L Is for Literature
Sunday, May 18, 2003
Greg Benford just called to ask if we'd seen Sven Birkerts' attack on science fiction in the NYT.
. . . science fiction will never be Literature with a capital "L," and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character.
(This morning, when I might otherwise have seen it, I was railing against the evils of Pokmon.) Though I don't think Greg knew this, Birkerts used to be a colleague of David's and mine at Harvard Summer School in the Writing Division. I don't remember much about him from those days except that I once noticed him carrying an Iain Banks novel.
He makes this attack, as nearly as I can tell, to set the stage for his contention that
What Atwood's inventive treatment of first and last things lacks is a plausible psychological basis.
Seemingly, he is blaming the whole of sf for this fault. I do wonder why he bothered, since it is a reasonable objection to raise against a book in any genre. Some books have a plausible psychological basis; some don't.
I have never felt that all literature was character-driven, and have usually objected when I've heard such claims raised within sf. Some literature is character-driven; some is setting-driven; some is driven by moral conviction; some by ideas, etc. That only character-driven literature can be Literature with a capital L is an notion pressed upon us by Henry James that even James himself does not live up to.
Since Birkerts attacked sf, sf needs defending. But I have a crying baby and am tired from having to get up with her this morning much earlier than I liked, so I think I'll stop now.
UPDATE: Do read the NYT comments section associated with this piece. My favorite bit, from Allen Maurer, which I think I'll put in my sidebar, is the line "I fail to see why some critics believe great literature cannot be about ideas."