|Wait, this really happened?|
Oh well then it must be gritty realism.
A defense of why speculative fiction needs no defense.
Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other art forms.
When I admit my love for speculative fiction, I often feel like I should be in a high school gymnasium or church multi-purpose room being clapped at by others who have accepted their “little problem.” I will clutch a Styrofoam cup of burnt coffee in my hand, and preface my admission with “Hello, my name is Chris…”
|If my "higher power" is The Force, does that count as a step forward or backward?|
Despite the literal meaning of genre (translated from French as “kind” from the Latin genus, or even the more English meaning that finds commonalities in any kind of stylized art form), amongst the literary community “genre” basically has two meanings. At once, it can refer to the different disciplines within writing of poetry, drama, fiction, or creative non-fiction, and also as a description of formulaic, plot-based fiction that is—according to these very same literary circles—notoriously bad.
In fact, very often, one will hear the word itself often used as a pejorative. Fans are no stranger to the backhand compliment of “It’s not bad…for genre.” And if that strikes as about as sincere a compliment as saying “Hey, you’re pretty good at math…for a woman,” you get your merit badge in observing asteism.
You would probably notice if the nobles in court were making fun of you. Pretty good for a peasant. A scummy, genre-loving peasant.
It is important though, before we even begin discussing a specific genre to understand it. Terms that define anything as nebulous as a genre are rife with contention and debate. Yes, genre fiction contains various tropes and conventions. These tropes and conventions can be followed or broken for effect in the same way that GRAMMAR creates a set of conventions that can be followed or broken.
The claim that every convention within genre writing is a tired trope has no more validity than does denigrating drama for it’s adherence to a basic three act structure, or instantly disregarding poetry because it has a meter or end rhyme. (Both of which some modern literary critics are guilty of.)
Genre is as much about what we find familiar in art as what delights us because it is different. If we had no “rules” a work of art that “broke all the rules” would be meaningless. And in a turn of irony that is often overlooked, even the purported “realistic” literary fiction would be considered genre by these terms. It contains its own set of conventions, tropes, commonalities, and stylistic motifs. Minimalism, present tense narrative, second person meta-fiction, HIV/AIDS, coming to terms with cultural paradox, parents who don’t accept a child’s sexuality (and on and on)…
If we filled out these things on a bingo card, and gave everyone a random literary review, it would really only be a contest to see who read the fastest.
I asked a professor of literature once when "genre" became a pejorative, and she told me it started showing up with that connotation in criticism around the fifties. Now this isn’t an essay about the history of literature, nor am I particularly qualified to speak on such topics, but one thing I thought of immediately when I heard this was about everything going on at the time. New Criticism, which threw out the book on a work’s quality being related to its “moral lessons,” was hitting its peak. When anything peaks, that means the reactionary swing is beginning in some form. The Red Scare was destroying artists left and right. Culturally there seemed to have been an almost hyperconscious struggle between rebellion and conformity at that time.
And suddenly we had the “right” kind of literature and the “wrong” kind of literature. I’m no academic, but it seems to me awfully convenient timing that the rise of the perception of genre as inherently valueless came at roughly the same time that the fuddy duddys all said rock and roll wasn’t real music and had no aesthetic value. And while the tweed jacketed Humanities professors of today seem to have eventually have worked out the cultural value of…well…CULTURE—at least when it comes to music—over at the English department, the war rages on.
|They're okay, I guess.|
Sadly, though, the real irony is that speculative fiction fans have no reason that they should be on the defensive, and every reason to be aggravated by the elitism of the literary world. It is the growing prejudice of the literary communities that leads to dismissing preferences out of hand, ignoring the generous contributions that speculative fiction has made—both modern and classic—to the literary canon, and undermining speculative fiction’s enormous potential as an art form and literary genre. It is they who are descending into labels rather than having the kinds of discourse that would be genuinely meaningful.
For many literary reviewers, literary editors, MFA’s of creative writing, literature MA’s and PhD’s, teachers of the craft of fiction, and other lit-sommeliers who collectively claim the authority of determining “what is literature,”—and more frequently the aspersion of “what isn’t,” the prejudice about anything that hints of genre runs deep. It runs deep enough that it can actually be analyzed with the same handful of tools we might take into a discussion about privilege among social justice theories or the tools we must cultivate to engage in a discourse about class dynamics within a society whose cultural narrative of meritocracy silences such dissent. (Though it must be understood that I mean only in terms of the discourse’s tropes and tactics, and that I would never claim literary preference to be anywhere even remotely close in moral equivalency to social justice.)
In the case of speculative fiction, the mere presence of a speculative element—a time machine, a vampire, a space ship, or a castle—is enough to get the fiction dismissed outright—without consideration of quality—without any rationalization beyond itself. Professors will not accept it. Reviewers will not review it. Teachers will not incorporate it into curriculum or accept it from their students.
|This was high art until I noticed that the setting was next year.|
This isn’t about quality.
Quality does not even enter the conversation.
It is only about the speculative element present and glaring within the piece. While a piece of gritty minimalism about a dysfunctional family living in a seedy halfway house whose gay son is dying of AIDS may get two or three careful reads by a lit sommelier—giving the author the benefit of the doubt, digging deep for thematic meaning and subtext, and working hard to discover what symbols and literary elements the author may have incorporated (even unconsciously)—it would be almost laughable to think that a piece set on a newly colonized planet with a guy who is a little too quick to use his laser pistol to solve his problems would be given the same attention.
Even if the writing were of EXACTLY the same quality.
Even if the pieces explored identical themes, and used the same symbols and subtext.
Genre simply can’t get a respected seat at the “big kids” table in modern literary circles.