Sticks and stones: name-calling in the name of art

Céline Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods.

85184.jpgDon’t you just love a good rant? The above comes courtesy of Sam Anderson writing in the December 17 New York Magazine. His book review is headlined: “Taster’s Choice: Is disdain for Céline Dion innate or learned? And what’s wrong with liking her music anyway?” The book under consideration is by Carl Wilson, a writer/editor for The Globe & Mail, and called, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

I bring it up here because nothing grows quite so robustly in the garden of cultural criticism as debate about low and high, and what the significance is – for individuals and entire civilizations – when one group of people likes something that another group doesn’t.

Defenders of taste and decency will of course argue that a Giuseppe Verdi belongs in Milan’s La Scala, and a Céline Dion in, well, a Las Vegas hotel. The same sort of classifications come up in book discussions all the time. Stephen King is not a serious writer. John Irving is hopelessly middlebrow. Heaven forbid anyone should dip their toes into the cesspools of genre fiction.

In a piece that appears in The Times online, Brian Appleyard considers the stigmatizing effect of being branded a science fiction writer, while tenaciously defending the genre.

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.”

Undeterred, Aldiss has just published a new version of A Science Fiction Omnibus, a fat collection of classic stories. In the 1960s, the original was on everybody’s bookshelves, dog-eared and broken-backed. Aldiss says that was SF’s one golden age, when Oxford dons were happy to be seen indulging the genre. Now they wouldn’t be seen dead with a Philip K Dick, a James Blish or a Robert Sheckley. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, insists her books are not SF, but “speculative fiction” or “adventure romance”. “She’s quite right,” says Aldiss. “She had this idea that a certain amount of opprobrium always hovered around the title science fiction. You might call it double-dealing, but I can quite understand it.”

Labels stick; having one slink along in front of your name (science fiction writer Salman Rushdie) could carry surprising and unwanted meaning. “Literary fiction,” I suppose, is meant to signify something of weight that displays a certain technical and artistic mastery. Trouble is, as Appleyard points out, it often doesn’t. At the same time, writers of so-called genre fiction — like a Stephen King or a PD James — can demonstrate a high level of artistic assurance in handling the serious theme.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I wouldn’t know. I spend all my time reading Proust and Schopenhauer.

Yeah, right.

It’s a bit sad, really. Not quite, “My-Heart-Will-Go-On” sad, but sad nonetheless. Maybe what we really need is a little tolerance. I too “would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda” than listen to Céline, as one critic puts it in the Anderson piece, but the fact is millions of others would say she’s brought music into their lives.

Is that so bad?

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4 Responses to “Sticks and stones: name-calling in the name of art”


  1. 1 Eliza Amos January 10, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    Thank you for that photo. Oh, God, that makes my day. Have you seen that Anne Geddes book with her?

    Admittedly, “A New Day Has Come” is my guilty pleasure. But I feel real shame about this.

  2. 2 Cliff Burns January 10, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    I write literary fiction that employs certain SF tropes and conventions but I certainly don’t want to be labeled a “science fiction” writer. It’s not only inaccurate, it wouldn’t be fair to my aspirations as an author or to the SF scribes who are happy to wear that particular nametag. Science fiction is a genre of ideas and most of the SF readers I know profess little interest in whether or not a book is particularly well written, they’re looking for neat concepts, strange worlds and bug-eyed aliens. A Delillo novel would leave them reeling. Cormac McCarthy? No thanks, he gives them a headache. The priorities are different re: mainstream and genre fiction, the fan base very divergent, expectations polar opposites…

  3. 3 proseparsed January 12, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Hi Eliza, Yes – it’s a great and terrible photo. I haven’t read the Anne Geddes book; sadly, I am prepared to judge it by its cover. And there’s no shame in admitting to guilty listening pleasures. We all own a few CDs we would never dream of playing when others are around! Greg

  4. 4 proseparsed January 12, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Hi Cliff, Nice to hear from you again.

    I recently heard Guy Gavriel Kay describe the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction this way: in genre fiction, interesting things happen to stock characters; in literary fiction, not much happens to interesting characters. Writers of any stripe should try to combine the best of both worlds.

    I can appreciate why you don’t want to be tagged with the SF label; it’s equated with, as you say, bug-eyed aliens, or the umpty-seventh serialized Star Trek paperback. But in a more general sense of the term, is Orwell’s 1984 SF? Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic worlds? Some would argue yes.

    I also wonder if the term “Literary fiction” may be at risk of one day becoming the same kind of pejorative that “Sci-Fi” is. Literary fiction often means an overabundance of self-indulgent prose with a high surface gloss but little substance. The “brand,” if you will, is eroding. John Aldridge has an interesting take on this in his book, Talents and Technicians, Literary Chic and the New Assembly Line Fiction.

    Cheers, Greg


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