In my last post, I established the cultural value of sci-fi. However, just because it has cultural value, does that mean it has literary value?
In order to evaluate whether or not sci-fi/fantasy belongs in the larger category of literary fiction, we first need to define some terms. What makes literary fiction, well, literary? And what makes sci-fi/fantasy, sci-fi/fantasy?
Literary fiction, I feel, is best described as a thought provoking work of art in book form. They are narratives that transcend time, genre, and resonate with ideas. At its best, literary fiction should be a learning experience, a spiritual experience, an aesthetic experience, and a reflective experience. It should be able to ultimately stand up to the test of time, have psychological or spiritual depth, contain multiple levels of possible interpretation, and should be written really, really well. Essentially, literary fiction should have an inherent transcendent quality to it.
Sci-fi and fantasy writing can be these things, but often contain anticipated otherworldly elements. These types of stories explore ideas and concepts that are often times ignored in literary fiction such as alternate societal structures, advanced technology (or in the case of fantasy: magic), and metaphysics. They often times, but not always, explore the struggle between good and evil.
There are plenty of examples that fit both categories very nicely. Let’s take Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five for example. I would most definitely say that it fits every point of criteria of literary fiction. And with its main character being “unstuck” in space-time, it most definitely falls into the sci-fi category as well. So what do we call this? Here in lies the problem.
Perhaps sci-fi and fantasy that crosses over into the literary needs a new name. Perhaps something as simple as “literary science fiction?” Or perhaps, “literary speculative fiction?” Personally, I think the latter works best. Literary speculative fiction should be a sub-category for authors of literary merit who are doing something that elevates ideas and themes found in genre fiction. And because the definition is not limited to just science; fantasy, horror, dystopia, utopia, and the paranormal could all be included. However, this doesn’t mean that all sci-fi and fantasy should be considered.
Limiting literary fiction to the realm of realism is stifling and frankly boring. It prevents great and inventive work found in genre fiction from being taken seriously. However, the literary world is right to some degree; there is a lot of sci-fi and fantasy that is purely entertainment. And there is nothing wrong with that, but there is plenty of great sci-fi and fantasy that should be given the accolades it rightfully deserves. Of course some of it has, but not nearly to the extent that it should. On the other hand, after reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, suddenly something called Roboapocalypse sounds a bit absurd. (Although personally, I think it’s a great title).
I think that the days of literary world excluding sci-fi and fantasy authors like Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, Stephen King, and Isaac Asimov is beginning to wane. Given time, the best of the genre fiction writers will get the credit and respect that they deserve. And maybe even one day we’ll see graphic novels (the good ones) taken seriously too.