Once upon a time there was a little boy who liked science fiction.
He liked stories about space battles, alien monsters, and also stories about dragons, wizards, and talking animals. He read everything he could get his hands on, which included every single book on every single shelf in a certain section of the local library. At first relatives encouraged this enthusiasm: reading, after all, was A Good Thing. But eventually they gently tried to steer him toward fantastical literature of more widely regarded merit: Homer's Odyssey, Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe. He liked Poe quite a lot.
1.)This boy grew up a bookworm, no doubt about it. He underperformed in school because he was more interested in his private literary pursuits than in drab assignments. And much of the stuff school wanted him to read was excruciatingly drab. Faulkner! What was the point? (Although occasionally something would lure him out of genre, as attested by his avid Jim Thompson, Mark Twain, and James Joyce phases
Nonetheless, like many an avid reader before him, he came to the conclusion that he wanted to write the stuff, too. Despite enthusiastic forays into 20th century traditions of experimental and mimetic fiction, this kid still loved stories with monsters, aliens, space stations, and extra dimensions. The wizards-n-dragons stuff had gone tepid over the years, but there was other fantasy out there: Gormenghast, Elric, and Severian all made deep impressions on the (slowly) maturing fellow. So, he went to college. He studied "English."
Welcome to the Ghetto
Odds are, you're familiar with "the Ghetto." This is where academia keeps its unsavory genre writers (and critics).
Academia does have a fairly progressive "Don't ask, don't tell" policy: if the distinguished professor of 19th century criticism unwinds with a paperback mystery before bed, that's her business. So long as there are no John D. MacDonald references in her published work, then there's no problem.
2.It is rumored that there are even little utopian islands carefully sheltered in the sea of respectable academic thought where the genres are taken seriously, and serious fiction is open to the possibility of fun. But few who have found those rare havens of bliss have ever ventured back out onto the stormy waters, and so their location remains a shrouded secret
Our young man did not happen upon any such utopia, and soon found himself quite explicitly forbidden from squandering his intellect upon trash.
But, what about Edgar Allen Poe? he asked. Disinterested shrugs. Of limited historical interest.
Of course, he attempted to point out that there is science fiction of literary worth. He began with the no-brainers: Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin, Walter M. Miller Jr. He received blank stares.
He tried the end-run tactic: George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Mary Shelley, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Swift?
Son, that's satire.
Apparently, anything accepted into the literary canon was, by definition, not science fiction; and anything published as science fiction was, again by definition, not literature.
Our hero, if I may call him that, also took some writing classes. There he found a mixed reception. Apparently people teaching creative writing in college aren't held to quite the same standards of intellectual rigor as their more professorial counterparts. Nonetheless, of those who would allow him to write the stories he loved, the only criteria of merit appeared to be "popular appeal," and "marketability." An eloquent passage, or an intriguing philosophical dilemma, or a symbol rich with archetypal power might or might not be noted, but if the story didn't hook, if it didn't snap—
In any case, this young man soon realized that—
He attended a convention or two, but something didn't fit. He had read all the same books as these people, so why didn't he feel at home? He could trade Monty Python quotations, Twilight Zone episodes, and Star Trek trivia. He had other pre-requisites: he had played Dungeons and Dragons. (And Traveller, and Gamma World.) He had read Cerberus the Aardvark, The Watchmen, and Sandman. He could explain Aragorn's genealogical connection to Isildur, his affiliation with the Dúnedain, and the age-old enmity with the Witch King of Angmar, lord of the Nazgûl. So...why did he feel like an outsider?
As colorful as the ghetto was, perhaps he just couldn't stand the idea of being confined.
Literature as Subculture
The point of this story isn't to talk about one man's psychology as an outsider, but rather to point to the peculiar degree to which two distinct kinds of reader have created a culture around a particular body of work.
Fandom is a fairly well-observed (if not widely-understood) phenomenon. Allow me to cast out a few generalities, but feel free to extend this discussion in the forums:
Science fiction fandom began as a sub-culture of enthusiasts, a loose-knit nationwide club of people who found their friendships and often their family in the companionship of others immersed in the same body of literature. It began as a band of outsiders who found more common language with other readers than with the popular culture of their various locales. Historically ghettos are formed from two forces: a desire to confine those who are different, but also a desire to have your own kind as neighbors. If there is a "science fiction ghetto" might it be partly the result of this banding together of outsiders?
The model of fandom—
It's worth noting that for the most part, other genres don't now and never did inspire this kind of cultural bonding. Mysteries, thrillers, romances: there are a few conventions here and there, but they tend more toward conferences of working professionals.
However, there is one entirely unrelated group of readers who have formed a tightly-knit community of non-conformists all conforming to a common language. They even have a (loose, hotly debated) canon of literature. I refer, of course, to the academic elite. If you consider the cultural politics in a given university English department, you will find it has a lot more in common with a group of die-hard science fiction fans than, say, any random assortment of avid mystery readers. Even if you go into the mystery sub-forms: the cozy, perhaps, or the whodunit, or the talking-cats-who-solve-murders...these readers might enjoy sipping tea and comparing notes on the latest exploits of Joe Grey, feline P.I., but they are unlikely to take it further than that. (Unless they are furries, and it wouldn't surprise me if they were.)
Culturally, these two are miles apart, of course. Academics enjoy a position of respect and esteem in the larger culture, while fans tend to run negative on the respectometer. The difference between ivy-covered buildings on the one side and shabby airport hotels where most conventions end up could hardly be more pronounced. The language is different; the criteria for success is different. These two cultures simply don't have much in common.
Oh, it's tempting to draw facile correlations. I made a list of similarities along the lines of "At ceremonial occasions, both tend to dress in wizard's gowns and funny hats," but that's mere coincidence, not true common ground.
One thing that is true common ground, however, is an isolation from wider culture. Compared to our science fiction ghetto, the "Ivory Tower" that academics dwell in is really no different. Whether looked up to or looked down upon, the isolation is real. These are both cultures that draw people who don't care so much for "real life."
Things may be changing. The utopias referenced above are real; and even outside these particular institutions, some individuals have bridged the gap, have found ways to be insiders of both subcultures, Michael Chabon being the poster child here. Many others exist in both worlds, but uneasily.
One person who didn't find a way to bridge that gap, however, was the young man described in the opening paragraphs of this essay. But in his case, it's more likely pathological. I get the feeling he's the sort who wouldn't belong to any club that would accept him as a member.
He has been known to crash their parties, from time to time.