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July, 2004 : Essay:

Echoing Teapots

Elitism in F/SF

One of the great pleasures of being active in this field is the sheer wall-eyed silliness with which periodic grudge matches erupt amongst fans, writers and critics. These outbursts occur with all the fascination and glory of a truly spectacular train wreck. Perhaps one involving cattle. With luck, the worst injuries in these grudge matches are bruised egos.

The classic teapot tempests are, of course, the ghettoization debate between genre and mainstream fiction; and the "what really counts as science fiction" question, a banner normally carried with rabid fervor by the incomparable David Truesdale of Tangent Online. Longtime followers of Truesdale will recall the unfortunate Karen Joy Fowler incident of 2002 (1), which lead to an irruptive online debate eventually involving almost everyone in the field who possessed a keyboard. As for ghettoization, suffice to say that millions of people who are indifferent or even actively hostile toward science fiction greatly enjoyed Jurassic Park (2), Michael Crichton's little book and subsequent movie about cloned dinosaurs.

On to the current teapot...

The week of July 12th, 2004, Strange Horizons published an article by Tee Morris entitled "The SciFi Superiority Complex: Elitism in SF/F/H." Morris makes two arguments, which he conflates—first, that literary science fiction scorns media-driven science fiction, and second, that science fiction scorns fantasy. He supports his arguments with various anecdotes and opinions, though no attributable quotes.

Here's where it gets interesting.

Nick Mamatas, the Nihilistic Kid, SFnal-gadfly-in-training and possibly our next Harlan Ellison, has taken exception to Morris' article in a response on his LiveJournal. When Mamatas takes exception to something, he does so with a certain verbal artistry which is a wonder to behold. As David Moles says:

"Nick Mamatas is my Monster from the Id.
"Mostly, these days, I like to be the voice of moderation. Nick doesn't.
When one is the stupidest motherfucker in the room, the world is a hostile and inexplicable place. [Mamatas wrote]
"I just don't say shit like that any more, and barring a really bad headache or a personality-altering blow to the head, I'm just not likely at this point to turn into the sort of person who does. On balance, I think that's probably a good thing.
"But occasionally it's nice that someone's saying it." (3)

Mamatas' complaint is ultimately not with Morris, whom he dismisses with a clever, casual Wildean offensiveness, but with Strange Horizons for publishing what he considers so obviously weak and pointless an article. As Mamatas says at the closing of his post:

"I'm actually loathe to post this polemic now, as it will just feed into the idea that the article was somehow 'controversial' or was designed to 'get people talking.' Controversy exists when reasonable people disagree, but a reasonable person who knows how to read will find no footing in this piece. Designed to get people talking? Well that implies that the article was designed, rather than just shat out in one burst of retarded fury." (4)

Of course despite his disclaimer, a round of debate and comment has emerged on Mamatas' LiveJournal topic, on Write Hemisphere, on Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. If no press is bad press, then the unfortunate Mr. Morris has benefited tremendously from the elevation in his name recognition. Strange Horizons has certainly garnered additional readership this past week. All in all, a success.

So what of Morris' argument? His article has touched a nerve. Some of what he says makes sense, some of it reads like the unhappiness of a writer who feels neglected. (All of us know that latter feeling.) Morris also reports mockery and scorn from award-winning writers and editors with respect to his positions in media SF. This doesn't jibe well with my experience of our field—authors are as competitive as any other profession, but for the most part mutual respect and support has always been the order of the day for me.

But media tie-ins are a funny thing. Locus magazine has historically refused to review them or otherwise provide editorial support. Tangent Online does not review tie-ins either. They generally aren't considered for major awards, and the literary end of the SF world (using literary in Morris' sense of the word) is uncomfortable with tie-ins.

What does this really mean? This is a question worth investigating firsthand, instead of through anecdotal evidence.

In his LiveJournal post, Mamatas suggested someone interview Dark Carnival Books in Berkley, California, about why some genre bookstores carry tie-ins and others do not. Here's what owner Jack Rems has to say (5):

"What's the point, tell your customers to go to Barnes and Noble because we're too good to carry it? If some editor's throwing some writer a bone by letting them novelize a screenplay, I don't see why I should care."

An eminently practical perspective—give the people what they want. Not a bad business model, either. Rems goes on to comment about what he considers to be the rise and fall of media tie-ins: in his store there has been a decline from the half-million copy best-selling Star Trek books of the 1980s to today's flood of television and film books that barely move off the shelves.

Jerry Oltion (6) is the author of fifteen novels both original and tie-in, and winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella for "Abandon in Place"(7)—his credentials are unambiguous on both sides of the tie-in/litfic aisle. Here's what Oltion has to say (8):

I know that media tie-in elitism exists, because I have experienced it myself in three separate ways.
First I was myself a litfic snob who sneered at media tie-ins and their authors. I was sure that nobody who wrote a hack novel could be any good...until a combination of opportunity, interest, and incentive led me to write one myself.
Then I felt the sting from other litfic snobs who accused me of selling out. (And once I saw what pretentious asses we litsnobs were, I was quite happy to have left their camp.)
But the most interesting form of tie-in elitism came from my extended family, who had been mildly amused but certainly not impressed by my career up to that point. When my first Star Trek book came out, my relatives suddenly took notice. Several of them said, 'Congratulations, you've finally made it big!' That's the reaction of real people out there in the real world, people who don't have an axe to grind or a narrow-minded view of what a person should or should not do with their talent. Guess whose opinion matters most to me.
Has writing tie-ins helped or hurt my career? Both, I think. I couldn't sell a novel on a bet in the early days, so writing tie-ins got my name out there and kept me working while I built up a following. But I wrote ten tie-ins in a row, which pretty much marked me as a tie-in writer, so it was hard to re-educate editors (who can be litsnobs, too) to think of me as a stand-alone writer. So in short, the writing of tie-ins wasn't a problem (and in fact, I think it made me a better writer), but the elitism surrounding it probably set me back a bit in establishing a stand-alone career.

Clearly his status as a long-time tie-in author didn't keep Oltion from a Nebula Award. Yet at the same time his experience speaks to Morris' original point.

Kevin J. Anderson (9) signed the largest contract in the history of science fiction publishing for the Dune prequels, co-authored with Brian Herbert. (Tie-in work, it must be pointed out, albeit not film- or television-based.) He is a multiple best-selling author with over 11 million books in print. And he does a lot of work in both tie-in and original universes.

Here's Anderson's comment on tie-in snobbery (10):

Most of the people I've encountered who scorn 'media tie-in' books have never read them. I'll hold up my Jedi Academy books or the Dune prequels against any of my original novels. I put in my best work, no matter what. True, back in the 1970s some authors who wrote such spin-off novels had nothing but contempt for their own work, and it showed. Nowadays, though, many authors are huge fans as well as writers, and they fight tooth-and-nail for the assignments. I've written a lot of those books—and I've loved them—but I'm in good company. If novels based on 'somebody else's universe' are such a 'bad thing,' then why have so many of them been written by such respected and award-winning authors as Joe Haldeman, Greg Bear, David Brin, Gregory Benford, Walter Jon Williams, Mike Resnick, Steven Barnes, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Gregory Keyes, and others?

It's hard to argue success with the list of authors Anderson cites. He goes on to say:

[Writers complain,] 'It's too constraining! I can't play by someone else's rules.' Well, that's just plain nonsense. Any story has to be written within certain parameters, and only SF or F has the bizarre notion that every author must create the whole universe from scratch with each book. Thriller or mystery writers are constrained by the realities of police procedures or the capabilities of forensic science. Historical writers have to be true to the land and period in which they set their stories. James Clavell had to follow the rules of ancient Japan when he wrote Shogun. Kevin Anderson has to follow the rules of Frank Herbert's universe when he co-writes a new Dune novel. Any author worth his or her salt should be able to do that. It's like saying you can't write a novel set in Seattle because you can't be 'constrained' by the climate of the Pacific Northwest or the geography of the city.
A long time ago, fast-paced fun works such as the pulp magazines or the Heinlein juveniles were the 'gateway drugs' to get young readers into science fiction. Today, no matter how much the grumpy old guard complains, that gateway is TV and movies. Fans who fell in love with Star Wars moved on to reading my novels, or Tim Zahn's, or Mike Stackpole's. Then many of them graduated to reading my Seven Suns novels or other science fiction. I see my own sales figures before and after I started doing media tie-ins.

Anderson finishes up with a comment passed along from Hugo Award winning artist Bob Eggleton:

I call those readers who scorn tie-ins the Talifan, because of their 11th century attitudes toward the genre.

For a final datapoint, consider that Arthur C. Clarke, one of the founding Grand Masters of our field, did the tie-in novelization of his own film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (11), in turn based on his original short story, "The Sentinel."(12) His reputation does not seem to have suffered.

Tempest or not, tie-ins are a multimillion dollar teapot. Money from tie-ins floats other books lines, other authors, other careers, sustaining the genre we know and love. Movies have been adapted from books since there were movies to be made—why is the other direction different? This is the elitism that bothers Morris.

But the question at hand is not the comparison between movies and books. Though Morris raised that point in his article, it is a red herring. Mamatas dismisses the complaint, not incorrectly, remarking:

Movie/book popularity is ultimately a comparison between apples and oranges.

The meaningful comparison is between tie-ins and original SF—what Morris calls "litfic," though that term is woefully generic and inadequate to the debate. Setting aside simple prejudice, there are two understandable bases for discriminating against tie-ins.

First, on a definitional basis. This is the approach of Locus, Tangent Online, Borderlands Books, certain of the award committees as well as other writers, critics and figures in the field. They say, in effect, "SF is that which is set in original universes, and does not include fiction based on tie-ins." Fair enough, as far as it goes in the matter of taste and preference, but not a reasonable grounding for a broad standard of judgment.

Second, on a literary basis. This is a fine point, bordering on the selfsame accusations of elitism launched by Morris and substantiated by established professionals, but consider that media tie-ins are written for a market driven by the tastes and styles of the associated media properties. The Byzantine complexities of Gene Wolfe or bemboist phantasms of Jeff VanderMeer are not what those readers want to see, at least not in their tie-in novels, for all that many of us love such literary achievements within genre.

It's simple enough to fall into the same high culture-low culture dialectic which has consumed American intellectual thought for the balance of the twentieth century. All of us are on the sharp end of that stick when an establishment academic or literary critic deigns to comment on science fiction at all. Shit flows downhill, and somehow tie-ins are seen as downhill from literary SF.

Which is, of course, ridiculous by the numbers. Witness the comments from Anderson and Oltion. Witness the list of prominent authors and even critical darlings who have done tie-in work. The attitude is real, but born at least as much of misinformation and possibly even prejudice as out of a genuinely informed opinion of the merits of such work

And now we are back to Morris' original issue, and Mamatas' refutation thereof. Morris, who has a point, unfortunately comes off as something of a whiner in the Strange Horizons article. Mamatas' response is sheer entertainment in its own right, as his commentary so often can be. But the two of them are dancing around the issue, the true nature of this tempestuous teapot, which I believe to be this:

We all build our own literary ghettos. Mainstream sneers at genre, litfic genre sneers at media tie-in fiction. (Perhaps Star Wars writers sneer at Sweet Valley High.) L'affaire Morris-Mamatas may indeed be wall-eyed silliness, but the serious aspect of it masks not elitism, but insecurity, and eventually, undermines us all.

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge Kevin J. Anderson, Jerry Oltion and Jack Rems for their willingness to be interviewed on such short notice, and Dawn Burnell, Deb Layne, John Pitts, Luc Reid, Janna Silverstein, Mark Teppo and Mikal Trimm for their invaluable editorial and research assistance on even shorter notice.


Copyright © 2004, Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

COMMENTS!

Jul 21, 22:59 by John Frost
Comments on the broo-ha-ha...
Jul 22, 00:01 by Mike Brotherton
Had my own run in with a literary type on a blog a couple of months ago. She was immediately condescending, then threw a fit when I called her on it, and suddenly I was the bad guy. WTF? She wasn't even so generous as to extend the discussion to media tie-ins -- she drew the line at quality writing where every page was worth an hour or more, and heaped scorn on those bad, bad books that forced you to turn the pages so fast, because of a good story, that you couldn't appreciate the verbiage. Again, WTF?

People read for all sorts of reasons. I don't like political correctness or snobbery, but I certainly like some work better than other. There has been fantastic work with commerial properties (some work in graphic novels comes most easily to mind), and some awful work with original characters and worlds.

I remember being advised that you shouldn't write anything you're not into. That is, that a fantasy series you thought was derivative, maybe it is, but you can't copy it for its big sales if you don't feel its allure.

Complex issues. I think the elitism does boil down to snobbery usually. If you think a work is great, but the sales aren't there, aren't every going to be there, hey, most other readers must be stupid, right? And the battle line is then drawn in a really ridiculous place: among readers. The snobs would be less controversial and more on target to draw the line between readers and TV watchers, or video game players.

Enough rambling. Happy to see the new issue and a new Jay Lake article.

Jul 22, 04:50 by Terry Hickman
Great thoughts, understandably written (unlike so much criticism/analysis of *any* lit field), Jay! Kudos.

But what the hell is a "bemboist"???
Jul 22, 06:10 by Jay Lake
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02425e.htm

Bemboism is a literary form employing complex stylistic architectures, roughly the equivalent of roccoco or baroque art.
Jul 22, 07:10 by Janine Stinson
Fine article, and thanks for the explanation of bemboism. It reaffirms my current belief that there's a little old lady in Akron, Ohio who invents the terms used in literary criticism and sends them via telepathic interface to those who need a new term with which to make their reps in "litcrit" circles.

I wonder, does anyone ever ask a "literary" critic where she or he gets ideas? <g>
Jul 22, 07:21 by Jay Lake
Actually, I copped it from an art history text while reading up on roccoco and baroque one time. Even us Style Monkeys do research.
Jul 22, 09:00 by David Bratman
Another reason for scorning media tie-ins and fantasy as crap is, most of it is. I prefer fantasy to sf when it's good, but bad fantasy is much more of a drag on the f&sf field these days than bad sf is. This is above and beyond the sense in which "90% of everything is crap."

People are willing to make exceptions when the work is actually good. I know a lot of high-lit sf types, including myself, who have one Star Trek novel on their shelves: How Much for Just the Planet? by John M. Ford. That's the good one.

There's also another distinction to be made, which is only alluded to in the article: one between elitism, which says "this stuff is bad," and purism, which says "this stuff may be good, but it doesn't belong in this box." Boundary lines are inevitably fuzzy, but if the border becomes too diffuse, you dilute too far whatever it was that brought you there in the first place.

The author who mocked other authors who say "I can't play by someone else's rules" has utterly missed the point. There's a huge difference between writing something set in the real world, or working with real human limitations which you've known all your life, and working in someone else's imaginary created universe. Probably the authors who are best at writing Trek novels are the ones who've been watching the show since they were spuds: it has, to borrow a phrase, lodged in their hindbrains.

As for the scientific limitations imposed in SF, authors pick and choose which ones they want to follow all the time.

Can good authors write good tie-ins? Some can. These are mostly the authors whose native styles involve absorbing a lot of pop culture and such anyway. The ones who are more self-contained and write of whole universes inside their heads are not going to be good at tie-ins, and probably have the sense not to try.
Jul 22, 09:35 by Stephen Stanley
Pietro Bembo

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02425e.htm

In 1929, Stanley Morrison designed a typeface he named "Bembo" -- based on the type used in an old Aldus Manutius book. Most likely one by Pietro Bembo...

I was stopped by "Bemboism" also -- but more because of my familiarity with the typeface. A quick google brought up the site above.

Great essay, Jay. In my opinion, much of the tempest might be sour grapes/jealousy, a "I can write a better tie-in than that, why don't they accept my proposals?" issue. Such a thing would never be spoken aloud, however. Literary Snobbery comes in more flavors than Baskin Robbins, which is an interesting analogy when one considers it admits both diversity and choice. There are people who feel personally inadequate if their opinions/tastes are not considered the penultimate standard. Poor things.

enuff from me
Jul 22, 17:26 by glenda larke
Just as an item of interest: the 2003 Aurealis Award in the SF category (these are national annual awards for the best of Australian SF, Fantasy and Horror, made by a panel of judges, looking - one assumes - for some literary excellence and originality) went to a Dr Who tie-in: Fallen Gods, by Jon Blum and Kate Orman (Telos Publishing).

Enjoyed your article Jay. Nice to see some good sense in a touchy topic.

Glenda
www.glendalarke.com
Jul 23, 04:25 by Lon Prater
Mainstream sneers at genre, litfic genre sneers at media tie-in fiction. (Perhaps Star Wars writers sneer at Sweet Valley High.)


Hey Jay,

You missed the bottom step on the 'tude chain... media tie-in fans sneer at RPG and trading card game related books. :)

Thanks for an even handed and thoughtful take on the subject.

Lon
www.neverary.com
Jul 23, 05:43 by Jay Lake
Heh. Thanks, Lon. That is a good one. There's always another monkey, as my anthropology prof used to say.

And thanks the rest of you for the kind words.

Ook.
Jul 23, 13:55 by Bluejack
I assume you guys are all familiar with the geek hierarchy?
Jul 26, 14:31 by Ted Chiang
Just a couple comments on media tie-ins:

Clarke's _2001: A Space Odyssey_ is not exactly a representative example of a media tie-in. Clarke and Kubrick collaborated on the story for both the movie and the novel. Few, if any, other authors who write tie-ins have been in a similar position.

Also, citing various award-winning authors who have written novels set in other people's universes does not, by itself, constitute a defense of tie-in fiction, any more than citing authors who don't write such novels constitutes a criticism.
Jul 27, 07:52 by Nicholas Liu
I'll hold up my Jedi Academy books or the Dune prequels against any of my original novels.

Sadly, so would I.
Jul 28, 18:42 by Mike Bailey
Jay,

Thanks for the thoughtful article.

Sounds like Nick Mamatas' momma didn't teach him any manners. However smart he may be, rudeness like "that implies that the article was designed, rather than just shat out in one burst of retarded fury" isn't likely to change minds or make friends. Eliciting some cheap chuckles may bring a smile to some, but it seems a bit small-minded to me.

Thanks for a balanced view.
Jul 29, 13:01 by W. Ben Rhodes
THis entire debate reminds me of an argument I had oh-so-long-ago with a friend concerning poetry. He - a high school English teacher and aspiring Author - was constantly heaping scorn on his students because they felt that Jewel's song lyrics were poetry. "It's crap!" he fumed. To his mind, his young students should have been reading nothing but Blake, Byron and Emerson. I countered then - and still feel the same - that at least they were reading, which is more than could be said for a lot of Americans today. Get them used to poetic forms reading Jewel (or any other pop lyricist), then you can start "enlightening" them with DWMs.

TO say that anyone should read a specific type of novel or short story - and coincidentally that anyone should only write a specific type of novel - is not only elitism, it's patently absurd. It denies the simple fact that all readers read at different levels and for different reasons at different times in their lives, and that writers write the same way. I came to sf early in life through comic books - Magnus, Robot Fighter, to be specific - then worked my way up through "juvenile" sf novels until I was ready for the likes of P.K. Dick, Crowley and Stephenson. But even though I read "heavy, deep" stuff today, I still regard the "lighter" stuff with fond memories and even revisit it at times.

Comics, tie-ins, original novels, sequels, prequels, movies, video games - they're all a part of the genre we love.
Aug 2, 17:07 by Bluejack
TO say that anyone should read a specific type of novel or short story - and coincidentally that anyone should only write a specific type of novel - is not only elitism, it's patently absurd.


I agree. When I was a D&D-playing teenager I had generally abysmal taste. I was a fan of Piers Anthony's Xanth novels for far too long, for example. But the bad eventually led to the good. Even then, I don't think I was under any pretence that the stuff was high literature, but I did think it was fun. (On the other hand, I did think that some of Heinlein's later novels were high literature.)

In any case, my tastes have certainly changed over time. What hasn't changed is the belief that fun can be just as important as importance is.

Aug 5, 16:20 by Michael Fay
I am often considered an elitist. Yet, I'm not really. I'm picky. I know what I like. And I have rarely liked the media tie-in novelizations. That, however, doesn't mean that I dislike science fiction/fantasy movies or television. It's just that what works for movies and television doesn't necessarily translate well to the page and vise versa. I have liked some novels set in movie worlds (though I have to find a novelization of a movie worth my time).
I usually don't like it when writers write books set in another writer's universe; the proper "voice" winds up lacking for me and I inevitably compare this new writer to the writer who came before. Of course, some universes only merited one book in the first place. The trend that says otherwise is probably L. Ron Hubbard's fault.
The exception to the other writer's universe rule is certain shared world anthologies (I have only liked Liavek and Bordertown), and even then, when writers go to make novels in these worlds, they generally fail (Will Shetterly needs to step up and admit this now).
In any event, not all elitism is snobbery. Some of it is taste.


I was a fan of Piers Anthony's Xanth novels for far too long, for example.


The first 3 Xanth novels were clever and fairly good.


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