Nobody’s Expert: Ryan Britt on Monsters, Literacy, and Genre Crossings


An Interview by Allegra Frazier

Photo credit: Kristen McNally

Photo credit: Kristen McNally

If you live in New York and frequent readings, panel discussions, or book launches, there is a 99.99% chance you’ve seen Ryan Britt behind the mic, where’s he been a fixture as both reader and moderator for nearly a decade.

Don’t live in New York? If you peruse literary, pop-culture, or sci-fi blogs, there is a 99.99% chance you’ve read one of his hundreds of articles on The Awl, Tor.com, Electric Literature, Omni Reboot…the list goes on. If you’re interested in the intersections of genre and mainstream culture, literary and otherwise, and you aren’t familiar with Ryan Britt, it’s about time to introduce yourself to his work.

Though he’d dissuade you from calling him an authority on any topic (read on for details), his almost encyclopedic knowledge of many genre franchises and his observations about both pop and literary culture make him at the very least a unique and valuable participant in the conversation. His book, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths, available from Plume Books this fall, is a collection of essays based on some of the most compelling ideas he's developed over the years.

Here we talk to Britt about some of his favorite topics: what our pop-culture monsters might tell us about ourselves, what we talk about when we talk about writers' personal lives, and the importance of reading books outside your usual preferences. 

ORIGINS

Tell us a little about your upcoming book.

BRITT

Sure! It’s called Luke Skywalker Can’t Read And Other Geeky Truths, and it’s coming out on November 24th of this year. It’s a collection of essays about sci-fi and fantasy in literature, film, and television - cultural essays about that, as well as personal essays about how thinking about genre has impacted my life and view on things. As an example, one of the essays, “Dracula’s Pants,” is about the origins of monsters in contemporary pop-culture story telling: basically, we’re all a little scary, we’re all capable of bad things, and we fob that off on our modern monsters. Monsters are a weird way of excusing ourselves from being reasonable. 

The essay focuses on the vampiric roots of the monster, but really monsters come from everywhere. Asimov points out that dentistry is a direct link to our not burning witches anymore, because before dentistry was common old women who outlived their husbands were scary, because they didn’t have beards to hide behind and their mouths looked horrifying. But the rest of us were happy to burn them, which makes us pretty frightening too, you know? There are easy monsters to blame the inexplicable on, and the trickier monsters who do the blaming. It’s a perpetual othering.

ORIGINS

The origin of this book seems to be your years writing for various online outlets (Tor.com, Barnes&Noble Sci-Fi, Omni Reboot, The Awl, and Sparknotes, among others). How organic was the transition from staff blogger to essayist?

BRITT

I guess the organic part of the process is basically I like talking about what I like, and I also like talking about why I like it. But being a professional writer is not organic. It’s a lot of work, and it doesn’t pay well. It’s not a smart move. You have to sacrifice a lot of comfort and stability. You have to figure out how to be a little anti-social. It makes your parents nervous, you’re constantly broke. My best answer for what the origin of this book is that it came out of me being a broke, upset person - I’m most happy, or content, when I’m actually working on the essays.

The problem with blogging on demand, for pay, is that there are time and topic restraints. So, yeah, a lot of these essays are based on articles I’ve written, but now that I’m dealing with this new format, I have the luxury of time. I’ve had time to really read some academic texts on sci-fi, and also some great essays. And not just essays on science fiction, or genre fiction. I forgot how much I love Chuck Klosterman, and also how much I disagree with him! Which is okay, because he’s not trying to be the expert, and neither am I. Miranda July is the same. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a collection called Dancing On The Edge of The World in which she reprints an essay on feminism ten years after its first publication with footnotes including her new, amended feelings on the way she herself addressed the topic. It’s always evolving. It’s amazing.

ORIGINS

Do you think it’s crucial to have an awareness of a writer’s personal life to understand a fictional story?

BRITT

That’s a conversation had by people who are almost exclusively interested in naturalistic fiction. It’s almost never asked about a science fiction writer – unless the science fiction writer is, even within the genre community, a marginalized voice. Like, knowing Octavia Butler is a black woman will probably help your understanding of Kindred. If a white person had written that, it would have almost been offensive, or at the very least puzzling. But when most people talk about science fiction or fantasy, even in academic conversations, no one is wondering whether or not Isaac Asimov is a robot, or even wondering much about his background as a poor Jewish immigrant. Do you need any of that information to read I, Robot? No, you don’t. 

But maybe you should have that knowledge. I don’t really know, but I tend to think you don’t. This bias comes from – to put it bluntly – thinking too hard about writers of naturalistic fiction, but more importantly not hard enough about writers in general. Where is Mary Higgens Clark from? No one knows. What’s Stephen King’s background? Fewer people care than his book sales would indicate. But we have a plaque over a chair Ernest Hemingway might have thrown up on in Paris, because his life and his writing are inexorably linked for us. 

ORIGINS

Well, Ernest Hemingway’s expat years made for a book in and of themselves. Stephen King’s life in Maine doesn’t seem quite as exciting.

BRITT

To an extent you’re right, though we could find the interesting aspects in any life. But when it comes to genre writers, we don’t even look. It’s so emblematic of a genre bias.

None of this is to say I wouldn’t prefer to read The Sun Also Rises over any other book right this second. I just think going on and on about Hemingway’s being a drunk misogynist or how standing up when he wrote made him a better writer or whatever means you’re not talking about another book, or another writer.

Lev Grossman recently said to me when I interviewed him about The Magicians, that just because he can or can’t perform magic doesn’t mean the book isn’t autobiographical. And I do think that’s fascinating.  Every piece of writing is to some extent autobiographical. And this extends beyond fiction. A writer of movie reviews is operating with an element of autobiography. But it becomes a slippery slope if you consider it in the extreme, because then you start forcing parallels everywhere. You’re on page 600-something of the fourth Wheel of Time book and you’re insisting a certain character is actually a direct representation of Robert Jordan’s third grade teacher or whatever. Which is crazy. It’s just solving a puzzle that isn’t there. I mean, if you’re asking these kinds of questions, you need to think of yourself as a fan, I guess, because there’s nothing scholarly about it.  

ORIGINS

Speaking of fans and knowledge, in my own narrow scope of experience, I’ve found fans of genre to be particularly competitive when it comes to knowledge. You kind of have to know the most, or be the most accurate. Like, you have to be the most qualified fan in order to share opinions, or something. 

BRITT

It’s funny you mention that – I just wrote about this recently. Basically, there’s just no way to be right about everything. I have a disclaimer about this in my book. There is always someone trying to knock you off the pedestal of being an expert. I took a page from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist  - she doesn’t want to say she’s a good feminist, because if she does she’s on a pedestal and people are going to come after her for the quality of her feminism. So she comes right out and says she’s a bad one, so it’s just her, not this whole group, The Feminists. Just her, thinking about these things, these problems. It’s like, I’m among you, but I don’t necessarily represent you.  

Cover design by Samantha Russo

Cover design by Samantha Russo

I recently read an essay by my friend Melissa Febos, who wrote a memoir about her experiences as a dominatrix called Whip Smart. In this essay she talks about how in doing interviews about the book, everyone asked her how it felt to be a bondage expert.  And her response was always, I’m not. I just wrote a book about my experiences. That doesn’t make me an expert. 

The title essay of the collection is called “Luke Skywalker Can’t Read.” It’s based on an article I wrote for Tor.com, just talking about how there is a strange sort of illiteracy that pervades a lot of pop sci-fi and fantasy – and again it’s just what I find myself noticing and thinking about.  It’s not the whole truth of sci-fi, or of Star Wars. It’s not binary. But when the original article went up, I had people on Twitter saying, “Well, Han had a book in his hand in this one comic book they put out in 1995, so your whole argument is wrong.” But I’m not making an argument. I’m pointing out a pattern and thinking about it for a bit. I’m just inviting people to hang out in my brain for a while. 

But yeah, I think in any area, there is a desire for certain people to be an expert or in other people to find an expert, but I’ve found those people are seldom professionals, or even the real fans. 

ORIGINS

I am curious about authority in genre, though. Authority over what you even can know. Le Guin, or Atwood, or anyone in genre, really – they’re dealing in the realm of their imaginations, over which only they can have authority. It allows people to gain authority where they didn’t have any before. 

BRITT

What I’ve noticed that has helped me as a writer – and a critic – of fiction and genre fiction is surrendering to the idea that I’m not an authority. There’s a quote from a Katherine Hepburn movie that I’m using in the book which is basically states that we all make the rules. The truth of this stuff is in flux, and we all deal with that flux by making a bunch of rules ourselves, and surrendering to that is really helpful. I wrote an essay about Tolkien and I make a lot of jokes in the beginning about how afraid I am because I know Tolkien fans are so hardcore. But part of that is just their mad love, their insane love for Tolkien. They love those books so much that they want to sort of possess them, and by talking about them without that kind of mad love or authority - it’s like you’re worried you’ll be taking something away. But I think part of having good discussions, and being a good writer, is not worrying about that. You have to be okay with being an amateur. 

Another part of the reason the genre communities – especially sci-fi - are sort of protective of the material they love this way is because for so long these communities felt hugely marginalized. To an extent, when it comes to books, they still are. People still just randomly say, “I don’t really like to read science fiction.” Which is like saying, “I don’t like stories set in Rome.” It’s weird and it doesn’t make any sense. People have no problem consuming science fiction or fantasy in film, for example. All but one of the top ten grossing movies ever are sci-fi or fantasy. The minds ability to consume and enjoy this stuff is vast. 

ORIGINS

That kind of a statement is also categorically untrue, because in a way you can argue that any text is science fiction or fantasy, since the author is necessarily inventing at least some aspect of it. It’s all speculative. 

BRITT

In a great non-fiction book called The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Samuel Delany says, “naturalistic fictions are parallel world stories in which the divergence from the real is too slight for historical verification.” So as soon as you create, say, Nick Adams, you’ve created a parallel world in which an extra person exists. The population of the human race in that world has grown by one, and by magical means. I make this argument all the time. Television shows like Sherlock are inherently science fiction because they exist in a world in which the character Sherlock Holmes is not fictional, but is real, running around and sending text messages. And if the mind can accept that, it can accept anything. There’s a great George Saunders essay in which he talks about how when he was first writing, he thought his job was to report on the world, or to create a sensory experience. But the job doesn’t have to be that at all. The mind can accept so much more than that. 

ORIGINS

So let’s talk about the idea of the “guilty pleasure” when it comes to choosing books. I think the difference between books and those top ten movies you’re talking about is that a lot of people feel some obligation when selecting fiction to read. It should be a contribution to contemporary literary citizenship, or should be of some educational or historical value, or, at the most basic, should be something that might appear on a school survey reading list. And I kind of get that, but ultimately reading fiction is a form of entertainment. But being entertained for the sake of itself has this kind of guilt factor. 

BRITT

This gets back to the idea that we can know what the author was up to. I think the critic, or the person who reads what they consider to be real books, tends to think of genre as something that was written for money. 

We got sort of ashamed at some point of really interesting characters. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games is a much more interesting character than Winston from 1984, which is a boring book. But something about it being depressing and cautionary makes us feel like it’s good. Characters that are unconventional are so much better, though. In fact, it’s a great arena for marginalized voices, because genre readers are inherently seeking experiences and perspectives wildly different from their own. Like in Victor LaValle’s Big Machine, minorities are dealing with kind of being super heroes. None of us can directly identify with that experience, so we're all sort of the perfect audience for it. I think genre fiction is where these fascinating kinds of characters really can come into play. But we kind of feel like once things get imaginative or entertaining, it’s somehow wrong. But it happens all the time. Pierre Boulle, who wrote Bridge on the River Kwai, also wrote Planet of the Apes. His mind had space for both of those things and so does yours. There are all kinds of examples of people who have won massive prestigious awards who also write Star Trek novels for money. And those Star Trek novels aren’t even that bad! Plus they get paid for writing them. 

ORIGINS

Why is making money in the fiction world somehow crass? Why does that count as “selling out?” It seems like we should be cheering for anyone who manages to make a living off of writing novels, tie-in or otherwise, but we kind of don’t. We’re suspicious of it, almost. 

BRITT

This problem comes from the idea that writing isn’t a real job. That it’s just a pursuit. We are all guilty of this idea, to some extent. Writers and non-writers alike. 

But it is a job, and genre communities do their best to treat it like one. Say what you will about the sci-fi community, but every sci-fi journal of note, as listed by Science Fiction Writers of America, all pay. Every one. That’s not true of every mainstream literary magazine. Since you can make money writing genre fiction, but not most other kinds of fiction, there’s this idea that genre writers are hacks. It goes back to penny dreadfuls, these old stories we get our classic monsters from. These books might not be high art, but they’re art and the writers sold them for money. Writing them was a job. Tie-in fiction is done by especially good writers. They’re fast, they’re talented, and they work really hard. But they don’t get invited to panels as often as they should. I don’t know who’s fault that is, but I’d like to live in a world where it’s not the case.

I had a lot of cynicism about this years ago. I was joking with my aunt, who is a romance novelist, and I made a joke about Nora Roberts having a robot that writes her books for her. And my aunt was like, that’s absolutely not true. Nora Roberts is one of the hardest working writers out there. And this was coming from my aunt, who herself puts out two or three books a year. And here I am, cobbling together my first. So, I have nothing bad to say to a romance novelist, or a Star Wars novelist. 

I think some of the arrogance about this comes from people who aren’t writers, because they just don’t understand the skill level actually required. But some people do. There are these rumors that Junot Diaz is writing bad science fiction under a pseudonym, which is a rumor I’d love to fuel, because it would help this misunderstanding to find out you need to be a Junot Diaz-quality writer to do this stuff. 

ORIGINS

How do you choose your personal reading material, in general? Do you mostly read genre? 

BRITT

Here’s what I tell my students: if you’re choosing to pick up or not pick up a book just because it is or isn’t sci-fi, or just because it was or wasn’t on a Best of 2014 list, or just because it’s your ticket to literary citizenship, or something like that, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re picking up a book because it fits in some group, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be braver than that, or you’re going to miss a lot of amazing stuff. 

I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but Kareem Abdul Jabaar is blowing up as a literary phenomenon. He’s writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche from the perspective of Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. Mycroft goes to Trinidad and solves mysteries there, and these stories involve Kareem Abdul Jabaar’s actual family. It’s basically completely genre defying, and it’s great. 

But I bring Kareem Abdul Jabaar up specifically because he said something recently - and I can’t quote it exactly - about how sad it made him that there are just too many books, and you can’t read them all in your lifetime. And he was talking about all books. Any kind of book. 

ORIGINS

It makes me sad, too. And overwhelmed. When there are so many books out there to choose from, how does one even begin to go about choosing what to commit her time and energy too? I think that’s kind of why we rely on those end of year lists, or on genre labels. 

BRITT

That’s really complicated, and a lot can get looked over. Last year, a writer named Alena Graeden released this great book about a near future New York called The Word Exchange. It creates a very frightening universe where you feel like the world we live in is actually accelerating into what she’s talking about. It’s a cautionary tale about the privatization of what is currently the most free information imaginable: the definitions of words. It’s phenomenal! There’s a love story, it’s a thriller, it’s amazingly researched… but no one knew what to do with it. And I’m the only writer I’m friends with who has read it. I’m not saying it fell through the cracks, but it kind of did. But how do you approach people about this? I don’t know, but I wish I did. It gets upsetting when you feel like you’re the only person who has read a really great book that because of its genre intersections seems to have not been loved the way it should. 

ORIGINS

This seems like a marketing issue. 

BRITT

I want to be careful when talking about marketing. I feel like I have gotten myself into trouble talking about this. There is a drumbeat about how genre labels are only marketing terms, and that’s not true. The terms sci-fi and fantasy and horror or whatever are real terms used by readers, and they aren’t going anywhere. It takes a brave reviewer to get the word out about a book no one else is talking about. Someone who doesn’t live in a place where there are literary salons all over the place relies in part on that reviewer to know these books even exist. It’s up to people who write about writing. They should be brave in approaching their editors, and in reviewing things that are completely out of their wheelhouse. 

I found this out by force. Last year, a writer I knew from Science Fiction Writers of America asked me to moderate a panel, and I agreed. But then I found out these panelists were all former military, and the topic had to do with that, not sci-fi. I freaked. I knew nothing about the subject matter, and I didn’t really want to. My biases kicked in, and I started envisioning "Good ol' boy" war stories. So I tried to get out of it. But this guy insisted I was the right moderator for the job, so I contacted the publicists and got the galleys. The books were phenomenal! One of them was Redeployment, which won the National Book Award. And I tried to get out of reading it, and get out of talking to Phil Klay about his work. How stupid! Because it was great and he is great! I’m so lucky I wasn’t allowed to weasel out of moderating that panel.  

ORIGINS

In this overwhelming world where there are just so many books to choose from, what are you reading now? 

BRITT

Reality Hunger by David Shields, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandell, and A New Day In America by Theo Black Gangi.  But that’s literally just right now! The list is always changing...

 

Posted on March 3, 2015 .