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John Kessel

In addition to being very tall, John Kessel is a prolific writer of speculative fiction. His books include Good News From Outer Space, Corrupting Dr. Nice, Meeting In Infinity, and The Pure Product. He also helps to run the Sycamore Hill Writers' Conference.

When he's not busy doing all that, though, he's a professor of American literature and creative writing at North Carolina State University, where he regularly teaches courses on both fantasy and science fiction literature. It was this aspect of his work that particularly intrigued me, and around which I focused the questions in this interview.

Catherine Pellegrino: What authors and books do you teach in a course on speculative fiction? What does the reading list for a typical syllabus look like? How do you organize a course -- do you do a chronological survey; do you group the readings thematically, or do you use some other organization?

John Kessel: Since I teach separate courses on science fiction and fantasy, I'll speak about each separately. My SF course is generally organized as a historical survey from the beginnings of the genre to the present. I maintain that true science fiction is a child of popular fiction and the Industrial Revolution, and could not get started before the late 1700's. Following Brian Aldiss, then, I often start with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

CP: Who is Brian Aldiss, and why is he important?

JK: Aldiss was the first to publicize the idea of Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel. He wrote a book in the early '70s called Billion Year Spree (updated in the '80s to Trillion Year Spree) that traces the history of science fiction literature.

I try to change at least a couple of books on my book list every semester to resist getting stale, but a typical book list will have eight to ten books (mostly novels, some short story collections or anthologies). After Shelley, I might include Poe or Verne or Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I will always include something by H.G. Wells, and must have taught a dozen of his novels in the time I've been teaching this course. I will often include Edgar Rice Burroughs. I will usually include an SF novel from outside the pulp tradition that gets started with Hugo Gernsback in the 1920s, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Yevgeny Zamiatin, maybe Orwell's 1984 later on, perhaps Kurt Vonnegut. From the Golden Age SF I'll include something by Heinlein, Asimov, or Clarke or an anthology of stories. From there it's on to Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, C.M. Kornbluth, Philip K. Dick, Damon Knight. In the New Wave era I'll teach Delany, Le Guin, Wolfe, Disch, or Silverberg. In the eighties and nineties I'll have something by Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Lew Shiner, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucius Shepard, James Patrick Kelly, Karen Fowler, Maureen McHugh. And always somewhere in the list I'll include an anthology like The Science Fiction Hall of Fame or Le Guin & Attebery's Norton Book of SF or Dozois' Modern Classics of SF.

The fantasy course I organize more along historical/thematic terms. As I teach it today, the first half of the course tries to give a historical vision of the origins of Tolkienesque high fantasy and heroic fantasy. I'll often start with Beowulf (in translation), use a collection of folk and fairy tales, move on to The Hobbit or sometimes The Lord of the Rings, then look at more contemporary work like Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, or Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun or Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. That gets us through the first half of the course.

In the second half, we look at various other types of fiction that I think fall within the purview of fantasy. Horror, the Ghost Story, Nonsense, Surrealism, Metafiction, Magic Realism, Contemporary fantasy. We'll read Carroll's Alice books, The Wizard of Oz, a collection of Borges stories, a Kafka collection, Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, some contemporary fantasists like Butler's Kindred or Murphy's The Falling Woman or Goldstein's Tourists. Shirley Jackson or Stephen King, Dracula, Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife. I often end with Geoff Ryman's Was.

CP: How has your reading list changed over the years that you've been teaching courses on speculative fiction?

JK: In SF, I spend less time on the pre-1950 era than I used to. I don't generally spend much time in the 1800s; nowadays I skip Verne, for instance. I spend much more time on the last thirty years. In fantasy, I tend to stretch the boundaries of genre more than I used to. The second half of my course doesn't look like the normal fantasy course, I think.

CP: What themes in speculative fiction do you stress in your courses? What do you want your students to get out of a class?

JK: In SF, from class one I stress the two cultures debate. I don't have to impress it on the works, it's there from the beginning. We look at SF both as a celebration of the promise of science and technology, and a Cassandra warning of the threat of science and technology. We see how the issues get more complicated as we approach the present.

CP: What exactly was the two cultures debate?

JK: The literary critic C. P. Snow wrote an essay in the 1950s entitled "The Two Cultures," in which he argued that the humanities and the sciences had grown apart into two separate cultures. He essentially argued that science was the "better" or more valuable of the two, because it was advancing the quality of life for humanity. Another literary critic, F. R. Leavis, took umbrage at Snow's position and argued the humanists' side, citing evidence such as the atomic bomb to show that science had actually made the quality of life worse. The debate was active in literary circles from about 1958 to about 1968.

In my science fiction course, I also tell the story of how SF was part of mainstream literature before the 20th century, how it later got identified as a genre with Burroughs and the pulp magazines, and how it has struggled ever since to get taken seriously as "literature." We talk about the science fiction canon, and the literary canon (where SF is essentially invisible, as SF).

We also look at SF as a commentary on and reaction to the time in which it was written. One of my favorite cliches is that a science fiction story often tells you as much about the year it was written as it does about the year in which it is set. This gets us to some extent into cultural criticism, though I am by no means trained in cultural critique. My training as a Ph.D. student was strictly in the New Criticism.

CP: For the benefit of our readers who don't sling literary terms on a daily basis, can you explain more about what the New Criticism is?

JK: Actually, it's now pretty much the Old Criticism now. It's an approach to literary study that began in the 1930s and went hand-in-hand with modernism, dominating the field of English studies through the 1960s and '70s. The New Criticism says that you should only study the text, and that considerations like the author's biography and the cultural circumstances surrounding the writing of the work are irrelevant. More recent schools of criticism are largely in response to the New Criticism: deconstructionism was a direct attack on it, and postmodernism thinks of itself as a parody of the New Criticism.

In my fantasy course, we start with the origins of high fantasy in the hero tale and the fairy tale. We talk about the uses of the fantastic in fiction. The necessity of escape and the dangers of escape, the differentiation between what Tolkien called "the flight of the deserter" and the "escape of the prisoner." What impulse is it in the human character that brings us (or at least some of us) to fantasy? There are no simple answers to these questions, so they are fun to ask. I hope my students will come up with some answers of their own by the end of the semester.

CP: You teach courses on both fantasy and science fiction. Does the pairing of these genres make sense to you from a standpoint of literary study?

JK: I enjoy teaching both courses. I think they do complement each other, though fantasy is much easier to fit within literature as it is understood in the academy than science fiction is. Fantasy finds a sanction in many works of pre-Enlightenment literature. Lots of medievalists get into fantasy. But not many high lit types appreciate science fiction.

Both forms of fiction violate the canons of realism. But at the extremes, I think they are very different in origin and effect. High fantasy tends to turn its back on the present, is often anti-technology, usually maintains that change is bad or at least suspect until proven otherwise, that the old ways are the best, that knowledge is dangerous.

Science fiction tends to take the opposite position on every one of these premises. Tolkien disliked science fiction. He said of it, "These prophets often foretell (and many seem to yearn for) a world like one big glass-roofed railway-station. . . .it is indeed an age of 'improved means to deteriorated ends.'" He added that in a fantasy world, "one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose -- as inn, a hostel for travellers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king -- that is yet sickeningly ugly. At the present day it would be rash to hope to see one that was not -- unless it was built before our time."

Now there is plenty of hideous modern architecture, but I suggest that Tolkien never saw the Chrysler Building, for instance, or a Frank Lloyd Wright house -- or if he did he could not really see them because they were not half-timbered, with thatched roofs. This reactionary attitude is everywhere in fantasy, even in writers who, unlike Tolkien, grew up in less traditional and more democratic situations. It's a viewpoint that I dislike, and prevents my wholehearted acceptance of that sort of fantasy, leaves me enjoying my science fiction class more than my fantasy class.

Not to say that I am not critical of science and technology (my fiction is full of critiques), but I guess I am more comfortably a child of the 20th century than Tolkien. I have the basic SF attitude.

CP: How is teaching a course on speculative fiction different from teaching a course on "regular" literature?

JK: The audience is different. I get many students in SF and fantasy who would not otherwise take an English course. This has its upside and downside. I often have to bring them along in the analysis of the work. Some of them resist the idea that this work can be read for social, cultural, esthetic purposes.

On the other hand, I don't have to sell the prospect of reading the work as hard. One of the great virtues of SF and fantasy is that they have volunteer readers. I don't want my courses to kill the experience of reading SF. People come to these genres for good reasons, and I want to celebrate that as well as analyze it.

I really like the enthusiasm most of my students show. They care about what we read, even when they dislike it. We have some good give-and-take, some worthwhile arguments.

Corrupting Dr. Nice coverThe Pure Product cover

CP: Do you find that your students are generally a pretty self-selecting group, and have read a good deal of speculative fiction already, or do you get any students who really haven't done much reading in the genre on their own?

JK: Most of them have read a good deal of speculative fiction, but not in any organized way. They don't usually have a good sense of the history of either genre. In SF, more and more of them seem to have their acquaintance determined by movies and TV. They haven't ever read Heinlein, never heard of Sturgeon or Van Vogt.

In fantasy they are pretty much all have read Tolkien and some have read lots of Tolkien's imitators. Sword and Sorcery. But they seldom have thought of Carroll as a fantasy writer, and never would think of Kafka as one. In an ironic way, the high art scholars of the academy and the pulp fans both have the same view of fantasy -- that Tolkien defines it, and that if it ain't like Tolkien, it ain't fantasy. Dragons, wizards, swords, elves, quests, magic -- yes. Travelling salesman turns into a cockroach -- no. How you can see "The Metamorphosis" as something other than fantasy is a mystery to me.

CP: Do you bring in other types of media to your courses -- film, television, graphic novels -- and if so, how do you work them into the course?

JK: I tend not to do so, although I make references to visual SF all the time in order to explain a concept or technique. I did teach a graduate multidisciplinary studies seminar on postmodern SF one time, and in that course I taught five films along with the texts. I think they were 2001, Blade Runner, Videodrome, The Brother From Another Planet, and Brazil.

CP: There's a common perception that there's some animosity -- or at least suspicion -- between the speculative fiction and academic communities. Do you find that you have to justify being an academic to speculative fiction fans, or that you have to justify being a writer of science fiction to academics? How do you negotiate between those two communities?

JK: I think there is a lot of condescension toward SF and fantasy among academics. I can't tell you how many times I've been introduced to academics as a professor of American literature and creative writing from NCSU, and the minute they are told I am a science fiction writer, their eyes glaze over. And a scholar of SF or fantasy stands in relation to a scholar of Shakespeare and Joyce as a writer of pulp SF stands in relation to Shakespeare and Joyce themselves.

I used to think that this would change in my lifetime, but I am convinced that it will not. The postmodernists seemed for a time to be bringing some serious critical interest to SF, but that's only because they were discrediting the entire idea of the canon. They don't think of SF as art, or if they do it's because they reject the entire idea of high art.

To deal with this, when I teach a normal survey of 20th century American literature, I try to include some genre work, and treat it as if it belongs. I show that it is just another part of the discourse that is literature in the twentieth century. It's good to have separate courses for SF and fantasy, but I'm convinced that as long as such work is confined to separate courses, it will never be seen as in conversation with the rest of literature. If I could make one change in the way contemporary lit is taught, I would insist that all surveys contain some detective fiction, some SF, some fantasy. Raymond Chandler has made it into some American Lit survey texts, but C. M. Kornbluth is still invisible.

Some of my students are suspicious of the academic study of SF: the classic statement of this attitude is "Let's get SF out of the classroom and back into the gutter where it belongs." Their opinions are fairly common in the SF fandom world; fans often don't like the literary approach to speculative fiction. My students sometimes tell me that I'm taking the fun out of the books, or that I'm overanalyzing them, or that what I'm talking about in my analysis "isn't really what the book's about." But I have much more success convincing such fans that it's okay to take SF seriously than I have convincing Milton scholars it's okay to take SF seriously.

Most of the people on my faculty at NCSU who know me, know differently, and treat me with respect, but I have to say I think that's more a result of knowing me personally than it is from respect for the genre. The problem with SF is that most people who know nothing about it think they know all about it without ever having studied it.

CP: It's interesting that your students sometimes think that analyzing a book takes the fun out of it. I used to teach college-level music theory, and my students would tell me the same thing -- that analyzing a work of music takes the fun, or the magic, out of it.

JK: I also run into a similar idea in my writing classes; my students will tell me that they can't write if they're thinking about it analytically. I'm sympathetic, but if you want to get better at writing, you need to be analytical.

CP: How does your experience as a science fiction writer help you in teaching science fiction? Do you ever teach your own books?

I have never assigned one of my own books, but I have assigned the Norton book and Modern Classics of SF, which both have stories by me in them. I don't always assign those stories, though sometimes at the end of discussion of those books I'm happy to answer questions about the stories.

I think my experience as a writer comes into the course frequently. Sometimes I will make reference to biographical details of contemporary writers that I know because I know the writers. I will often stress that SF is a living literature written by ordinary people, and that students can meet and talk to these writers if they want. I have sent copies of papers written by students (with the students' permission) to writers I know.

More generally, I think I can convey something of the mindset of a science fiction writer to them. How an SF writer thinks about the world, "where she gets her crazy ideas."

CP: You also teach creative writing. Do you ever teach courses on writing speculative fiction per se? If not, how do you use speculative fiction in a more general creative writing class?

JK: We don't have a course dedicated to writing SF, but we do have a graduate seminar that has various topics, and three times I have taught "Writing Non-Realistic Fiction" under that rubric. In that class I talk about writing different sorts of fantasy, metafiction, and science fiction.

I allow and even encourage my students to write speculative fiction in my regular writing classes. In keeping with what I said about treating genre fiction as acceptable in lit surveys, I try to include at least some genre stories on the reading list for my fiction writing classes. I hold students writing SF to the same standards I keep for any student writer, but I also think I have many things to say to those students who want to write SF. I can draw on my expertise there a little more than I can for those students writing mainstream fiction.

CP: From the point of view of teaching the art and craft of writing fiction, are there any important differences between learning to write speculative fiction and learning to write in general?

John Kessel and daughter Emma
John Kessel and daughter Emma

JK: I think the standard techniques of fiction writing are the same. Plotting, character development, motivation, prose style, significant detail -- all these standards apply equally to SF and non-SF. An SF writer has some additional things to think about -- creating an consistent future, say, or how to represent an imaginary landscape -- that a writer of non-SF may not address so directly or often.

There is a difference in the way you think, however. To write good SF, you much be more aware of the contingency of your cultural circumstances. Everything is not taken for granted. The way things are now, or were in the past, or may be in the future, is bound to change. Culture and era determine things that we are not aware of unless we take the long view. These things are contingent in a way that a writer of contemporary fiction may not realize. An SF writer must realize that. One of the failures of much aspiring SF is that it is set two hundred years in the future, yet the characters are exactly as they are today, with the same cultural expectations and behaviors. And on the flip side, the characters have no motivation for acting the way they do, as if to say that, because the story's set on a planet circling Alpha Centauri, the people can do anything for any reason. Total cardboard. I blame media SF for this.

If I see anything as uniting my enterprise as a teacher of literature and of fiction writing, it is that SF and fantasy are legitimate forms of art. They may have some peculiar rules, but they are worthy of serious study and respect, and can bear serious study and earn that respect.

CP: I'm glad to hear you say that, and glad you're working to make it happen. I've enjoyed talking with you, and thanks for your time!


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Catherine Pellegrino is an Articles Editor for Strange Horizons. Catherine's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives.

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