Sunday, May 14, 2006

Is the Map the Territory?

Claire Light today posted an interesting map of Speculative Fiction, along with some commentary.

She uses the term "mimetic fiction" to refer to all that other stuff, which immediately makes me like her argument more. (It's a term I like to use myself, in part because -- as Claire points out -- it yokes together a whole bunch of disparate genres like Western and bildungsroman, romance and kitchen-sink drama.)

However, I do think any flat map will somewhat misinterpret the territory, and I have some mild complaints about this one. Putting Spec Fic in the middle is a nice trick for pedagogical purposes, but I don't think a bull's-eye is the right shape to begin with. (On a more minor point, I'll add that Alternate History can be Fantasy as easily as it can be SF -- and, as practiced under the name "counterfactual" by historians, can also be even more like non-fiction.)

I generally prefer to pull out two or three axes (not binary choices, but continua along which a work can fall) at a time -- there are probably at least a dozen that could interestingly sub-divide the world of literature -- and use those to present any particular case, while being clear that any such interpretation is a very simplified view.

Some of those possible axes include:
  • Fiction vs. Non-fiction
    Question for Discussion: Place the work of James Frey, and modern "memoirs" in general, on this axis.
  • Prose vs. Poetry
    Not always either/or as well; many of Shakespeare's plays contain both. And some kinds of poetry are more prose-y than others (and vice versa).
  • Mimesis vs. Speculation
  • Plausible vs. Impossible
    This incorporates the SF/Fantasy dichotomy, but can be expanded -- satire often ranges far out into the realms of the impossible, as does metafiction.
  • Literary vs. Popular
  • Comedy vs. Tragedy
  • Historical vs. Contemporary
    If there was a single word that encompassed past and future history, I'd use it here -- the world-building and estrangement of historical fiction can be closely related to the same skills in SF. I do intend to include both in "historical."
  • Romance vs. Nihilism
Obviously, trying to construct a map using all of those axes would be impossible for a merely human intelligence. That's why I think any discussions of genres tends to pull out a couple of those distinctions (or similar continua) to focus on. But, at the same time, realizing that any of those views simplifies things -- and that looking at another axis simultaneously, or afterward, can cast interesting lights on old conflicts -- will, I hope, keep us fall from just falling into the same old literary-conversation ruts.

So, thanks, Claire, for making me think about this yet again, and inciting me to try to define what I really think about the subject.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for the thoughtful post. i agreed with pretty much everything you said. here's my response, which is mostly arguing with nick mamatas' post about it:

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