Michael Chabon went to college a long time ago

So a Wired post in “A Geeks Guide to the Galaxy,” I think by David Barr Kirtley, and a post on SyFy Channel’s official blog by Marc Bernadin, both quote Michael Chabon insisting that writing professors are biased against genre fiction in general and science fiction in particular.

“I had a lot of shameful, cowardly answers for that question. Like, I had been taught early on in college and graduate school that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I wrote genre fiction, and not only would I not be taken seriously, but people just really didn’t want to read it, like, my workshop mates and my workshop leaders. I had workshop leaders who just out-and-out said, ‘Please do not turn science fiction in to this workshop.’ That was discouraging, obviously, and if I had had more courage and more integrity, I might have stood up to it more than I did, but I wanted to be read, and I wanted to receive whatever benefits there were to be received from the people I was in workshop with, and the teachers I was studying from.

Bernadin, in particular, grouses on about how this is bigotry, ending his post by saying “stupid professors.” I’m used to academic bashing. And Chabon and the bloggers and commenters would be right if the broader field of composition was discouraging genre fiction. But they’re not right; in fact they’re completely wrong. Incorporating pop culture, genre fiction, and video games are an absolute obsession in composition studies right now. Trust me; as someone who is more of a traditionalist, I and others like me actually feel a bit of pressure to introduce those things into our pedagogy. There are thousands of classes on science fiction being taught in the academy. There are dozens of journal articles on fan fiction and online fandom communities. There are conferences just on Joss Whedon and MMORPGs. This stuff has penetrated our field on the highest level. What Chabon is saying simply is not an accurate depiction of the field anymore.

I’ll leave aside the continuing issue of the strange contention that genre fiction and its fans get no respect, when they are the single most powerful force in the entertainment industry.  Here’s the larger question: why did nobody perform a reality check? The Wired blog is a professional blog. The SyFy blog is a professional blog. People are getting paid for this. Why didn’t they do fifteen minutes of Googling and find out if this was still an accurate portrayal? Blogs are over a decade old now. They have saturated our media and our now among our most powerful and well-read media institutions. And yet there remains no consistent standards of evidence on blogs. I remember several years ago, reading the car blog Jalopnik. One of their writers, again a professional, said that electrical cars couldn’t be that good for the environment because the electricity has to be generated somewhere. As commenters swiftly pointed out, it’s far more efficient to generate electricity at a power plant than it is to run an internal combustion engine. But they shouldn’t have had to. Why on earth would someone getting paid to blog not do even minimal research on a contention he was making? That lack of consistent standards and failure to research is still all too present in the blogging form, and I see no evidence that it will soon improve.

24 Comments

  1. Hi Freddie. I wrote the blog post you’re referring to. I received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2008, and I personally witnessed a great deal of hostility to fantasy & science fiction in academia. I’ve also mentored over a hundred writing students, virtually all of whom are in college right now or who graduated just recently, and I’ve heard countless reports from them about hostility to fantasy & science fiction in academia. I’m also friends with dozens of professional fantasy & science fiction writers, most of whom graduated from college within the past decade, and have heard countless stories from them about hostility to fantasy & science fiction in academia. Maybe you’re not aware of the extent to which this happens, but I definitely am. You’re free to disagree, but I think that questioning my professionalism is uncalled for.

  2. I’m sorry that you felt affronted, and I should have made more of an effort to distinguish between composition and creative writing, about which I will openly profess ignorance. I have to tell you that, still, this portrayal of a culture that is antagonistic to sci-fi or genre fiction simply does not ring true to me. Genre fiction dominates the economics of show business. Fans of sci-fi, comic books, and video games are the single most powerful demographic in the entertainment industry, bar none. Not only will almost any property from those realms be produced as a movie, it’s exceedingly hard for genres from outside of those realms to get produced as a movie. Brilliant, respected filmmakers can’t get their work produced, but their’s an Ant-Man movie coming. The amount of media devoted to genre fiction fans is enormous. Comic Con is one of the biggest events in the media landscape. On and on and on. The people who control the money– they people who actually matter, who actually have power– never stop genuflecting to these fans. Claims of oppression are just not credible.

    That’s just how I see it. I’m sorry if I questioned your willingness to show the other side of the issue, but I don’t think that you adequately pushed back against Michael Chabon– who, after all, is rich, as famous as authors get, and has a Pulitzer Prize, despite writing sci-fi/fantasy/genre.

    1. Chabon’s comments dealt specifically with universities and literary magazines, where the hostility to science fiction is demonstrable. Undergraduates are routinely forbidden to write science fiction in creative writing classes. Applicants to MFA programs who submit science fiction are routinely turned down due to hostility to science fiction. Science fiction authors are routinely turned down for teaching jobs because of a hostility to science fiction. Literary magazines routinely reject any and all science fiction stories that are submitted. Science fiction authors are virtually never considered for major literary awards. I have worked in the field for 20 years. Believe me I am not making this up.

      Yes, Chabon is as rich and famous as authors get, due in large part to the fact that, as he explained in the interview, he didn’t start publishing science fiction until _after_ he was already rich and famous. If he had tried to _become_ rich and famous by writing science fiction novels, he would have faced a vastly more difficult road.

      And yes, fantasy and science fiction is hot right now in Hollywood. The thing is, making a movie costs millions of dollars. Most writers don’t have millions of dollars. Most writers don’t have _health insurance_. The most realistic option for most writers to make ends meet is to get a teaching job — jobs that are for the most part barred to science fiction writers because of this hostility to science fiction in academia.

      It is emphatically not the case that “almost any property from those realms will be produced as a movie.” The highest awards in the science fiction field are the Hugo and the Nebula. They’ve been giving them out for almost a century, and only a handful of Hugo and Nebula award-winning works have ever been adapted for film. Given that, what kind of a shot do you think the typical science fiction author has?

      Believe me, this is the reality, and these are very real concerns for me and many, many of my close friends.

      1. Literary magazines routinely reject any and all science fiction stories that are submitted. Science fiction authors are virtually never considered for major literary awards.

        Whereas science fiction magazines constantly publish literary realist stories, and Jonathan Franzen wins all the Hugo awards.

        Right?

        1. Science fiction markets often publish realistic fiction, if it’s good and they think their readers will enjoy it. Read a few months worth of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for numerous examples. And science fiction fans are only too happy to give science fiction awards to “literary” writers. For example, Michael Chabon won a Hugo award for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

          1. Didn’t realize I was arguing with a man with anecdata on his side! I will counter your claim that science fiction markets “often” publish realistic fiction with the fact that literary markets “often” publish SF. Here’s a list of stuff The New Yorker has tagged “science fiction”; I’m sure you could find more SF-ish stories there that aren’t tagged. McSweeney’s genre fiction issue. Virginia Quarterly Review did a whole issue on superhero stories.

            I sort of can’t believe you’re using Chabon as an example of literary fiction winning the Hugo; I don’t even know how to answer that one. You win this round I guess.

  3. I think you’re right that the relevant difference here is between composition/American Studies and creative writing. I graduated last May, and took a decent number of classes in each, and as you say, the former is fascinated with pop culture and genre fiction. But a majority of my creative writing classes actually banned students from writing science fiction, fantasy, and crime for assignments (“anything with gun violence” is how one professor defined that last category, actually).

  4. I’m sorry, but I simply don’t agree with your depiction. Genre fans are the 800-pound gorilla now, and there’s absolutely no indication that this is going to change.

    I think the truth is that genre fiction fans have become so attached to the idea of themselves as a minority that it has become a part of their self-conception, so now that the environment has changed, they haven’t adapted. And let me tell you something: on websites like io9.com or SyFy or your own, sci-fi/comic book fans are downright bullying. I’m speaking from personal experience too. And my personal experience is that sci-fi fans read any difference of opinion on the quality of individual works as insults to all genre fiction. It’s not enough to like Harry Potter; you’ve got to love it. It’s not enough to be into Batman; you’ve got to be obsessive about it. It’s not enough to say that Mass Effect is a great video game series; you’ve got to say that it’s as good as any novels or movies. I think genre fiction can be great and I think video games can be art. But it’s not enough anymore to say that. In my experience, there simply isn’t enough praise to heap on these properties that will keep you from getting harangued by fans.

    The problems is, you think that there’s still such a thing called “literary culture.” If that still exists, it is a sick, dying creature, without economic power, cultural force, or any useful authority. Meanwhile, genre fiction is a massively powerful industry that has the ear of Hollywood and, yes, a quickly accelerating purchase in the academy. Maybe instead of constantly complaining about this perceived slights (that never seem to come from anywhere specific), you should imagine what it would be like to be a fan of opera, or ballet, or local theater. Those art forms might cease to exist, and soon, because there’s no money in them. That’s far worse than the vague perception that somewhere, someone is looking down their nose at you.

    1. > Maybe instead of constantly complaining about this perceived slights (that never seem to come from anywhere specific)

      I actually did list a number of specific concerns. Here they are again:

      – Undergraduates are routinely forbidden to write science fiction in creative writing classes.

      – Applicants to MFA programs who submit science fiction are routinely turned down due to hostility to science fiction.

      – Science fiction authors are routinely turned down for teaching jobs because of a hostility to science fiction.

      – Literary magazines routinely reject any and all science fiction stories that are submitted, regardless of quality.

      – Science fiction authors are virtually never considered for major literary awards, regardless of quality.

      Are you saying these specific things don’t happen?

  5. OK. If those things are happening, and I will accept your claim that they are, then yes, that’s stupid and ridiculous. I support treating genre fiction on exactly the same plane, critically and analytically, as all other kinds of fiction. If genre fiction has the juice and quality, then it should be celebrated just as much and equally encouraged in the academy.

  6. > I will counter your claim that science fiction markets “often” publish realistic fiction with the fact that literary markets “often” publish SF. Here’s a list of stuff The New Yorker has tagged “science fiction”; I’m sure you could find more SF-ish stories there that aren’t tagged. McSweeney’s genre fiction issue. Virginia Quarterly Review did a whole issue on superhero stories.

    I find it telling that one of the examples you list to support the contention that there’s no hostility toward genre fiction in academia and literary magazines is the McSweeney’s issue that Michael Chabon edited specifically as a reaction to the hostility toward genre fiction in academia and literary magazines.

    It’s true that science fiction has made significant inroads in literary magazines in recent years. It’s also true that an enormous amount of hostility toward science fiction exists in academia and literary magazines. These two facts are not mutually exclusive.

    At the time that Chabon won a Hugo for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, he was widely perceived as a “literary” author, not a “science fiction” author, and was marketed as such, but science fiction fans were happy to read him. Yet I’ve met countless people in academia who have told me point blank that they refuse to read any novel marketed as “science fiction,” and so a “science fiction” author such as Gene Wolfe has virtually no chance of winning a “literary” award, regardless of the merit of his work.

    1. Dude, come on. You gave me one example of a science fiction magazine which is supposedly open to realistic fiction which says in its guidelines “The SF element may be slight, but it should be present.” Go ahead and show me that there’s more realistic fiction published in science fiction magazines than SF published in literary magazines. I can’t prove my assertion that in fact, the opposite is the case either; but I’m pretty sure I’m right.

      You’ve got countless stories though! COUNTLESS! What can I do in the face of such an onslaught! That’s what ‘professionalism’ means, after all, unsourced, unprovable assertions from nerd urban legends.

      1. It’s true that I’ve personally encountered a great deal of hostility to science fiction in academia. And as I’ve said, I’m friends with dozens of other science fiction writers, and from speaking to them I know that we’ve mostly all had the same experience. You seem to be suggesting that I’m just making this up. I’m not sure why you think I would do that. Is that honestly what you think?

        1. Actually, Michael Chabon isn’t the only author we’ve interviewed who’s touched on this issue.

          From our interview with Carrie Vaughn (at 17:58):
          http://geeksguideshow.com/2010/03/01/ggg009-vampires-werewolves-unicorns-guest-carrie-vaughn/

          From our interview with Lev Grossman (at 12:19):
          http://geeksguideshow.com/2011/10/20/ggg48-lev-grossman/

          From our interview with John Langan (at 25:16):
          http://geeksguideshow.com/2010/03/29/ggg013-horror-academia-our-deepest-darkest-fears-guest-john-langan/

          That’s just off the top of my head. And yes, it’s been a few years since these authors were in school, but as I said, I work with a lot of college-age writing students as well, and they’re having many of the same experiences.

        2. I think that countless (I can do it too) sci-fi fans whining about how downtrodden they are for decades has colored your expectations to some degree. I’m sure there are people out there who are the kind of snob you describe (though I’ve never met any), and I’m also sure that there are people who honestly are not hostile, just not especially interested in sci-fi, just as you might not be into queer erotica or Westerns or whatever, and you’re assuming the worst. I also think there is a certain amount of entitlement shown by people who complain about those darn hoity-toity literary reviews who don’t publish sci-fi, or if they do it’s The Wrong Sort That Doesn’t Count, like Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, or apparently Michael Chabon.

          But as our host has discovered in other contexts, it’s pretty much impossible to convince people that they’re not as oppressed as they think they are. I hope you figure out a way to be happy even under this crushing academic regime; but I think I’ll call it a day on trying to convince you you’re already free.

          1. If Freddie had simply written that science fiction writers and fans aren’t as oppressed as they think they are, I wouldn’t have bothered to respond. That’s completely subjective and not worth arguing over, in my opinion.

            That’s not what he wrote. He wrote “And Chabon and the bloggers and commenters would be right if the broader field of composition was discouraging genre fiction. But they’re not right; in fact they’re completely wrong.” This is demonstrably untrue. Academia _is_ actively discouraging genre fiction. As I said, it’s routine for creative writing classes to flat-out forbid students to turn in science fiction stories. It doesn’t get much more discouraging than that.

            I still wouldn’t have bothered to respond if he hadn’t also questioned my professional standards (“People are getting paid for this. Why didn’t they do fifteen minutes of Googling and find out if this was still an accurate portrayal?”) and my integrity (“I’m used to academic bashing but it would be nice if people actually told the truth”), which, as I said, I think was uncalled for.

      2. I don’t understand why a science fiction magazine would publish realist fiction; its very nature precludes it from such a publication. A realist story has no science fiction merit. Whereas a magazine which claims to judge only on literary merit would have no grounds to refrain from publishing science fiction (except for a lack of literary merit in individual stories), otherwise they’d be validating the complaints of this gentleman. No less, is it not possible to be both popular and shunned in the academy (Ayn Rand) and, thus, disrespected? Indeed, while you note that classes are being taught on popular culture, the fact that so few classes are held on science fiction etc. relative to literary fiction, which is way disproportionate to popularity of the two genres, seems to me more an indication of snobbiness on the part of universities, if we’re to interpret these statistics as useful data, which I wouldn’t. I don’t care about such snobbiness, though, the most popular books these days (Twilight, DaVinci Code) are terrible.

  7. Doesn’t it boil down to: Fans/practitioners of SF/fantasy/genre fiction get < = respect in academia* and fans/critics/writers of literary fiction get little respect beyond university corridors.

    *I say this based on lit grad work in the mid-90s, so perhaps the gap has narrowed since. But to compare their plight to how the literary, artistic or intellectually minded are treated in larger society (i.e. lifelong, painful alienation) is absurd.

  8. I know this is a week old (forever in blog time!) but I just wanted to back up what David Barr Kirtley says about MFA programs being antagonistic to genre. I received my MFA in 2009, and although my program was quite good about experimentation, (they were cool with letting me write poems about comic book characters!), most Creative Writing programs–and the people in them–aren’t welcoming of the idea. I had great undergrad instructors who graduated from top MFA programs who discouraged any genre writing (though not outright forbidding it). My peers and friends weren’t excited by the idea of genre (though they might enjoy it personally), at least in workshops. This is the standard view of most MFA programs (or at least their faculty and students) in my experience.

    Just ask Mike Meginnis about his experiences trying to write something genre-esque in an MFA program and I think you’ll find the same reaction (and more negative responses from faculty than I ever witnessed).

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  10. I think it’s a mistake to assume that there is only literary or genre fiction, or that you can only be a literary writer writing about “serious” and “real” things, or a sci-fi/fantasy hack.

    You guys ever read any Dan Simmons books? He writes many different types of books, yet is still often described as a sci-fi author. However in the Hugo and Locus award-winning books Hyperion and Endymion, he draws from a huge amount of literary sources.

    From the Wikipedia page:

    First published in 1989, Hyperion has the structure of a frame story, similar to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron.

    […]

    Much of the appeal of the series stems from its extensive use of references and allusions from a wide array of thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, John Muir, Norbert Wiener, and to the poetry of John Keats, a famous English Romantic poet of the 19th century, and the monk Ummon; a large number of technological elements are acknowledged by Simmons to be inspired by elements of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World.
    The Hyperion series has many echoes of Jack Vance, explicitly acknowledged in one of the later books.
    The title of the first novel, “Hyperion,” is taken from one of Keats’s poems, the unfinished epic Hyperion. Similarly, the title of the third novel is from Keats’ poem Endymion. Quotes from actual Keats poems and the fictional Cantos of Martin Silenus are interspersed throughout the novels. Simmons goes so far as to have two artificial reincarnations of John Keats (“cybrids”: artificial intelligences in human bodies) play a major role in the series.

    And in two of his later novels, Ilium and Olympos, he goes even further into the SF recreation of past literary works, by essentially having his characters play out a version of Homer’s Illiad at once in the past, and in the future.

    So you can see it’s not either or, there are some people blending the two, to spectacular results I might add.

  11. Uh, here’s an idea: maybe MFA programs discourage genre writing because the writing part of it just isn’t that important. The most important thing is how fancifully you’ve moved around the various conventions to suggest something novel.

    At this point someone decently schooled in this non-debate will say that “realistic” fiction (which presumably = “MFA fiction”) also has genre conventions. And there’s truth to that. But realistic fiction definitely does not dominate MFA programs–well-written fiction *tries* to. Science fiction considers the quality of the writing as only an ancillary concern, so it and other genres are consequently less welcome in programs that are *supposed to* be about writing itself.

    And the idea that Chabon could only write sci-fi after he became rich and famous from literary writing is laughable. Go compare the advances of the average genre book writer with the average literary book writer and tell me that the path to riches lies in literary writing.

    1. > Science fiction considers the quality of the writing as only an ancillary concern

      Not true. Science fiction authors such as Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, and Samuel R. Delany are as concerned about writing quality as any author can be. And in many MFA programs, the work of these top-notch writers would be dismissed out of hand, and certainly not because of any deficit of craft.

      > And the idea that Chabon could only write sci-fi after he became rich and famous from literary writing is laughable. Go compare the advances of the average genre book writer with the average literary book writer and tell me that the path to riches lies in literary writing.

      It’s true that the average science fiction novel gets a higher advance than the average literary novel, but in either case we’re talking about a few thousand dollars or less, so the difference is pretty insignificant. On the other hand, it’s vastly easier for literary authors to obtain university positions and grants — due to exactly the sort of prejudice which you concede and which the original post claims not to exist — and that’s how the overwhelming majority of writers are able to support themselves. It’s also much easier for a book marketed as a literary novel to become a breakout hit, which is why agents counsel new authors to establish themselves first as literary authors if they can, because that maximizes their odds of making money.

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