Difficult Books.

Sam Leith’s recent essay for the Guardian starts off looking like just another thumb-sucker mulling over the usual idiotic gripes about the Booker:

“The fascination of what’s difficult,” wrote WB Yeats, “has dried the sap out of my veins … ” In the press coverage of this year’s Man Booker prize winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, we’ve read a good many commentators presenting with sapless veins – but a dismaying lack of any sense that what’s difficult might be fascinating.

“Odd”, “impenetrable”, “hard work”, “challenging” and “brain-kneading” have been some of the epithets chosen. They have not been meant, I think, as compliments. The chair of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.” But he added that Milkman is “challenging […] the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”

That’s at least a useful starting point. Appiah defends the idea – which, nearly a century after modernism really kicked off, probably shouldn’t need defending – that ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed.

No, it shouldn’t, so why are you bothering? But then (after pointing out that “Books can be ‘difficult’ in all sorts of different ways”) he gets into more interesting territory:

I’ve heard it said, and it’s an attractive position, that “literary fiction needs to recognise that it’s just another genre and get over itself”. Fair enough. Let’s explore that. […] Like it or not, literary fiction is a category that we use. And if it is just another genre and needs to get over itself, fine. Let’s work with that. We can identify features of other genres. Aliens and nanobots? SF, more often than not. Guns and hats and dead bodies? Crime. Dossiers and dead drops? Spy novels. So we ought to be able to make some, if necessarily vague, stabs at identifying what the features of “literary fiction” are. Let’s leave aside cultural value judgments about “importance” or “seriousness”. Literary fiction can, like most fiction, be unimportant. It can also be unserious: some of the best of it is. I’d call Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller literary fiction, but it doesn’t strike me as either important or serious. It’s a glorious game.

It’s sometimes fuzzily said that literary fiction gives you more on rereading, or that it stays with you, or that it’s “more profound”. That may be true, some of the time – but these things are more likely to be symptoms than necessary features. I’d suggest that the main identifying feature – and in this respect literary writing can and does compass and mingle with any number of other genres – is to do with complexity and depth of attention. That can be moral or psychological complexity – crudely, the goodies and baddies are less clearly delineated – but it can also be, and tends to be in the best work, allied to a greater attention to the form and to the sentence-by-sentence language itself. And where I say that it mingles with other genres, the point I mean to make is that (just like hats, or nanobots) its features can be found in any genre. You could make the case that Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are literary SF, that Sarah Waters has written literary historical thrillers, that Joseph Kanon or John le Carré write literary spy novels, that the metafictional quality of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a literary quality, and so on. The examples are numberless.

A publishing acquaintance suggests an analogy with music: jazz is more complex than blues. It’s harder to play and harder to appreciate. That doesn’t mean there isn’t lots of good blues and lots of bad jazz. It doesn’t mean that jazz is an innately superior artform. It simply describes a formal difference between the two. Likewise, when we talk about a “literary novel” we usually mean something that demands and rewards close attention – though, as ever, there will be exceptions. The quality of that attention isn’t uniform from novel to novel. You don’t, for instance, read the torrential riffings of a Thomas Pynchon or even a Karl Ove Knausgaard the same way as you do the crystalline exactness of Nabokov. And those qualities will, for reasons that should be obvious, sometimes but not always issue in “difficulty”.

That seems to me a useful way of looking at it, and his further discussion is worth reading (though I’d like to see him provide some substantiation that TS Eliot is “wildly funny”). Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.”

    That is not humblebragging; it’s just bragging.

  2. Bar none, I am the most humble-est
    Number one at the top of the humble list
    My apple crumble is by far the most crumble-est
    But I act like it tastes bad outta humbleness
    The thing about me that’s so impressive
    Is how infrequently I mention all of my successes
    I pooh-pooh it when girls say that I should model
    My belly’s full from all the pride I swallow
    I’m the most courteous-biddable, hospitable
    Reverential, normal-ary Arnold Schwarzen-orgarary
    I hate compliments, put ’em in the mortuary
    I’m so ordinary that it’s truly quite extraordinary

  3. humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.”

    I was reminded unstoppably of:

    Otto: Don’t call me stupid.

    Wanda: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?

    Otto: Apes don’t read philosophy.

    Wanda: Yes, they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.

  4. I’d like to see him provide some substantiation that TS Eliot is “wildly funny”

    Eliot’s most famous work is pretty funny, come on. “Macavity! Macavity! There’s no one like Macavity! He’s broken every human law! He breaks the law of gravity!”

  5. That’s always struck me as a Very Serious Poet trying very hard to lower himself to the level he feels he needs to communicate at for a certain purpose, and getting praised for it. Compare Lewis Carroll, who was in fact wildly funny. T.S. Eliot’s humorous writing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

  6. I disagree – the Practical Cats are funnier than Lewis Carroll. Carroll is a) pretty weird and disturbing stuff and b) full of in-jokes about Victorian children’s literature which no one gets these days. Eliot is writing comic verse where a lot of the humour is based on clever rhymes, like WS Gilbert, and silly names, like Monty Python, both of which last much better. As a child I liked Carroll because it was clever and surreal, but Eliot made me laugh.

  7. But on the article you posted, that sounds good and I’d agree – the idea that literary fiction is where you’re supposed to pay attention to cleverness of form and style, as opposed to the author being as transparent as possible so you can pay attention to cleverness of setting and plot. If I’m reading a thriller I don’t always want to be distracted by some terribly ingenious and complex structural innovation. I want the story, told simply and accessibly and in an exciting manner.

  8. Yes, exactly.

  9. I, for one, don’t humblebrag.

  10. Not that it’s in any way important, but I happen to humblebrag less than you.

  11. I’m not sure the greater-on-average-formal complexity of jazz, as compared to blues, means that closely-attentive listening is more important and/or rewarding for one rather than the other, or even that one is easier than the other to “appreciate.” Simple is sometimes harder to do really well, and formal complexity can often deteriorate into a somewhat empty display of virtuosity/”chops” than doesn’t actually achive as much aesthetically as a simpler but perfect-for-the-context approach would have.

  12. I really suck at humblebragging. I just sound plain humble.

  13. Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.”

    He IS a professor of Philosophy. What journals would the writer prefer him to read? Vogue? Popular Mechanics? Appiah’s grandfather is Stafford Cripps (Vegetarian Monthly?) and his gt gt aunt Beatrice Webb (the New Statesman?)

  14. A Philistine writes: I’m always put off by the suggestion that literary fiction is supposed to be difficult. Difficult how, exactly? Yes, it should ask you to pay attention, and maybe it requires you to be familiar with lots of other literary fiction and all kinds of knowledge in general, but when the difficulty lies in simply decoding sentences to figure out what they mean, or in struggling to make sense of chopped-up storylines and apparently random interjections of completely different stories and characters — well, now that I’m old and lazy, I just don’t have the patience for that sort of cryptic-crossword type of literature. Just give me a good story, dammit!

    (I haven’t read Milkman, almost certainly won’t, so don’t have a clear idea of wherein its difficulty lies.)

  15. He IS a professor of Philosophy. What journals would the writer prefer him to read?

    Yeah, I was put off by that, but I figured it was Mandatory British Snark.

  16. This piece by Jeremy Klemin in the latest NYT Book Review is a good companion to the Guardian one:

    Because even the most nondescript Easter egg could end up enhancing the gaming experience in some way, players were obliged to take them seriously. That random vase in the middle of your character’s path, or the old man incoherently babbling about a cave outside town: These are what Italo Calvino called, in a literary context, “magic” objects. “The moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships,” Calvino wrote in “Quickness,” one of a series of lectures on literature he was working on at the time of his death. “The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative, any object is always magic.”

    In the same way that the green light on Daisy’s dock across the bay in “The Great Gatsby” is a detail imbued with symbolic purpose, every object in a video game has the potential to affect our understanding of the game’s logic and our progress through the plot. […]

    Video games are supposed to be, to borrow Jorge Luis Borges’s favorite motif, labyrinthine. Regardless of how trapped players may feel when confronting a particular obstacle, they can generally assume that there is a puzzle to crack and a way to crack it — a way to reach the center of the labyrinth. This is why I found video games so fulfilling, and no doubt why my introduction to “serious” literature as a teenager was primarily through 20th-century modernists like Virginia Woolf and Hermann Hesse. In their novels, personal improvement seemed to be a matter of process; their characters fight indecision or internal conflict by scaling their own psychological summits or, to draw a comparison to video games, by taking a crack at solving their own inner puzzles. The idea of a challenging yet well-ordered world so prevalent in modernist literature may seem dated now, but as a young reader and video game player I found it tremendously appealing.

  17. “Literary fiction is what we point to when we say it.” –Damon Knott

    Update: Read the Powell & Proust thread and discuss whether their works are “literary fiction” a la Leith.

  18. Literary fiction is what used to be called fiction.
    Genre fiction is what used be called pulp fiction.

  19. Actually, On Genre Fiction is the most germane LH thread to this one. Whether Leith answers the questions raised at that thread I leave to others to ponder.

  20. @ajay the Practical Cats are funnier than Lewis Carroll. Carroll is a) pretty weird and disturbing stuff and b) full of in-jokes about Victorian children’s literature which no one gets these days.

    OUTRAGE! Carroll is full of mathematicians’/algebraists’/epistemologists’ in-jokes which every adult in the twitterati should be capable of getting. Read Martin Gardner’s ‘Annotated Alice’ or especially the ‘Annotated Snark’.

    You do realise that Carroll’s is adult humour, despite it being passed off as Childrens literature? Same rap as Gullivers Travels.

    In comparison to those (which I re-read often), Monty Python is horribly dated, and I just can’t see or remember why I watched it so much in my yoof. The recent revival stage show was out-and-out embarrassment.

  21. @AntC: I didn’t say that Carroll wasn’t intelligent and enjoyable, just that I didn’t find it funny. Tastes differ!

  22. Literary fiction is what used to be called fiction.
    Genre fiction is what used be called pulp fiction.


  23. “He IS a professor of Philosophy. What journals would the writer prefer him to read? ”

    The objection is not to his reading the Journal of Philosophy, but to his bragging about it.

  24. January First-of-May says

    OUTRAGE! Carroll is full of mathematicians’/algebraists’/epistemologists’ in-jokes which every adult in the twitterati should be capable of getting.

    It’s actually full of both – but the Victorian in-jokes are 1) a lot less noticeable, and 2) usually funny in their own right (and the few times they’re not they’re just, well, unnoticeable; there’s almost no forced passages that only make sense as an in-joke [well, as a non-mathematical in-joke, at least] – unlike Monty Python, which is filled with those).
    And I guess occasionally 3) explained in-story (you don’t need to have Tweedledum and Tweedledee in your own culture to understand the respective chapter, because the chapter makes it clear that they’re part of Alice‘s culture, complete with the actual text of the poem; to a lesser extent the same is true for the Lion and the Unicorn, though I admit that it’s one of the most forced parts).

    And in a few places Gardner seems to ascribe a lot more to Dodgson that he could realistically have known (I’m pretty sure that any references to the theory of relativity, in particular, are sure to be made up by later commentators and not intended by Dodgson himself).

  25. The objection is not to his reading the Journal of Philosophy, but to his bragging about it.

    A Philosophy professor who mentions that he reads JoP – an academic journal, for fuck’s sake – is by definition not bragging. More logical would be to say that he became a professor of Philosophy in order to impress people, but that would be philistine even for a grandson of the late Sunday Express editor John Junor (Leith).

  26. A philosophy professor (or anyone) who mentions something about themselves and states that it makes them cleverer, wiser, braver, more noble, or whatever can easily be bragging, whether it’s a part of their job or not.

    First surfer on beach: Wow, it’s pretty choppy out there.

    Second surfer on beach: Yeah, but I’m a Navy SEAL and I swam five miles through rougher water than this when we deployed to Syria, so this doesn’t really bother me too much.

    AJP Crown: This is not bragging. A Navy SEAL who mentions that he habitually swims long distances is by definition not bragging.

  27. you don’t need to have Tweedledum and Tweedledee in your own culture to understand the respective chapter

    While 19th-century North European folklorists dug up many rhymes analogous to Humpty-Dumpty (Entepetente, Lille Trille, Gigele Gagele, etc) none was sufficiently well known to be adopted by Lewis Carroll’s translators. A semi-exception is Danish Klumpe-Dumpe, which occurs in HC Andersen’s ‘Fir Tree’ and was rendered “Humpty Dumpty” by English translations of Andersen, then backtranslated in Danish versions of Lewis Carroll. Andersen’s Klumpe-Dumpe “fell down-stairs, and yet was raised to high honours, and obtained the princess’s hand”, which does not correspond very well with the Humpty Dumpty(s) of the nursery-rhyme and Lewis Carroll.

  28. Lewis Carroll is funny because he isn’t afraid to be mean.

  29. Though several online sites claim “humblebrag” was coined by Harris Wittels (associated with “Parks and Recreation” on TV) in 2010, Merriam-Webster online claims to know a usage in 2002. Of course, anyone could have noticed that….

  30. David Eddyshaw says


    This is not bragging

    It so is. The fact that he spontaneously brought up his SEALdom is the bragging.

    When I discuss risk with people (a common part of my job) I sometimes try to deflect the common question “What would you do in my position?” by saying: “I used to live in Nigeria, so my idea of acceptable risk may not be typical.” I have little doubt that this (though perfectly true) is in fact bragging, only a little undermined by the fact that about two hundred million other people can say the same. (And the fact that those of my colleagues in Nigeria who came from big American cities generally seemed to feel that they were, on the whole, comparatively safe in Nigeria.)

  31. I summarize the claims made so far.

    1. He’s bragging
    2. He’s not bragging
    3. He may seem to be bragging, but he isn’t really
    4. He may seem not to be bragging, but he is really

    De minimis non curat disputatio, but it does help to while away those hours of leisure in a Christian spirit: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”

  32. David Eddyshaw says


    A plague on your relativism. The Truth is out there.

  33. I have never denied that. It’s just that I find tub-thumping about the GPS coordinates of Truth to be unproductive. If only words can convince, we are doomed.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.

  35. (I’m pretty sure that any references to the theory of relativity, in particular, are sure to be made up by later commentators and not intended by Dodgson himself).

    According to QI (so it must be true), the Alice books are a thinly-veiled attack on the relativism creeping in to Victorian Symbolic Logic, which reached its culmination in Gödel’s theorem, but was clearly already spreading its malicious tentacles with Frege.

    I won’t add more links, because Hat will only have to rescue this message from durance vile, but Google for Dodgson “stubbornly conservative mathematician” or “non-Euclidian geometry” or “Math wars”.

  36. January First-of-May says

    I was referring to the physical theory of relativity, as in the one usually attributed to Albert Einstein. Yes, people have found references to it in the Alice books.

    Dodgson did indeed have loads of ideas about logic (there are much clearer attacks regarding it among his other works, such as What the Tortoise Said to Achilles); sadly the second volume of his Symbolic Logic was never finished (though an edited version ended up published in the 20th century), and the planned third volume apparently never started.
    I can’t think of any direct references to (or attacks against) symbolic logic in either of the Alice books, but at least in this case I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re actually full of them.

  37. Stu Clayton says

    David E: But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.

    Sure, but you don’t gotta accuse me of “relativism”, whatever that may be. I accused nobody of nuttin’. Instead, I remarked on rhetorical patterns being thrown at peanuts (“is he bragging?”). I was throwing peanuts at patterns. It’s called antimetabole.

  38. the physical theory of relativity, as in the one usually attributed to Albert Einstein. Yes, people have found references to it in the Alice books.

    I’m convinced. Assuming that’s not a doctored quote. I didn’t get through much of Sylvie and Bruno — far too worthy.

  39. Ajay: A philosophy professor (or anyone) who mentions something…AJP Crown: This is not bragging. A Navy SEAL…

    Although no one mentions straw man arguments nowadays (how did that happen? ten years ago they were in every Comments column), apparently they’re thriving.

    Stu: De minimis non curat disputatio

    I know. A LH argument ought to include at least say, one new and interesting link that keeps the hatting audience amused. Without it, the great electronic comment judge should reject the comment as personal therapy and as penance its author would buy Language a book on his wish list.

  40. Steering back to the original point, this “literary fiction versus (genre fiction?)” division sounds like a similar nonexistent binary as the alleged existence of “art music versus popular music”. It’s not a binary, it’s a continuum, and also just one dimension along many, not the One True Measure of what is “real art”.

    I’m happy I don’t pay enough attention to literature to have run into this before, seeing how IME everyone who defends the “art music”/”popular music” division is an insufferably pretentious wanker whose main goal in life seems to be denigrating as uncultured plebs anyone who dares to like different things from him. In retrospective it was obvious that this dynamic should also exist within literature, though…

  41. Steering back to the original point, this “literary fiction versus (genre fiction?)” division sounds like a similar nonexistent binary as the alleged existence of “art music versus popular music”.

    Oh, sure, but it often leads to interesting conversations!

  42. David Marjanović says

    It really is amazing how much lip service Western culture pays to “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, “there’s no accounting for taste” and the like, and then promptly turns around and acts based on the assumption that such things are either objective or can at least be treated as statistical universals with negligible outliers.

  43. the physical theory of relativity, as in the one usually attributed to Albert Einstein. Yes, people have found references to it in the Alice books

    That’s very interesting — I hadn’t come across it before — but I can’t see any way to infer that Carroll was hinting at relativity. The scenario he describes makes perfect sense in the purely Newtonian conception of gravity. Einstein went further — he imagined such a situation and leapt to the wholly new idea that gravity and acceleration are the same thing. That’s the essence of General Relativity.

  44. Why are you leaping to General Relativity? That’s not what most people have in mind when they talk about “relativity.”

  45. @languagehat: The only “relativity” theory that has anything to do with the universality of free fall is General Relativity. The universality of free fall was a well recognized feature of Newtonian physics long before Einstein, and by the middle to late nineteenth century, people were recognizing that it might have implications for the nature of gravity. Riemann, the first person to systematize calculus on curved manifolds, correctly realized that gravitation might be expressed as a result of curvature. However, Riemann only considered curvature of space. The missing piece was the unification of space and time described by Einstein’s Special Relativity. Only with curvature of spacetime was it possible to formulate a geometric theory of gravity that had Newtonian gravitation as a low-energy limit, yet which differed at relativistic energies.

  46. Trond Engen says

    It seems like the thought experiment was very much in the time, and had been around for a while, and what Einstein did was taking it to another step.

    Update: Or what Brett said.

  47. To put in another way, Carroll’s ‘thought experiment’ has no connection to special relativity. I should have made that clear.

  48. Not relevant to this post, except via the title: Kidney Punch Yourself Some Linguistics, Dipshit.

  49. Art art (art music etc.) is among the most repulsive English labels for me.

    And I didn’t know “literary fiction”.In Russian “fiction” is “artistic literature” where artistic means it is fiction (as opposed to…) and literature means writing. Which of course has an implication that a textbook can’t have artistic value:)

    Back to art art, I did not like it because of the implication that the rest is not really art. But English terminology exists in the space where some genres are either commercialised or commercially are successful.
    The other thing about art art that irritated me (the notion, not specific English words used for it) is the implication that most people are not expected to be interested in such stuff.

    Of coruse, in USSR Western science fiction was enthusiastically read, but commerce is not what shaped USSR. I did consider science fiction as a kind of “serious literature”. “Serious leterature” may mean “good (as opposed to crap)” or it can mean “it does not just entertain you” – applicable to science fiction, and obviously to some authors more than to others. Another consideration is logical: science fiction does not restrict itself to our world (but does restrict itself in other ways). How absence of restrictions can make something less serious?

    If I was confident that all of this is shared by many other readers of science fiction, I was surprised to find that views of many English readers are somewhat different from “can be serious fiction, just with more freedom to choose the world”. Also I found there is a subculture of fans (here it was read by everyone).

    Perhaps “literary fiction” also can be analysed as “fiction which hasn’t been commercialised”.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think you can reasonably claim that genre fiction is ipso facto “not serious” literature.

    I mean, “War and Peace” is a historical novel. A historical romance novel, even. Like Georgette Heyer (and indeed, set in the same time period.)

    By any reasonable criterion, Nineteen Eighty-Four is science fiction. Indeed, arguments to the contrary seem always to go:

    Science fiction is not serious literature.
    Nineteen Eighty-Four is serious literature.


    Nineteen Eighty-Four is not science fiction.

    With the misplaced literary snobbishness of the Margaret Atwoods we need not concern ourselves: I will merely say that she is right in her assertion that she cannot/does not write science fiction. She is not worthy of talking squids in outer space.

  51. I’m sure I’ve quoted Kingsley Amis before, but clearly it’s time to do so again:

    “SF’s no good!” they holler ’til we’re deaf.
    But this is good! Well, then, it’s not SF.

  52. I once read an amateur novel set in 3d4th millenium where humans have genetically engineered Tolkien’s races…

    Actually I appreciated it (the novel) as a rare example of a good future. Was common in Soviet science fiction, but not since then. Presumably characters were supposed to encounter something threatening in the second novel (the first novel was fully dedicated to getting out the utopian Solar System across a barrier installed by aliens), which the author apaprently chose not to write.

  53. January First-of-May says

    It seems like the thought experiment was very much in the time, and had been around for a while, and what Einstein did was taking it to another step.

    A different direction was to realize that you get the same kind of situation inside any (currently inactive) vessel in space even if its movement would not be normally described as “falling”; Jules Verne famously got that wrong.
    (AFAIK the first to do it right was either Tsiolkovsky or [Yakov] Perelman – both of them scientists and pop-sci writers who dabbled in sci-fi.)

    I also think I might have seen the specific “falling room” version in some even older context. It really is a simple thought experiment, and in principle does not require even 19th century physics to consider; Voltaire or Swift could probably have done it.

  54. me, i’m with samuel delany: sf (like other paraliterary forms and genres from pornography to popular song) is not literature. not because of some pirsig-via-atwood fantasy of Quality, but because they do not partake of the same discursive field. he articulates this at length in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and Shorter Views, but there’s enough to get a taste of the analysis in here. and the much-cited examples are “Her world exploded.” and “The door dialated.”, which in a work of literature are by default (and perhaps exclusively) sentences about the subjectivity of a character, but in sf are by default sentences about the objects with which characters interact.

    and, to me, atwood does indeed write sf – but she’d write better sf if she allowed herself to admit it (and dropped her inclination towards allegory and satire, which have bedeviled all of her sf except Handmaid’s Tale).

  55. John Cowan says

    I always thought contra Delaney that it was simpler to suppose that such sf (and of course not all sf contains such sentences) was written in a different dialect of English rather than representing a different genre of literature. Once upon a time “He took his phone out of his pocket and answered it” would scream This Is Science Fiction; nowadays it represents a perfectly mundane event that happens millions of times a day. When editing “Omnilingual” I changed “Terran Federation” in the original text to “U.N.” precisely to diminish such sensawunda-jerking. Will hinges really be extinct in the future? I doubt it, as do the authors of “Cool, but inefficient” in TV Tropes. They go on: “[F]uturistic rayguns also tend to lack some of the most common-sense niceties of modern firearms. The most frequent mistake is the lack of a trigger guard, anything vaguely resembling sights, a shoulder stock, or anything else to give you an edge over just firing from the hip, or indeed a rate of fire better than a flintlock.” ERB’s radium rifles had a usable range of 200 miles (320 km), 100 bullets in their magazines, and a working life of a thousand years, but at least they were rifles.

  56. do not partake of the same discursive field.

    “A discursive field” is more precise and less culturally dependent than say “a genre”.

    But you still can’t call foreign literature “literature” if you define “literature” as one discursive field.

  57. His example of literary SF is Iain M Banks.

    Science fiction indeed does include works that don’t exactly strive for originality. I guess compared to those nearly all science fiction that I read is “literary”.

  58. Iain Banks also writes “mainstream fiction” says WP. So what is “mainstream fiction”?

    Literary fiction, mainstream fiction, non-genre fiction, serious fiction,[1] high literature,[2] artistic literature,[2] and literature[2] are labels that, in the book trade, refers to market novels that do not fit neatly into an established genre (see genre fiction); or, otherwise, refers to novels that are character-driven rather than plot-driven, examine the human condition, use language in an experimental or poetic fashion, or are simply considered serious art.

    Mainstream fiction is market novels which are serious art. Cool.

  59. Near the end of his life, Banks posted this on his blog:

    An ex-neighbour of ours recalled (in an otherwise entirely kind and welcome comment) me telling him, years ago, that my SF novels effectively subsidised the mainstream works. I think he’s just misremembered, as this has never been the case. Until the last few years or so, when the SF novels started to achieve something approaching parity in sales, the mainstream always out-sold the SF – on average, if my memory isn’t letting me down, by a ratio of about three or four to one. I think a lot of people have assumed that the SF was the trashy but high-selling stuff I had to churn out in order to keep a roof over my head while I wrote the important, serious, non-genre literary novels. Never been the case, and I can’t imagine that I’d have lied about this sort of thing, least of all as some sort of joke. The SF novels have always mattered deeply to me – the Culture series in particular – and while it might not be what people want to hear (academics especially), the mainstream subsidised the SF, not the other way round. And… rant over.

  60. @drasvi:

    i think these questions become pretty much meaningless when extended across languages, precisely because discursive fields (including genres) generally don’t operate translinguistically*. i think this is part of why sf, in particular, has such a jumpy translation history: the discursive fields that define it in different languages don’t quite map onto each other, and neither do the forms of marketing.

    but to stick to a simpler example: part of why so much english writing about yiddish poetry is so bad is that it often doesn’t understand “poeme” as a genre separate from “lid”, and doesn’t understand that the (debatable) genre difference between a lid mit a nign and a lid without a melody isn’t the same as the (definite) genre difference between a “song” and a “poem”. those are language-specific problems – critical writing in other languages might have one or the other or both or neither at a range of levels of prevalence.**

    (parenthetically, i’ve always found banks’ Culture books as unreadable as the Left Behind series (i’ve actually made it through more volumes of the latter), for essentially the same reason: when the characters are divided between those who Know The (Extra-Narrative) Truth and the poor chumps who remain blind to it (either willfully or through lack of exposure), the plot is always gonna be pretty much the same.)


    those sentences are the kindergarten version of delany’s argument, aimed mainly at folks unused to either reading sf or thinking about discursive fields. as he makes quite clear, the distinctions he’s looking at have to do with how sf and literary texts navigate the relationship between characters and world, interiority and exteriority, as they flow through all the levels of language used in the texts. that’s not, to me at least, the kind of discursive field that constitutes a lect*** in the usual linguistic senses.

    but the strongest support for delany’s point, i think, is that for any regular sf reader, it’s generally simple to distinguish sf from literary fiction, even when both contain only now-long-normalized technology. the question he’s trying to address is why, without resorting to metaphysics that allow seeking an answer outside the text itself (which includes the physical objects containing it and the marketing surrounding it). and of course no discursive field is a sealed bubble – as bron hellstrom (lehavdl) would put it, these are parametric distinctions, not perimetric ones.

    * the times when they do, to a greater or lesser extent, are fascinating, though! aggada, as it plays out in various jewish languages; international-human-rights-legalese, as it operates in the official UN languages; etc.

    ** le guin’s Always Coming Home, which i’ve been rereading, is very deliberate about these kinds of distinctions, as you’d expect from her most ethnographic book.

    *** i continue to disbelieve in “dialect” as a category of language, rather than one of political economy.

  61. but the strongest support for delany’s point, i think, is that for any regular sf reader, it’s generally simple to distinguish sf from literary fiction, even when both contain only now-long-normalized technology.

    Exactly. Trying to prove that there isn’t “really” a difference is like trying to prove that humans are not conscious. We know we’re conscious, end of story.

  62. And to the “discursive fields” point: sf in Russia was for decades something that the intelligentsia read and admired, because its best writers made it part of the Russian literary tradition and said things that you couldn’t get away with in “official” literature. None of this was true in the US — quite the reverse, in fact. It follows that Americans and Russians have a hard time finding common ground in discussing sf, even if the American has read and enjoyed the Strugatskys and the Russian knows and loves Asimov, Bradbury, Kuttner, etc.

  63. @LH, I said “everyone” read, it was misleading of course. Everyone in my circle.
    Yes, intelligentsia.

    One important detail is that Western science fiction was filtered. A translator read it, picked it and coninced editors and censors that it should be published, so one important filter was the translator’s taste: censors did not read it one their own.

    I don’t know what criteria editors and censors could apply (if there is a Western piece of science fiction that can’t be presented as revealing vices of capitalist society, like exploitation of people, accumulation of capital and rule of good corporations made everyone happy and everyone thought that it could not possibly be better until winged aliens looking like beautiful boys and girls arrived with message of love that no human heart could resist and ruined this consumerist paradise I’m unaware of it (i’m kidding. some stories are more or less innocent and still were published here).

    “best writers” – I’m not sure who you mean here. There were not so many widely read “best” writers who were aware of science fiction (apart of Strugatsky brothers) and we read translated fiction a lot…

    “hard time”.
    Hm. Your and mine impression of Ann Leckie is the same.
    At the meta- level there are of coruse differences, including discussed above.

  64. John Cowan says

    We know we’re conscious, end of story.

    Well, maybe you do and conceivably you even are, but I don’t and ain’t, end of story.

  65. Wake up, JC! You’re commenting in your sleep!

  66. January First-of-May says

    Well, maybe you do and conceivably you even are, but I don’t and ain’t, end of story.

    Takes me back to PFWC and all the people trying to explain why they aren’t actually real. Turns out cogitamus ergo sumus starts to go confusing when it has to postulate multiple people in one brain.

    (Previously on LH.)

  67. Rodger C says

    I recently had a discussion elsewhere online about whether Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was science/speculative fiction. It fits the literal meaning of the words, but in genre terms it’s terribly inept: An unspecified catastrophe that kills everything but humans? What a transparently contrived setup! But of course McCarthy wasn’t thinking in SF genre terms in the first place. It’s enough, though, to confirm an opinion of his whole oeuvre among people who don’t take to his sometimes farcical pessimism.

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes: that clarifies something for me: Margaret Atwood’s “speculative fiction” is, qua science fiction, bad science fiction: the world-building doesn’t really work, because she’s not really interested in that side of things at all (for example, the whole setup as to how her dystopia arose and lasted any length of time at all once having arisen is just perfunctory handwaving.) Essentially, she’s parasitising somewhat hackneyed SF tropes and using them for quasi-allegorical ends. Naturally enough, she does not want her works characterised as SF, because on that level they’re really not very good. She feels that their excellence lies elsewhere.

  69. Yes to both of you, and it annoys me (as it does so many sf fans) that Big Name Authors think they can drop in, steal some tropes, and outdo the peasants at their own game. It’s like learning a little Welsh and thinking you can write great cynghanedd.

  70. @rozele, I like what he’s saying.

    It [my line above] sums up what I feel rather well, but maybe not why… What he said is a part of what is a ‘genre’ (rather than specifically science fiction) and it — and I think many other things that he did not thought about — is somehow more human than discussion of genres in terms of abstract ideas (though dreams about contact with aliens are also very human, as is evident from “dream”) or recurrent elements of plotlines and imagery and mutual borrowing.

    In other words, when looked at this way, a genre becomes a place you can feel at home in (or a home you can live in) — a positive property — rather than a place defined in contrast to other genres or even a restriction on our imagination.
    You are served your favorite dish there.

    Having this said, I still like building bridges: cultural diversity is fascinating because you can contact those other cultures.
    I’m not too fond of contrasting and distancing from genres, and what I like is exactly that his approach is different (different from mere “classification” (usually based on presence/absence of elements in a list) as well).
    “her world exploded” does not work (but this doesn’t matter). I would read it in its usual sense unless in appropriate context.

    There remain literature. Your “paraliterary” implies that science fiction is a marked genre.

  71. Your “paraliterary” implies that science fiction is a marked genre.

    Which it is. How could it not be?

  72. @LH, because I think rozele (and possibly Delany) intends to apply Delany’s argument to ‘literature’.

    Literature and SF are ‘different discursive fields’. Total symmetry, who’s [un]marked here?

    (and same actually with the author you cite in the original post: he proposes to [demote?] it to a ‘genre’)

  73. There is a Russian poem that became a romance and for this reason quite famous. it begins:

    among/amidst worlds, in twinkling of-luminaries
    I repeat/keep repeating name of-one/single Star

    мерцание “twinkling” is strongly associated with stars.
    светила “luminaries” means luminaries: astronomical bodies that provide light, usually the sun and the moon or metaphorically in “с. of sceince”, “….of medicine”. But in Russian it is a wonderfully simple word: “light” and instrumental suffix. Could mean a lamp but does not. Maybe another possible translation would be “of suns” (because it’s a simpler word).

    Clearly the author implies the astronomical meaning of “worlds” and maybe also plays with its other meanings.
    God knows what he’s speaking about considering the continuation.

  74. Literature and SF are ‘different discursive fields’. Total symmetry, who’s [un]marked here?

    You talk as if there were no external world, as if these things could be decided in the abstract. In the actually existing world, literature is unmarked, sf (like other “genres”) is marked.

  75. @David Eddyshaw: I don’t think Atwood’s world building in The Handmaid’s Tale is bad, really. It follows a commonplace science fiction pattern of revealing only gradually why the world is different from the one we know now. The problem is more that Atwood, being Canadian, did not understand American politics and society sufficiently for her backstory to make sense. (Frankly however, plenty of commentators don’t understand the setting well enough to understand the backstory either. Notably, you often find claims that Offred is s former Harvard student. But she clearly is not; she is a stranger to Harvard Square, and she presumably went to college at a much more peripheral Boston-area school. Some of this confusion is Atwood’s fault, but on this particular point,, it’s mostly the commentators to blame.)

  76. David Eddyshaw says

    You are likely to be right.

    I must admit to long since having taken a scunner to Atwood: I don’t like being preached at in a novel, even when I agree with the preacher. (Can’t abide the Narnia books, either.)

    And her feminist themes have been dealt with much more effectively by actual out-and-proud Science Fiction authors (Le Guin, Tiptree …)

    Perhaps I should give some of her non-SF – ahem, non-speculative fiction – a go.

  77. @LH, I think we are exploring here waht is “literature”. I don’t hold ready views and I’m not objecting to any view expressed by others (all I can do with others’ views is to like Delany’s). What I meant is that it remains to be said what is literature. rozele did not express any view, her “paraliterary” makes me think unmarked, her “do not partake of the same discursive field” makes me think marked.

    I suppose, the less marked, the more universal (which can make you want to include genre fiction and foreign fiction). And when you aren’t a genre you can’t have a discursive field of your own IF an unique discursive field defines a genre (of course we can define genres differently).

  78. John Cowan says

    In the actually existing world, literature is unmarked, sf (like other “genres”) is marked.

    Literature includes many genres, all marked, including the one commonly called “literature”.

  79. That’s your personal usage, but (like drasvi) you cannot affect how the bulk of the language’s speakers use the word. If you go into a bookstore and ask for literature, you will not be directed to the sf section.

  80. Don’t get me wrong: I understand and appreciate the inclusive concept. But most people keep the pie divided.

  81. John Cowan says

    If you go into a bookstore and ask for literature, you will not be directed to the sf section.

    Sure. But if I ask for the unmarked section, I won’t get anywhere at all.

  82. That’s right, because “unmarked section” is not a thing. Literature is a thing, and so is sf. Again I must point out that we cannot create the world ab ovo according to our own philosophies of nomenclature or anything else. The world exists out there, outside our heads.

  83. drasvi

    LH, “paraliterary” is a word used by rozele. I don’t think she means only English pornogrpahy, sf and popular songs when calling those “paraliterary”.

    And she defines “genre” as a “discursive field”. Whether “literature” can logically be unmarked in this model (given that “literature” is said to be another discursive field) or whether it is so for rozele personally is not what I can learn by asking what “most people” (by which I think you mean most English speakers) say about literature. I was speaking about this model, not English speakers. So yes, I was exactly speaking about a certain model and not “the actual world”.

    Even what literature is is not what most English speakers say about it. Just as with language and dialect – peopel say things, things they say affect languages and dialects – but what people say is still not the same as how languages and dialects are:-)
    Sometimes they say absolute bullshit.

  84. David Marjanović says


    Nineteen Eighty-Four is not science fiction.

    …Is it supposed to be??? There’s less science in it than in, say, Star Wars. What does it have in common with SF other than being, like most but not all SF, set in the future?

    That holds even more for The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m baffled anything like this is apparently considered SF. Science is neither the content nor the point of these books!

  85. Is it supposed to be???

    No. DE is just pointing out how erroneous that supposition, occasionally held by misguided people, really is.

  86. For a lot of people, having science is not a necessary condition for a story to be SF, despite the name, but being set in the future, or in space, is a sufficient condition (that’s why space opera is normally sorted as a sub-genre of SF). So for those people, “1984” qualifies, if they don’t make a “it’s not SF if it’s a recognized piece of literature” exemption.

  87. Nineteen Eighty-Four has ubiquitous two-way audio-visual communications and machines capable of writing trashy novels. Those things exist today, but the book was written seventy-five years ago, when they were far well beyond the capabilities of existing technology. The Handmaid’s Tale has pollution and environmental degradation on such a scale that much of the population have been rendered sterile: fortunately, this one has not happened yet. These aspects should certainly qualify the books as science fiction. They are near-future science fiction, to be sure, but the technological and environmental changes are key drivers of the books’ plots.

  88. @Hans, I thought about “exploration of time and space” too, first what science fiction does, second when I said that dreams about a contact with aliens (in the wide sense) are very human thing. Exporation is human too.

    Maybe novels about the Stone age like la Guerre de feu or about neanderthals can be classified together with novels about future. And indeed Rosny aîné (who wrote the aforementioned novel) wrote sceince fiction and is credited with coining the term astronautique.
    (as for books about modern stone age (technologically) people, must depend on what the author is saying about them?)

    Then in 19th century people thought about the Earth as “unexpored”, and thus exporation of space can be grouped with travels on the Earth (Jules Verne).

    On the other hand, clearly science was an inspiration for sceince fiction (and again, cf. JV).

  89. just coming in on a small(ish) point from the Coast Starlight (at least some trains still have properly delightful names!):

    i’d say that in my experience, “fiction” is the unmarked category of narrative prose, with “Literature”(-labeled-as-such) the area within it that’s considered the definitional center and the reference point for judging quality. the literature/paraliterature distinction isn’t particularly about marked/unmarked*, though it is about (relative) cultural position and different relationships to a number of different binarized categories.

    part of that is that literature, in delany’s (and, i suppose, my) discursive sense, isn’t just the “high literature” that gets formally labeled as Literature. it also very much includes the whole zone of fiction that Literature is defined against: the stuff that gets described as “mass-market”, “popular”, “trashy”, “shlock”, etc. there’s plenty of writing that’s part of the same discursive field as the classy stuff, but doesn’t get anything like the same respect. people use “popular fiction” as if it only meant “genre fiction”, but that’s never been true: jacqueline susann’s oevre is a great classic example (as well as being excellent), but The Bridges of Madison County, The Thorn Birds, Gone With the Wind, or The Help would all serve as well (analytically, that is – not, by me, for reading material). some of it bounces off the edges of the paraliterary / genre zone in similar ways to The Road or Possession*, but like them it maintains its orientation towards the subjective/internal/&c.

    * though among people using it, i suspect which is the marked term varies according to our reading habits.

    ** to name another piece of literature (and Literature) that nudges into territory that could get it labeled as genre fiction – but because the history of Mystery is different from that of SF(F), it hasn’t been as far as i know.

  90. David Marjanović says

    and machines capable of writing trashy novels.

    Oh. I didn’t even know that. I wonder if I read some kind of abridged version (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) or if I simply forgot…

    pollution and environmental degradation on such a scale that much of the population have been rendered sterile: fortunately, this one has not happened yet.

    No, but warnings that sperm count and sperm motility have decreased, usually with statements that pollution with estrogen-like substances is to blame and with warnings that the development of the reproductive organs is also affected, have been popping up every few years for 2 or 3 decades.

  91. Owlmirror says

    Why do the Venn diagrams of “SF” and “Literature” have to be disjoint sets, rather than (what seems obvious to me) intersecting ones?

    I can see that marketers (and the author might be considered a marketer in some respects) would obviously want the book to be classified as whatever will sell the most copies (the author might also want it to meet their own aesthetic preferences for various reasons; snobbery or anti-snobbery), but do classifiers have to accept the dichotomous distinctions of marketers?

  92. Owlmirror says

    As a classifier, I sometimes dither about where to classify things, but the point is that there’s often more than one valid place.

    (Hm. I’m suddenly wondering if a library system could have multiclassification; primary and secondary and so on. A book gets the main classification, but can have the secondary and tertiary classifications in a computer library catalog to be clicked on. A book on medieval Arabian ship-building can thus be filed under medieval Arabian period history, but link to other works on ship-building in other medieval locales, and ship-building in other eras.

    Surely someone has thought of this already? Maybe in here somewhere…


  93. (You’re on the West Coast, rozele? Welcome!)

    Science Fiction is a social construct, like literature and all the rest. So, do people who only like SF find 1984 to their taste? Do people list it among the greatest zillion SF novels of the mid-20th century? Do SF specialist bookstore carry it? (this one does, but it also carries Animal Farm, so what now?) A named genre of literature is one which has a navy and an army.

    Compare the impossible task of separating Organic from Inorganic chemistry. It can’t be decided by forever refining edge cases. They, too, are social constructs. (In)organic chemistry is what professors of same publish about in journals of same, and discuss in conferences of same.

  94. Science Fiction is a social construct, like literature and all the rest. So, do people who only like SF find 1984 to their taste? Do people list it among the greatest zillion SF novels of the mid-20th century? Do SF specialist bookstore carry it?

    The answer to all those questions is “sometimes.” The more I think about it, the more unsure I am of how I would classify it. I grew up loving sf, and I liked 1984 when I read it, but it didn’t feel like sf to me. Would it now that I am older and more experienced? Was I operating on too limited a basis of experience and understanding? Can I separate my adult incarnation from that stubborn sf fan buried in there, with his resentment against snooty folks who ignorantly despised sf while praising “serious” writers like Orwell? Perhaps time will tell!

  95. @Owlmirror: I doubt that anyone in this discussion would argue that genres of fiction should be sharply defined and distinguished. It’s just that a lot of other people do draw sharp distinctions, and assignment of a particular genre label to a work can be pejorative. That’s why this topic has provoked multiple discussions about how the terminology should be used and how different kinds of narrative works should be treated. (It was already linked far above, from before I resurrected this thread, but there is another whole post and comment thread under the title “On Genre Fiction.”)

    Whatever one thinks of their merits, there are types of writing that are considered “genre fiction,” and this affects both how their are culturally perceived and how they are treated in the publishing industry. Besides science fiction and fantasy, there are lots of other areas of “genre” fiction: romance, mystery (contra rozele), thriller, Western (once a large genre, but not so much these days). However, none of them are as ghettoized as science fiction and fantasy. While literary snobs may feel that there are lots and lots of trashy romance and mystery novels in the marketplace, they typically accept that there are representatives of those genres can also be proper “literature.” There are prejudices against these kinds of “genre fiction,” but those prejudices can be overcome. The Name of the Rose is a literary historical* mystery novel. Blood Meridian is a literary Western. (It does have a couple of fantasy elements too, although many snobbish readers seem to intentionally overlook them.) However, there are plenty of writers, readers, and critics who seem to believe that fantasy and science fiction can never be “literature.” I noted in the linked thread that my brother was not taken seriously by many of his instructors and classmates in Penn State graduate writing program, because he wanted to write science fiction.

    * Note that historical fiction, although it (like others I listed) certainly represents a recognized genre, is not by default considered “genre fiction.” “Literary” fiction can be set equally well in the past or the present, seemingly without prejudice.

  96. @Hat The more I think about it, the more unsure I am of how I would classify it [1984]. I grew up loving sf, and I liked 1984 when I read it, but it didn’t feel like sf to me.

    I grew up being generally unmoved by sf (I experienced mostly Asimov) — also unmoved by Tolkien, at a time my peers would re-read LotR almost monthly, it seemed; I loved 1984 (and Animal Farm for much the same reasons). Orwell never seemed like sf; but political critique in drag.

    Does Gulliver’s Travels count as sf of its day? To me it’s again just political/social critique in drag. Also Zamyatin’s We. Tarkovsky’s Solaris “attempt to bring greater emotional depth to science fiction films; he viewed most Western works in the genre, including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as shallow due to their focus on technological invention.” [wp]

    Jules Verne also left me cold: the technology is just technology for its own sake. It’s not a device to get way from practical constraints (or from the taint of seeming to talk about current politic personas) so as to consider the human condition. I’m not ‘snooty’ about sf; merely I don’t connect to it as human. That’s why 2001 is so insignificant compared to Solaris.

    @Brett there are plenty … who seem to believe that fantasy and science fiction can never be “literature.”

    I count 1984 as “literature” first; whether it’s also sf seems a question for the train-spotters. I’m ready to believe there are works that are both; I just haven’t come across any. Atwood? I find her unreadable, so’ve never come to an opinion.

  97. I tried to like SF, and was given Through a Scanner Darkly as a best example of “literary” SF. I thought it was better than a lot of other books, but I did not at all get why people admired Dick, or why he called it his masterpiece. It was just OK for me.

    Raymond Chandler’s famous essay on murder mysteries is apropos here. I don’t know who the Chandler or Hammett of SF is, if there is one.

  98. – norm, as opposed to deviation.
    “Norm” here is understood as arbitrarily chosen something (a genre, a field…) just so that there is a norm.
    – excellent as opposed to.
    – addressed to everyone as opposed to addressed to some group of people.
    – everything but some genres.
    “Everything” thus has holes, where certain genres were cut out of it.
    The terms “literature” and “genre fiction” themselves actually imply the contrast between general (not norm, not excellence) and specialised.

  99. Note that historical fiction, although it (like others I listed) certainly represents a recognized genre, is not by default considered “genre fiction.” “Literary” fiction can be set equally well in the past or the present, seemingly without prejudice.

    @Brett, honestly, our understanding of how the ancient world worked is exactly a myth. A novel set in Greece will have some familiar characters, but otherwise it is not Greece, it is a fantasy.

  100. PlasticPaddy says

    It really depends on what you like. Science fiction grew out of a tradition of, on the one hand, Munchhausen “tall tales” and on the other hand allegory/utopia/dystopia (is there a word grouping these three?). So if you hate all that stuff and want either realistic representations or romantic idylls, you may have a difficult time finding something you like. Also, do you want a book that makes you think or one you cannot put down? My personal opinion is that short stories / novellas are a better bet (you can always look for a novel by someone whose shorter work you like). So, depending again on your taste, you might like to try John Wyndham (speculative fiction), Jack Vance (cultural conflict), Brian Stableford (cynical heroism) or Theodore Sturgeon (literary tall tales). These are easy access writers of shorter works and all male. I cannot bring to mind similar female writers (the ones I know are more sophisticated, like Tiptree, who is much discussed elsewhere on LH), but for unputdownable stories you could try Andre Norton or C.J. Cherryh.

  101. Orwell never seemed like sf; but political critique in drag.


  102. she presumably went to college at a much more peripheral Boston-area school.

    Or perhaps a much more central Boston-are school like Northeastern or Suffolk University. Cambridge of course being a town on the periphery of Boston proper.

  103. @Y: My teenage son read A Scanner Darkly last month. He said it was interesting, but it was also confusing and not that coherently put together. That was pretty much my own assessment of it as well. I’m not a huge fan of Philip K. Dick; he has plenty of interesting ideas, but he tends to throw a lot of things at the wall—plots, motifs, allusions—and hope that something really compelling sticks. The fact that he apparently did very little editing of his completely manuscripts could also be a problem; his narratives would often wander quite a bit as he made them up as he went, and the openings he wrote are often not very well matched to the closing sections.

    Incidentally, if the title had actually been “Through a Scanner Darkly,” it would have been much clearer to me what it was alluding to. The expression “through a glass darkly” has never been on the tip of my tongue; although I have been familiar with it since childhood, it didn’t come up very often—at least in part because I was never part of a speech community that used glass to mean pane. More significantly, however, I never thought of a science fiction scanner as something one looked “through,” rather than “at.” So the metaphor of near opacity didn’t click for me. For someone like Dick, born before the age of television, it may have made more sense to conceptualize televisual displays as like windows, but that was never an active metaphor in my own thinking.

    @drasvi: I think you are conflating two slightly different meanings of fantasy. These are 4. c. and 4. f. in the OED:

    4. c. a product of imagination, fiction, figment

    4.f. a genre of literary compositions.

    The particulars of the genre are not explicitly specified, but they do include a 1954 quote (erroneously labeled as from1955) from Frederic Brown:

    Fantasy deals with things that are not and cannot be. Science fiction deals with things that can be, that some day may be.

    I do not one hundred percent agree with Brown’s definition—especially with respect to science fiction—but it gives a flavor of what the genres are about, at least. But the point is that fantasy, as a genre, means works that involve elements that just do no exist in our world. That doesn’t necessarily have to be magic, but it has to be something that is manifestly not a part of our real world and which never could be. There is nothing paranormal in Gormenghast, but it does feature societies that are totally different from our own, as well as the obviously fictional flooding of the lowest sixty levels of the titular hundred-story castle. For a story set specifically in ancient Greece, consider The King Must Die. It is an explicitly de-mythologized version of the story of Theseus and the minotaur, informed by what had been learned about Minoan culture in the first half of the twentieth century. It’s a romantic story about a mainland prince who travels to Crete, where he learns bull leaping and battles the masked half-breed prince Asterion—undoubtedly not a very realistic depiction of the Middle Bronze Age, but also intentionally written so as nott to be “fantasy” in the genre sense. Of course, however, there are going to be edge cases. See, for example, this Stack Exchange question I raised about whether fantasy included novels in completely fictional but otherwise realistic settings. That is not something that has a universally-agreed-upon answer.

    @PlasticPaddy: Weird cultures were definitely the most characteristic element of Jack Vance’s science fiction. However, I think it a lot of cases, they are really just there for color, not drivers of the main plot; in fact, they are often major distractions from the central narrative. Vance’s weird cultures generally work best when there are specific reasons for them (as in The Dragon Masters or the Planet of Adventure novels) or when they are fully integrated into the main plot (as in Wyst, The Languages of Pao, or The Killing Machine). That does not mean that the cultural depictions that are purely there for color are necessarily bad, but they are very hit or miss. Night Lamp has a bunch of strange societies, and it is actually the least developed one that provides the books best story beat. (Is story beat applicable to written works? Obviously, the term originated in filmmaking, but it seems like it should apply to any narrative media. In this case, the event I’m thinking of in Night Lamp feels very much like a beat from a movie.)

    @Vanya: I will admit to a certain amount of Cantabrigian parochialism in considering the “center” of the Boston-area college community to be located on the north side of the Charles River. When two of the top ten universities in North America are located within walking distance of one-another, I think that’s a fairly natural outcome.

  104. @Brett: drasvi’s argumentation is perhaps easier to understand if you know that in Russian, SF and Fantasy are regarded as subcategories of a common genre fantastika; AFAIK, fantastika was originally applied to SF, and then other genres (Fantasy, Alternative History) were included when they became a thing. SF can be specifically referred to as nauchnaya fantastika “scientific fantasy”.

  105. Keith Ivey says

    Isn’t the “glass” in 1 Corinthians 13:12 a mirror? Of course that makes “through” an even less apt preposition in modern English (though it’s still possible to use it to mean “by means of”). And while you don’t look through a scanner, we’re talking about seeing, and I can imagine saying I’m seeing something through a scanner (though if the scanner is simply displaying an image on a screen, then “on a scanner” is more likely).

    But familiarity with the phrase doesn’t have much to do with the meaning of “glass” in one’s speech community (the number of people who use “glass” to mean either pane or mirror must be tiny) but rather with exposure to the KJV and that particular verse.

  106. Isn’t the “glass” in 1 Corinthians 13:12 a mirror?

    Yes (δι’ ἐσόπτρου), and in fact the New International Version has “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.”

  107. OED (Draft additions June 2017):

    through (or in) a glass darkly: from an obscured, distorted, or incomplete perspective. Frequently in to see through a glass darkly: to perceive the true nature of God, existence, etc., imperfectly or indistinctly.
    Chiefly with allusion to 1 Corinthians 13:12 (see quot. 1560).

    1560 Bible (Geneva) 1 Cor. xiii. 12 For now we se through a glasse darkely: but then shal we se face to face.
    1593 W. Perkins Two Treat. ii. 79 And men inlightened & regenerate in this life do but see as in a glasse darkly.
    1656 J. Owen Of Mortification of Sinne 158 We see through a glasse darkely… It is not a Telescope that helps us to see things afar of.
    1838 Knickerbocker Mar. 207 The almanac..foretold, although ‘as in a glass darkly’, the phenomena of the weather.
    1920 Harper’s Mag. Feb. 384/1 The chemical nature of these odiferous bodies is beginning to show itself—but as through a glass, darkly.
    2009 Independent 19 Sept. 15/2 One thing is certain: we see through a glass darkly when it comes to time.

  108. Stu Clayton says

    Carroll made “Through The Looking-Glass” mean “go through it”. A connection with *that* Corinthians had never occurred to me. That’s mostly because I know more about raisins than about the bible.

  109. I was wondering if anyone had used “a glass dorkily,” and sure enough, there it is in The Book of Bieb:

    6 More marvelous still, he could disseminate his Word to his flock without physical manifestation, through a glass dorkily.

  110. to throw a little more delany into the mix, though in this case a tongue-in-cheek line that i think holds up better than most snaps, but wouldn’t really defend:

    swords-and-sorcery [read: fantasy] takes place against the backdrop of a transition into a money economy;
    sf takes place against the backdrop of a transition out of a money economy.

    (aside from the question of its literary-critical accuracy, there’s also the basic problem that the oft-retold tale of a progression from barter to cash is just plain untrue, and the fact that societies are known to move back and forth between various forms of money and non-money economies for all kinds of reasons, not in a uniform evolutionary progression)

  111. David Marjanović says

    I looked up what the German versions have (“mirror” or “mirror image”) and found that I’m even more familiar with 1 Cor 11 and 13, but would never have guessed that the three are right next to each other!

    not in a uniform evolutionary progression

    Evolution doesn’t generally do uniform progressions either. 🙂

  112. assorted other things:

    @Y: thanks! i’m midway through a month visiting friends and relatives along the cascadia subduction zone! (and have somehow escaped rain and wildfire smoke by doing that)

    to meme on it a little: phildick is Great Literary SF for people whose mailer is burroughs. zelazny is Great Literary SF for people whose hammett is chandler. le guin is Great Literary SF for people whose twain is cather. and (maybe) delany is Great Literary SF for people whose porter is sondheim?

    @Brett: i do so think Mystery is genre fiction! (i just meant that people aren’t as quick to declare a book like Possession to be part of that genre as they are to push a book like Never Let Me Go into sf, for genre-specific reasons)

    and as a cantabridgian townie, i’m inclined to think that offred went to lesley college (before it got ambitions). but i fear wellesley is more likely to have been on atwood’s mind.

    @DM: i know, and you know, but the folks who’ve structured how we talk about societal change sure like to not know!

  113. @Brett,

    c. a product of imagination

    In Russian
    фантазия fantázija
    1. “she has a rich fantázija” – ability to fantasise.
    2. “she lacked fantázija to …” – ability to invent new. Can be used instead of voobrazhénije “imagination” (different from 1 in that it can be applied to science)
    3. what you’re fantasising about.

    фэнтези fént’ezi (soft t’ only orthographical, as it happens with borrowings, it is hard)
    in early 90s Russia was flooded with book stalls and book stalls were flooded with series that published sword and sorcery fantasy (among other things), this word appeared to describe “stuff like Tolkien, just not Tolkien”. Mary Stewart etc.

    So i meant fantazija. But I think, this element is not only shared with scince fiction and fantasy, it is a very important element in our conceptualisation/definition of those. Of this two historical novels are adjacent to fantasy, because… What if it were not Sogdiana but Ireland? Filid[s]*, druid[s] and so on. And also Mary Stewart: I classified her as “fantasy” because her novels were published by the publisher as my edition of LotR.

    * weirdly, WP has Filí and Wiktionary does not have an entry for an English word that would designate Irish poets. In Russian we use filidy “filids”.

  114. Perhaps a novel set in 2023 is the closest you can get to “reality” (though motives of some people who stand behind the events will only be known in future…). 2022 is almost the same. 10 years ago the world was different – but this is not considered “history”*.

    19th century is stranger and we know only some names and events about the ancient world. For Greece more, but still you can’t recreate a morning of an ancient Greek based on numerous text that we have. How did she sleep (I can describe you my mattress, bedsheets and blanket in detail, and why and when I woke up – and waking up is a complex procedure, it may involve cats, friends who contact me, my phone and computer. I can’t do that for Greeks), what was her material culture (we do know some elements of Greek material culture, but they are a fraction of all m.c.), social interations.
    The texts are not even a ‘framework’ – they are points where your fantasy is attached to history.

    * 10 years ago I began to hear “какую страну развалили!” (what a country they destroyed/broke apart!) very often, VAST majority of Russians began to idealise USSR.

    And now a popular genre among books about times-traveller [I’ll keep this weird -s, because it’s weird, I don’t understand how it got there] is time-travellers in USSR. Also you likely know Atomic Heart – a video-game released this year, set not in the real USSR, but Soviet styistics.

    I expected this but I expected it several decades later! But all right, USSR is a space which (a) aesthetically is very different from capitalist Russia with open borders [except that the legendary USSR is glamour and the real USSR was … ask LH] (b) socially is different too. So it has a potential for fantasy and can attract people like the world [itself: not only Islam] of the salaf attracts salafi.

  115. Owlmirror says

    Orwell never seemed like sf; but political critique in drag.

    ¿Por qué no los dos?

  116. ¿Por qué no los dos?

    Indeed. Hence my whether it[1984]’s also sf seems a question for the train-spotters.

    Counting against its being hardcore sf: there’s no aliens nor interplanetary travel. Winston seems to live in a mildly idealised Soviet apartment block. (All-seeing cameras in each room seem not fiction at all in Xi’s China.)

  117. PlasticPaddy says

    @brett 3/7/13:10
    I see you like a certain adherence to plot line and are perhaps uncomfortable with long and frequent digressions or “pointless” detail. But for some readers, the plot may be a distraction or a necessary concession to popular taste. As a rather poor navigator, I have of necessity discovered pleasure in unnecessarily protracted journeys and regard being lost as my natural state.

  118. @PlasticPaddy: I have mentioned before that I don’t consider myself a “fan” of Jack Vance, in spite of having read at least twenty of his novels. So obviously I like a lot of what he does. His exotic cultures can provide a lot of beautiful scenery for his stories, even when they are not central to the plots. However, I think he also sometimes pushes things too far, threatening my suspension of disbelief or veering into unintentional silliness. (Sometimes Vance’s fictional cultural are intentionally silly, but that’s not generally something I take issue with.) This became a real problem for me when I read some of his books, including The Face, Night Lamp, and The Languages of Pau.

  119. John Cowan says

    swords-and-sorcery [read: fantasy] takes place against the backdrop of a transition into a money economy;

    Typically absurd Delany overgeneralization. The American Revolution was just such a transition (from credit to currency) that involved very few swords and no sorcery worth mentioning.

    The Languages of Pau

    Pao. But the best exemplar IMO of “weird culture fully integrated into the plot” is from “The Moon Moth”.

  120. @John Cowan: I’ve read “The Moon Moth” more recently than any of Vance’s other works, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. In fact, I hardly remembered it at all and had to look up what it was about just now. My vote for the Vance’s most successful integration of a weird alien culture into the narrative (although not the most complete) is The Dirdir.

  121. Owlmirror says

    As WikiP:Mirror notes,

    Common metal mirrors tarnished and required frequent polishing. Bronze mirrors had low reflectivity and poor color rendering, and stone mirrors were much worse in this regard.[15]: p.11  These defects explain the New Testament reference in 1 Corinthians 13 to seeing “as in a mirror, darkly.”

    Also, the history of mirror-making mentions how mirrors were sometimes made with lead leaf behind glass. And silvering mirrors was done my using an amalgam with mercury on the glass, and the mercury was then evaporated off.

    Holy heavy metal toxicity Batman!

  122. Since Calvino makes appearances in both the post and the comment thread, this seems like a good place to say that the BBC’s audio drama adaptation of If on a winter’s night a traveler, featuring Toby Jones, Indira Varma, and Tim Crouch, is available for the next 24 days.

  123. Orwell never seemed like sf; but political critique in drag.

    A less hostile way to put this is Bujold’s “sf works are fantasies of political action”. In which case it is not specific to Orwell.

  124. David Marjanović says

    Holy heavy metal toxicity Batman!

    That’s the entire history of mercury right there.

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