Mistakes Were Made: An Exchange

Ray Davis & Jonathan Lethem

Note to the reader: this is an exchange of e-mails over the course of three days, edited by Lethem for publication in The New York Review of Science Fiction (December 1998, Vol. 11, No.4).

Davis to Lethem

My serious response to the Voice Literary Supplement piece is pretty negative (and long-winded), I'm afraid, largely because of your choice of audience.

In a context like NYRSF or an anthology introduction, the essay would be an example of a familiar argument which is nowadays a bit beside the point: I just can't see that internalized "inclusion" or "exclusion" is as big an issue at present as it was in Dick's and Vonnegut's time. We all know that the sf/fantasy genre still provides an occasionally involving community and an unusually interesting market for short fiction. And we all know that out of-the-ordinary non-tie-in novels with fantastic content often fare better if they're published with nice mainstream covers and nice mainstream New York Times Book Review notices. For the kind of writers we're most interested in, that (and its attending problems regarding choice of agents, choice of editors, choice of publicity opportunities, etc.) seems to be pretty much the "which genre?" crux right now.

But in the context of The Village Voice, it seemed to me that your piece operated as reassurance that the mainstream works: that the mainstream "A Lists" are where the best writing is to be found and that "genre" publishing is restricted to immature types who don't really know what's going on. After all, would Voice readers expect a bunch of hacks in a childish genre to appreciate a genius like Pynchon? You implicitly held the institutions of the sf genre to a higher standard than those of the mainstream while addressing the mainstream audience.

It doesn't help that the piece kindly particularized mainstream writers while providing only a generalized "movement"-oriented history for an anthropomorphized sf, with almost no individuals worth mentioning after Dick. I far prefer Crowley, Womack, and Fowler to DeLillo, Brautigan, Coover, Erickson, or Leyner (or even Pynchon, shame on me); you might not agree with me, but some contemporary sf writers could've been singled out, or some of your mainstream stars similarly submerged under movement labels.

The opening salvo would've bugged me no matter what: Pynchon's lack of a Nebula did not damage his career to the same extent that giving the 1975 National Book Award (or any attention at all) to Dhalgren or The Female Man (instead of Thomas Williams's The Hair of Harold Roux) would have helped Delany's or Russ's careers. While singling out a relatively minor sin, the argument flatters the establishment that committed a greater sin.

Lethem to Davis

When setting out to do this piece I made two rules for myself about naming I wouldn't trash anyone by name, and I wouldn't puff my friends.... I was also sure that I would try to dole out an equal portion of blame to each side (as though blame could be accurately measured) to reflect my up-close perception of prejudice (and insecurity) from both sides. My equal-blame scheme was rather badly skewed by the Voice's retitling (without my knowledge), from "Why Can't We All Just Live Together?: A Vision Of Genre Paradise Lost" to "Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction."

I hadn't thought hard enough about the results of the omission of certain names from my piece. (Let Kessel, Fowler, and Bisson stand for themselves and so many others here in NYRSF I no more wish to seem to be boasting about my popularity in this context, where so many others enjoy warm friendship with terrific writers, than I wished to leave myself open in the Village Voice to the accusation that all of my favorite recent writers were my friends!)

It is a serious regret about the piece now. I hadn't noticed the creeping anthropomorphization that results, but I'm afraid you're right, and that's not good when I'm explicitly dueling with that effect in the piece.

Context is another question. You're certainly right about how little the piece would have been news in an sf context. Malzberg's done it. I practically plagiarized Scholz's version of it (in Inside Science Fiction, ed. Jarvis) from 1985. In fact, Bryan Cholfin just did it again, very nicely, in his introduction to The Best of Crank. But it does seem to me potentially news to deliver to the "mainstream" that writers working from within the sf definition (and make no mistake, I am still that, as long as the disastrous Gerald Jonas is given my books, and he is) might bemoan the structures that oppress them from within as well as from without. That we don't think most sf covers look good. That we don't march merrily shoulder to shoulder with Niven and Pournelle. That we might think we have more in common with Steve Erickson on some days, or many days. In this regard some of your protests strike me as a further example of the wounded-outsider effect, where it becomes unallowable to say that the solidarity sometimes sucks, that it ties us to ideas and feelings that suck.

I also think you (and too many genre critics) seriously underestimate sectors of the "mainstream" like the Voice's audience. Your words: "would Voice readers expect a bunch of hacks in a childish genre to appreciate a genius like Pynchon?"


In fact, the most interesting response I've gotten to the piece (before yours) is a round of apparently sincere thank-yous for saying the unsayable from younger editors and editorial assistants at New York publishing houses. These include: Farrar Straus & Giroux, The Library of America, Picador, Vintage, and Norton. These are people who grew up like you and me reading across the boundaries and sometimes wondering why they were in place. When they settled into their jobs in New York publishing and discovered the rigidity of the separatism coming from both sides they were baffled and sorry.

As for my opening gambit, I wish I'd had the genius to invert the scenario as you did. You said: "Pynchon's lack of a Nebula did not damage his career to the same extent that giving the 1975 National Book Award (or any attention at all) to Dhalgren or The Female Man (instead of Thomas Williams's The Hair of Harold Roux) would have helped Delany's or Russ's careers." That is a vibrant bit of rhetoric which would have been a perfect place to end my piece. And helped shore up my even-distribution concept.

Let me share a secret with you I too think Pynchon somewhat overrated. But I still think Gravity's Rainbow is an obviously greater work than Rendezvous with Rama (which I enjoyed). And so once you've permitted yourself the enlightenment to put them in the same broad context side by side, it's pathetic to retreat. And I still believe that retreat stands nicely for the moment when sf (anthropomorphized, I know) largely stood down from its pounding on the doors, politically and artistically.

That lost assimilationist sentiment inside the field however morose (think Malzberg) or irate (think Ellison) it may have been in its expression reflected my own personal belief that there is no longer any meaningful division between the work of quality on either side of the barrier, and hence that the barrier is a reactionary vestige.

Your comment, above, that the question is one of "which genre?" suggests I failed in the central aim of my essay: to persuade the reader that I harbor a belief that assimilation is desirable, that it would better reflect the reading values I care about. This isn't a matter of "which genre." It is a sincere and passionate belief that the separatist structure of publishing and reviewing fiction by category (I know you agree with me that "genre" is really a critical term, and that genres will exist as long as fiction does) is ultimately wrong and unfair and stupid.

Now, this may be a misguided belief. It may in fact be wrong and stupid. But not unfair, since my holding and espousing this view changes nothing, hurts no one. The world of books and reading in its every facet from bookstore shelves both new and used, to journals of reviews like this one and the Village Voice, to academia, and to the very structure of publishing itself reinforces and reinscribes the separatist reality. It should follow that anyone who disagrees with my lone voice may quite safely ignore it!

More and more, if I were allowed to read only on one side of the pointless barrier (may that never be true) my choice of the published-as-mainstream writers over the published-as-genre would be obvious. Because the former now includes Womack, Fowler, Park, Emshwiller, Shiner, Crowley, Butler, and others. While the latter has never included DeLillo, Stephen Wright, Joseph McElroy, or Angela Carter, even at times when those writers suffered for want of a reading audience, and might conceivably have responded to intelligent advocacy and prizes from an sf field like the one I postulate one driven by assimilationist literary values. And when in 1997 grumbling can still be heard in the banquet room of the World Fantasy Award that giving it to Italo Calvino and Stephen Millhauser is some kind of betrayal of genre writers!

If only more sf writers and critics were acquainted with as many mainstream writers as I have become in my odd, two-faced career, the field might finally abandon this silly notion that every one of them is the benificiary of a silver spoon! Hundreds of good books and good authors go completely begging for a fraction of the readership and critical attention some genre writers enjoy. So many never get a paperback. Some of them even folornly fantasize about finding a genre for themselves, never knowing. Never knowing.

When all the assimilationist sentiment and traffic is one-way, it strikes me that prejudice (or insecurity turned inside-out and worn as armor) may in fact now be as fierce inside the field as out.

It certainly is made of the same stuff. And that was, I hope, the subject of my foray.

Davis to Lethem

My extreme (up all night) dissatisfaction with the VLS response I e-mailed to you (which seemed to evade central issues in favor of sloppy petulance) combined with the essay's reappearance in NYRSF to produce the appended. I think I'll send it on to NYRSF as a long letter.

Lethem to Davis

As you've no doubt just noticed, I spent my breath on your (impetuous and sometimes dismaying) first response, and now have very little remaining for your (remarkable, considerable, chastening) second. I'm not completely sorry, though, because your first response is more typical of the negative responses I've received from within the field, and I'm glad to have had a chance to work out my extended defense-as-critique-of-genre-insecurities.

I conflated "American fiction" with "mainstream literary institutions" throughout my essay a serious mistake. In subsequent conversations I've laboriously unravelled those two things conversations which encouraged my fears that I was right in the first place when the Voice asked me for the essay and I responded: "That can't be done properly at that length. It could barely be done properly at ten times the length, because it would require the redefinition of so many terms."

Specifically and precisely, the explosion of the persistent, oppressive shorthand that mainstream and literary, etc. aren't genres. I'm hope you'll forgive me, though, for failing to reinvent the entire ground on which the Voice Literary Supplement and other institutions stand. I thought I could do some good (for my personal assimilation-as-victory viewpoint, that is) working from within that context. Now I don't know.

Davis to Lethem

Thanks for the well thought out responses. Obviously, both of us get monstrously tripped up by the tension between our radically individualizing approach to reading (in which a Great Book may come from any context and is completely and irreducibly Itself), and the need for these sorts of essays to speak in sodden-newspaper generalities such as "genre," "market," "community," "1960s fiction," "assimilation," and so forth. With such wavering and spongy contrasts, it seems almost impossible to avoid saying things that, on reflection, we realize that we don't really believe: you sometimes sound as if no one living has gained anything from the institutions of sf, and I sometimes sound as if I'd like seven-eighths of the shelves of Borders to disappear without a trace.

I'm afraid that your thoroughly admirable original intent may have been sabotaged by your wanting to avoid naming your friends. Leaving them out makes the sf side of the story peculiarly faceless. And, in itself, the remarkable overlap of "names I most respect" with "friends I know best" provides a striking hint that some aspects of the sf genre might still serve a purpose in literary history.

Our exchange mentions and exemplifies an important aspect of "the genre" that's otherwise badly served by both of our more essayistic pieces: the social aspect.

I don't think that "the mainstream" will be where I find my favorite speculative works in the future. Instead I think they'll be where many have been throughout the twentieth century: scattered here and there through the small presses and other nonmainstream sources.

But as both of us have mentioned in our correspondence, writers of speculative fiction outside the genre (whether in "experimental" or "mainstream" markets) tend to feel, with reason, even more isolated and little-read than sf writers do. About the only time that writerly communities develop in a small press environment is as part of a "movement," and "movements" have life-limiting pressures that make the SFWA look like an Elks meeting. Sure, one finds the occasional Flaubert-Sand type of friendship, but anything comparable to the network of social lines one might draw out starting from (say) Tim Powers?

As you point out in your piece, mainstream fiction publishing has grown up enough to be able to handle the occasional speculative novel. On the other side, though, I think the sf community (or at least the portions I've been successful in restricting my acquaintanceship to!) has grown up enough to be able to handle ambitious literary work without loss of the social support system.

To tell you the truth, I think the 1980s-1990s state of affairs is not so bad: the overtly juvenile-oriented sf short fiction market continues after all these years to serve as occasional camouflage for grown-up speculative fiction; sf communities continue to exist, albeit in mercifully fragmented form; and novels can potentially be marketed where they'll get most notice. I just worry that the current state of affairs has been near the end of its rope for a while: the two-career system it calls for is too rickety.