Discussion Board

Topic: Science Fiction and the literary canon

From: Imelda Gonzalez
Location: San Antonio
Date: 02/25/2009

Dear Mr. Bear,

I am currently a graduate student of English at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, TX. I am enrolled in class titled Literary Forms where we are focusing on Science Fiction stories. My classmates, professor and I have discussed Science Fiction writings and their place in the literary canon. My question, or questions, to you is: What are your thoughts on Science Fiction writings being included in the literary canon? For the most part, when we think of what would be considered literature, we think of Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, even H.G. Wells. As you may know, literary scholars may not be too welcoming of Science Fiction stories. Do you think S.F. stories can be included in the canon? Why or why not? Your response would be greatly appreciated by my professor, classmates and me. I'm also working on a presentation about you, so your response would be a great addition! Congratulations on all of your achievements!

Thank you very much,
Imelda Gonzalez

Re: Science Fiction and the literary canon

From: Greg Bear
Date: 02/26/2009

Good writing is good writing, and good stories live outside of academic judgments. Not to drop names, but Nobel Prize winners in both literature and a number of sciences have confessed to reading and enjoying my work--and that's not exceptional for science fiction writers. Whether or not we're part of any established literary canon means little as long as we have many happy readers--and we do.

Re: Science Fiction and the literary canon

From: patrick
Date: 02/26/2009

Hey, Imelda, this is an old, old row. Decades, in fact. Something that's been run through here, and extensively and perhaps definitively at Dan Simmons' forum. Do a search through here, and check on over there for illumination...although Greg's first sentence above is essentially all one needs...in the event the sentiment isn't personally arrived at before reading it.

Re: Science Fiction and the literary canon

From: Roald Laurenson
Location: Imperial Beach
Date: 02/26/2009

Imelda, there's a book that may interest you, if you can get hold of it. Perhaps it is in your school's library

This 'Forms of Attention', by Frank Kermode, a very respected person and an entirely unusual writer. I say that because of the ways he can make you really enjoy 'critical' writing.

Here's a NYTimes review which would give you a name for an idea I'd like to pass along from him


That word, 'omnisignificance', is in the second paragraph, and I found it a very useful concept when first reading Kermode's book some years ago.

He argues that what brings art such as that of Botticelli the painter, or Shakespeare (he uses Hamlet as example) or others into our sense of 'canon' is that the work contains many, many views into life, mixed into it in such a way that we enjoy, and the find the parts that mean most of us for our own time and place.

He feels that the more presence of this multiplicity, the more likely the work is to be not exactly remembered, so much as rediscovered -- and thus lives down to us and beyond us in the ages.

There is a very rich sense of life, I feel, in this view, which is probably why I like it so much.

In the case of a work of Botticelli, he traces through his Oxford resources several times the painting had been lauded, then lost, and then rediscovered, a generation or two later. These examples are clear, not only because of this scholarship, but because each time the painting is described very differently, according to what is seen important in that time. And thus, it contained what could be seen each time.

I've also thought it interesting he used Botticelli, whose distortions and so forth could have you questioning his calibre, compared to the evident perfection of Leonardo da Vinci.

Anyway, it is a short but very rich book, due to Kermode's writing.

And in connection with speculative fiction, I have long felt Greg is one of those in it who have a great deal of this multifaceted depth in their writing. Another is Ursula Le Guin, to have named two favorites.

And then I have to say the powerful imaginings in many persons' stories have something of this flavor, a very human thing, and probably why I enjoy sf as much as I always have.

There are those in other fields too - try the later, very adult works of Chaim Potok - The Gift of Asher Lev is a great book, and The Book of Lights. These are not sf, but they are culturally as removed as sf gets in some ways, and very rich in surprise and homelike feeling equally.

Maybe that is something of my own definition like Kermode's ;). How much an author can let you feel at home in our world, intricate as it is.

Best regards, Imelda,

Re: Science Fiction and the literary canon

From: Patrick B
Location: Vancouver, WA
Date: 02/27/2009

A stock answer I have when the "literary" merit of SF comes up is two names: Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury.

Vonnegut is probably the greatest American satirists since Mark Twain. His work and the poetic writing of Bradbury easily stack up against anything presented as literature.

Going back further in antiquity, SF and Fantasy form some of the greatest and most enduring of classic literature, all the way from Homer to HG Wells.

Jonathan Swift's (arguably the best English speaking satirist ever) best known work, "Gulliver's Travels" is primarily a SF&F story, incorporating fantastical elements and extrapolation of the then current understanding of science, to cast a mirror on contemporary culture. It was as effective as it was because of these elements.

More modern SF allows authors to investigate, contemplate, and debate complex issues in a way not open to more prosaic fiction. Heinlein was able to discuss alternate political ideologies, altered gender roles, and cultural taboos so effectively only because of the imaginative freedom SF offered.

I personally feel that SF&F have done more to influence the zeitgeist more than any other fictional form.

Re: Science Fiction and the literary canon

From: patrick
Date: 03/02/2009

"I personally feel that SF&F have done more to influence the zeitgeist more than any other fictional form. "

Well, certainly, yes. It comes to mind that the Enlightenment, in its fervor to dispel notions of the fantastic, particularly in any religio-supernatural sense, is the culprit. Alas. In a grey sense, popcul has accidentally come to the rescue, making Scifi okay across the board, while only somewhat including/allowing SF, and hence many are mired in the fantastic again. Hm.

Re: Science Fiction and the literary canon

From: Greg Bear
Date: 03/02/2009

Which brings up an interesting question: which is healthier for our culture, Buffy or Doc Smith? One leads to TWILIGHT, the other to STAR WARS.

Re: Science Fiction and the literary canon

From: Bill Goodwin
Location: Los Angeles
Date: 03/14/2009

To Ms. Gonzalez I'd suggest looking at New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis. His evaluation of science fiction as literature makes a good read even after nearly five decades.

Wasn't it Asimov who said, when asked why he wrote sf, "What else is there?"

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