A Confession

Purple neon lights that read "Is This Just Fantasy"
Photo by Mudassir Ali from Pexels

I have a confession to make. I’m a recovering genre snob. When I was young, I read mostly genre stuff — Grisham and Cornwell and Grafton and Rex Stout and King (though I reckon he’s considered literary by now). Then I went off to college and got real big for my britches. I read some philosophy and a lot of Victorian capital-L Literature (ignoring the fact that favorites like Hardy and Dickens were sort of the pulp of their time). I read Shakesepeare and Milton and for a while entertained ambitions of becoming a scholar of non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama. I tried to like the Modernist poets, and it turned out late in college and after that I did like the big postmodern tomes. Science fiction and fantasy, though? Meh, those were for people who preferred beach reads, not for a literary dynamo like me.

Occasionally in adulthood, I would condescend to read something non-literary. I read a lot of Martin’s Game of Thrones series, though whether I did so out of real interest or in anticipation of the television series I don’t recall. When trailers for the Narnia movies and the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I read those. When I learned that Philip Pullman was a heathen like me, I read his Dark Materials books. But these were just little side ventures. I dipped into these and then got right back to reading the great pillars of the canon.

Eventually I sired children, and eventually they grew out of board books and strictly little-kid books. I read aloud to them religiously, often for an hour or more a night. We read the Harry Potter books of course, and the Lemony Snicket books. We read bits and pieces of other series. I was exposed to a lot more fantasy and sci-fi by reading to my kids. I read aloud fully half of the Wheel of Time series before wanting a change of scenery. I read Lord of the Rings a few times. We read a lot of McCaffrey’s Pyrne series. And we read the first several books in Brandon Sanderson’s pretty marvelous Mistborn series together. In a fit of nostalgia (for I had read these when I was young), I dipped back into Rex Stout and some of the hard boiled detective fiction writers a few years ago, and having seen that sometimes fantasy and sci-fi and detective writing could be engaging and lovely and not just pulpy after all, I started going out of my way to read more of it in earnest and for my own sake rather than for that of my kids.

N.K. Jemisim was an obvious contemporary pick. Her Broken Earth trilogy is great, my favorite (especially the first two books) of all of hers. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series (YA books) are worth a read. LeGuin of course is worth a read; I’ve got a lot more of her to read yet, but I especially enjoyed her Earthsea series. In other kid’s books, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series was a treat. Some of William Gibson’s books I enjoyed, and of some of Dick’s. Stephenson is spotty for me. A few years ago, my son wanted to start playing Dungeons & Dragons, which I had never gotten into as a kid. I learned how to play and started reading some relevant fantasy, notably R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series, which I enjoyed quite a lot. I had read Dune not too long after college and reread that again (to my son, but also for myself) in the last couple of years.

So, I have become, if not a convert, at least a willing and open-minded reader of genre fiction. I’ve found a lot of these books a real pleasure to read, and many of them aren’t as light or noncerebral as I might’ve imagined when I knew everything during and shortly after college.

Still, I find myself instinctively assuming that fantasy and science fiction will be light or easy reading — more craft than fine art — and I think that colors how I approach them. That is, instead of automatically looking for what’s ingenious or lovely in the writing, I think I find myself looking for what’s simple or straightforward in the writing and perhaps sneering a little at it. Because I think of genre fiction as being driven by plot more than by aesthetics or capital-L Literariness, I’m more likely to read right over elegance or economy of language in these books. When reading McCarthy’s The Road, I might think of the language as spare and solemn and thus evocative and fitting given the austerity and general quietude of the book. But I might unfairly read similar prose in a genre book as merely utilitarian or simplistic by default.

These are the biases I’ll have to self-consciously push against while reading Butler’s work. She is a writer of genre fiction in my mind, and I’ll have to keep nudging aside my tendency to dismiss in her writing what I might see as significant in the writing of an author I’ve been told writes literary fiction. The first step to recovery, it’s said, is to admit that you have a problem. I here admit it. I’d like to recover. And I hope that reading some of Butler’s books along with a community of careful readers will help me pay attention in this fiction to the things I might look past otherwise and help me put aside once and for all my ridiculous knee-jerk snobbery.

9 thoughts on “A Confession

  1. Paul Debraski February 20, 2021 / 4:12 pm

    Daryl, I too suffer from this snobbery. Or I should say suffered. I have in the last fifteen or so years, really embraced all kinds of writing.

    But i have to say, whatever I thought about Butler’s writing before this (which wasn’t much as I didn’t really know anything about her), this book is phenomenal (so far). I won’t give anything away by saying that it transcends anything i might have expected (especially from the cover).

    I am hooked.

  2. Naptimewriting February 20, 2021 / 6:57 pm

    Because I came across her in grad school classes, it never occurred to me to align her with pulp sci-fi. To me, she is closer to Morrison and Garcia Marquez than Heinlein or Herbert. Still genre but literary leaning.

    In fact, this read, I connect her more as a Whitehead progenitor and Faulkner refractor than Tolkien heir.

    Shrug. It’s just good to be back reading her again.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston February 22, 2021 / 9:23 am

      I think the first Butler I read was Fledgling, which seemed a lot more fantastical than Kindred. The comparison to Whitehead seems apt. To me, Whitehead writes with a more appealing style than Butler is writing with in Kindred, which makes Whitehead more appealing to me on the whole. He wrote a zombie book a few years ago that I didn’t like very much, and I think what I didn’t like about it was that it was more “this happened and then that happened” than most of his other work, which at least says it more lyrically. This is what I’m finding to be the case with Butler so far too. What she’s saying is interesting and engaging, but how she says it is leaving me a little cold. I guess I’m more of a how person than a what person.

    • Dennis March 2, 2021 / 12:35 pm

      I’ll have to reassess my reading a bit in light of your insight. However, two things separate this work from magical realism in my mind: narative focus and character agency. Kindred feels much more focused on a few very specific themes that resonate with the characters. And the characters themselves are more aware of the peculiarity of their circumstances.

  3. Jeff Anderson March 5, 2021 / 12:08 pm

    I love this post, Daryl! (So naturally I wait until it’s sliding down the front page to comment.) It’s fun to get something of your biography as a reader, both because we get to learn who you are a bit better and because mine is almost exactly the opposite. Until, oh, maybe high school, I read almost only speculative fiction.

    It seems like you’re distinguishing books on different axes that are perhaps incommensurable, but that may also just be a matter of terminology. I like to use the umbrella concept of speculative fiction, which is basically all the different kinds of writing that ask the question “what if?” So while it overlaps significantly with your category of genre fiction, it doesn’t generally include detective fiction (although there’s Thursday Next) or Westerns (although there’s The Gunslinger) or romance (although there’s Outlander). You can already see the porousness here, but that’s because speculative fiction is an approach, not a genre. But it especially includes the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird/slipstream, and their subdivisions, because those are always posing a substantively counterfactual world and then engaging with what it means to operate in it.

    (There is of course, in this area especially, a long-running battle over terminology. Some of it has to do with the natural slipperiness of impossibilities; for example, time travel as a concept doesn’t particularly care whether it’s accomplished via general relativity or a blow to the head—and Butler explicitly resisted calling Kindred science fiction and called it fantasy instead, because there’s no science involved in Dana’s translations between present and past. But some of it is more historicist—I’ve always assumed Atwood’s objections to labeling The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam books science fiction has more to do with market considerations and trying to evade compounding the ghettoization of writing by women that could flow from also having her stuff relegated to genre fiction.)

    Thinking about it this way then lets you make the move to separate the writing from the thinking behind it: Labeling this writing by the kinds of questions it asks is no more an intrinsic statement of quality than shelving something in, say, the biography section. (Also relevant here is Sturgeon’s law, which was specifically formulated to argue that the existence of poorly written science fiction wasn’t unique: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”) This also allows for the connections Christine’s making, and especially both the invocation of pulp and the idea of “still genre but literary leaning.” Those are judgments of quality, which you’re eminently qualified to make!

    • Daryl L. L. Houston March 8, 2021 / 11:11 pm

      That’s such a helpful lens through which to look at all of this, Jeff. Thanks for providing it.

  4. Jeff Anderson March 13, 2021 / 9:14 pm

    Hope you’re still reading comments on this post, Daryl! I came across a wonderful Jo Walton essay that feels like it would be super useful. (Bonus! She’s building on a Samuel Delany essay that’s been pretty influential on me as a reader. Her link to it is broken, but I found another.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s