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Class Warfare: Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Literary Fiction

The line drawn between so-called literary fiction and genre fiction has always irked me. As I embarked upon a re-read of the first two volumes of Lev Grossman’s frustrating Magicians trilogy, this issue resurfaced. Grossman’s books have, for reasons that boggle my mind, sparked a debate about just what constitutes literature. As the final book in Grossman’s trilogy was published relatively recently, the debate has continued.

Type “define literary fiction” into Google and you’ll get the following definition:

Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition. (Emphasis added)

To quote the popular orator “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, “What?!”

Show of hands—how many of you think that, based upon the definition given above, Dune, Childhood’s End, Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire and Joe Abercrombie’s novels fit that definition? What about comics? Locke & Key, The Walking Dead, X-Men. Those are just three that fit the bill. According to the intelligentsia, however, the works I just listed are merely “genre fiction.” Mass market pfaff. Intellectually unworthy.

Type “define genre fiction” and the Google gnomes will tell you that:

Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is plot-driven fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre. Genre fiction is generally distinguished from literary fiction. (Emphasis added)

So, unless my reading comprehension skills have diminished to the point of uselessness, the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that genre fiction is, by design, entertaining. Literary fiction is not. Because as far as I’m concerned, nearly every fantasy or sci-fi novel I’ve read could correctly be viewed as “deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”

Still Life Antique Books by MelanieAlexandraWhat exactly is the problem here? Why is there a disconnect? Shouldn’t books be books and shouldn’t we encourage reading of all sorts? This elitist notion that novels that are fun, engaging and entertaining are not literature is asinine. And sure, what constitutes fun, engaging and entertaining is subjective. But for every reader out there that loves McSweeney’s and Infinite Jest, there are 100 that have read the Harry Potter novels. Maybe 1,000. Maybe more. And the cultural impact of the Potter books, or a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, is far greater than any work of Jonathan Franzen or Don DeLillo.

That Grossman’s books are fantasy seems patently obvious to me. And I also consider them works of literature. They make me think. They make me look both inward and outward. And, for the most part, they are entertaining. (Except when the navel gazing gets to be a bit excessive. Then I feel like I’m reading the fictional equivalent of skinny jeans and a stupid moustache). Why have the debate at all? Why should reading be an “either/or” situation when the vast majority of readers enjoy diverse subjects in equal measure? Methinks the snobs doth protest too much…

Tentacle Attack Bookends by KnobCreekMetalArtsLiterary merit is not reserved for pretentious, impenetrable, masturbatory drivel that does nothing but lend itself to stuffy discussion and analysis and to suggest otherwise is the worst kind of elitism. It impedes the collective literacy of cultures and does nothing but create an “us vs. them” intellectual class war that is damaging and counterproductive.

Fantasy and sci-fi fans—the outcasts of genre fiction for years—are often some of the most progressive, open-minded and intelligent readers out there. And we use our favorite works of fiction as inspiration. We write. We invent. We create. We explore. We look inward, down to the molecules we’re made of, and we look outward beyond the stars. Genre fiction can and has been a propulsive force. To deny that, to decry it, to pretend it doesn’t exist—well, that is the real fiction.

Title image from an Anagram Bookshop Ad.

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15 Comments

  1. Maybe we should just stop using the term “literary fiction”. As it is used now, it seems to be the domain of a group of elitist snobs who try to tell people that they should stop having fun and join them in the true art of staring out the window on a gray day and spreading all out missery. Who needs that? If those people want to find acceptance outside of newspaper reviews and TV talk shows, they would have to convince us that there is something of value in their books. But maybe they don’t want that, because it makes them feel superior when other people just don’t get their hobby.

    There’s a single-pannel cartoon around which has three “literary writers” with blank faces and pipes, and a “sci-fi author” in a space suit, who is telling them “You are all just jealous of my jetpack.”

  2. Madfox11 says:

    It helps me avoid the non-entertaining boring and depressing books (at least to some point, because they also exist in genre fiction ;))? 😉

  3. Homer was an after-dinner entertainer. Shakespeare was a box-office dramatist. Dickens was a popular novelist. They produced great, timeless works of literature because they were entertaining, not in spite of it.

  4. Carole-Ann says:

    Like certain named “prizes”, I tend to avoid ‘literary’ fiction like the plague; I find it boring, long-winded,,, egocentric, and just plain non-interesting. I HAVE read one or two btw, but they were either Historical or Fantasy in a diluted way.

    However, I’ve been reading ‘genre’ fiction for nearly 60 years, and been thoroughly entertained along the way. And there ARE some ‘literary’ works within those genres. How anyone can confine your Google definition to JUST ‘literary’ stuff is beyond belief when it applies DIRECTLY to our ‘genre’ fiction.

    I am very happy to be regarded as “unworthy” because I read genre fiction – at least I am happy and entertained well 🙂

  5. Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    I’m really pleased with the comments so far. 🙂 I was a bit nervous about this piece, to be honest. And I hope I didn’t sound reactionary. I think all of you have made EXCELLENT points.

  6. Ralf says:

    Well, the first commandment for artists of any kind (writers, musicians, painters, filmmakers) should be: Thou shalt not bore your audience.

    And I actually was un-bored by some examples of “literary fiction” – and bored by some examples of genre fiction.

    The objective of art should be to move people and to make them think, so maybe, just maybe, a little spark s planted so they try and make this world a better place. And quite a bit of so called genre fiction does that.

    • Zack, this is a fabulous post! We’re all sick and tired of these literature snobs telling everyone else what is and isn’t valuable.

      I’d say if you want objective criteria (in an admittedly subjective area), look at sales figures.

      But I suppose that’s too “crass” for the higher-minded elites. By virtue of being intelligible and popular, a book is “worthless.”

      My hat is off to you on this post!

      Kind regards,
      —Vic S.—

  7. The definition that Google gives of literary fiction is a poor one.

    The simplest comparison between literary fiction and popular/genre fiction is that literary fiction is about the telling of the story, popular fiction is about the story itself.

    In literary fiction, the author is always evident through the flashy style and the use of complex structure. Plot isn’t important. A common technique you’ll see in literary fiction is the frame story where someone in the present is looking into the past, or the end of the novel is revealed at the beginning.

    In other words, time in most stories isn’t linear, and the reader doesn’t read primarily to know what happens next and how it turns out in the end. This technique emphasizes character over plot.

    In genre fiction, the writer should be invisible, and the reader should be part of the story and not really aware of the writer and the way he’s putting the story together. Anything that breaks this “dream state” is a failure on the writer’s part.

    In literary fiction, the opposite is true. The language draws attention to itself, and the reader pauses to think, “My what an excellent use of metaphor and language! I think I’ll reread that again.” This is what the literary writer aims for.

    In recent years, since the big publishers now demand decent sales from literary writers, authors have been using genre techniques in literary fiction or vice versa in order to widen their audiences. Here are some I can think of that I’ve read.

    THE ART OF DISAPPEARING, Ivy Pochoda, 2009, hardcover. Literary contemporary fantasy.

    THE VANISHERS, Heidi Julavits. Literary fiction with paranormal elements.

    THE NIGHT CIRCUS, Erin Morgenstern.

    THE THINKING WOMAN’S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC, Emily Croy Barker.

    A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, Deborah Harkness.

    THE HAWLEY BOOK OF THE DEAD, Chrysler Szarlan.

  8. sebastian says:

    All written work has literary merits. Not everything has the same literary Marita, but they all have them. Virginia Wolfe used writing as an in word look at the self, putting the plot in the background. James Joyce used writing in Finnegans Wake to evoke the affect of dreams in a cyclic nature hiding the plot in the descriptions of things. GRRM uses writing to show you that both people and events aren’t always the way they seem, no matter how much you know about them. Robert Jordan used writing as a giant thank-you to classic myths, legends and stories while simultaneously delivering Hindu philosophy. In Stephen King’s IT, he used writing to show the importance of memory.

    Name any book, and I’ll tell you its literary merits because no matter what it is, it has them.

  9. Justin Brown says:

    Well, we’re coming up to that time of year when I do my annual re-read of “A Christmas Carol”, which is obviously literary fiction because it’s by Dickens.

    But wait … it’s got ghosts and time travel in it; and there are about a million movie adaptations, so it must be populist. Ulp.

    Conclusion: labels are meaningless and divisive.

  10. Simon Bradley says:

    I think the point of all genres is triage: how can I cut down this impossible mass of potential things to read into a slightly less impossible mass of things I might like?
    I read fairly widely – I try never to read two similar things in a row – but I know I have some favoured genres. I’m not a member of Litererary Faction. My favoured genres are the ones where I can enjoy a relatively bad book. I can enjoy a good book on any subject.
    The problem with Literary Fiction as a genre, which is effectively what it is – people who like Lit Fic will look for other Lit Fic – is the value judgement. This is the anointed good stuff. (See also Hard SF and High Fantasy, in my opinion. If your definition includes a value judgement, I’m not going to like it.) It claims not to divide by subject matter, like other groups, but by quality, and that is largely a lie, or Gene Wolfe would be a lot more widely appreciated.
    There is a quality of literariness, which I think we all recognise, and which is not the same thing as being a good book. I don’t think the genre of Lit Fic even corresponds to that quality very well. It’s a lot like arthouse movies.

  11. Michael Schultheiss says:

    This article makes my day! I am a lifelong fantasy aficionado, and it drives me completely nuts when imaginative genre fiction is given short shrift by pretentious people.

    I do have one question about this line, because it provoked a point of disagreement between a friend and I on Facebook:

    “Literary merit is not reserved for pretentious, impenetrable, masturbatory drivel that does nothing but lend itself to stuffy discussion and analysis and to suggest otherwise is the worst kind of elitism.”

    I interpreted this line as a critique of novels of a “certain stripe”, as it were, but one of my Facebook friends took exception to it because he thought you were referring to literary fiction in *general.* I would be very grateful for any clarification on this point.

    Thank you again for a great read!

    • Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      I 100% was referring to novels of a “certain stripe,” as you said. I regretted leaving that open to interpretation the minute I sent it to the editor, but decided I wasn’t going to go back and clarify. To me, it reads like it is “anti-literary fiction.” It wasn’t intended that way. It was more anti-pretension and snobbery. Certainly, there are countless works of literary fiction that are rightly considered classics.

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