Guest Essay: Samuel Sattin
Issue No. 9 – September 2015
I grew up reading what some consider the wrong kind of books. Literacy wasn’t championed in my household to begin with, and life circumstances were such that I found myself attracted to anything that distracted from the gravel pit of my backyard. Kids with hard fists and harder tempers populated my Elementary school across the street. After I first had a knife pulled on me by a fourth grader who threatened to cut the fat off my stomach, I like to believe I had no choice but to chase away my fears in Manichean novels where the fair-minded and honorable took up arms against evil hordes. The fusty used bookstore in the corner of my neighborhood strip mall, tucked away beside a busy Albertson’s, offered an entire host of tattered, J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy-inspired paperbacks on a budget. For a dollar and some cents I could bury myself in worlds where violence abounded in gory detail, but where justice, as I could understand it at the time, was served, and order maintained. These books weren’t always morally simplistic, but neither did they necessarily seek to heap commentary on readers about the state of the modern world. In retrospect, they seemed mostly concerned with the genre itself, trying to refine and reinvigorate beloved tropes with varying degrees of success.
Dragons, the caliphs of the fantasy canon, became an acute obsession. I acquired imaginative encyclopedias on them, filled with lustrous illustrations and diagrams that treated its fictitious subjects with incredible gravitas. I watched Flight of Dragons on what may as well be considered near-constant repeat, and read and reread the Peter Dickenson book it was based on until its pages went worn. Eventually I walled myself inside such a fortress of belief I thought with genuine conviction that a colony of winged wyrms still survived to this day, hiding in the forests of Eastern Europe.
Though I would come to understand fantasy literature through a more allegorical lens as I grew older, and pioneering authors — some of whom had been around for a long while without me knowing — began to chisel away at the keystone of the genre itself, I internalized it as a child without a trace of irony. I didn’t view fantasy books as a wellspring of post-modern commentary, a way for ‘serious’ authors to someday trade in intellectual currency and earn accolades for elevating what many still consider the basal, brutish realm of sci-fi/fantasy. I created maps of places that wouldn’t ever exist, emulating what I loved. To provide a direct example, my first “novel,” if you could call it that, was titled The Ring of Shanalacas, and was a shameless chapter-by-chapter replication of both the plot and characters of The Sword of Shanara by Terry Brooks. I obviously wasn’t interested, or even capable, of viewing the fantasy genre objectively. I inhabited it. I needed it to feel okay with who I was. I and others like me were pushed to the social sidelines, associated with the same kind of closeted nerd rankness as the frequenters of D&D groups that local gaming shops hosted, who customized figurines with Citadel paints and collected Chessex dice sets.
Today, however, the binaries I took for immutable in my youth have undergone an amazing feat of mitosis. It goes almost without saying that all over the board, from literature to television, we’re witnessing the breakdown of boundaries between the genres. Popular literary authors are winning elite accolades for work whose subject matter just ten years ago would have been summarily overlooked. With the fantasy genre in particular, Game of Thrones has obviously led the charge towards knights and dragons being subject to introspection in the New Yorker, partially because of the genius savvy of its creator, and partly because of the legitimacy lent it by a cerebral television network that specializes in complex character drama. The floodgates have now been nudged open. Just this year, Kazuo Ishiguro, whose evolution as a novelist has carried him from his roots in stark realism to this year’s The Buried Giant, a novel of Arthurian fantasy, has been scoring interest from a wide array of critically important surveyors. In the realm of science fiction, countless post-apocalyptic novels have been welcomed by authors whose previous affiliations are more in line with the PEN American Center than the Hugo Nebula, and some genre authors have crossed over the other way, migrating out of their own niche communities into statutory importance. Such inroads have led to a cultural awakening of sorts, in which the tools and mechanisms of genre fiction have been accessed by the literary establishment, and (though less often) vice a versa.
Critical acclaim, however, is a strange and often bewildered notion in itself. The literary canon has, for years, managed to edify a system for separating what it perceives as culturally worthy from what is not. Just by reading the transcript of Stephen King’s acceptance speech after receiving a medal from the National Book Foundation in 2003, one can understand how the wound has festered over the years. Though historically important authors like George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Mary Shelley and many others have had their usages of speculative elements brushed aside by the literary community in favor of exalting their unique visions, authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, whose work has plumbed the socio-political, psychological, and lyrical depths but included a few more wizards and spaceships in the meanwhile, has not been afforded quite the same luxury.
While such injustices are annoying to consider, I also believe they serve a noble function. Much like comic books in the United States, which have thrived for years in cultural exile, science fiction and especially fantasy have blossomed in insular environments populated by people for whom genre is an un-ironic construct. It almost goes without saying that robust counter-cultures are developed in reaction to being cast aside by the mainstream. In other words, radically interesting work is created when no one else is looking. Sure, conflicts run still rampant within these in-groups, but they are almost always enriching to its acolytes in the long run. In fantasy, for instance, there has been an ongoing, sometimes acerbic opposition to Tolkien structure among writers and readers alike. Although he holds immense respect for Middle Earth’s progenitor, authors like Gene Wolfe, for instance, have spent a great deal of time and energy breaking down the tropes Tolkien built up. In one of Wolfe’s most lauded works, The Book of the New Sun, the main character, as opposed to coming from a quaint, kelly green hamlet reminiscent of the English countryside, is instead a torturer from a blood-built guild that specializes in immolation. China Mieville’s sometimes desultory opposition to Tolkien is also well known, as it reaches the point of becoming revanchist. But most of these battles are internal and fly beneath the radar of literary concern, for whom books that aren’t consciously interested in exploring the human condition, or the intellectual implications of genre retrofitted to explore the human condition, aren’t of much concern.
I have personally enjoyed what many literary authors have created in their forays into genre. Although some of it is not successful, what is successful soars. In 2014, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel comes to mind, as does Edan Lapucki’s California, both of which exceed in plotting, concept, and world-building (three genre mainstays), while paying close attention to literary conventions like heightened prose, complex characters, and pointed social commentary. Overall, one only need read The Road, Oryx and Crake, or The Devil in Silver to understand that cross-genre relationships are mutually beneficent. But I also understand how some genre authors (and fans) might bristle at what may be considered an invasion of their terrain. And not entirely without merit.
In the way in which our society is structured, appealing innovation can be commoditized. The Sex Pistols, Stooges, Dead Kennedys, the Clash and other bands were instrumental in the development of Punk subculture, espousing authenticity with a sneering rejection of the status quo. But over time, like many subcultures in the American landscape, Punk culture became subject to commodity. I got into Punk music around the same time I got into fantasy books, as if they’d decided to arrive hand in hand. Although I never studded my own leather jacket, in the music itself I discovered a culture that could be characterize as smart, unpretentious, and staunchly anti-authoritarian. But now you are made to think that you can buy such rebellion at the shopping mall. Body modifications and clothing tailored to appear DIY, things that were used historically to intimidate polite society, to project apathy and misanthropy, are now marketed to conventional society. This isn’t because of evil intentions on behalf of the culturally elite. Inclusion comes from a place of appreciation. But when the mainstream decides to open its doors to elements of subculture for its own use, what it often ends up absorbing is not core philosophy, but elements of style. Style, to me, can mean clothing. It can mean images and slogans. When it comes to fantasy and science fiction, style can mean dragons, wizards, space ships, zombie invasions or warp travel. Things that might seem fairly uncomplicated on the surface, but in effect, and especially in composition, require a great deal of understanding.
I’d like to think you can’t buy culture at the shopping mall. And consequently, I’d like to think that you can’t produce quality fantasy and science fiction without having firm respect for its tools and conventions. Putting categories on books is, in essence, absurd. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the least successful work is arguably the most limiting. If a literary novel sticks to convention, it an come off as solipsistic, uninventive and boring. If a fantasy book sticks strictly to convention, it can come off as unoriginal, over-plotted, and devoid of character. This is why the best work tends to borrow, beg, and steal from various elements of fiction, and the best readers among us know of the unsung geniuses who fostered brilliance by defying their own kind.
I understand why Ursula K. LeGuin might have been initially suspicious when reviewing new literary-derived entries into the index she’s inhabited for years, or why Margaret Atwood, who wrote some of my favorite novels of all time, who may be the greatest science fiction writer of her generation, would let down so many when she tried to distance herself from the label. Because sometimes it sucks to be on the sidelines. To witness ‘literature’ being discussed as a monolithic format, while the kind of work you do is given the side eye. But shunning your roots is a form of denial. There is something remarkable about embracing the margin. Because the margin is where revolution occurs, and when temerity disguises itself as courage, prejudice is born. It’s good that the lines between genres are dissolving, but it should also be remembered that whenever a revolution succeeds in changing the status quo, something is both gained and lost. What looks like authenticity can be bought and sold by the dollar, or played with spit, grit, and power chords.
Samuel Sattin is a novelist and essayist. He is the author of the upcoming novel The Silent End and League of Somebodies, described by Pop Matters as “One of the most important novels of 2013.” His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Salon Magazine, io9, Kotaku and elsewhere. Also an illustrator, he holds an MFA in Comics from California College of the Arts and has a creative writing MFA from Mills College. He lives in Oakland, California.