The Writer, grinning madly and exposing his teeth like a feral dog, sat back in his chair. He looked at each of us.
Now, I know bad writing. I spent thirteen years reading bad writing. More importantly, I know bad stories. The Writer’s story was bad storytelling on steroids. Now, with something that bad, there were two possibilities why the writing was that bad. The first was that it was a farce, but if it was a farce, then all of us should have been rolling in our seats in laughter (which we weren’t). The second was that The Writer was trying to make A Point.
The Writer continued grinning and said, “Well?”
The Student shook his head.
The Stalker slurped his pint of cider. (I no longer expected him to give feedback on anyone’s stories.)
The Traveler said, “Play a lot of StarCraft, Writer?”
The Drunkard grunted. “I don’t think you quite understand what you were trying to do with that, pal.”
The Writer kicked his head back and laughed. “Oh?” He leaned over the table. “You see, my shamefully-led-astray friends, it is you who do not understand. That was a prime example of the tripe known as science fiction.”
“You’re going to have to explain that,” said The Student.
“Gladly,” responded The Writer. “Science fiction, along with fantasy and all of the other lesser genres, are worthless. They hold nothing of value for society. They provide, like my story, nothing but escape into another world. A world far removed from anything that could challenge the mind. Anything that could be relevant to our world, anything that could make a comment, is stripped away by the presence of technology or history far removed from our own.”
“You’re kidding, right?” asked The Drunkard.
“Oh,” said The Writer. “I don’t kid. Not about literature.”
The Drunkard stammered. He shook his head, stood up, and went to the bar to order a whiskey.
The rest of us sat in silence, digesting the insanity.
“Well,” he said, “if none of you have anything to say, then I must as—”
“Nope,” said The Student.
“Yeah,” said Rebecca. “Hold on a sec.” She reached into her purse, brought out a black case. She pressed the button on the front, opened the lid, and took out a pair of red, oval-shaped glasses. “You have to allow time for people to formulate a response. You can’t just declare victory at the first lull in a conversation.”
“Okay,” said The Student. He rubbed his hands together. “Let me tell you exactly why you’re wrong.”
“Oh, please,” said The Writer. “I’m all ears.”
“Science fiction, much like literary, moment-of-realization, realistic, artistic, whatever you want to call it fiction, fulfills two or three functions: First, a story will act as an analogy for our world. This may be thinly veiled—such as the case for Dune and its discussion of Cold War politics and ecology—or it might be much more abstract and philosophical—like something written by Philip K. Dick.
“Second: In performing the first function, the novel or short story will provide us with a legitimate, well thought-out comment on, say, the human condition or society. A fine example of this comes in dystopian science fiction, say with Huxley’s Brave New World.”
The Writer snorted. “Brave New World isn’t sci—”
Rebecca laughed. “Really, man? The entire society is made up of genetically-modified human beings. How is that not sci-fi?”
“Nope,” said The Student. “Hold on, I’m almost done.
“Third: In performing the first function, the tale will give us a warning about society or the human condition. Typically, this is one and the same with the second point, though, sometimes, in lieu of presenting a commentary on a subject, the author may find it necessary simply to make the statement that humans are nothing more than base animals. A fine example of this is Matheson’s I Am Legend.
“Now,” he continued, “if I’m correct and have taken anything out of my many years spent in the limbo of academia, these functions are one and the same with the widely-used definition of literature.”
“Yes, but,” said The Writer. “Uh.”
The Drunkard, who had returned somewhere around The Student’s second point, grinned. “Gotcha, doesn’t he, fuckface?”
I jabbed The Drunkard in his side with an elbow. “Not now,” I whispered. “Let’s see this play out.”
“So,” said The Student, “while your sci-fi story may have been fine on a level of plot—fine being a relative term, because, frankly, the plot was shit—it completely flatlined in terms of message.” The Student stopped for a moment and drummed his fingers on the table in front of him. “If you’d like, I can give you a list of books to read that might just cha—”
“Please,” said The Writer. “Like I would stoop so low to go browse in the science fiction section at Waterstones. Student, I am disappointed in you. I’d expect such a deteriorated view of literature and art from The Drunkard—”
“Hey, fuck you,” said the Drunkard.
“Or The Narrator—”
“Wha?” I asked, tilting my head to the side.
“But from you? A man of letters? You bring up Huxley as an example of science fiction when both you and I know that it is, actually, literature. Next thing you tell me, you’ll try to make the case that Vonnegut is science fiction.”
The Student blinked and stammered.
Rebecca, thankfully, was there to take up the ball. “Slaughterhouse Five involves alien abductions.”
“But,” said The Writer, “it is still literary.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that it’s science fiction. You can’t sweep a novel from one side of the bookstore to the other just because the thing is well-written enough to win a prize.”
“By virtue of it being literary, a work is rescued from the base nature of genre,” said The Writer.
“That’s absolute nonsense,” said The Student. “Frankenstein and Dracula are horror stories. Doyle wrote mystery stories and adventure novels. Poe is nothing but horror. Mark Twain wrote a book about time travel! The entire literary canon of the whole world is based on genre fiction.”
“Genre fiction is the antithesis of legitimate writing. It caters to the masses, the blinking, drooling, mouth-agape horde of invertebrates who can’t be bothered to take one second to put serious thought into their lives by virtue of looking at art.” The Writer spit on the floor. “Yes, fine, you may think me a heartless megalomaniac, but I look out there,” he said, pointing at the plaza, “and I see slack-jawed, bling-bejeweled imbeciles reading Terry Pratchett and I think to myself, ‘How can I stoop to that level?’”
Previously, I have written that members of our party tend to tilt their heads to one side when confused. Well, at this point, The Drunkard’s head was at such an angle that it looked like it was about to snap. “You can’t be serious.”
“Yes. Yes I am,” said The Writer. “They don—”
“No,” said The Drunkard. His voice was very low, barely audible. His hands shaking just a little, he took off his cap, put it on the table in front of him, and said, “I am just about the most misanthropic, cynical person here, but I have the good sense not to base my ideas on something as subjective as literature.”
“I—” said The Writer.
“No,” said The Drunkard. “You’re going to let me finish, or so help me God, I swear I will slam my fist down your throat. It is incredibly important that you realize how disturbing everything you’re saying is.
“You sit there and rail on and on about how the Masses are beneath you because—and I know you didn’t say it, but this is what you’re thinking—because you’re an Artist and they are the Proletariot. You have Things To Say, whereas they simply Exist. And because you have Things To Say, you place yourself above them. Moreso, you sit there and judge them, acting like the most entitled person on the face of the planet, because they’re reading genre fiction. Do you realize that you’re studying something that, in all reality, doesn’t need to be studied in university environment. Do you realize how lucky you are that you can actually do this? Are you in possession of the knowledge that, if this were a just universe, you’d be out there in the work force and—maybe—writing after work? You ever think that if you’d been working, you might write something escapist yourself?” The Drunkard shook his head. “Fuck you.” He stood up, put on his cap, and walked out of the pub.
The rest of us didn’t respond. Even The Stalker, who I’d assumed would have been completely immune to anything like this, stared at where The Drunkard was sitting, his mouth open and the cider sitting in front of him, untouched and bubbling.
The Writer stood without saying anything and walked out of the pub.
Rebecca turned to The Student, “Does this happen every time you guys get together?”
The Student shrugged. “There’s usually bickering, yeah. This, though.” He shook his head.
“Yeah,” said The Traveler. “That was intense.”
“Such depths to the man’s egotism,” I said. “I hadn’t dreamed it possible before. Do you think he was serious?”
“Have you ever heard The Writer tell a joke?” asked The Traveler.
The Student took a drink and set it back down. “Well, I’m sure it’ll blow over pretty soon. Well, as much as things blow over with those two.”
“Return to a bubbling loathing might be a better way of saying it,” said The Stalker.