Why is SF not considered literary?
Disclaimer: A quick point to make before I begin: the ‘SF’ in the title refers to ‘Speculative Fiction’ and not ‘Science Fiction’, and thus incorporates Fantasy within it.
Science Fiction, Fantasy and the ‘literary’ have famously not got on in the past. Take Britain’s premier Literary Fiction award, the Man Booker Prize: it has had but one fantasy novel even longlisted in recent years, the superlative Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell by Susanne Clarke. In Sci-Fi, there is a little more positivity with four shortlisted titles since its inception:
• Doris Lessing – Sirian Experiments
• Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
• Margaret Atwood – Oryx & Crake
• Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go
These SF texts can be considered, to quote Adam Roberts, ‘non-genre SF’ fairly safely. The closest our genre base has come to this pinnacle of British critical achievement is Atwood’s Blind Assassin, which contains an SF subplot, though really the central plot is suburban life in mid-20th Century Canada.
Consider also that pinnacle of American achievement, as so much of Fantasy now is American in origin: The Pulitzer Prize. The only SF title to have won is The Road by Cormac MacCarthy. The Nobel Prize Laureates with SF features to their writing? Doris Lesing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Herman Hesse and Gunter Grass.
Why is this? In the past there has been a fairly safe answer – because SF panders to the masses, and thus isn’t written very well. And yes, in the era of pulp Sci-Fi, and even into the 60s and 70s, this could be considered the case. But is this not the case in all genres, and it is the exceptions that are considered ‘literary’? Consider the current day situation: Anne Perry, Bernard Cornwall, Conn Igulden – all write ‘historical fiction’ to an average, but not literary, standard. Throw in Barbara Kingsolver or Hilary Mantel, and you have the exception. For SF in the early and middle halves of the century, it fell to Orwell, Wells and Stapledon to carry SF forward. I challenge anyone to read Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy and not be blown away by the style and description – it is clear Literature, and has begun to be treated as such.
Approaching the 80s and 90s, we get a rebirth from the trashy era of Heinlein and Eddings, who, for all their positives, did not write incredible literary stories. Instead we witness Ender’s Game and The Game of Thrones, and the bleeding of Fantasy into the Literary with magic realism, and Kundera, Rushdie and Garcia Marquez. Sci-Fi witnesses a similar ‘non-genre’ rebirth in Atwood and Lessing. It is, in my humble opinion, this non-genre-ization of SF that cast it out from the circle of ‘respected’ genres, alongside the birth of table-top RPGS and computers games that are looked down upon by those who consider themselves ‘the elite’.
Yes, there is trash. But there is trash in all genres. There is a history of trash in all genres. What all ‘literary’ genres also have is history, something SF has in abundance. From Homer’s Odyssey to Shelley’s Frankenstein, from Virgil’s Aeniad to The Real Story of Ah-Q, from Arabian Nights to Beowulf to Stoker to Swift and back again SF is literary history. And, with the advent of the century, and major players who write beautiful prose, and an influx of new authorship and new adventures, I believe the likes of Mieville, of Rothfuss, of Roberts, of Martin, of Murakami, of Lynch; all deserve recognition on a literary plane, and from literary figures.
And I challenge you to show me why not. I don’t think you can.