Genre versus Literary Fiction: The Debate Goes On

In a blog post entitled “Me and Science Fiction: Genre Fiction,” (posted on 9/16/13 on Strange Horizons website), Eleanor Arnason takes issue with Arthur Krystal’s October 2012 piece in the New Yorker magazine entitled “It’s Genre: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It“.

Arthur Krystal’s central point is that what separates literary from genre fiction is “the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose.” He lumps sci-fi in with other genre fiction, which is what Arnason takes exception to. Instead of challenging the basis of that distinction, however, she argues the sci-fi community does not fall within his definition of genre fiction.

It’s hard to disagree that there is a distinction between genre and literary fiction. If so, we ought to consider if Krystal is drawing the line in the right place and consider where sci-fi belongs.

One benefit of this discussion is that it focuses our attention on a writer’s purpose. Here I’m not refering to whether any particular writer hopes his books sell. We all want sales––if only to be able to spend our time writing rather than earning a living by some other means.

If, however, we consider what the writer has in mind––his purpose in writing––can’t we agree that the goal of genre fiction is mainly to entertain. This is not to say that writing to entertain is unworthy. The primary purpose of my four novels is to entertain, although there is a moral theme that runs through all four that is reflective of my view of life.

What then drives writers of literary fiction?

Krystal describes  “a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey.” I’d say it’s when the writer wants readers to see the world differently, to understand another’s viewpoint, or to become exposed to alternative interpretations of what it means to be human.

Writing with a purpose alone doesn’t cut it. For example, writing to convert the reader to one’s viewpoint on religion, economics, or any other subject fails to meet the standard of literary fiction. The second element is how the writer goes about telling his story. It requires a level of sincerity, honesty and trust that is not required from genre fiction where writers delight in hiding information from readers to magnify the surprise at the ending and introduce outside forces that determine the story’s outcome.

If we judge books that aspire to the literary label from the viewpoint of purpose and method, we may decide that a particular book succeeds or fails, but there’s no doubt when a book is written to entertain versus when it’s written to challenge the reader.

From that viewpoint, the vast majority of sci-fi and fantasy fiction must be considered genre fiction. That said, I agree with Aranson that some sci-fi authors have produced works that rise to the literary standard or at least can be judged by that standard. I would include works such as Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, and Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. Other people may suggest other nominees.

In sum, we can applaud the innovative writing going on in the sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction field without feeling slighted when most of it cannot be labeled literary, and we can critique the standards that any particular reviewer uses to judge whether a particular work makes the literary grade, but it seems futile to me to try to argue that the difference between the two no longer exists or that science fiction works can’t be judged as either literary or genre.

Agree or disagree? I”d love to get your view on this ongoing debate.

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