Hunting the Snark

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro contemplates the Literary Essay in Modern Science Fiction.

A recent episode of Jonathan Strahan’s podcast got me thinking about the literary essay in modern science fiction, and since the podcast included a reference to this magazine I thought it might of interest to pursue the subject here. To paraphrase one of the questions that come out of the lively exchange between Strahan, Gary K. Wolfe, Karen Burnham, Jeffrey Ford and Liza Groen Trombi: “Are there still literary essays happening in science fiction?”

The opinion expressed by Strahan, and to varying degrees seconded by the other podcast participants, is that the main type of essay that is written about science fiction or fantasy these days is the academic one. You know, the type that’s been blasted in a convection oven for several hours and is consequently just a little dry.

This is where mention of Salon Futura was made, as one of the publications that attempts to offer something resembling the literary essay.

Well, sure. This magazine, throughout its eight issues, has published a wide range of pieces, varying in style and tone from the informal editorial to the critical review, and occasionally passing through essay-dom. Just perusing its table of contents, though, one can see that the literary essay is not Salon Futura‘s central mode of expression or connection with its readers. The reason is a simple one. As the podcasters mentioned, the essay inevitably derives its charm from the combination of the factual with the personal. And in order for the personal to be relevant or interesting, its narration must either presuppose a life filled with irresistibly fascinating experiences, or the context of an established authorship built over a significant period of time, one that is eager for an autobiographical peek into the life of a well-known author.

It now behooves us to do a bit of taxonomic and historical surveying. The birth of the modern essay is conventionally attributed to Montaigne, who in 1580 was the first to use the term, in the plural form, as the title of one of his works. Checking various reference sources, we quickly find that there are numerous historical antecedents, pieces that might have been called essays if only the term had existed at the time. Among these are Theophrastus’ Characters, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s Epistle to Lucilius.

What do these pieces have in common, and what do they share with the wealth of essays that have followed since Montaigne’s own lexicon-making collection?

If dating the origin of the essay is a slippery affair, trying to define what it is may be like tumbling down that ride in waterparks that drops — no, hurls — its hapless victims down a length of seven stories in four seconds.

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, for instance, characterizes the essay as “A composition, usually in prose, which may be of only a few hundred words (like Bacon’s Essays) or of book length (like Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding) and which discusses, formally or informally, a topic or a variety of topics. It is one of the most flexible and adaptable of all literary forms.” (Notice, it need not even be in prose!) Other reference works offer similarly inclusive perspectives.

In his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Essays, John Gross notes that “No matter how large its subject, the distinguishing marks of an essay by Montaigne are intimacy and informality.” Gross later generalizes this and says of twentieth-century essay writers that “they all share the old Montaigne virtues of informality and independence.” Anyone who has read Aurelius’ Meditations might not immediately think of them as informal, so perhaps its unfair to extend Gross’ idea beyond its intended domain. Still, it’s a useful launching pad for our discussion. What we’re concerned with here, though, is not simply the essay, but the literary essay. This can presumably mean at least one of two things: an essay that, in its composition, shares some of the attributes of literature, or one that preoccupies itself with literary themes and analysis. For the purpose of our informal inquiry, let’s bet on the former. After all, we naturally tend to think of pieces that are preoccupied with the study of literature as literary criticism or literary theory.

Now, before we turn this into a truly Sysiphean task, let me assure you I won’t try to define what literature is in order to define what the literary essay might be. Instead, let’s take our cue from one of Gary K. Wolfe’s comments in the podcast. He mentions the literary essays of Edmond Wilson, which Wolfe recalls were “magisterial.” Indeed: several of Wilson’s collections of literary essays, titled as such, are now part of the Library of America.

If we compare one of Wilson’s most well-known pieces, such as “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” with a contemporary SF essay of the academic bent that Strahan identifies, we immediately see where the trouble lies. In fact, the title already suggests it. Wilson’s piece is more lively and provocative, and certainly more personal. We’re back to Gross’ “informality and independence,” back to the importance of subjectivity.

All right, so let us compare it to a piece that’s not of an academic ilk. We’ll avoid journals like Science Fiction Studies or Extrapolation, and look more to places like Foundation or The New York Review of Science Fiction. Fine and useful as those publications are, I’m afraid that Wilson still wins. On the whole, he demonstrates a superior command of literary craft and a willingness to be selective in his facts. But, then, you might say that it’s not fair to compare a classic essay more than fifty years old with one that appeared last Tuesday. What if we go for something more recent?

This returns us to the subject of the evolution of the essay, SF or not. Towards the end of his Introduction Gross notes that

“Today good writers continue to write as they please, although it is true that they are less likely to talk about essays than ‘pieces.’ ‘Essay’ has come to sound a little too leisurely; ‘piece’ strikes the required note of journalistic toughness.” (The Oxford Book of Essays)

It’s not surprising that a form as malleable as the essay should burrow into other fields and mutate, mold itself to the most successful communication vectors of the times. Wolfe mentioned academic journals, textbooks and literary theory as three of the sources from which modern students learn about SF. Closer in kinship to the spirit of the literary essay, and sometimes overlapping it, are forms like the editorial, the extended review, the long book-centered blog entry, or the “think piece.” (According to its blurbs, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a forthcoming [October 2011] collection by Margaret Atwood offers reviews and musings, all based on Lectures. As you can see, no essays in sight). Moving farther afield again are the biographical snapshot, the historical summary, the field-report, or even the omnipresent “how-to.”

But where then, we insist, is that Snark-like beastie, the literary essay?

The pure thing may indeed be a rare product. In SF, the closest we might have from the point of view of something historically significant and ongoing, traditional if you will, is the magazine column, maybe to some extent the editorial. Robert Silverberg’s “Reflections” column in Asimov’s is a good example. Over the years, this form of writing has generated enough volume for him to collect two thick tomes, Reflections and Refractions (1997) and Musings and Meditations (2011). Sheila Williams’ editorials in the same magazine, Stanley Schmidt’s editorials in Analog, Cory Doctorow’s column in Locus, Matthew Cheney’s column in Strange Horizons, and Liz Hand’s reviews in F&SF (as Jeff Ford pointed out) may also be close to the mark. They all contain personal material, and their authors have all helped shape speculative fiction in one fashion or another. Isaac Asimov, best known for his SF, also shines most brightly for me in his science essays, a lifetime of which is gathered up in a staggering forty volumes. Outside of SF there are writers who seem to excel in the form of the essay above all others (novels included). To cherry-pick just three among many personal favorites that I’d place in this category: Umberto Eco, Stephen Jay Gould, and George Orwell.

It’s only fair to wonder why the legitimate item is hard to find in modern SF publications. Let me offer three reasons.

One: There’s something intrinsically difficult about the essay, both its composition and reading, most likely related to its ambition. The word itself captures this sense of struggle. It derives from the French “essai,” to “attempt” or “try.” From its very Montaignian inception, then, the form has been imprinted with a sense of limitation and challenge. This cause of its potential lack of popularity is an intrinsic one, and therefore not a result of current paradigms or cultural trends. The next two reasons are.

Two: At the risk of arguing in over-broad strokes, I think we can say that we live in times of increasing academic specialization. This usually entails a mindset of rigorous analysis or at least thorough (oftentimes bordering on exhaustive) documentation, often accompanied by a lack of creative spark or imagination. Clearly, this is a mindset that carries over poorly to the essay. As I mentioned in the case of Wilson, the essay’s great exponents tend behave in exactly the opposite fashion.

Related to this, the literary essay seems to take pride in its anti-academic nature. It cuts across vast swaths of intellectual and historical discourse without barely pausing for breath. It leapfrogs from personal reminiscence to abstract observation without a worry in the world for tired rigor, for the foolish consistency that Emerson called the hobgoblin of little minds.

I experienced an example of this recently. I’m currently half-way through Wolfe’s perceptive collection of essays, Evaporating Genres (2011), to which Cheryl Morgan has alluded in these pages (“What Is Genre Anyway?”), and which recently engendered a lengthy and, in its discursiveness, essay-like, review by Jonathan McCalmont. (Incidentally, Wolfe and Strahan mentioned this review in the podcast.) One of the book’s overarching arguments relates to the “chronic instabilities of the fantastic genres,” that is, their constant tendency to redefine their own terms, to invade and hijack nearby genres, and in general create an endless headache for theoreticians bent on compartmentalization. Note that Wolfe develops this theme in exquisite detail, with myriads of examples and fascinating side-journeys. His argument is intrinsically related to the nature of genre. Now enter Jorge Luis Borges, and a recent English edition of his essays titled On Writing (2010), which I had the pleasure of reading last year. In the piece “The Detective Story” (1978) Borges, in his inimitable style, concludes his first paragraph by saying:

“To speak of the detective story is to speak of Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the genre, but before speaking of the genre, there is a small prior question that should be discussed: Do literary genres exist?” (On Writing)

A small prior question! Good thing that Borges didn’t realize how infinitely complicated the question is, and in how many academic conferences and volumes it has resulted. (No, I don’t mean that seriously). It is his naïveté, or perhaps deliberately narrow focus, that empowers Borges to resolve the whole issue of the existence of genres in the next two paragraphs (and not in an unsatisfactory manner, by the way — but I’ll leave it up to you to discover how he pulls it off). This clearly illustrates one of the ways in which the literary essay is anti-academic. (Of course, in the sense that it is as susceptible to academic study as any other form of writing, the essay is also pro-academic. But you take my meaning).

Three: It follows directly from Wolfe’s carefully amassed evidence in favor of the splintering and re-growing of genre that the term itself now encompasses far more types of narrative, far more agglutinations of inherited tropes, than it did before. Fantastic literature has become so vast an empire that the reader’s imaginative sun truly never sets on its dominions. What we used to think of as one central trunk, perhaps, with several side-branches, now more closely resembles one of Arthur C. Clarke’s beloved fractals, endlessly expanding and replicating in complex patterns the more closely we study it. It is more diverse, coiled, fragmented than it ever was. This lack of centralization in turn means that are fewer Central Figures in SF. There are no longer a Big Three, or even a Big Dozen. Remote colonies and outposts have voted in their own local priests and the Pope, if ever there was one, has long departed. And because there are no longer a handful of Supreme Representatives, the personality-pull of the average writer, in terms of absolute number of readers, has dwindled. There is less patience, as Gross pointed out, for a writer to pontificate on whatever fancies her, for readers to nod and follow along simply because she is the one doing the pontificating. More choice means less need for endurance. Another thing, too: While the essay provides food for thought, it’s also, literally, a tool for self-promotion. It forges a connection in the reader’s mind between the subject matter at hand and the essayist exploring it. There are more voices trying to self-promote today than there have been in the past.

What to do with all this? Is it hopeless?

On the contrary, I think we can be more specific about where the opportunity lies, now that we’ve studied the terrain. The rareness of the literary essay in modern SF has become most prominent over the last five-to-ten years. For ease of reference, let’s pick the year 2000 as an arbitrary cutoff, and say that the literary essay is most sorely missed in relation to post-millennial speculative fiction.

Looking at writers who defy this overall dearth hints at where we may find ultimate relief. (Readers will surely draw up their own lists at this point, but let me offer a few specific names anyway.) Jeff VanderMeer comes to mind. His recent collection Monstrous Creatures (2011) and many previous blog pieces offer ample evidence of his skills in this direction. Michael Swanwick often turns in a dazzling performance on this front. Some of his best literary essays have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, and his collection The Postmodern Archipelago: Two Essays on Science Fiction & Fantasy (1997), though pre-millennial, is worth multiple readings. Chris Nakashima-Brown seems to work in the same tradition. Samuel R. Delany predates them. So do Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ. We’ve mentioned Wolfe, of course. Farah Mendlesohn shouldn’t be overlooked. Just about all modern SF critics of note, too many to list here, also occasionally produce a piece that resembles the literary essay. Jeff Ford singled out Aqueduct Press, which has published collections of essays by sophisticated writers like Gwyneth Jones.

I didn’t want to invoke these writers simply as recommendations (though I heartily recommend them). When we look at their works more broadly, a pattern emerges: they tends to be writers who transcend genre boundaries. It is this free-flowing nature that accounts, at least in part, for the vivaciousness of their essays.

The path forward seems a little more clear, now. And so I’d like to end with a clarion call:

All those writers who are difficult to peg into a particular storytelling category, who defy practical classification, it is up to you to pen the literary essays of SF that will be remembered in days to come!

Cut open an autobiographical vein, and give us a taste of your blood!

I beg you.

Jeffrey Ford, I know you’re out there. Even in the Wilds of New Jersey, I know you can hear me.

As readers, we promise to be patient. Offer up your life substance to us, and we’ll promise to stop drinking before shock sets in. Yours, that is; certainly not ours.


Editor’s Note: While the essay might not be the central mode of expression in Salon Futura, I have encouraged the regular staff to adopt a personal approach to their reviewing. — Cheryl Morgan