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.”
What 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…
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. 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.