Brad Warner, he whose Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up I both enjoyed a great deal, has a post on his blog entitled Why I Am Still a Buddhist. Almost everything he says in it is something I echo myself, with regard not only to Buddhism but writing SF and fantasy. If that sounds like a stretch, well, he-e-ere goes.
I started studying Buddhism in a scholarly fashion about fifteen years ago, but it wasn't until about 2007 or so that I began actually applying it and not simply reading about it. A good deal of why I'd avoided doing so until then encompassed two reasons: one, as Brad pointed out, the sheer number of people out there who simply do not know what Buddhism is or how (or why) it is practiced means identifying yourself with the label will inspire people to get the wrong idea; two, I'd resisted putting a collective label on my beliefs for a long time anyway, because I wasn't comfortable with the consequences of that, either for myself for others. I didn't want to call myself X and then have that become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the worst sense of the word — to simply have the label and its gross definition become the limits of what I did with myself.
When I started practicing Buddhism more seriously, I still didn't call myself a "Buddhist" for all the above reasons. I practice as many aspects of the path as I can comfortably make part of my life, but I don't call myself that because it doesn't really help. It's not about what I call myself, anyway; it's about what I do. The way I've put this in casual conversation to people goes something like this: I identify most closely with Buddhism, specifically Zen, in terms of spiritual paths. But I'm not comfortable confining myself to the implications of a label, and probably never will be. I'd rather be a good human being than a good "Buddhist". People who are more interested in the fulfillment of a role (real or imagined) than anything else are missing out.
Now for the SF&F part of the picture. [Voices off: "About time, bucko."]
One of the weirder complaints I've heard from some of the more pretentious SF&F authors out there is how their work is not science fiction or not fantasy. How they resent being identified with all that other lowbrow riffraff rabbleraking, especially when they are doing so much to Transcend the Limitations of Genre, or some other such Horse Puckey. My entirely biased personal sample shows me that every single one of the folks who gets uptight about such issues is, by and large, a blue-ribbon bona fide blowhard and not all that great an author to begin with, which makes their purple-faced horn-tooting all the more eye-rollingly ludicrous to begin with. You get elevated out of the genre after the fact, by your readers; you whining about it changes nothing.
At the heart of it, though, is an interesting issue, something Brad touches on in his essay as well: Until you put a label on something, it's hard to know what it is. Goes double in a world like ours, where most people are not going to sit with you for an hour over lunch to hear you explain your position. Labels become inevitable, which makes people all the touchier about which ones are applied.
Parallels aplenty can be drawn: consider Lou Reed, complaining about how RCA was originally going to release Metal Machine Music on their Red Seal classical sublabel, when he just wanted it released on RCA generically. "It seems dilletantish and hpocritical [to do that]," he told Lester Bangs, "like saying 'The really smart, complicated stuff is over here, in the classical bin, meanwhile the shit rock 'n' roll goes over here where the schmucks are.'" The fiction shelves are where you put the Serious Books with Real People in it, and the science fiction section is where you dump all that multi-volume doorstopper bullshit where people wave swords or laser guns or laser swordguns. Gotta keep 'em separated.
Trouble is, you can't keep people from peeking over the fences forever, and now we have a sitch in progress where all that ess eff stuff is leaking into what we laughingly call the "mainstream" (inasmuch as a culture that has 8,000 channels on every TV can be said to have a main-anything). That hasn't turned most people on to hardcore SF, though — no more so than it compelled people exiting The Dark Knight Rises to stampede on down to their local comic store (assuming they even could find one anymore) and pick up Batman Year One. The SF-that-we-call-SF is a discretely-labeled creature, eartagged so as to keep it from wandering into the herd where we keep the everything-else-that-sometimes-has-bits-of-SF-in-it-but-not-too-much-lest-we-scare-people-off.
My thesaurus and dictionary both suggest that the right word to describe such a situation is parochialism, although Balkanized and maybe incurious also come to mind. Whether we should expect any differently is another story, though. People need a label for things, because life is short and most of us are not critics (nor do we want to have that crap job). We need to label a person as a Buddhist or a Republican so we can have some idea of how to treat him or whether to avoid him entirely, and we need to label a book as science fiction or just plain fiction so we know whether or not to bother reading it without having our precious heads melt.
Or maybe it's just that we're so used to convincing ourselves of the necessity of labels, so unwilling to imagine a situation where a story is just a story and a person is just a person, so unmotivated to teach ourselves to take in the whole of what we are presented with, that it's no surprise the labels still manage to win every time.
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