The Leopardskin Print of Thrift Shop Drag
So here I am, after a dozen or so columns, sitting in the SF Café, drinking my black coffee and saying, f’r sure, no Science Fiction novel has ever won the Booker. Yeah? And? So? What? Has any Crime novel ever won the Booker? Has any Romance? Has any Western? Let’s simplify it: Has any work of extruded formulaic pabulum in any Genre you care to name ever won the Booker? Has any work in any Genre born of the fricking pulps, in any commercial marketing category specifically designed to target a niche with a promise of extruded formulaic pabulum ever won the Booker?
It’s fuck all to do with an antipathy to strange fiction — that fiction born in the breaches of reality, be it fantasia or futurology, (or both, or neither, for that matter.) MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN. Booker of Bookers. Join the dots. No, this is about junk fiction, about pulp fiction. So no novel with the tramp stamp of a Genre on its back ever won the Booker?
The high-brow, high-class literati of the Bistro de Critique aren’t about to invite a bunch of what appear to be crack-addled whores and hustlers in red leather miniskirts or denim cut-offs to their cocktail parties. Just cause we all know the ghetto chic stylings and those who wear them well enough to tell the bohos from the hobos, don’t expect the incogniscenti to. We see Tiptree-worthy transvestite performance artists; they see tramp-stamped tarts in the leopardskin print of thrift shop drag. They see the bad rep that the ghetto has for a reason — because business is done on the street corners, johns passing through in their cars, pulling over at a painted face — pancake makeup gaucher than a 70s cover illustration of Gully Foyle’s tattoos. You have to be a regular down here to know that the guy or gal leaning in the driver’s window, batting long black eyelashes as they barter, isn’t promising the sort of good time that a stranger might expect them to be.
— Best mindfuck you’ll ever have, baby, they’re saying.
In truth, as we know, they’re touting tickets for some whacked-out warehouse ninja gig with Warhol on the lightshow, D’Allesandro dancing, Old Bill Burroughs croaking his crazed junkie rap over the beats. They’re selling the address of a secret spectacle designed to blow your mind. But there’s no way to know that unless you hang down here by habit. If you’re just passing through, baby, all you see is another hustler climbing into some kerb-crawler’s car, being driven off towards a sordid handjob in an alley somewhere out of sight.
Another book with a spaceship or a dragon on the cover, bought and sold, a few bucks for a shallow buzz.
— Hey, big boy, the next streetwalker says to one passing incogniscenti. I’ll show you a good time.
— No thanks, says they with a discernible disdain and a wave of the hand. I don’t really like Sci-Fi.
The Crack Whore in the Closet
We rile at their response, but that handwave of dismissal — I don’t really like Sci-Fi — that unconsidered condescension that sends many a genre bunny into waves of apoplexy is not hard to figure, really. What they’re saying is, I’m just not looking for a handjob. Skeezy strip joints, clip joints, lurid neon signs of dragons wrapped round dancing girls, cock rockets firing for the skies, the streets of Genre are a gauntlet of gaudy promises — CHEAP THRILLS! CHEAP THRILLS! CHEAP THRILLS! Come and get it, baby, every corner of the ghetto proclaims.
— No thanks, they say. I don’t really like Sci-Fi. I’m not looking for cheap thrills. And a penicillin shot.
Our faces burn, our fists clench, when those hoity toity literati cock their snoots and roll their eyes at our protests that this is arrant prejudice. Cheap thrills? And a penicillin shot? Fuck you, asswipe. But you know, we’re really sorta standing there, in our red leather miniskirt or our denim cut-offs, saying, Hey! I’m not a whore. I’m not a hustler. I’m a professional masseuse! We’re wearing our mother’s hip-hugging skirt, baby, our big brother’s butt-snuggling cut-offs, and half the time we are promising thrills, the sensationalism of sense-of-wonder, a fiction driven by the incredible, whether it’s dragons or Dyson Spheres. We are the slatternly faggot sons and legs-akimbo daughters of a whore slut mother called Pulp, hookers and hustlers just like Momma was. And it’s time we made our peace with that.
Sure, if we do pick up some incogniscenti on some metaphoric corner, when we get them back to our ghetto crib and that spectral slapper all too suddenly rears its head — Sci-Fi, you say? — well, we can shove it in the the closet, slam the door behind us, and shout over our hidden bitch-dam’s thumps and protests: It’s not Sci-Fi! It’s science fiction! It’s SF! It’s speculative fiction! We can be literary too, damn it! Don’t you oppress me with your elitism! They’re just gonna blink uncomfortably at our sudden irrational hostility, at our strange unfathomable defensiveness. At the really loud cry of, “I am Sci-Fi! Hear me roar!” coming from that closet behind us.
— So what’s with the crack-whore in the closet? they say.
— Not us, we say. We’re with Mary Shelley and Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and George Orwell. We’re a class act, baby. And it’s only ten bucks to go around the block with us. Just give us a try and you’ll see!
— A warehouse ninja gig thing, you say? A rave with performance art on the dance floor and a salon of literary discourse in the chill room?
— Totally! We just give our tickets to the guy in the sex shop, see, and he’ll let us in round back, past the toilets and the back-room poker game, downstairs to the basement dungeon and… why are you looking at me like that? Like I’m trying to finagle you into a clip joint?
And they back away slowly… baaaack away slowly.
__ Maybe we could just go for a burger? you shout after them. I know this great little joint called the SF Café.
Not that we can persuade them there either.
The Kipple Foodstuff Factory
The Kipple Foodstuff Factory sits at the heart of the ghetto of Genre, spewing out noxious fumes from its blackened brick chimneys, spewing out poisonous effluvia into the river from its rusted iron waste-pipes, spewing out lorryloads of processed and packaged foodstuffs to be delivered to every café, bar and diner in the ghetto. Built in the first half of the twentieth century, it introduced the city to the very idea of junk food. Burgers, fried chicken, fish-n-chips, kebabs, you name it, the KFF created an entire industry in its boom; and it’s still churning out its own brand of schlock, though it’s been in competition now for over half a century with the countless cooks (and capitalists) who, as employees, tweaked its recipes (and recipes for success) until the shoddiness was just too much and they just had to strike out on their own.
You can get a far better burger than a KFF schlockburger these days, from any number of soul food entrepeneurs. It’s hard to get worse. The Kipple Foodstuff Factory gets its raw resources from the city dump and the sewers, essentially reconstituting shit into schlock, a sort of pseudo-meat one step away from Soylent Green. (And the right colour for it, to the extent that KFF Burgers were affectionately dubbed “boogers” at the gastronaut conventions of the 1950s, a monicker that spread to burgers in general and has persisted to this very day in public parlance.) But the Mob seems to have a thing for KFF products, rich as they are in crack cocaine, and nobody in the restaurant business wants to piss off the Mob, so the owners of eateries across the city serve those KFF schlock products, regardless of the fact that they have zero nutritional value and highly variable toxicity levels; hey, if it keeps the Mob happy…
As loathe as we might be to admit it, they serve those boogers in the SF Café, and people buy them by the shitload, the glopping gruel of extruded pulp, thickened to solidity with gosh-wow technotoys and adolescent geekwank, pure formula fare. That’s not all that’s on the menu, of course, not by any means. The fry cooks down here in the ghetto of Genre are every bit as skilled as many a master chef in the uptown bistros of Literature. From the basic ingredients through to the methods of preparation, their cuisine has little in common with the dreck of mass-extruded KFF products, even though they share a menu. You won’t find those production-line values here, no design-by-committee-and-focus-group, no franchise formulation. The best and the brightest — even the middling and mediocre — are often working without a recipe, or at very least playing fast and loose with various recipes, getting creative with the classics.
There are real burgers here too then, burgers that are made by hand — made to a recipe as old as the hills, for sure, and hardly haute cuisine, but an honest kind of junk food that puts the extruded KFF shit to shame even when we’re talking patties of the crudest kind, adventures in space shaped by subtexts of neo-fascist wish-fulfillment, cleverly-crafted thought experiments revealing only some poor scribbler’s utter incomprehension of human behaviour. Asimov’s cardboard characters. Heinlein’s descent into didactic drivel. We’re not talking Michelin stars, baby. But at its best, this is our soul food. It’s seldom just a burger, really. It’s a cheese’n’bacon-burger or a chilliburger. Pepper and onions ground in with the beef. Big chunks of jalapeno in the chilli. Refried beans on the side. It’s a burger with an extra kick, an extra tang that grabs you by the taste buds, tells you someone actually put a bit of effort into making this hit the spot.
There’s even some crazy fusion going on in the SF Café kitchen, real cordon bleu cuisine that in a different context might be labelled “culinary cooking” (like, yanno, “literary fiction.”) In the SF Café you’ll find tropes filched from Fantasy, Horror, Western, Noir, you name it, all cooked up daily, just as fresh and just as spicy as the Postmodern Chilli of the Bistro de Critique. The chefs in both kitchens apply the same grab-bag approach to writing, where anything and everything might be thrown into the mix. Hell, the ingredients of that Postmodern Chilli — nanotech, spaceships, remote viewing, future dystopias, Lovecraftian gods, Sumerian mythology, climate change, robots, aliens, hard-bitten detectives, historical characters, and so on — arguably they learned that shit from us. We cannibalise the bona fide pulp fiction of every fucking Genre around. SF as it stands now is a crazy cuisine of countless forms and flavours.
Down at the greasy spoon SF Café there’s lots of tasty fast food on the menu then. Soul food or savoury food or speculative fusion — it has a lot of names. The KFF boogers are sold as take-out from a little window in the front, but walk inside the door and you’ll be hard-pushed to find a single patron eating that crap. We all know better. True, you’ll find a whole fucking lot of them eating traditional burgers rather than steak tartare, but that’s hardly surprising. And the tournado rossini can hardly be called unpopular. That’s the stuff we really rate, of course, not junk food at all, but the fine fare we just know the literati of the Bistro de Critique would be jealous of… if they would ever deign to taste it.
Still, it’s little wonder those incogniscenti are resistant when we try to coax them down to the SF Café, tempt them with the treats in store; cause there’s a motherfucking massive KFF franchise sign in neon outside, lit up night and day. And it’s little wonder our insistence on the glories of the menu doesn’t shatter the shackles of prejudice and lead naysayers out into the light; cause in our insistence that there’s Sci-Fi and there’s proper SF, that there’s boogers and proper burgers, somewhere along the way, somehow, it seems we’ve become… a little over-zealous in abjuring the soul food with the schlock. Cause God forbid anyone confuse what we call SF, what we call burgers, with the junk it was born from and still shares a menu with.
A Conversation at Cross-Purposes
— Come on in, baby, we tell the incogniscenti. This is a proper burger joint, the real deal.
— No, thanks, they say. I don’t really like boogers.
— Don’t call them boogers, we bristle. They’re burgers.
— Sorry, they say. I know you take your boogers really seriously, but —
— Burgers! Boogers and burgers are totally different things.
— Whatever. Look, I don’t really eat junk food at all. I like culinary cooking.
— But proper burgers aren’t junk food. They’re nothing like that shit the Mob goes for. Hell, they’re more real food than that hoity toity culinary cooking. Fucking vegetarian tosh. But burgers… I mean, come on, look at that. Doesn’t it look tasty?
— Uh, sure, but that’s steak tartare. I thought you said this was a burger joint?
— Steak tartare’s just a fancy way of pretending what you like isn’t really burger! But it is. See the red meat? See? Burger!
— It’s raw. Boogers are cooked.
— Burgers! And they don’t have to be cooked. The chefs in the SF Café long since moved on from that fry cook junk food stuff. That’s, like, trad burger, Golden Age burger, genre burger. The New Wave totally opened everything up; and we’re still finding new ways to make burgers. Look at this! Appetising, right?
— Yes, but that’s paté.
— And this.
— That’s tournado rossini. Looks nice.
— And this.
— That’s chilli con carne. Sure, I like a good chilli, but that’s just… food. It’s not a burger.
— But it’s all red meat! So it’s all burgers! Or what are you trying to say: if it’s a burger, it can’t be good; if it’s good, it can’t be a burger?
— No, I’m saying it’s fricking crazy to call a bowl of chilli a booger.
— Whatever! Look, culinary cooking isn’t limited to that cheap ketchup and fries approach, but a burger is a patty in a bun. With ketchup and fries. I’m not saying there’s no skill involved in that, but it’s hardly Cuisine. That’s basically all there is to them. Like those.
— Oh, for fuck’s sake! Those aren’t proper burgers at all. Dude, those are boogers. Typical! You think that’s what all burgers are like cause that’s what fricking Planet Hollywood sells as burgers. But that patty-in-a-bun junk food bullshit has nothing to do with actual burgers. Planet Hollywood is, like, decades behind the SF Café. Our burgers aren’t limited to — what?
— The fuck are you on? Look, that is steak tartare. Those are burgers.
— No, they’re boogers. That‘s a burger. You just won’t accept that burgers can be every bit as good as culinary cooking.
— Bollocks to this. You’re nuts. I’m out of here.
— Go on then. But you can’t dismiss all burgers as boogers if you’re not even going to try a proper burger.
— It’s steak tartare!
And off they go, backing away slowly, looking past us at the chimneys of the Kipple Foodstuff Factory that tower over the skyline of the ghetto, wondering what crazy-inducing chemicals they spew into the air here.
Of Burgers and Boogers
Of course, not all burgers are schlockburgers. We know that all too well in the SF Café. We’ve moved on from the days when the clientele and cooks lacked a sophisticated palate, when it was ketchup and fries with everything because that’s what you do when you’re cooking for kids. But the whole burger/booger distinction is just kinda cracked. All those “It’s not Sci-Fi! It’s SF!” remonstrations just sound sorta nuts, all the more so when we’re disowning the soul food with the junk food, all of it, as ersatz boogers, in flagrant denial of the fact our Golden Age SF was born from exactly that. Or when blind loyalty to the tribe has us proclaiming steak tartare a type of burger, scorning the incogniscenti whose rampant elitism must be what leads them to deny the true nature of raw mince, veil it with some fancy-ass name.
And of course, these days you’ll find burgers on the menu in a lot of uptown restaurants, not seen, in that context, as junk food, but still basically burgers. Down in the SF Café, we discuss examples of uptown’s “culinary cooking” — dishes by Attwood or Roth, say. We bitch of how these are blatantly burgers, just like ours — but not so good, we say often, as attempts to reinvent the wheel, hamstrung by ignorance of our conventions, the proper way to make a burger. Sometimes we make sense, sometimes not: that dystopian dish, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, for sure, that’s ground beef in a patty, flame-grilled and served on a bun; the beef stew of THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA is not a burger by any stretch of the imagining though, except in the whacky zeal of true believers who’ve seen stew served as burger over and over again in the SF Café, yeah? And besides it has red meat in it, so it must be so. Even if the meat is actually fricking venison.
Not that this makes Attwood or Roth SF writers, mind. In the SF café they’re seen as outsiders, part-timers. Up in the Bistro de Critique, meanwhile, the very suggestion would be laughed off as a blatant attempt to appropriate the cream of culinary cooking for the sake of prestige. As another grab by those ghetto-born geeks with hard-ons for the future, pointing at Wells or Verne, Shelley or Orwell, say, instead of shoddy 1930s magazines that might as well have been called Awesome Wank Fantasies. As if you could call Orwell’s dystopia a burger when he’s tackling the 20th Century head-on, reimagining Stalinism and fascism from his direct experience of it during the Spanish Civil War, not telling some Boy’s Own Adventure of battling squids in space. These are sophisticated chefs, not fry cooks of junk fiction, dishing out burger novels full of fat and sugar and salt and artificial flavourings, all crafted in absolute obeisance to a traditional recipe! What next? Is Kafka a Horror writer just like H.P. Lovecraft, just exactly like H.P. Lovecraft, because THE TRIAL is dripping with fear and paranoia, its main character pitted against profoundly disturbing irrational forces?
It’s hard enough to get the incogniscenti to see past the absence of ketchup and fries with something like Attwood’s work, the fact that it’s not handed to you by a spotty adolescent who needs to learn some hard truths about personal hygiene — to persuade them that actually this isn’t how most burgers are served in the SF Café. It’s hard enough to sell them on the truth that extra ingredients of good prose and characterisation can render a work “culinary cooking” by their standards and not stop it being a fucking burger. It’s not going to get any easier if we ourselves shroud the whole discourse in an artificed dichotomy of burgers and boogers.
Especially not when we’re pointing at steak tartare as an example of good burger. Or when we ourselves are ignoring the cheese, the bacon, the chilli, the jalapenos, the refried beans, etc., on the patties of ground beef that remind us just a little too much of our pulp roots; when we’re so desperate to highlight the steak tartare we’ll happily find some spurious rationale to sweep aside all the pulp, all the junk — the soul fiction with the schlock fiction — in a distinction between burgers and boogers that defies all logic.
— It’s not Sci-Fi, we insist, It’s SF.
Every time you say that a Venusian Slime Boy dies, you know.
The True Face of SF
We’ve had our backs to the closet door too long, running that bullshit mantra over and over in our minds: Oh, that’s not proper science fiction; that’s the schlock of Sci-Fi; that’s half Fantasy, half Hollywood hokum, half whatever — half something else that any fool can see is not the True Face of our valid literary form, said True Face being all serious and shit, all furrowed brows and bearded pondering. If it’s not good, it’s not SF, we might as well be saying. What kind of sneering elitist are you, disdaining our genre on account of all this schlock that doesn’t count, no sir, not one bit?
Which is a killer strategy, of course, an awesome way to persuade the incogniscenti that we’re not crazed hokum junkies, high on hackwork, trying to pimp our addled euphoria to anyone who passes. Yeah, vehement denial that we’ve got anything to do with the crack whore in the closet. Bitter accusations of snootcocking snipewankery when they point out that crack whore in the closet. Offended outrage when they assume the mindfuck we’re touting is a cheap handjob, just because we’re, like, standing on a street corner dressed exactly like the crack whore in the closet. And because our first words to a prospective customer just happen to be “Hey, big boy.”
Some of that good old-fashioned ghetto attitude — yeah, that’ll totally persuade them that not every honking big sign for a massage parlour means what they think it does in this part of town.
Fuck that shit. Let’s open up the closet, let the whore slut mother out. Let’s all of us go on the Jerry Springer Show — My Mother Is A Slut And So Am I. We’ll throw a few chairs around, get weepy and maudlin, and have done with it once and for all. There’s nothing wrong with pulp as pulp, no proper way to do fiction in this postmodernity, no need to scorn sweet Genre‘s entertainments just because they might be dodgy art by some uptight arsewipe’s Victorian value system. So they might be hokum at the best, hackwork at worst? Escapist pandering? So fuck? What are we, Puritans, disdaining pleasure for its own sake? Bollocks to that. Screw the sentiments of Cervantes’s Quixote quoted at the start. I love the junk fiction I grew up on, pornography of wonder that it was. I love my slutty slapper of a harlot mother, cause ya know, she does give real good head. A million teenage boys will testify to that.
But let’s not bullshit the bullshitters.
When the incogniscenti back away, saying they don’t like Sci-Fi, it’s the formulaic junk of pulp that they’re rejecting. And if SF always expands, for them, to schlock fiction, if they don’t get the wacky way that we abjure the strange tautology (to them) of “formulaic genre fiction,” the way we point them at an utterly implausible oxymoron (to them) of “literary genre fiction,” if we lose them in our rookery of overloaded terms, it is in part because we’re shrouding sense in daft denials, disacknowledgements of where we came from, where we are now, what is and always will be going on down in the ghetto.
We wouldn’t be here without pulp, without the schlock we’re all too keen to point away from when it comes to lineage. If the True Face of SF is all furrowed brows and bearded pondering, it also has a rather lurid shade of lipstick, not to mention metallic eyeshadow that makes early Bowie look subtle. Why shouldn’t it? Strange fiction is queer fiction, kids. Fuck literanormativity.
That Pornography of Wonder
So, yes, our slut mother, Pulp, is a crack whore who gives blowjobs for ten dollars a pop. Or maybe Pulp is the pimp as our Old Man, the patriarchal ponce of pleasure selling the Muse’s pretty mouth. That’s what Genre is, what it does. It gets down on its knees, unzips your fly and uses all the sensual skills of its slick tongue to give you a few minutes of loveless but ecstatic pleasure. And there’s a lot of that in us, Pulp’s brood of hopped-up hustlers and hookers. Oh, there’s also a whole lot more, another sire or dam — a Frankenstein’s monster of a father, or another mother in Modernity — but our cribs are here in the ghetto of Genre.
So the literati of the Bistro de Critique dismiss the fiction of that whole domain, that “genre fiction,” out of hand, can’t see all the shinola for the shit. So when you show those self-same literati some shinola ripped out of that context, then they’ll laud it to the heavens. So they’ll blithely then dismiss all claims that it belongs with junk as junk, because, well, it’s not junk but genius. That ain’t prejudice; it’s just that half the time the discourse is completely fucked by our sophistic double-thinks, schizo denials of the stark reality.
Generic fiction sucks as art by most standards. Pulp fiction, junk fiction, sucks as art. It may not suck at all as what it is. Rather than mere extruded product it may well be damn fine handicraft, simple but solid, substantial in its own way. It might be soul fiction that’s full of fat and salt and stuff that just ain’t good for you but that tastes fucking delicious. But as literature designed to give us a quick fix of formulaic figuration, nothing more, it sucks as art. Fiction that does not suck as art, does not suck as art because no matter what tropes and techniques it shares with that pulp fiction, it doesn’t gain its primary power from their familiarity; we might well get a similar high from similar ingredients, but we’ll also get fucked up in a whole other way, from a deeper weirdness than wonder. It is not just a derivative retread of hoary conventions made to fill a hole. It is not recycled pabulum, commercial dross designed to satisfy an appetite for escape. It’s not just that pornography of wonder, that loveless pleasuring…
— Hey baby, me show you good time! Ten dollah, suckee suckee.
— Oh, baby. You make me feel so good.
But that reality makes it a little awkward when you’re living deep in the ghetto of Genre, when you’ve grown up loving soul fiction but the whole discourse says that pulp is — can only be — a schlock fiction every artist should abjure in shame; so our distinctions between “literary genre fiction” and “formulaic genre fiction,” between SF and Sci-Fi, emerge as a desperate misdirection from the overwhelming predominance of that sensationalist hokum:
— Don’t look at the slut behind the curtain fellating the fourteen year old boy. Look over here, look! Look at the dancing fingers!
Fuck that shit. The only distinction worth making is between the grifters who play the shell game of formula fiction, taking cash from the punters for a moment’s thrill without even a hint of handicraft in their hackwork, and the grafters whose writing actually has an ounce of creative effort, even if it’s all put into the purest and most pandering pulp. The grafters may not be making great art by most standards, the handjob of hokum they’re offering may be shallow and loveless, but it’s only the formulaic pap that’s truly without substance, not just loveless but gutless, spineless, soulless. Fuck that Kipple Foodstuff Factory schlock. Fuck it with a pointy stick cause it’s too stinky to touch.
But when it comes to pulp fiction in general, fuck any bullshit preciousness that would lead us to abjure its lusty excesses. So it’s got a bad rep, and for some damn good reasons. Deal with it. If it means a cocked snoot or two, that goes with the territory of whoring the strange, hustling wonders. Paraliterature isn’t meant to be prim and proper.
Respect is for schoolmarms and church ministers, baby. This is New Sodom, not New Sunday School.
– originally published 12/13/2010
Hal Duncan is a sodomitic Scots smoker who staggered drunkenly into the SF Café in 2005 with his debut, VELLUM, and now has various novels, novellas, short stories, poems and essays circling in print or the aether. Further scribblings and rantings can be found at www.halduncan.com.