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Author Topic: Why Isn't Science Fiction Considered Literuature?
Orincoro
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quote:
Originally posted by FlyingCow:
[QUOTE]

Go read 1984. Read Brave New World. Read Farenheit 451. Read some Octavia Butler. There are very heavy themes in these books that discuss the human condition, from politics and sociology down to gender and basic human development.

Your arguing both sides here: That you want books to be all fun and magic and lovely, and you want gritty valid themes. 1984 and F451 aren't exactly fun and games, and they really don't belong in some umbrella of "sci-fi" along with all the other stuff that people try to shoe-horn in, as if it were just as good.


btw- your arguing against pretentious literature, which is fine, but that is not an adequate description of anything that is not sci-fi. Any writer can be pretentios, and in fact most writers can't resist the urge. [Wink]

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His Savageness
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Orincoro-

I've read a couple of different threads now in which you make a point of stating that you've "studied English literature for 7 to 8 years" and so forth. You'd think somewhere in all that study you'd have learned how to properly contract "it's" and the difference between "your" and "you're."

Not that your bad grammar invalidates any of your arguments. However, it is somewhat akin to someone who claims to be a celebrated physicist constantly mixing up Centigrade and Kelvin in an argument - it weakens her position as a subject matter expert.

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Orincoro
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"Not that your bad grammar invalidates any of your arguments"

Not that your rudeness makes me want to listen to your pointless attack....


But I haven't studied English for 7 or 8 years, its been 3 (at college level anayway), and I was talking about the teachers I know, not myself. Never in this thread or any other have I said that, because it isn't true; I am talking about people I know, have met, and admire for the most part (although not always). If I mistyped, I apologize, however I think you misread. [Smile]

Ps. I've always been lazy with grammar. It doesn't bother me particularly. Have you always been bad at reading comprehension? Does it bother you?

edit: As to my pretentiousness, I really don't know what to say... You've taken the time here to be nasty to me and all I can think is that you've followed a few of my threads and never picked up on my sense of humor, or my exaggeratedly cavalier attitude toward many subjects (which might tell you something about how seriously I take myself here). Well, that's life. [Wave]

P.P.S. If I say something like "if you had studied English for 7 or 8 years, I think you'd get into some pretty obstruse stuff too," that says nothing about me. It says what it says, and the people I'm talking about are hypothetical, they aren't me. They COULD be me, but they aren't in this case. We are allowed to talk about people besides ourselves. [Wink]

[ April 28, 2006, 11:38 PM: Message edited by: Orincoro ]

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Tresopax
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quote:
Not that your bad grammar invalidates any of your arguments. However, it is somewhat akin to someone who claims to be a celebrated physicist constantly mixing up Centigrade and Kelvin in an argument - it weakens her position as a subject matter expert.
This would be true if the debate was about grammar. But I'm not sure why being an expert on literature should imply you are also an expert on grammar.
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His Savageness
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quote:
But I haven't studied English for 7 or 8 years, its been 3 (at college level anayway), and I was talking about the teachers I know, not myself. Never in this thread or any other have I said that, because it isn't true; I am talking about people I know, have met, and admire for the most part (although not always). If I mistyped, I apologize, however I think you misread.
I'm sorry. I read this line from you:

quote:
This from one who has studied Shakespeare in London, in classes with a published and well known biographer. Your wrong.
and coupled with this line:

quote:
If you read English for 7 or 8 years to get your degree, you'd inevitably be drawn to more difficult literature, this is a natural part of specialized education, not a conspiracy.
and this line:

quote:
I say again, spend 8 years studying for a phd and you'll get into some things no-one has ever heard of before.
I naturally thought you were talking about yourself. I found your grammar at odds with what I interpreted as a claim that you were an expert in English literature. Since you apparently aren't an expert, I guess the point of contention is moot.
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Orincoro
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Yes it is.
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FlyingCow
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quote:
Your arguing both sides here: That you want books to be all fun and magic and lovely, and you want gritty valid themes.
I want books to be enjoyable. Many of these enjoyable books have gritty valid themes. Many don't. A book's enjoyability does stem directly from its gritty validity, nor does gritty validity make a book enjoyable. I'm not sure what prompted you to contrast the two points above in such a way as to make them mutually exclusionary.

They're not.

quote:
1984 and F451 aren't exactly fun and games, and they really don't belong in some umbrella of "sci-fi" along with all the other stuff that people try to shoe-horn in, as if it were just as good.

1984 and F451 are speculative/science fiction, and I'm nto sure what you mean by "all the other stuff that people try to shoe-horn in, as if it were just as good."

1984 takes the world of the 1940's and extrapoloates it 40 years into the future, adding in an oppressive government with electronic surveillance on all citizens at all times. F451 also extrapolates the real world forward into a world with new interactive television technologies and an oppressive government that tries to eliminate literacy.

I'm not sure why you think the books aren't fun, either, unless that is again referring to some idea that "fun" and "gritty validity" can't coexist between two covers.

I'm not sure why you have such a bone to pick on this topic.

quote:
Academic communities have a perfectly rational aversion to crappy literature. There happens to be ALOT of bad sci-fi, so it may seem like sci-fi gets written off. But if you assume, as I do, that every really valuable book is transcendent of an genre, then you begin to understand my point.
Whether or not 1984 is a great work of literature or just a really interesting story, it is still speculative/science fiction, falling well within the parameters of the genre. You can say "who cares what genre it's in!" or "Genres aren't important!" all you want. It still falls into the genre.

Is your point that genres must be dissolved entirely and never spoken about? Or that they should only be used to describe bad writing? I'm not sure. But you sure seem passionate about the topic.

My involvement in this entire topic is the following:
- there are books within the science fiction genre that are recognized as being worthwhile literature.
- fantasy has lagged behind science fiction, as a genre, in terms of respectibility
- the fantasy genre isn't as well defined as the science fiction genre.
- some people (like OSC) feel the label "literature" is overrated, and enjoyability is paramount
- without becoming accepted as having literary worth, books will not be included as part of any curriculum, thus the label of "literature" has some import
- science fiction books are not devoid of deeper themes as a rule, and their themes are not lesser than books outside the genre as a rule
- "fun" and "literary worth" are not mutually exclusive

I'm not sure which of those points prompted such a heated response.

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Orincoro
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Its not heated, I just really get tired of people in general, not you obviously, trying to make some vague point like "sci-fi is under-rated," when the statement is based on nothing but a personal sense of injustice. I guess I sympathize though, because we all have our pet artist or work that nobody else seems to like.

It these stupid and obviously wrong assertions that people make about the "literati" and the "common man" and all that garbage that gets me really pissed. I wish people wouldn't insist on these base assumptions about the motivations of artists and readers and academics, assumptions so lacking in insight as to be laughable to me. I would laugh if I wasn't busy yelling at people for having such stupid thoughts, and that's my own problem really.

The sick thing I think is that people have begun to believe that if you say a thing, it becomes partly true. This is something I used to do as a child, as many kids do, I would wildly exaggerate stories and tell my parents all kinds of invented things about my life and school and my day. It was interesting to guage their reactions to my inventions, and how I could manipulate the story afterwards and change things. I didn't know that was lying, I was just experimenting with reality.

My point is that I think alot of people don't learn that lesson, and continue on in the belief that if a thing is said or heard, it must somehow have merit. Thus if one is a fan of OSC, and he spouts some absolutely ridiculous garbage about the "academic establishment," as he often does, it's possible one would choose not to question those ideas, based on where they come from. Why his statements seem more credible? Certainly its for the same reason that some people believe there is an elite class which forces upon us literature we don't want, people have a certain over-devotion to symbols and trappings of success and power. The irony is that OSC uses that to blast people who are in a different political camp, as if he isn't bullying the supposed bullies.

I recognize my need to categorize and control things, but I fear that this need exists in everyone, and that I have an insight which others do not have. Nothing I've ever observed of people in groups or individually has ever led me to believe that I have some exceptional need for undeserved power; in fact I think I have less of a need than many. That frankly scares me.

I've often found that though sci-fi fans (and I am one) claim to be free-thinkers or enlightened souls, they have very much that same drive to oppress which is common in all communities. Whether overt and agressive, or passive, this instinct and this dynamic doesn't escape anyone.

Still, people see conspiracies in all the wrong places, often inventing them in order to, I don't know, justify a world in which sci-fi isn't taken seriously. Here's an easy solution: sci-fi isn't taken seriously because people don't take it seriously. Crazy I know, but somehow I've always imagined sci-fi writers as being a part of the world they sell their books to (and maybe THEY aren't taking YOU seriously). Maybe its not a conspiracy, maybe good literature is just good, and we don't know why! Hey, I'm an English student too, I'm one of those people who still think Heart of Darkness is worth reading, so I guess I can't be trusted?

This need I see, by some, to blame the "man" for some percieved injustice (as if sci-fi isn't a HUGE section in every bookstore), well it frustrates me. It makes me wonder how other people see the world, and if we could all really see things so very differently. Maybe we can, I don't know.

"I'm not sure why you think the books aren't fun, either, unless that is again referring to some idea that "fun" and "gritty validity" can't coexist between two covers." I actually do think they are interesting and engaging, but I was using the word 'fun,' while imagining a cartoon bunny hopping on four legs across a cycling backdrop to the stock outtakes from the William Tell Overture. Forgive me this slight pretense [Wink]

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Alcon
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quote:
Not that your rudeness makes me want to listen to your pointless attack..
His rudeness?! Kid, you'd better reread your own damn posts a little more thoroughly.
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FlyingCow
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Okay, I see your point a little more clearly, though forgive me if I pick at it a little more. [Smile]

quote:
This need I see, by some, to blame the "man" for some percieved injustice
I don't think there's some "man" or organized entity that is "keeping SF down". You're right in that people not taking SF seriously is partly just because they don't take it seriously.

There is also, however a stigma against science fiction that its authors and fans have fought against for a while. Some authors and fans reject the term "sci-fi" entirely, as it was created as a "look down upon" term linked with "hi-fi". They prefer SF, which I tend to use, when they need an abbreviation.

It's a small thing, but perceptions can be meaningful.

Some people may turn away from a great book like Dawn, by Octavia Butler, or Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein - simply because they are "sci-fi". They would prefer to read some contemporary garbage like The DaVinci Code or something, because of some prejudice against the genre and everything associated with it.

The efforts in this arena have yielded meager results, but even meager results has afforded SF more respectability in the literary world than its cousin Fantasy, which is still scrambling for some sort of literary legitimacy (read: the uproar over a World Fantasy Award going to a comic book short story in 1991).

Fantasy has taken more abuse, often because of its nebulous definition. People don't normally consider The Odyssey or Beowulf or Le Morte D'Arthur as Fantasy in its more commonly accepted definition - instead looking at Dungeons and Dragons books as the norm.

An example of fantasy's lack of respect came across loud and clear when the New York Times dropped the Harry Potter books from their bestseller list to a newly created "children's bestseller" list - even though (children's or not) they were outselling everything in the market. This essentially compromised the whole idea of a "best seller" list, really, as it became the "best selling books that aren't in a particular genre".

(They then went further to break up the children's list into Harcover, Paperback, and Picture books - which ran on alternate weeks, thus having three of the four (at the time) bestselling books in the country appear only one out of every three weeks.

Is there a vast conspiracy against SF and Fantasy (and other genres)? I don't think so, but there is certainly prejudice, and a lot of that prejudice comes out of institutions of higher learning.

During my four years studying English, there was a healthy contempt among English majors I knew (many grad students) towards "pop literature", science fiction, romance, fantasy, westerns included. If a book was a bestseller, it had to be garbage, because too many people were reading it for it to be any good. "What do the people know, anyway? They're idiots."

That attitude is more prevalent than it should be among those who are considered to be "highly educated" - a disdain for the masses. I can't say I am immune to it (especially when you look at my opinions on beer, heh). While I too feel in a way that "95% of everything is crap" - just because something is a certain genre (or just because something is popular), doesn't necessarily make it crap out of hand.

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Dav
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quote:
Originally posted by Orincoro:
quote:
Originally posted by Dav:

That accessibility makes it less appealing to those English teachers who think literature must be obscure, difficult, experimental, etc. to be worth reading. If ordinary readers can make sense of it and analyze it by themselves, what's an English professor to do? [Smile]

I agree with your overall point Dav, but this little snipe is petty and pointless. I'm not an English prof, but none I've ever met has given me the impression that this was even close to accurate.

Such persons exist, or at least used to.

When I was in college many many years ago, out of curiousity I tried reading some essays written by literature professors, analyzing science fiction and fantasy works that I had enjoyed. The majority of them pretty much trashed the works, with what seemed like the attitude that I described. Only a minority would like or dislike the works with what seemed to me a reasonable attitude. Some of those even had some interesting insights.

Maybe I was randomly coming across a more negative subset of analyses. But my (perhaps pedantic) point is that such people do (or did) exist.

In the context of my original post, my next sentences were:
quote:

Of course there are expections to this. There are plenty of English professors who love well told stories even if they're easy to read, and plenty of science fiction writers who play games with their style to be more "deep".

I have nothing personal against any literature professor anywhere in the world. Probably the majority of them are nice people. However it does seem like what is most valued in literature by most literature professors is sharply at odds with what I value. Which is ok in itself, but the consequence is that it makes most literature classes and analysis utterly irrelevant to me and a lot of other readers.

It also makes readers like me utterly irrelevant to such professors. Which is also ok.

Fortunately I was a physics major, and only had to take two nonelective literature classes. They were taught by decent people who sometimes had very interesting stuff to say, but who I felt emphasized way too much irrelevant stuff. It didn't inspire me to explore the English department's other offerings.

(I did take two elective courses on science fiction, by a professor who liked science fiction. But the university did not let those count those towards the literature credits, alas.)

PS: One more thing I want to say ... I personally don't care much whether science fiction & fantasy are generally liked or understood by universities etc. If you find something you like, and a community of fellow beings who also like it, who cares if the "establishment" gets it?

[ April 29, 2006, 09:58 AM: Message edited by: Dav ]

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Palliard
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I remember an old story, and I can't find a cite for it so it may be apocryphal, about why English teachers avoid science fiction writers, or indeed any living writers. And the story goes like this:

This English professor had his students write an essay analyzing Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", which is a perfectly valid exercise until you try to sort out correct vs. incorrect analyses. One of the students shot a missive to Harlan asking if he would like to attend the follow-up lecture, and Harlan, never missing an opportunity to be a PITA, and being nearby at the time, showed up.

So, he was loitering around in the back of the lecture hall while the English professor was deconstructing his story, discussing the symbolism of various facets of it and so forth. Well, about twenty minutes into that, Harlan waved at him, and said something along the lines of, "I wrote that story, and you, sir, are full of bullshit."

He then proceeded to get all Harlan Ellisony on him (which Harlan is pretty good at), explaining how he'd totally misinterpreted the canned food and completely missed the fact that Ellen was black, and so forth and so on.

There are several lessons to carry away from that tale. (1) English professors like to see meaning in writing, because analyzing writing for hidden meanings is what they do. (2) They're quite frequently wrong, because what they saw wasn't what the writer intended. Therefore (3) it's safer to pick on writers who are either dead or think the suggestion that they meant something by some trivial detail is flattering. It also helps if the writing in question is uncomplicated (i.e. boring) or overcomplicated (i.e., obfuscated and boring).

So, your classics of literature, as selected by English professors, are boring and by people who can't argue with their analyses owing to their being dead. Q.E.D.

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Orincoro
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quote:
Originally posted by Alcon:
quote:
Not that your rudeness makes me want to listen to your pointless attack..
His rudeness?! Kid, you'd better reread your own damn posts a little more thoroughly.
The pot. The kettle. Both Black. Please don't condescend to me, I'm not your kid. [Smile]
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Orincoro
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quote:
Originally posted by Palliard:

Harlan waved at him, and said something along the lines of, "I wrote that story, and you, sir, are full of bullshit."

So, your classics of literature, as selected by English professors, are boring and by people who can't argue with their analyses owing to their being dead. Q.E.D.

This is an inspiring story? What a horrible thing for Ellison to do to someone. The proff could easily have been wrong, but to castrate him or her in front of the students like that? That's really harsh.

I can see where your coming from when you say that English profs pick and choose according to an unusual set of rules. I think that's very true, and whether what they pick will have more merit than anything else out there is anybody's guess. I would bet though, that the factors involved in the material choices for a proff are way more complex than simply: "I'll pick something difficult and obstruse, Muahahaha."

First, an English prof can only be as right as anyone can be. The author can easily say he or she is wrong, even if the prof does in fact have a number of good points about the work. A poetry teacher I had a few years ago, who is also a published writer, told me that he is very careful when dealing with others' anaylsis of his work. He believes that once a thing is written, its interpretation may not be as the author intended; and what control the author has over that is in the creative process, not afterward.

We surely need people in our society to spend their lives focusing on specific things. In fact I think we need people to focus on things that we wouldn't want to look at. If every English major did his thesis on Dan Brown, the study of English would suffer, even if everybody enjoyed it. I think Dav, even your discerning taste extolls the qualities of one set of books, and condemns another on no more solid ground than this. You dispise a book which is popular, maybe because you sense that it was written TO BE popular. Such books leave me empty as well, there is no depth to them, only some minor reward which makes the reader feel smarter than he or she really is.

Pop books are like popular movies in that way, its all positive rewards with no work involved, and for me anyway, that's never enough.

Well, are many of the so called academics out there really just forming their own members only club in the field of abstract literature. Yes, but that doesn't say anything about the study of English that isn't true of anything else in life. For me, it is the least important motivation for study, and its the easiest one to claim when you don't like what a teacher has to say, or what a teacher thinks is important.

Perspective is incredibly difficult to attain. Douglas Adams said that he owed all his sucess as a popular writer to being able to achieve the perspective of his audience, and place himself in their shoes, knowing what they know. This has got to be incredibly difficult to pull off.

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TomDavidson
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quote:

Well, are many of the so called academics out there really just forming their own members only club in the field of abstract literature. Yes, but that doesn't say anything about the study of English that isn't true of anything else in life.

I'm not sure that anyone here is saying that. You're arguing against a point they aren't making.

What they're saying is that many so-called academics are really just forming their own members-only club in the field of abstract literature.

And you just agreed with them.

Bow in defeat, and move on.

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Orincoro
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quote:
Originally posted by TomDavidson:
[QUOTE]
And you just agreed with them.

Bow in defeat, and move on.

Tom, my point is that I am not particularly interested in a group that does this. What I am interested in pointing out is that I think the motiviation behind behavior like this has nothing ot do with a conscious effort. I respect your opinion, but I don't appreciate this kind of comment, you don't have a right to tell me what I am and am not thinking. Nor do I appreciate you trying to shut down a dialogue you haven't been a big part of, that doesn't really feel right to me.
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erosomniac
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quote:
Tom, my point is that I am not particularly interested in a group that does this. What I am interested in pointing out is that I think the motiviation behind behavior like this has nothing ot do with a conscious effort. I respect your opinion, but I don't appreciate this kind of comment, you don't have a right to tell me what I am and am not thinking. Nor do I appreciate you trying to shut down a dialogue you haven't been a big part of, that doesn't really feel right to me.
Orincoro, seriously - do you read what you write?

This isn't an attempt at a jab, your train of thought makes leaps and bounds and you turn around and deny having said things you've said only a few posts before. It's really confusing and, more importantly, it discredits anything resembling an argument you're trying to make.

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Orincoro
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There is a big difference between acknowledging an argument made by another and incorporating it into your clarification of the point, and changing your mind. I wrote that I don't think there is a conspiracy to create some "academic only club," then I clarified to say that yes, I think such clubs exist, however they are not created intentionally. My point was obviously that these cliques evolve organically and are not part of a conspiracy. I'll also concede that if such a club does exist, and that club was created intentionally, then I find its members to be not worth talking about, so I exclude them from my view of the issue.

I often assume that you will give me the benefit of the doubt when I say that I am not changing my mind, but instead looking at the issue from another angle. When I do this, I don't warn you that I am going to be experimenting with a different idea. I also tend not to go back and read what I wrote a few days ago, because I think that would result in my saying exactly the same thing over and over again. While exploring new viewpoints or new possibilites looks like defeat to some, it doesn't feel that way to me. Tom seems to think that I am competing for some prize, but I am simply talking about something that interests me. I don't care who "wins" I don't intend to "bow in defeat," nor swallow such condescension from him.

Every time I write something, my viewpoint changes, and magically my opinions don't stay consistent given that I am listening and reacting to people who sometimes have better points than I do. I am not afraid to look at an issue from both sides; sometimes I stay fairly adament, and sometimes I rethink things. If we all just wrote at eachother without evolving our ideas, then this would be a boring place. It isn't though, thankfully.


"deny having said things you've said only a few posts before"

That's easily explained: I write "I don't like chickens."

Someone responds: "You said earlier that wish all chickens were dead."

I respond "I never said that"

Someone responds: "That's the way I read it"

I respond: ".... What do expect from me?"

You read this as: "he's denying that he said he doesn't like chickens!!!"

That's what I feel happens 98 percent of the time I deny having said something. Its when others reinterpret my words, wrongly, that I deny them. There is of course the off chance that I did a poor job of expressing myself, and that happens too; nevertheless, I mean what I mean, and I'll never deny having said something I believe in, or did believe in.

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Palliard
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quote:
This is an inspiring story?
I doubt it, unless you aspire to be like Harlan Ellison.

quote:
What a horrible thing for Ellison to do to someone.
... yeah... you should meet Ellison some time. "Suffering fools gladly" falls in his Bottom Five list of stuffs to do. I think of him as the Lewis Black of Science Fiction.

I also hate his guts, but that's personal relating to a specific incident.

quote:
Douglas Adams said that he owed all his sucess as a popular writer to being able to achieve the perspective of his audience, and place himself in their shoes, knowing what they know. This has got to be incredibly difficult to pull off.
Uhm.... why?

I'll grant you, it seems people have trouble doing that, but I don't see why it HAS to be hard. It's very easy for me to put myself in my shoes. [Big Grin] I don't see why that should stymie people.

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TomDavidson
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quote:
I wrote that I don't think there is a conspiracy to create some "academic only club," then I clarified to say that yes, I think such clubs exist, however they are not created intentionally. My point was obviously that these cliques evolve organically and are not part of a conspiracy. I'll also concede that if such a club does exist, and that club was created intentionally, then I find its members to be not worth talking about, so I exclude them from my view of the issue.
Let me paraphrase for you, as you've done above:

Someone: "I dislike groups that do X."
You: "Groups that do X exist, but these groups arise only accidentally. Anyone that would deliberately form a group that does X is beneath my notice, and therefore doesn't count."

Me: "Why should anyone care whether groups that do X arise deliberately or organically? They're no less harmful for being less sinister."

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Orincoro
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Yah, their no less harmful, but they have to be considered differently. Telling people: HEY! STOP THAT! Doesn't really do much good if they can't help it, or if the culture encourages them to do it.

Of course people who do this deliberately count, I shouldn't have implied that they don't count, but simply that personally, I try to ignore them. Also a group that deliberately establishes itself as "elite" is IMO bound to be inferior in intelligence to groups that become elite organically. I can't prove that, but that's what my thought was.

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rivka
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quote:
Originally posted by Palliard:
quote:
What a horrible thing for Ellison to do to someone.
... yeah... you should meet Ellison some time. "Suffering fools gladly" falls in his Bottom Five list of stuffs to do.
Wait, he's still alive? I had assumed for years that anyone that full of bile must have shriveled away ages ago.
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FlyingCow
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Ellison gave a lecture at Princeton about six years ago when I was at Rutgers, and a friend of mine went. He apprently closed the lecture with something along the lines of "if I've managed NOT to offend your race, class, gender, religion, culture, ethnic background, lifestyle choice, or other sensibilities, please come speak with me and I will be sure to rectify that error."
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DPerry
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quote:
Originally posted by Palliard:
Harlan waved at him, and said something along the lines of, "I wrote that story, and you, sir, are full of bullshit."

The worst thing about this is the supposition that Ellison's opinion of the symbolism, or lack thereof, in his story is any more valid than the professor's.
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erosomniac
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quote:
The worst thing about this is the supposition that Ellison's opinion of the symbolism, or lack thereof, in his story is any more valid than the professor's.
Assuming the professor was interpretting symbolism and not Ellison's meaning, you have a good point.
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DPerry
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quote:

Assuming the professor was interpretting symbolism and not Ellison's meaning, you have a good point.

According to the original post,
quote:
So, he was loitering around in the back of the lecture hall while the English professor was deconstructing his story, discussing the symbolism of various facets of it and so forth.
The professor's interpretation, as long as he can support it from the text, is just as valid as Ellison's. In fact, moreso in this case, since Ellison is appealing to the author rather than the text.
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Orincoro
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Well the Proff's arguments should have given Ellison something to think about too... unless they were REALLY stupid.

This is akin to a friend asking you to read a few lines of poetry; you read it and tell them what you think it means, and they round on you by saying your wrong, because I WROTE IT! Hello? Maybe your not being as clear as you think?

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TomDavidson
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quote:
The professor's interpretation, as long as he can support it from the text, is just as valid as Ellison's. In fact, moreso in this case, since Ellison is appealing to the author rather than the text.
I'm actually amused that we have people here suggesting that third-party interpretation of symbolism trumps authorial intent. [Smile]
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rivka
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Why shouldn't it? Conscious authorial intent, anyway? And I wouldn't want to have to defend a claim that Harlan Ellison is one of the most self-aware people.
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DPerry
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quote:
Originally posted by TomDavidson:
I'm actually amused that we have people here suggesting that third-party interpretation of symbolism trumps authorial intent. [Smile]

Wow. I hope you're joking. Authorial intent is complete bunk. Once the author puts it out there, it's everyone's. Just because the author didn't intend it or can't see it doesn't mean it's not there.

For example: Here's a little story I wrote about how much I enjoy eating finger paints.

Once upon a time, a little boy lost his dog. He looked and looked for the dog, but he just couldn't find him. He walked miles away from home to find the dog, but never did. He went home, sad and lonely without his dog. The end.

[ April 30, 2006, 10:24 PM: Message edited by: DPerry ]

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Orincoro
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quote:
Originally posted by TomDavidson:
quote:
The professor's interpretation, as long as he can support it from the text, is just as valid as Ellison's. In fact, moreso in this case, since Ellison is appealing to the author rather than the text.
I'm actually amused that we have people here suggesting that third-party interpretation of symbolism trumps authorial intent. [Smile]
If an author writes something which can be interpreted in so many varying ways, then is it not his intent to be ambiguous? Failing that, is it not valid when another person interprets the work in a reasonable way, which disagrees with the author?

I'm afraid there can be no analysis of any living author, ever, if that author has the right to say that the analysis is categorically wrong. In that scenario, I could write something quite difficult to interpret, and then just insist to the world that I meant "this" and not "that," and the work wouldn't have to stand on its own. A good work has a million interpretations, and though 99% of those are obviously wrong, that still leaves many which contain valid points.

There is a space in between the author knowing everything about his own work, and the author having no control over it. It's both.

If the work isn't any good however, then both the interpretation and the intent are immaterial, since the author has not effectively related anything at all. [Wink]

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TomDavidson
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quote:
Authorial intent is complete bunk. Once the author puts it out there, it's everyone's.
So says someone who's not an author. [Smile]
Seriously, this is why I dropped out of my English major; I got tired of explaining to my activist professors why it was practically impossible that Frankenstein was written from a feminist, Marxist perspective. That someone can read feminist, Marxist meanings into the book says NOTHING about the book, but says worlds about the person doing the interpretation.

And that's ultimately what I think modern literary criticism is: self-description, self-promotion designed to reveal and justify the critic's own views without actually commenting on the work itself except insofar as it has helped focus the critic's sense of self-worth.

I've had people read symbolism into my poetry in front of me. And I've had them get it wrong. And, yes, I've spoken up and said, "No, you're WRONG. That passage is indeed symbolic, but it's specifically referring to something else. My subconscious mind did NOT produce the meaning you're reading into it -- and while I can understand why you, with your latent biases, might LOOK for that meaning, I assure you that the meaning is not there and would encourage you to write your OWN work to explore that possibility." And if that person had had the gall to tell me that I was WRONG about the function of my own brain, I would have dismissed them immediately as an IDIOT.

Back in high school, I got an "A" for a paper which discussed the symbolism of the turtle interchapters in Grapes of Wrath. I noted that the turtle is blown off the road, but is knocked back onto the road by a passing car at the end. This second car hurls up a "mushroom-shaped" cloud of dust. Clearly, I said, Steinbeck was referencing the Second World War, which was instrumental in lifting America -- and its poor farmers -- out of the Great Depression. My teacher thought that was very insightful. And so did I. Until I realized a few weeks later that the book was written before the Second World War.

So was my interpretation invalid? The symbolism makes SENSE. But, yes, it's completely invalid.

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Scott R
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quote:
Seriously, this is why I dropped out of my English major; I got tired of explaining to my activist professors why it was practically impossible that Frankenstein was written from a feminist, Marxist perspective. That someone can read feminist, Marxist meanings into the book says NOTHING about the book, but says worlds about the person doing the interpretation.
Amen. Amen. Amen.

That said, I think it's okay to see some part of your own story in what is written-- for example, you, a Marxist feminist, feel strengthened by reading Frankenstein because something about the monster speaks to your soul and to your struggle against the bourgeouise patriarchs. You can even use it allegorically, by saying, "Our struggle against our repressors is like Frankenstein's struggle against the monster he himself created!"

You cannot say, "Frankenstein is a Marxist creation, and is full of feminist symbolism," especially if the author says, "No, it ain't."

[ May 01, 2006, 10:12 AM: Message edited by: Scott R ]

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TomDavidson
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quote:
That said, I think it's okay to see some part of your own story in what is written...
Oh, absolutely. But that's your story, not the story you're presumably reviewing. Modern criticism would be more honest if its essays were entitled, say, "Sarah Jensen's opinion on homosexuality as filtered through her impressions of A River Runs Through It."
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Tresopax
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quote:
That someone can read feminist, Marxist meanings into the book says NOTHING about the book, but says worlds about the person doing the interpretation.
Yes, but a book is just a book - written words on paper. There is no meaning in it until the reader interprets the story and the meaning in it. There is no story until the reader constructs it in his or her mind. And there is no reason the reader should care about whether or not his interpretation matches whatever the author intended. It is only his own interpretation that is valid for him.

This is different from certain other sorts of written works because stories are not just a form of communication between author and reader. You don't normally read a story to find out what an author thinks. Rather, a fictional story is something you are supposed to be entertained by - in an intellectual sense. You are supposed to search for your own meaning in it. What you care about is understanding and enjoying the story, and not what the author intends to be telling you.

So, what the author thinks his or her story should mean is essentially irrelevant, except to the author himself and those who are concerned with studying the author rather than the story. But if you want to understand the story, rather than the author, you need to ask the reader of the story, because the story's meaning is derived form the reader's mind. That is why "once the author puts it out there, it's everyone's."

It is also why modern criticism is slightly on the absurd side. The trouble is that it is concerned with attempting to be an authority on the right answers on the question of the meaning of a book, when the right answer is going to change from person to person. Thus there is much arguing and no firm ground to draw conclusions with - unless one confuses the meaning of a story with the meaning an author intended to put into a story. You CAN figure out what an author intended a story to mean, because there is only one answer to that question. And for that reason, modern criticism tends to mix up the two in order to draw some sort of authoritative conclusion. But that doesn't really tell you anything about the story itself or what it means; it just tells you about the author of the story.

I think it's okay to ask the question "What did the author intend?" But people should remember that this is a question about the author, and not about the book. The true, valid meaning of a story is only whatever the reader interprets it to be. And if you want to know what The One Correct Interpretation For All Readers is, then your goal is impossible - because the story is literally different for each reader. There exists no story that is present the same in every reader's mind.

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Scott R
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quote:
The true, valid meaning of a story is only whatever the reader interprets it to be.
The reader is often wrong...
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Tresopax
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How?

I took a class in college in which we read Ender's Game. The professor said the Hive Queen could see the future. That's not how I interpreted it, and I'm pretty sure that's not what OSC intended to say, but my professor read it that way. In his mind, that's how the story went. And since the story he's talking about only exists in his mind, he wasn't wrong - unless he was trying to say his interpretation was also what OSC intended, or unless he was trying to tell me how I interpret it.

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TomDavidson
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quote:
But if you want to understand the story, rather than the author, you need to ask the reader of the story, because the story's meaning is derived form the reader's mind.
Hm. I dispute this, actually. The professor in your example, for example, was definitively wrong.
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Tresopax
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Why?
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TomDavidson
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Because no one enrolls in a college class on criticism to learn what a professor's personal version of a story might be. They enroll to learn the mechanics and the tools that make interpretation possible.

While the professor's personal misinterpretation of a sentence or two might make for amusing cocktail conversation, it's not an educational tool except in the broadest sense of the term.

When I write a story, it's not the reader's story. It's my story. The readers can bring what they want to it -- but if they imagine or incorrectly remember that somewhere at the halfway point an entire troop of Soviet soldiers appear to pillage a halfling village set in downtown New York, despite the fact that it never happened in the book, and conclude from this that the entire book is an implicit and subtle criticism of swiss cheese, they're wrong and should be corrected, not encouraged to run with and celebrate their errors.

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Tresopax
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It wasn't a college class on criticism. It was, interestly enough, an anthropology course. But that's beside the point, because the question is not whether or not the professor was wasting class time by "teaching" us this.

quote:
When I write a story, it's not the reader's story. It's my story.
And when I read a story, it's not the author's story. It's my story.

This is because the story you write and the story I read are not the same. They could differ considerably, in fact. The thing that connects them is a book, which is words on paper, but not really a story. A story is the characters, ideas, and plot those words invoke - and they could easily invoke different things to me than they do to you. You own the story in your mind, as you own all things in your mind. But I own the story in my mind, as I own all things in my mind. There is no story that exists in both our minds, and there is no story that exists independent of our minds.

This is an issue for all written communication, but as I said earlier, I think fiction differs because it is not about communication between an author and a reader, like an email or an essay might be. It is communication between the reader and himself, facilitated by the author's words. The goal is to read, enjoy, and take your own meaning from a story you read. The goal is not to align your interpretation with the authors in order to find out what the author is telling you.

(Sidenote: Unless the reason you are reading is really just to find out what a particular author thinks about something - but I think that is a fairly boring reason to read, personally. This is part of why I think English classes don't succeed in teaching people to love reading. By asking students to find the author's intended purpose in a book, teachers are expressing that the reason you read a book is to find out what the author is telling you. For most young readers, what the author wants to tell us is fairly irrelevant to their lives. After all, what does Shakespeare know? What does OSC know, for that matter? The English teacher may care about what the author thinks, but I suspect most students don't. Hence, if you teach them that reading is about finding out what an author is saying, reading is going to be boring for those students. Instead, teachers should impress the idea upon students that they are reading to find their own value in stories. This makes a "critical" approach to stories more difficult, since you can't really criticize something when your interpretation of it applies only to you, but it makes reading much more enjoyable. I think, possibly, schools make the mistake of training students to approach stories as effective writers instead of effective readers - which are really somewhat different things.)

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erosomniac
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This is far and away the most interesting discussion I've seen in months.
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Scott R
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Tresopax, are you willing to set bounds on your ideas? Meaning, that if your professor were to say, "The Hive Queen was really Valentine, literally," you would then feel justified in saying, "No, she really wasn't."
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Tresopax
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No, I think there's no real boundry, although I think that at some point the story as you conceive it begins to break away that connection to the words and paper of the book. If your interpretation of Ender's Game is that Ender says "the enemy's gate is up" when the written words say otherwise, then you have really broken the link from author to book to reader's interpretation, and instead are spinning it off into something different.

That's not to say such a story would be invalid or false. But it does increasingly impact your ability to talk about it with other people. My view is that two readers who read the same book come up with separate stories in their minds. Obviously people can talk about a story though, and that sort of conversation relies on the idea that the stories each has come up with are extremely similar. But the more your interpretation differs from what everyone else sees in a book, the less you can talk about that book and still be talking about, more or less, the same thing. If my professor were to say the Hive Queen literally was Valentine, I would say he might be right about whatever story he is thinking up, but his comment has no bearing on Ender's Game as I read it because it is so different from my interpretation. In contrast, when my professor said the Hive Queen could see the future, it was different from how I interpretted it, but not so different that I couldn't imagine how it could be true in the story as I conceived it. The closer two interpretations are, the more the two of you can meaningfully talk about them.

But I do think arguments over which is right are not productive. If he read EG as saying the Hive Queen was Valentine, so be it. The only thing that means for me is that I'm going to have a real hard time having any sort of meaningful discussion about the book with him. We'd be talking about two very different things.

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Scott R
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Tresopax is a literary subjectivist-- "No one's wrong, as long as you don't force your literary snobbishness on me!"

[Smile]

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Tresopax
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I just thought of an analogy: I think that a book (the words) is like a tool that the author gives the reader, so that the reader can produce the desired story in his mind. It is similar to how a star-shaped cookie-cutter allows cooks to make the desired star cookie. And different cooks might use the same cookie-cutter to make different cookies, if they use different other ingredients, etc. Presumably each would still come out more or less shaped like a star, and thus could all be considered star cookies. But what if someone used a star-shaped cookie-cutter to make a snowman-shaped cookie? I wouldn't say their cookie is wrong or invalid as a cookie. I would just guess that the shape of their cookie came more from them than from the cookie-cutter they were given. And I would have difficulty calling it a star cookie in the same way all those other cookies were star cookies. Similarly, if someone's interpretation of Ender's Game different so greatly from the words that supposedly mold that interpretation, I'd have more difficulty considering that Ender's Game to be like the Ender's Game that I know and love.

And now I am hungry...

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Orincoro
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quote:
Originally posted by TomDavidson:
[QUOTE]
I've had people read symbolism into my poetry in front of me. And I've had them get it wrong. And, yes, I've spoken up and said, "No, you're WRONG. That passage is indeed symbolic, but it's specifically referring to something else. My subconscious mind did NOT produce the meaning you're reading into it -- and while I can understand why you, with your latent biases, might LOOK for that meaning, I assure you that the meaning is not there and would encourage you to write your OWN work to explore that possibility." And if that person had had the gall to tell me that I was WRONG about the function of my own brain, I would have dismissed them immediately as an IDIOT.

I would suggest you get off your high author horse and realize that if so many people are wrong about your poetry, then maybe it isn't as good or as clear as you think it is...

This is what gets me about this argument Tom, its like music in that way. Either you wrote something which has meaning only predicated by you, like a math problem with a single solution, or as many solutions as you intended, or you wrote something which is completely open to later reinterpretation.

In the first case, if the poem is a math puzzle, then it is worthless as art because it is limited to your perspective, and only makes sense to you. You can explain it to people, and it will make a kind of sense, but it will be worthless as art. In the second case, you are completely without power to control the perception of your reader and your work is open completely to interpretation, therefore because it includes all possible meanings, it is meaningless.

My solution is a third option. You intented a meaning in your poetry, and either you successfully related that meaning, or you didn't.

Either way, there is a law at work here as Douglas Adams put it "The law of Unintended Consequences."

The law of Uninetended Consequences guarantees that you did something in your work which causes it to be interpreted in a way you did not expect. not all interpretations are valid; a valid interpretation must be based on the text and not the will of the reader to impose meaning. However there is a vast range of reasonable interpretations which any reasonable person could come to regarding your text.

The idea that you are final authority in regards to these unintended consequences would render your work meaningless to me, because I wouldn't feel that you actually cared about writing well or interestingly. Your clear, precise and definitive explanation of your idea would be enough, indeed more than enough to explain your point, and the poetry would not be needed.

What do you do poetry for? Why don't you just write essays? Why don't you just go around yelling at people? Its certainly as direct as you'd seem to like to be.

edit: This above lends no support to Tresofax's own IMO silly ideas about what literature does. I still believe very strongly in guaging the intent of the author, however I don't believe the ownership of interpretation to be ironclad, as Tom does.

Further edit: In regards to intent however I agree with you Tom. The idea that you really didn't know what you were doing when you wrote a poem is bunk. If you deny however, that reasonable interpretations based on your work (and not assuming they were the original "secret" intent) aren't valid, then I will have to call shenanigans on you. [Wink]

[ May 01, 2006, 04:14 PM: Message edited by: Orincoro ]

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Zalmoxis
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quote:
Originally posted by Palliard:
(2) They're quite frequently wrong, because what they saw wasn't what the writer intended.

Nonsense.

Harlan doesn't have the last word on what a story means -- even a story he has written. Of course, neither do literature professors.

If anything, both writers and professors are too removed from their readers. This is not to advocate the so-called reader response movement, which tended to cut out formal analysis and authorial intention to the extreme.

Rather, I'd suggest that stories mean something beyond what the author intends and what the text *is* (and how the work is published and marketed). This is meaning that is difficult to get at, but it seems to me that there should be room.

As a sidenote tothe larger question:

I find it highly ironic (and in some place hypocriticaly) that 'literary' authors of the past, say, three decades have increasingly turned to the modes and conventions of speculative fiction in their works -- and have generally been applauded for it. Philip Roth's alternate history _The Plot Against America_ is one example of this trend. It's a very good novel. But it would have actually benefited from Roth being a bit more aware of the field of alternate history and him being a bit more rigorous about the world he created.

Edit to add: It would appear that I should have read the whole thread before posting. I should have known that the discussion would turn to authorial intention.

Here's the thing -- I don't think authorial intention should be dismissed at all, but any work that is of sufficient literary value (and I would argue that many works of speculative fiction are no matter what literary professors may say) is complex enough to support different readings. Naturally, those will need to be within a certain range in order to be of value.

But I would also add that reading/criticism isn't just about "what the work means" -- no work is self-sufficient, once published (or read, actually) it becomes part of a complex matrix of expectations, conventions and meanings. Or in other words, it becomes part of culture.

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Pelegius
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Literature, as a genre, does not exist. Books by OSC are often placed in both sci-fi and literature categories by bookstores, books like F451, 1984 etc. may not be placeed in this cattegory becouse they are seen to transcend it. For this same reason, Les Miserables is not listed as historical fiction (even though it is set between 1821 and 1848 while being written in 1862.)

Romeo and Juliet is a Romance, but it is also a tragedy, the one does not preclude the other. Good literature, like so much else, deifes petty taxonomy.

I am now a bit scared at what the reaction to my Úlitist post is going to be. [Smile]

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James Tiberius Kirk
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Science fiction does have certain traits associated with it, but ultimately I see it as a genre-- much like mysteries, "historical" works, memoirs, horror stories, and romances. Literature can be any of the above. When an author begins writing pen to paper, s/he (usually) knows which of these categories it falls in. So nobody really sets out to write literature; it becomes "literature" at some point thereafter--when it is read, when the reader "participates" in it.

I think the reason that science fiction and fantasy are shunned is because they are so often built entirely by the author. Smash the scifi and fantasy together and you get "speculative fiction." That general term gives the author the freedom to cross genres but it also highlights the fact that science fiction and fantasy have a tendency to be very imaginative. Authors can write "What if?" stories that revolve around an idea, or write stories that take place Elsewhere (where the characters don't seem human at all).

Google's first definition of literature is "creative writing of recognized artistic value"-- emphasis mine-- which suggests that while the author determines the genre, classification as "literature" depends on the readers. In speculative fiction the author has to create more than just the characters and the plot, and because of this there is the potential for the author's will to become evident where it probably shouldn't be--specifically, in the characters and the plot. There is less reader participation in the story, and at that point the story becomes simply the author's words on a page.

Not all science fiction and fantasy does this, but much of it does because so much of speculative fiction is about exploration-- much more so than other genres. I've observed that the stories that are eventually considered literature are the ones about the "Human" in an inhuman world (i.e.; 1984, Farenhiet 451), or the nonhuman in the Human world (War of the Worlds, and maybe Frankenstien?) rather than the stories that merely take place in strange setting with strange people and strange cultures that are nothing like our own.

Does that make sense to anyone? I've been trying to figure out how to put that into writing, and I'm not sure if I've done it clearly.

--j_k

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