I have a quarrel and a disagreement with Jonathan Lethem's "Why Can't We All Just Live Together?" piece [published by NYRSF, but earlier semi-randomly cut, retitled "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction," and published by the Village Voice].
The quarrel is methodological.
Sf and mainstream (or, less flatteringly, "middlebrow") fiction are both genres. That is to say, the terms "sf" and "mainstream" are used to label loose overlapping bundles of marketing techniques (including bookstore placement and publishing imprints), critical communities (including journalistic and awards systems), and interwriterly influence (including career path options and the impetus of "I can go that one better" challenges).
But rather than treating the genres of sf and mainstream fiction on equal terms, Lethem's piece reifies the sf genre into a location, a family, and even a flirtatious fearful person. This rhetorical move unintentionally flatters the institutions of mainstream fiction at the expense of the institutions of sf: sf is an idiot leviathan who flings its gifts to the undeserving while "the mainstream" is a list of writers that Lethem respects. Reversing that formula can be left as an easy exercise for the reader.
My disagreement hinges on personal taste.
Both Lethem and I are unabashed supporters of the ideal of the Great Book -- it's an ideal with its share of problems, but let's leave those for another day -- and I share his essay's unspoken assumption that, for us as readers, it's a genre's job to augment our personal lists of Great Books.
Thus a genre might be said to be "worthwhile" if it helps motivate the writing of Great Books: Hammett's and Chandler's novels would not have developed without the hard-boiled mystery as market and as field of dispute, and we're accordingly grateful to the hard-boiled mystery. To take a more painful example, failed crossover Herman Melville may have had mixed feelings about the sea story; still, his works exist because of the sea story.
As far as this begetting chore goes, the sf genre still provides a uniquely demanding and dynamic market for short fiction: I doubt that Lethem would disagree that the quality and range of stories published as sf over the past thirty years overwhelm those of the mainstream. On the other hand, I wouldn't disagree with Lethem that, for his and my favorite contemporary novelists, intra-genre influences play a lighter role than extra-genre influences.
But a genre is not a passive container. As a set of institutions and communities, it also directs attention. To take an extreme example, I usually refer to Jack Womack as an sf writer and Don DeLillo as a mainstream writer. Now, in what sense is Womack "sf" and DeLillo not, since Womack did not rise from the genre's writerly community and Womack's novels are not now marketed as sf? Well, I think of Womack (and Fowler, and Crowley, and Emshwiller) as sf rather than as mainstream because my readerly attention was drawn to them from an sf context rather than from a mainstream context.
In the 1930s, the genre and industry called "mainstream fiction" protected itself less efficiently against Ulysses by legal barriers than by burying a psychiatrist-written review of the novel in the back pages of the New York Times, and the Times continues to bury non-mainstream fiction by treating it as naively unimportant. Since Womack's (and Fowler's, and Crowley's, and Emshwiller's) novels are currently being published as mainstream, they aren't rudely dismissed in the way that sf's Great Books of the 1970s were. But, at least at the moment, neither do those authors receive the ongoing focus (and rewards) allotted to books by the few born-and-bred mainstream fiction stars with whom they might naturally be compared. I doubt that I would have found them as easily if I had started from mainstream sources, and I even have some doubt that their works would exist in so brilliant a form if the writers had maintained careers thoroughly within the mainstream.
I certainly agree with Lethem that these writers should obtain as large and appreciative an audience as possible, and that restricting their work to an sf imprint would only hurt their chances. And I think Lethem would agree with me that successfully publishing a Great Book in the mainstream does not necessarily make for a successfully high-profile mainstream career. Where we probably part paths is in my paranoiac (or at least anti-utopian) extension: that the institutions of mainstream fiction work against the production of Great Books.
Lethem's list of Great Books is, I think, considerably larger than mine. At any rate, it contains many more books that have received mainstream attention. My guess is that there's enough of an overlap between his list and the yearly recommendations of the New York Times or the "A List" of the Village Voice that one could fairly say that, for Lethem, the mainstream works: it does a good job of finding, publishing, and drawing attention to the Great Books.
For me, the mainstream does not work. Both Lethem and I cut our critical-readerly teeth on the approved American mainstream fiction of the late 1960s and the 1970s. But, unlike Lethem, I felt that the "interesting" wing of mainstream fiction (most often metonymized by Pynchon, although its giddy egos must by now number in the hundreds) was too intellectually and emotionally feeble to match the pre-1950 Great Books of my personal list. When I surveyed those Great Books, I found that few had received positive attention from institutions of mainstream fiction in their time. Attempting a practical application of this bit of history, I turned to non-mainstream genres in search of contemporary Great Books. And, having been successful, I still turn to them.
(Note that refusal of mainstream attention is not always limited to the Great Book's own time. Lethem writes: "For the first sixty-odd years of the century, American fiction was deficient in exactly those qualities [i.e., speculation and the fabulous] sf [split off here from American fiction] offered in abundance...." That version of literary history seems based on a canon considerably more conservative than one might deduce from Lethem's own library. I'd instead say: "American mainstream literary institutions have consistently neglected imaginative writing, including that produced during the first sixty-odd years of the century.")
As Lethem indicates, sf career plans that include Great Books are unlikely to synch perfectly with the institutional plans of sf and fantasy genre markets. What I don't see in his essay is any corresponding indication of factors that might interfere with success in the markets of current mainstream fiction.
In Lethem's essay, "the mainstream" is that place where all can be judged by their writerly merits rather than (as in sf) by nostalgic prejudices. But career-centered lifestyle, exceptional organizational ability, established social position, public speaking skills (and desires), photogenicity, coincidence with well-understood models of fiction, and zeitgeist-friendliness all come to mind as mainstreaming assets lacked by many Great Book writers. I would have welcomed an acknowledgment that the institutions of mainstream fiction have their own histories and prejudices, as well as their own advantages, and that they put up their own obstacles to the production of Great Books.
I agree with Lethem that the sf genre's markets provide limited freedom for production of Great Books, and that the strictures continue to tighten. I regretfully disagree that an equivalent number of Great Books will appear in mainstream fiction markets as they disappear from a fading sf genre, any more than (to switch media) an equivalent number of Great TV Movies showed up to offset the loss of Great B Pictures. I don't believe the balance sheets work that way.