Last month The Center for Fiction in midtown Manhattan presented a reading series as part of the NEA's Big Read (in partnership with Arts Midwest) celebrating Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. (The Center is an elegant haven for books and book-lovers in the midst of Manhattan's roar and hustle, reminding Lobster & Canary of the wizard's school on the island of Roke in Le Guin's Earthsea; visit the Center, support the Center.) Click here and here for information on the entire series. Lobster & Canary was in the audience October 24th for one of the panels: "Outsiders In/Of Science Fiction and the Fantastic," moderated by Ellen Kushner, and featuring Steve Berman, Samuel R. Delany, Andrea Hairston, Carlos Hernandez, and Alaya Dawn Johnson.
The panel was everything such an event should be, i.e., a warm, smart and authentic conversation both among the panelists and with audience members, deftly moderated; a lively give-&-take, laced with inclusive humor.
Kushner launched the discussion by asking whether speculative fiction is inherently an "outsider genre." Lobster & Canary is happy to report that we could not discern a clear consensus among the many and quickening responses (what a dull panel it would have been had a consensus emerged). The garden simply has too many blooms--as Le Guin notes in her essay collection, Cheek by Jowl (referenced by Hairston on the panel), fantasy is necessarily about "reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge" as a way to deny or refute simplistic conclusions, false unanimity and soul-flattening homogenization.
Or perhaps there was agreement that spec fic is intrinsically outsider art but the panel was eager to move on to two other (related) questions:
* Is spec fic friendly to writers other than straight white males (corollary: friendlier than other genres)?
* Is the boundary between speculative fiction and other forms of fiction (what Delany called here "Big Lit") clear, hierarchical and fenced?
Not surprisingly, opinions varied on both themes. Responses were thoughtful and nuanced inside their "yes but..." and "maybe, sometimes" wrappers. Le Guin was the stalking horse throughout, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven referred to as much as or more than The Wizard of Earthsea, the critical essayist of "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" and The Wave in the Mind as honored as the novelist.
A few flowers from the garden:
Berman suggested that the speculative elements in a story are akin to the tools a carpenter uses, that speculation is not present merely as either ornamentation or an end in itself, but as a means to address deeper societal issues.
Hairston spoke of spec fic as writing in the subjunctive, the "what might be." She interleaved that concept with the drive to identify and then recover what we have lost, the right and need to imagine worlds when "the film stock has dissolved" in ours. She also reminded us that, even with super powers, there is no guarantee that one will be able to change the world-- spec fic is not simple escapism or wish fulfillment.
Johnson emphasized the playful use of spec fic to "twist the world," to see what the twisting reveals about how we live today, and how we might live otherwise now or in the future.
Johnson also highlighted (citing David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas as an example) that the boundaries between speculative fiction and the other kind appear to be getting more porous, as genre fiction experiments with literary techniques and mainstream fiction adopts speculative tropes.
Delany took a less sanguine view, arguing that the border is very real and patrolled by power brokers who only now and then allow, say, a Vonnegut up and through. He used Sturgeon as the counter-example of a great writer who has gone unheralded by "Big Lit."
Hernandez turned the map inside out, leaving the border police ineffectively guarding checkpoints that no longer matter, by saying all fiction is speculative--it is just that self-proclaimed spec fic writers are more honest about what they are up to.
The fact that The Center for Fiction hosted the Le Guin series suggests that the borders may be fairly open, or at least that visas are no longer necessary. (But see the P.S. to this entry). The panel discussed Nabokov, Flaubert and Morrison along side Russ, Disch, and of course Le Guin.
Lobster & Canary regrets only that we were unable to attend the other panels and readings in the series!
P.S. Then again, perhaps Delany is right to be skeptical of claims about genuine understanding and rapprochement between Spec Lit and Big Lit. Four days after this panel, Glen Duncan opened his review of Colson Whitehead's Zone One in The New York Times Book Review this way: "A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star. It invites forgivable prurience: What is that relationship like? Granted the intellectual’s hit hanky-panky pay dirt, but what’s in it for the porn star? Conversation? Ideas? Deconstruction?" *Sigh*