Monday, March 23, 2009

Money

Last night I was reading Samuel Delany's book About Writing, and I came across this provocative sentence: "In one way or another, directly or indirectly, most good fiction is about money."

Money? Really?

Delany was not talking specifically about SF. In mainstream, he makes a pretty good case. He says that much good fiction is about a character from one socioeconomic stratum entering another, or about the clash of social classes divided by money, or about people who gain a lot of money, or lose a lot of money, or need a lot of money, or are disinclined to associate with the differently monied. Those cases cover Les Miserables, Gone With the Wind, all of Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby, Vanity Fair, most of Dickens, An American Tragedy, Revolutionary Road, all of Colette, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Human Bondage, Howard's End -- to name just the first, diverse batch of books to come to my mind.

In SF, the situation gets murkier. Certainly books like Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon center on money, and so does LeGuin's The Dispossessed, in that she is trying to work out a society that does not use money (making its absence one of the foci of the novel). Robinson's Red Mars yes; Gibson's Neuromancer -- yes; my own Beggars in Spain -- yes. But "most" good SF? Although money can translate into power, and much SF is concerned with power. Money can also be security, opportunity, freedom, or luxury -- all SF concerns.

I think Delany may be correct. He says that books that don't have money as at least one of their main concerns, feel "thin." And that needs very, very careful thought.

10 comments:

Andrew said...

Thanks Nancy. Delany is one of the more intriguing characters in SF and Dhalgren is the book that reinstilled my faith in the genre when I first read it (belatedly) several years ago. I've read some of his other critical works but not this one; I've just put in a hold at my local library for it.

A.R.Yngve said...

Delany's argument can't be dismissed when it comes to non-SF/F literature.

But what about Fantasy?

Someone, I forgot who, pointed out how many fantasy novels seem to ignore money: fantasy protagonists live in a fairy-tale economy. They never have trouble financing their travels and adventures -- and wizards will simply GIVE them magical objects instead of, well, selling them for profit.

Of course there are recent and notable exceptions to this rule, but still...

cd said...

This seems to me like an unfalisfiable claim. I would never conceive of, say, Moby Dick as a "novel about money." But someone could respond, but what about Ahab's offer of bounty to the crew?

People want things, and in a most economies that involves money, so money will appear. I'm inclined to think then that Delany didn't really say anything substantial at all with that comment.

Nancy Kress said...

No, MOBY DICK is not about money, bcause the Pequod is a self-contained and self-sufficient little world. So are spaceships, which is maybe why Delany's comment doesn't apply to some SF. But I don't think you can dismiss the list of novels I posted -- and Delany's is even longer -- that do have money (or its lack) at their core.

Mike Flynn said...

Well, money is how we keep score on any number of human activities, so it will always be there implicitly. Are we saying something different if we said most fiction was about oxygen? Any fully-realized society will have some form of exchange and, if we can define 'money' broadly enough to mean 'stories about people who have money,' etc., or to include barter, then it can cover most anything. An economy is simply one of the dimensions of the real world, which is probably why it is easier to see the money in realistic mainstream fiction than in SF.

It also think that if =I= am intensely interested in money and class, I will see it everywhere I look. If I am focused on sex, Moby Dick becomes some sort of sexual symbol:. If I am interested in Knowledge....

What made Ahab mad was not that he was looking for a profit, but that he had abandoned all thought of profit in exchange for revenge. Money is there, if you look for it diligently enough; but only because it is always there. Even if the story is about someone who doesn't care about money, it is still money he doesn't care about.

cd said...

I agree with the list. And there are surely many other things we could add. Timon? The Merchant of Venice? Parts of Crime and Punishment or of Karamazov. Parts of Anna K. A lot of Shaw. Death of a Salesman.

(Interestingly, I can't think of a great poem where money is central.)

And Delany's comment does strikes me as very useful because provocative: it provokes one to ask, have I taken money and the role of money seriously enough in my fiction?

Mark said...

I gotta say that while "money" is a valid motivator for many people & characters, it is not nearly the only one, and probably not the most prevalent one. While it is easy for a sales prospect, for example, to say "I can't afford it", that is most probably not the real objection. Having managed people to greater and lesser success in the real world, I've seen people do all kinds of difficult stuff for t-shirts, awards, etc. that they wouldn't consider for "just money".

As far as fiction goes, there are quite a few stories that stand out where money is not an on-the-surface motivator: Call of the Wild, Ringworld, 1984, Anthem, etc.

BTW, I just saw "Watchmen". Good movie. I can't remember the last time I saw a flick that made me feel I got $7 worth of entertainment out of ($12.50 including popcorn). Nancy, I saw your name listed in the end credits as a Crafts provider. Is this you?

Louis said...

Nan, if for "money," one reads "survival in some form," I'm inclined to agree. In fantasy, for instance, money may not be applicable as a survival mechanism, but other methodologies substitute for it -- or it for them in our societies.

James A. Ritchie said...

I don;t think being a self-contained world doesn't mean money isn't a factor. Whaling boats went out to bring back whale oil to sell for money, and God knows the notion of spaceships where pirates, smugglers, traders, explorers, etc., are all after money. . .or credits.

Even Star Trek, supposedly set in a society without money, still had to bring money into many episodes.

I loved Pohl's first couple of Gateway novels, and money was everything in those novels.

All SF about money? Probably not, but it's certain a sizable bit of it revolves around money one way or another.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Isn't that like saying "most good fiction is about love"?

And while I admire Delany big-time, does "in one way or another, directly or indirectly, most..." say =anything=? How can such an assertion be refuted?

Is Lovecraft's THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP about money? Or is it Just a sec, seems to be an eldritch tentacle wrapping 'round me leg here...