strange Land, Orphans of the Sky), found one interesting but overrated (Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and severely disliked the final two–one for being essentially fascistic (Starship Troopers) and the other for being essentially racist (Farnham’s Freehold).
I do not think I would be greatly enriched as an individual by the act of reading more Heinlein. Nor do I think it would alter the validity (or lack thereof) of any reviews I write of non-Heinlein books.
That said, I do see value in reading someone like Heinlein. After all, whether we attempt to follow in his footsteps or find his influence on the genre “toxic,” as Jonathan McCalmont recently put it, he has undeniably had that influence. Though I find a lot of what he wrote objectionable, I think the act of reading objectionable material can be instructive–especially when, like it or not, that objectionable material has shaped SF and discourses on SF to a significant degree.
I’d never look down on someone who skips Heinlein, and I’d laugh at someone who tried to tell me that I need to read more Heinlein before commenting on anything other than the Heinlein books I’ve declined to read. But I can see value for someone like me in reading more Heinlein, even if the chances of me doing that are fairly slim.
Estara SwanbergMarch 13, 2014 at 4:37 pm
I know I’ve read Ray Bradbury short stories, because in the university book stores in Germany where I was able to get the only English genre books, that was what was available – and David Eddings and Raymond Feist and Anne McCaffrey, too. I think C.J. Cherryh occasionally as well, but at the time I was mostly a fantasy reader – when I got to the UK I was happy to see more women releasing and I still read the men I’d become familiar with – and when (to my eyes) female authors appeared widely in the early 90s, late 80s I stopped buying male-written books, because the women usually didn’t share the limelight except as trophies or by being fridged. Occasionally, when a lot of the female blogosphere I read rave about a male authors book may I buy it – but, honestly, even the books I bought I haven’t read.
It might be an age thing or that no one in my real life is a genre fan anyway, but I don’t feel ashamed of excluding the male point of view (I work at an all boys’ school). I’m so happy I can support the women writers AND get entertainment in which my sex isn’t marginalised. In any review I do on Goodreads I try to point out that my impressions are MY impressions and I write the reviews most often for myself – unless I want to evangelise a particular book to my online genre fans ^^. Self-centred, agreed. OH, and I still see myself as a fan of the genre, just a fan of the genre as it is written by particular writers.
Estara SwanbergMarch 13, 2014 at 4:39 pm
*sigh* among the many spelling mistakes in my post,there’s a really misleading one: online genre fans = online genre friends
Nalini HaynesMarch 15, 2014 at 6:12 pm
The Minbari say ‘truth is a three-edged sword’; I say ‘truth is a many-faceted diamond’. Until the ‘fan’ community accepts the many facets of fan-dom, multitudes of flavours, the community itself will suffer, lacking zest and spice, becoming a bland imitation of its potential.
No-one can read ‘all the things’. Even before I started university I couldn’t keep up with the review books coming in. I have read Heinlein, starting when I was 15. Stranger in a strange land shaped my thinking at that age, while Heinlein’s societal and familial structures were eye-opening. Even so, I would not prescribe reading Heinlein to all fans.
When my son was younger he thought he didn’t like reading. I knew the problem was he hadn’t met the right books yet. I talked to him, I listened to him and I found him books he loved. He’s still more of a gamer than a reader but he knows he loves reading now. He reads daily. He just doesn’t read much every day: a few pages or so a day. But he does read. I figure I was successful as a parent in instilling a love of books in my son; not a love of the right books, just a love of reading. (He now tells me I read and watch the wrong stuff but that’s another story.)
I wish people in fandom could similarly embrace differences. We’re enriched by embracing diversity. Diversity includes dead white guys, those with White Male Privilege, women who’ve changed their professional name to use their initials in a patriarchal society, the whole gorgeous QUILTBAG (so much easier to remember than LGBTQIA), the entire colour of the rainbow and all levels of ability.
I understand Jonathan Ross did a wonderful job hosting the Eisner Awards. He probably would have been similarly respectful in hosting the Hugo Awards but his history of jumping and dry-humping a woman, humiliating Manwell from Faulty Towers (the actor not the character) so Ross had to apologise and his partner-in-crime resigned, and all that other crap – all of this leads to the question: does an inclusive community really want that baggage and that degree of risk wrapped up in one MC bundle? Or does that inclusive community want to take a stand, saying ‘We’re inclusive! We’re going to ensure everyone knows it!’ and invite someone without that baggage? Perhaps even invite someone to MC who would have been excluded from fandom in days of yore?
WorldCon is in the UK this year. My vote would be with anyone from the Last Leg. 😛
guthrieMarch 16, 2014 at 7:34 am
Maybe part of the problem with Heinlein is that he’s not such a good writer as people like to think he was. Thus maybe he meant Farnhams freehold not to be racist, but he just didn’t manage to write it well. Same with Starship troopers, at some point you have to stop and say the fault is not with the readers misunderstanding it, but with the author for writing badly.
Another example being Frank Herbert, I’ve read pretty much all the fiction he ever wrote and would count myself a fan, but some of it is badly written and not worth reading and some of the novels are good, but have silly bits or places which would have been made better by being critted before publishing. You have to be honest about your favourite authors writings, not just put them on a pedestal.
Nalini HaynesMarch 17, 2014 at 6:52 am
I have a complaint. I want a ‘like’ button. It’s so much quicker and easier to ‘like’ something as a means of saying ‘I agree’ or ‘hell yeah’ than actually writing something.
KaetheMarch 20, 2014 at 10:11 am
It’s not a religion, scifi fandom. There is no word handed down from on high. Wisskopf was clearly trying to separate the people she considers appropriate fans from those other people. In her mind, anyone who doesn’t read and love Heinlein is a fake fan. That makes her an asshat. Seriously, who calls for unity by insulting the majority?
If one wants to make a case for reading Heinlein one had damn well better offer some inherent or relative value other than “because I said so.” No one is ever swayed by that sort of a review.
DanielMarch 31, 2014 at 12:53 pm
Sorry for responding so late (that’s what happens when you don’t check your RSS reader often enough).
Regarding the discussion about who is or isn’t a true fan I have nothing to add to the excellent points previous posters have made. Anyone who truly likes SF&F is a true fan, and anyone who engages in fandom activities and/or discussions is part of fandom. Of course, SF&F is a huge field, and it is possible for two fans to have little common ground, but that does not make any of them less “true”.
Regarding the Jonathan Ross thing, however, I am a bit uncomfortable with the whole notion of a group of fans who have not been elected as representatives of anyone essentially having the power to veto the choice of any public figure they do not like. Basically, I do not like lynching mobs. It is a complex issue, though. I would not like, for example, a known nazi as a master of ceremonies in the Hugos, so I have to agree that there are some moral requirements here, to a certain extent. The problem, of course, is who gets to make the decision for all of us.
I don’t have any opinion on Jonathan Ross, because this is the first time I have even heard of him, and I lack the time to research the charges against him fairly. For a view different to your own, you could see Neil Gaiman’s, whom I have always regarded as a polite and respectful person:
Reading around here, I see things like our host describing her feelings when she reads Heinlein as being “punched in the face”. And I respect that. Those are her feelings and no doubt she has her reasons and her experiences to feel that way. I also see some commenters saying things like:
“I stopped buying male-written books, because the women usually didn’t share the limelight except as trophies or by being fridged. Occasionally, when a lot of the female blogosphere I read rave about a male authors book may I buy it – but, honestly, even the books I bought I haven’t read.”
And that’s OK, it’s her choice, and her reading life, and I respect it. However, I do not feel represented by those opinions, and I would like things like the choice of MC in the Hugos to be decided in a different way, that would allow everyone the chance to participate.
DanielApril 1, 2014 at 12:29 pm
Over at slhuang.com I commented on a post along similar lines (the post wondered who gets to decide what books and authors are classics, and why Heinlein appears on those lists much more often than, for example, Octavia Butler):
If you’d allow me, I’d like to repost my comment here:
It’s clear that it’s a matter of historical perspective. Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein were writing their most influential works in the 50s. In some cases even in the 40s. They, along with some others, took a genre that at their time was nothing but a few pulp magazines among hundreds, and were instrumental in shaping it into something recognizable today. Their influence in that process was huge. Afterwards, other writers built on the conventions they had set or rebelled against them. They defined what is possible in this genre, and again those who followed built on that or tried to find different ways, but always against that reference.
Butler published her more influential works in the 80s. She is a truly excellent writer, literarily more skilled than the great writers of the Golden Age, who “just” had an incredible imagination and were excellent storytellers, but not great literary figures. More people should read Butler, and she certainly deserves to appear in more lists than just in “writers of color”. However, you can understand the history and evolution of SF without Butler. You can’t without Asimov, Clarke or Heinlein. Something similar can be said, much earlier, of H. G. Wells.
That’s why they are classics among the classics. It doesn’t mean that SF finishes with them, or that you need to read them to be a fan, or that you need to like them, or think they are good writers or follow the paths they traced. To be alive and remain relevant, a genre needs change. It’s been done before (see the New Wave in the 60s and 70s, or cyberpunk in the 80s), and will be done again, for as long as the genre remains relevant. There’s room for everyone. But to understand the history of SF and how we got here… you can’t really do that without the great writers of the Golden Age.
That’s why they are classics.
(To put a not-male example in a different genre: think about detective fiction and Agatha Christie.)
steve davidsonApril 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm
To get a bit more technical: “classic” is often used in a technical sense just as antique is: I know that in NJ, you used to be able to get a ‘classic car’ license plate – but only of the vehicle itself was more than 25 years old; I believe that there was an ‘antique’ plate as well for vehicles over 50 years old.
I frequently use the word classic to refer to some science fiction works and when I do, my primary working definition of the word is similar as I only apply it to anything that was originally published a minimum of 25 years ago.
I do not use the word in the more descriptive sense which would see “classic” being equated with “great/excellent/seminal/must read to understand the genre”.
Perhaps a bit of semantic confusion is creeping in when some folks see the appellation: the word is being used as a date marker but is being perceived as an indicator of quality or importance.
MarieJuly 30, 2014 at 3:06 am
I wouldn’t worry about being outside of fandom all that much, even up to the 90’s fans were rather proud of being outsiders. There weren’t enough fans to bring anything out of the borders of society and profit, unlike today’s big money. Reading about the firestorms done by snail mail and mimeograph shows there’s little change aside from the potential for things to produce viral explosions. Just because the X number of grand masters were all white men, as they were the only ones to get published, doesn’t negate their ideas as sometimes radical today. Heinlein wrote when idea was king and character less, so context is important. Like when Trek-OS is cheesy and overdone by today’s standards, we should compare it to Lost in Space and My Favorite Martian as context.
Today’s writers are standing on the shoulders of the cyber authors of the 90s for cultural context, the New Wave of the 60s for character and theme and the ideas of rocket ships, time machines, and elves of the earlier generations. Like reading Silas Marner or Three Musketeers today, it’s not fair to judge too much out of context of the culture or changes in writing techniques.
Some classics will go and come back again as tastes change. The real classics are ones that speak to multiple generations despite some oddities. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers had very different meaning and feel than the action movie, and I think was a terrible adaptation of a story about a civil war and adulthood. Not too many SFF and fantasy have been around long enough to be a classic that speaks to people who weren’t surrounded by the correct culture. Many classics are named that because they hit the right note for the right age of a cadre of fans. Whether they speak to future generations who aren’t nostalgic is an open question. Number of the Beast is one of Heinlein’s better later works and his juveniles read better than Stranger in a Strange Land when you read them 30+ years later.
An affectionate and mostly correct in mood/depiction of fandom in two eras is in the two mysteries Bimbos of the Death Sun, and Zombies of the Gene Pool by Sharyn McCrumb.
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