Monday, March 2, 2009
Extra Musing on "The Love We Share"
I've got a review of Christopher Barzak's The Love We Share Without Knowing up at SFSignal today. It's a lovely book, and you should definitely read it, but I'd also like to do some extra musing on this book, Nicholas Royle's The Enigma of Departure, and Samuel Delany's Starboard Wine (a review of which may appear in the next issue of Fruitless Recursion).
In Starboard Wine, Samuel Delany lays out a theory of how Literature differs from Paraliterature (his term for genre fiction in this context), and why they need to be judged differently. He includes some fascinating historical and theoretical background, but for my purposes his main point boils down to this: Literature focuses on the 'subject,' the subjective experience of the world, where 'the world' is taken as given and more or less immutable; whereas Paraliterature focuses on the 'object,' i.e. the world built specifically for the story.
Now, we can see that not everything called Literature fits this mold. Especially before the reigns were tightened post-Henry James, books like Les Miserables have characters interacting rather vigourously with their world. And of course, in Paraliterature, we can see some deep and rich subjective experiences of these made-up worlds. However, this argument overall struck me as quite convincing, and it helped crystalize something that always bothered me about so much modern Literature: character actions can only affect themselves and their relationships; not the world around them. Thus when reading things like Catcher in the Rye, the 'protagonists' may strike the reader as insufferably passive (at least, if you're used to the conventions of Paraliterature). Likewise, if you're used to the conventions/protocols of Literature, you may wonder why the heck you have to wade through all the 'irrelevant' world-building/info-dumping to get to the 'important' stuff, i.e. the character's inner state.
OK, so now I'd like to use this position to examine two books, Love We Share and Enigma of Departure. If you look at my reviews, you can see that I quite like the former and didn't like the latter at all. Now, there are reasons of craft that influence thoses stances, but I think that the core of the matter may come down to the fact that I approached them both as Paraliterature, but Enigma may in fact be Literature.
Prima facie, that doesn't have to be true. Both books partake only lightly of the fantastic, and both focus strongly on the emotional states of their characters. However, Barzak is constructing a world for us, and that world is explored with depth. It's just that instead of a made-up world, he's showing us modern-day Japan. Perhaps for a Japanese reader this would be closer to Literature, but given that Barzak is clearly writing for a Western/American audience, he engages in world-building with his foreign country just as much as any sf author must build a future. We read Love We Share as much to experience a world that is fundamentally different from our own as we do to engage with the characters.
In contrast, Enigma does not engage in world-building, even when it travels to foreign lands. Venice in this novella is strange, but it is strange atmospherically, not concretely. We can't be sure how much of the strangeness comes from its foreignness, how much from the intrusion of the fantastic, and how much from the protagonist's messed-up mental state. We're never grounded in the world that the protagonist moves through, because the story isn't in any way about the world (i.e. the object); instead it is completely about the subject and how he relates to death and art. While I found that to be annoying, I think that's probably at least in part due to my incorrect expectations (although I think that the Paraliterary expectation is forgivable: the book is published by PS Publishing and was sent to SFSignal for review). Not to say that the book is perfect as Literature; I still think it has some issues, especially in its own expectation of its audience. However, I think I may have judged it unfairly by standards that weren't appropriate to it.
I have to say, so far I've found Delany's Literature/Paraliterature stance to be very useful in examining what and how I read. It also seems to be less prescriptive, and doesn't weigh down its arguments with value judgements about which one is 'better.' However, I'm aware that this is new only to me; Starboard Wine came out in 1984. I'd be curious to hear the perspectives of people who dealt with it much earlier; I wonder how it's standing the test of time.