Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy

By Gary Wastfahl; George Slusser | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Literary Gatekeepers
and the Fabril Tradition

Tom Shippey

All of us who work with science fiction, I am sure, have a store of insults to record from those in authority. Perhaps the award for the crassest example should go to Sheila Finch's senior colleague, who said to her after she published her first science fiction work, “I hope your next book is a real novel.” Although that was remarkable for both its brevity and its dismissiveness, it remains in a sense typical. All of us past a certain age have not only heard but have gotten used to hearing similar statements. Despite their frequency, I suggest that, if they were mere random and individual examples of thoughtlessness or rudeness, the right tactic would be to tolerate and as far as possible ignore them. But I do not think that is the case. It seems to me that the open hostility to science fiction often seen in academic departments of literature has a common and even a compulsive root. By facing this, we will be in a position to learn something about “canonization and marginalization,” both within and beyond our field.

I have suggested elsewhere1 that these negative reactions can be used diagnostically. My starting point (again taken from personal experience) was that I had often been told by literary colleagues, seemingly without awareness of selfcontradiction, that (a) they hated science fiction, and (b) they never read it. I suggested that regardless of the contradiction, these two statements were probably often true, and that they offered us a kind of generic indicator. I went on to propose (agreeing with Darko Suvin2) that science fiction depends on the novum, which (now expanding on Suvin) I oppose to the datum: the latter is definable as one piece of that shared body of information which all readers need in order to read any text at all; the former the bit of new information which you must find within a text in order to read it as a science fiction text—a bit which is by definition initially not shared, which the reader has to be told. This view of the novum is not exactly that of Suvin,3 but is meanwhile by no means hostile or contradictory to the view of John Huntington, who has argued that science fiction (he cites H. G. Wells and William Gibson) is marked by a new habitus, a new class-awareness, “the introduction of new class or group values into the hegemonic canon.”4 My suggestion is, in brief,

-7-

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