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Sunday, August 24, 2014

No Apologies! A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Needs No Defense (Part 1)

Wait, this really happened?
Oh well then it must be gritty realism.
No Apologies! 

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.  

–Theodore Sturgeon 

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?

For many familiar with the literary world, or just casual fans of mysteries, romances, westerns or science-fiction, the rocky relationship between “genre” and “literature” (or “real writing” as the snobs are wont to say) is well known. These two terms are set up as a opposing dichotomy at the opposite ends of a quality spectrum, with “genre” mainly being the purview of people who don’t know any better—sort of in the same way that a gourmet might talk about those who appreciate microwavable burritos or Mac&Cheese out of a box.

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 repudiating drama for its 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.
However, despite the fact that it is currently harder to find a Music History teacher who DOESN’T like The Who or Jimmy Hendrix, the genre work of speculative fiction—comprising sub-genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, hero (or superhero) fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, alternate history, and possibly even more—holds a place among the lit snobs in the genre “hall of shame” with mysteries, westerns, romance, and erotica and is considered by these literary elite to be only a small step up from fan-fiction in the annals of dross writing. Those who are attracted to speculative fiction, both as readers and writers, find themselves ever on the defensive about their tastes.

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.

And yes, there have actually been studies that merit out this bias that the EXACT same writing is less carefully considered if it looks like it might be speculative.

Genre simply can’t get a respected seat at the “big kids” table in modern literary circles.

Continue....(Part 2)


  1. One interesting point (from someone who’s seen inside the Ivory Tower. Yes, I'm one of those English Literature MAs!) is that even within the larger category of Spec Fic, there are tiers of respectability from the view of Literature (Big-L literature, with all the judgments and connotations that implies).
    Utopian/Distopian is, I think, easily at the top. And therefore it is actually not unsurprising to see at least one out of the list of Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984 etc. included in a straight up "Literature" class, despite being "genre". If it got its own class or conference panel, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see popular modern additions like Hunger Games included and discussed with a serious examination of tropes, structure, etc.
    Next comes sci fi. Though rarely included in a regular "Literature" curriculum, many universities will offer the occasional Science Fiction class, which will probably focus on "classic" sci fi, but may actually reach the present. I myself taught a writing class focused on Sci Fi for our reading and that didn't raise any eyebrows at all (though it got groans from the students; I had zero sci fi fans. Zero!). And I will admit, it is far easier to defend sci fi as “Literature” than some sub-genres, whatever my own preferences might be—and I could write a whole blog post of my own on why.
    Horror also now has enough age to get some respect: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the like have some respect as "Literature". It's just unfortunate that your average Literary conference is going to be more likely to discuss Twilight (for it's “obvious cultural impact”) than hardly anything else of the last couple decades. (Actually, English conferences will and do discuss Buffy despite being TV, not really a written work (they’ll be discussing the show, not the book tie-ins, I guarantee it) again because of the “cultural impact” factor.) I did hear two separate talks discussing non-linear hyperfiction (as symbolic of our fractured post-modern world and so on) and both examples focused on works of horror (I will attest that one was very post-modern and the other very very creepy, having read them after the talks). I knew someone who did his PhD on werewolf literature (in medieval literature).
    Fantasy, though also old, comes last, alongside any newer or smaller subgenres. Now, I will say that I also knew someone who did his PhD on elves (in medieval literature). He even gave a talk when the LotR movies first came out about Tolkien’s use of Norse mythology (for undergrads; it was nothing groundbreaking, but still, the talk was given in a university context, so that is something). But for a variety of murky inexplicable reasons, it is even harder to try to convince people of the validity of fantasy as Serious Literature than hardly any other subgenre within Spec Fic. It’s probably a touch above genres like Romance, but only just.
    To be clear, I agree with you. I was often on the defensive. I railed against it. I had paper ideas involving sci fi books shot down because they were “not significant” though with the implication that if I tried again with one she’d actually heard of or could otherwise prove the cultural significance of, I might get a different answer. Kate Elliott’s work was just not worth analysis apparently, interesting use of Renaissance drama in a sci fi epic or no. Interestingly, if I’d found two other sci fi authors doing the same sort of thing, I might have been able to sell it as a “trend” worthy of analysis.
    As a last point, I know there are also books with magic or spaceships or vampires that manage to skip over being “genre” writing and go straight into being “literature.” I haven’t sufficiently analyzed what goes into this process, but I can name off-hand the more speculative/magical works of Salman Rushdie as an example. (Not just Literature, but Respected Literature).

    1. Neat. I had heard some of these ideas, but not the extent of them. And when I was doing my Bradbury homework, I read somewhere that his prose essentially got him Klingon back turned by "Real Literature" for now and always. Nice to see the next generation said "Whatevs" and picked him up anyway, even if the rest of this hierarchy is unfortunate.

    2. It probably varies some by institution; a department with grand old professors who are unrelentingly disapproving of all that they do not consider Real Literature is going to influence both the students and even the less senior faculty. But my survey covered three universities with some real geographical spread (West coast USA, Southern USA and UK), plus reading some academic articles on the subject (ok, over a decade ago, so I might be a little out of date, but trends like this in academia tend to shift only slowly).