Thursday, July 1, 2010

Neal Stephenson on literary genre

Neal Stephenson gave a lecture in May 2008 at Gresham College in London. The topic? Science Fiction as a Literary Genre. A friend only recently pointed me to the event, as preserved on the intertubes, figuring I'd be interested because I've posted repeatedly on the question of fiction categories. She was right.

(Stephenson is an author who lives in Seattle. I know him best as the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon ... but -- true confession -- after having both those novels highly recommended to me by more than one discerning reader, I tried to work up a head of steam getting into each as I paged through the opening chapters in my local bookstore. I tried more than once. But I couldn't get interested. I did read Zodiac, as research for my current novel project.)

The Gresham College lecture is archived on video at so if you like you can watch the whole 40 minutes. Stephenson isn't the most dynamic speaker ever, but he has a lot of interesting things to say. If you're in the mood for something a little quicker than the real-time experience, read on for some of the ideas Stephenson proposed about genre.

His overarching thesis is that "It no longer makes sense to speak of mainstream and some number of genres." That model, which Stephenson calls "the standard model of our culture," implies "that there is a mainstream, and, peripheral to it -- inferior in intellectual content, moral values, production values, and economic importance -- some number of genres." No longer so, says Stephenson -- if it ever was.

Moreover, he asserts that two of the principal fiction genres that can still be found in segregated sections of most bookstores, Romance and Crime/Mystery, have been subsumed by new (well, the 'old new') media. "Romance," Stephenson claims, "fused with the movie industry, and crime fused with television." With some notable exceptions, he points out, "movies that have no romantic relationship don't sell as many tickets" and so "romance and the romantic sensibility has stopped being confined to a particular genre and has become an intrinsic part of the modern industrial movie making business."

Why is this? Stephenson explains. "Romance and violence are two things that easily cross borders and jump language barriers." Given that the culture industry has gone global, this matters. And because there are "only so many young men in the world [...] romance appeals to more people." He does not go so far as to claim that violence is toned down in the film business because those "only so many young men" don't matter to people who sell movies. That would be silly; cf. almost every movie Hollywood releases during the summer months.

Taking on TV and movies to tackle the question of literary genre in these times is a sweet analytical strategy. It's appropriately oppositional, given Stephenson's heterodox fiction and the current turmoil in the publishing industry, for Stephenson to welcome the 'barbarians at the gate' of literary culture, to cast film as markers of literary genre.

What Stephenson was really at Gresham to talk about, though, was SF -- by which he doesn't mean "science fiction" but, more broadly, "speculative fiction."

His main thesis on the question of speculative fiction has to do with the attractiveness of intelligence. Here again he uses film to make his points. He describes a number of compelling actors and actresses and the work they're best known for, arguing that an actor or actress who can project "complexity behind the eyes" -- a portrayal of intelligence by characters for whom that trait is a core reason audiences identify with them -- is a distinguishing trait of SF film. His examples include Leonard Nimoy, Sigourney Weaver, Patrick Stewart, and Hugo Weaving. Speculative fiction, says Stephenson, "thrives because it is idea porn."

It's an interesting theory, but it makes me ancy to acknowledge only SF-category actors and actresses when giving a nod to those whose star power is bound up in their ability to convey intelligence. I suspect I could stay up for days listing and linking literary or 'highbrow' dramatists who meet and exceed the mark (I'm equally sure that Neal Stephenson could do the same, very possibly for longer). A half-dozen off the top of my head: Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, John Malkovich, Helen Mirin, Kristin Scott Thomas, Meryl Streep.

Of course, these notables have little to do with genre film or literarure. But there are crossover actors who trade on conveying that "complexity behind the eyes" quality and who sometimes -- but not always -- do so in genre films that tie intelligence to power or madness or malice, or some shivery combination of these. Jack Nicholson is a prime example, in The Shining, or as The Joker in Batman.

And then there's the stage-film crossover thing, at which many of the forementioned are prime examples. Another pair in this vein, to give the guys more equal representation: I saw James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer play Othello and Iago, respectively, in a production of Shakespeare's Othello in New York, I think it was in the early 1980s. Riveting. Then, over the next decade, Jones played Admiral Greer in a couple films based on Tom Clancy novels, The Hunt for Red October, and Patriot Games; at around the same time Christopher Plummer played the Klingon General Chang in Star Trek VI.

Stephenson's theory is a wee bit self-serving, and he more or less confesses to that at one point in his talk. First he sweeps the mainstream / genre distinction off the table; and then he puts the category he writes -- speculative fiction -- on the 'smart and complex' pedestal, which is more-or-less the location he identified as one that 'mainstream' fiction used to inhabit (to re-quote: "there is a mainstream, and, peripheral to it -- inferior in intellectual content, moral values, production values, and economic importance -- some number of genres"). Well, why not? It was his lecture, after all.

More food for categorical thought.....

(Thanks to dieithinger for the Stephenson photo and Quinn for the reference to his talk on "SF as a Literary Genre.")

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