Lost Worlds

Eric Flint has kindly moved my column, Notes From The Buffer Zone, here from its home at the late lamented Jim Baen's Universe here. I started writing the column when I realized that writers of my generation rarely blogged or wrote columns for anyone. Writers older than me had regular columns, and writers younger than me blogged. But writers who got their start in the 1980s were seriously unrepresented in the science fiction essay world—wherever it has migrated to.

I'm not sure exactly why that is. I also noted that very few women had sf columns either. For example, none of the long-form reviewers at the one of the field's premiere magazines, Locus Magazine, is female. The female reviewers are relegated to “short reviews.” I don't think any of this shows a gender-bias. I think that no woman has volunteered for the heavy lifting that a regular long-form (2-5,000 words) requires.

(This situation has changed since I wrote my first Buffer Zone column two years ago. The rise of IO9 and other online publications is helping the gender imbalance considerably.)

Anyway, I called the column “Notes From The Buffer Zone” because I felt that I straddled generations as a writer—I'm turning 50 this year, but (weirdly) I've been part of the sf field for more than 25 years. (Writers don't usually start as young as I did)—and I was the only female columnist at Jim Baen's Universe. I didn't write about women's issues, per se (I never felt that being female relegates me to writing only about female things [whatever that means]), but I did want to bring a new perspective.

I plan to continue that perspective here. In my three-month hiatus, I found I missed writing a regular column. I feel like these pieces are on-going long discussions with other sf fans, and I missed that communication.

During the time off, I read a book of essays by Michael Chabon, author of the Hugo- and Nebula-award winning The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and the Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. If you had told me fifteen years ago that I would summarize an author's career like that, I would have said no chance. But the literary mainstream has become more accessible to genre fiction, and genre fiction has opened its mind a bit to “outsiders” even if they're really not outsiders at all.

I highly recommend the book of essays, titled Maps & Legends: Reading And Writing Along The Borderlands, both from a writer's perspective (it's always fun to read another writer's process) and from a reader's perspective. Michael Chabon is three years younger than me, and also belongs to the cusp generation that I mentioned above.

We were, I think, the last generation to be indoctrinated in the “differences” between “good” and “bad” fiction. Or maybe, we were the last generation to believe it.

Chabon and I approached our indoctrination in different ways. I decided that I could never be good enough to be a “literary” writer. First of all, the rewriting alone—years of it—was more than my limited attention span could handle. Secondly, I read the great books assigned in my then-husband's English classes (I was a history major) as well as the modern “literary classics” and found two things: 1) the great books were mostly genre fiction; and 2) modern “literary classics” were damn dull. I blamed my limited attention span. I couldn't stomach one hundred pages of navel contemplation, no matter how well written.

I abandoned any hope of Pulitzers, Nobels, American Book Awards, and recognition by the “right people” long before I ever learned how to write a beautiful sentence. And—oh—maybe more importantly, I enjoyed my genre fiction readings. I slogged through the modern “literary classics.” I stayed away from English Departments primarily so that I wouldn't get criticized for my choice of reading material, although I always took a creative writing class, just to keep my hand in.

According to his official biography, Chabon wrote his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, to fulfill his masters requirement at the University of California-Irvine. Which means that he went whole-hog into the English Lit side of the world, and willingly drank the Kool Aid.

He started as an sf and mystery reader, adored comic books, and once envisioned that he'd be a genre writer.

“As a young man, an English major, and a regular participant in undergraduate fiction-writing workshops,” he wrote, “I was taught—or perhaps in fairness it would be more accurate to say I learned—that science fiction was not serious fiction, that a writer of mystery novels might be loved but not revered, that if I meant to get serious about the art of fiction I might set a novel in Pittsburgh but never on Pluto.”

He writes about this and much more in an essay called “Imaginary Homelands.” The essay is, in a sense, about finding his way back from that attitude. He actually calls himself “lost” in that time period. Eventually he started using genre tropes to great effect: The Yiddish Policeman's Union is an alternate history novel with a mystery embedded in it. The book, while winning sf's top awards, also got nominated for mystery's top awards, and Chabon came (or sent a speech) to the various awards ceremonies, filled with respect and awe at the honors.

Contrast that with the response one sf award got years before (I like to think it was the Hugo, but it might have been the Nebula) from a well known literary writer whose work was nominated—sheer horror. And in one of the Best American Mystery volumes from several years ago, a writer wrote of his terror at being called a “mystery” writer. The horror! The horror! Genre contaminating “good” fiction.

It is because of people like Michael Chabon and Jonathon Lethem on the literary side of the equation (although I have trouble writing about Lethem that way since he got his start in sf [I bought his first-ever short story for Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine]), and writers like Peter Straub and Stephen King on the genre side of the equation that the boundaries stopped being so clear-cut. King, for example, had an English degree and was teaching high school English when he sold his first novel. He too had a love for genre, but felt a little dirty writing it, because genre was, as Chabon writes in “Imaginary Homelands,” “transgressive fiction” (as if the fiction had “transgressed” somehow—his line).

Another change happened as our generation grew older, following in the heels of the hardcore baby boomers. (Chabon and I are baby boomers by definition only—since the boom supposedly extends to birth year 1964. In actuality, it’s our older siblings [and in a few cases, our parents] who were true baby boomers.) The hardcore baby boomers weren't willing to give up their enthusiasms just because they had reached a certain age.

The rallying cry of their generation—“Don't trust anyone over thirty”—caused them an existential crisis as they passed thirty, and their answer, as a group, was to remain “young” and “hip,” and not become “squares” like their parents were.

In some ways, that worked. If you look at pictures of our parents—born in the teens and twenties—when they were forty, fifty, sixty, they looked both old and settled. If you look at baby boomers as they crossed into those ages, they looked a decade younger than their actual age, and dressed like their kids.

Which leads to another thought, also promoted by a Chabon essay in the same volume, this one titled “Kids' Stuff.” That essay, initially written as the keynote address for the 2004 Eisner Awards Ceremony (for comic books, for those of you who haven't added that particular fandom into your repertoire), discusses the decline of comic book sales, which Chabon directly attributes to the lack of comics for children.

When we were young, comics came in a variety of types—from the Disney comics for young kids to more mature comics for older kids. It was my generation in the late 80s that decided comic books needed to be relevant and challenging so that they could contend in the literary world as they rightly should.

Chabon restated his thesis in the middle of the essay like this: “To recap—Days when comics were aimed at kids: huge sales. Days when comics were aimed at adults: not so huge sales and declining.”

He wasn't arguing that comics should dumb themselves down. He was arguing that comics also needed an entry level, so that kids could start reading them again. (The essay was written in 2004. I think change is on the horizon with the tablet notebooks—particularly the iPad, which will allow comic creators to appeal to a broad range of audience without needing the backing of a major comic publisher.)

His premise got me thinking, not just about comics and kids, or books and kids, but about indoctrination in general. Back when we were all told that literary fiction was good fiction and genre fiction was bad fiction, we were also told that comic books would rot our brains and certain TV shows were bad for us. My mother, like so many other mothers, tossed out my comic books—sometimes before I finished reading them—and my father wouldn't allow that sci-fi garbage on his precious television set. My English teachers confiscated more than one romance novel from me, and I almost lost my flute teacher because she caught me reading “filth” in her house and worse, passing it along to her daughter.

Kids had a culture all their own, and it had the benefit of being somewhat forbidden. It wasn't for another thirty years that the rallying cry of “I'd rather have them read [insert your favorite genre here] than nothing at all” became common. Back when we were growing up, what we read or saw could warp us for life.

The adults were right about that. My poor father, before he died, read sf because his daughter wrote it. As adults, my generation and the older baby boomers, clung to our comic books and our genre TV shows, our favorite novels and our own personal superheroes. Except for a small subset of us (most in ivory towers), we stopped judging fiction as “transgressive” and started enjoying all forms of storytelling.

But I got to wondering—what did that leave our kids? And their kids? Did they have something that was just theirs, that was “filth” or “forbidden”? I asked on Twitter. No one had an answer. I asked on Facebook. Again, no answer. I asked friends of all ages. No answer—except for one timid “manga?” from an adult. The next day, I read that manga was considered passé by most high school students. (I have no idea if that's true.)

I'm not sure if it's an important loss to have these segregated boundaries. I'm inclined to say it isn't a loss at all. After all, I read YA and middle grade books with the same enjoyment as any adult novel, genre or not. I'm looking forward to getting web comics on my iPad (which I'll get any day now). I like being able to talk to someone not yet twenty about common interests—whether it's a novel, a movie, or a game.

I also know that I'm thrilled to see genre boundaries break. Romance fiction now explores science fictional ideas. Back when I wrote my first novel, I chose sf/f because romance wouldn't consider anything set in a made-up world. Mainstream novels like Cormac McCarthy's The Road get discussed seriously, even though it's a post-apocalypse story. Kids' books, like Neil Gaiman's brilliant The Graveyard Book, gets rewarded by the Newberry Committee as serious literature, even though the novel is horrific, set in a graveyard, and is filled with ghosts.

It's a better world than the one I grew up in, but it's a very different world. And some of us, raised in the old world but struggling to survive in the new, carry those trained boundaries within us. I'm glad that writers like Chabon have learned to break the shackles of literary expectation. I'm convinced that in a few years, those shackles will simply be a memory.

But I am curious about that lost private world of childhood. It was a shared world when we were growing up—trading comic books, passing forbidden novels around the lunchroom at school. I just don't know if that's an important formative experience—or if it's one we can all do without.

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