Speculative Fiction and Literary Snobbery

When I was a kid spending endless hours in bookstores and invariably doing my English homework first (often to the detriment of most of my other classes) there was “literature” and then there was fantasy/sci-fi and an assortment of other genres of fiction. There was the occasional stray outlier–I first heard of Possession and Joyce Carol Oates’ writing in one of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy yearbooks, and I studied Tolkien in class–but on the whole there were boundaries.

The thing is, the harder you look at these boundaries, the more arbitrary they are–or rather, the boundaries are based on the writer’s skill, not the aspects of the story. Personally I find this a bit silly. I wholly agree with categorizing novels according to the skill and grace with which a given writer tends to construct sentences, plots, and characters, but not the variety of story he or she tells. I am hopelessly fond of Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series and have never liked anything that Hemingway wrote, but pretending that the former is in any way substantively better writing than the latter would be absurd; looking down on a novel or other narrative solely because it involves ghosts or dragons or alternate worlds without regard to the quality of the writing, no matter how good, is likewise absurd, but it happens all the time. Where the quality of the writing cannot be questioned, the fantastical elements are either ignored or minimized, or the novel is cast as one that deals with heavy philosophical or existential questions, as though the fantasy or sci-fi setting is irrelevant rather than, as is true in most cases, necessary to the framing of said question.

When dealing with novels that are truly great, the sort of novel that is always going to be in print and studied in high schools and universities for generations to come, the label of “fantasy” disappears–there’s the South American tradition of magical realism applied to the work of Marquez, Borges, and others, but for the most part there’s a strong resistance to admitting that fantasy or any other style of genre fiction can be well-written.  Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Bram Stoker’s Dracula–these are all usually, if not invariably, classified on bookshop shelves and in libraries as “Literature” with a capital L, and never as fantasy, because somehow the skill with which they are written exempts them from being genre fiction–genre fiction being something to be embarrassed about. Even The Book of Strange New Things, which is set partly in a dystopian future Earth and partly in a new planet we earthlings are colonizing as our own civilization is falling apart, is described as “genre-defying” and “defiantly unclassifiable.” No, it isn’t. It is entirely and unapologetically dystopian sci-fi, and has a couple of significant flaws that make me question why it got such a long list of rave reviews, but that’s a different blog post.

Even among fiction firmly classified as genre, fantasy and sci-fi seem to be a lower-class label. When I was in Boston I was telling Margaret about an online course I took I few years ago on fantasy literature; towards the end of my long-winded description of the books I read for the course, I remembered that it wasn’t focused on fantasy literature at all, but on historical fiction. The problem was that of the six books we read, the three I had the strongest memories of were as much fantasy as they were historical fiction, two to the extent that they contradicted the ostensible focus of the course. (It’s hard to discuss representations of the Salem Witch Trials in fiction when the main text for the class is for the most part devoted to a woman in present-day New England who dives head-first into a sexy romance with a local handyman while learning how to cope with her newfound ability to cast magical spells.)

My favourite book for the course was Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, which deals with the practice of ghost marriages in late nineteenth-century China. There is some history–the beginning offers a clear explanation of the practice of ghost marriages, as well as some of the social divisions of the time and culture in which the story is set. The greater part of the action, however, takes place when the figurative titular “ghost bride” enters a realm of ghosts and demons, and is aided in her quest by a dragon who can take the form of a man. The fact that this novel is defined as historical fiction, while Amberlough and any novel dealing with Robin Hood are listed as fantasy, is beyond me, even as a marketing ploy. (My favourite novel version of the Robin Hood story is Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Forest. There is not the merest glimmer of magic in it, but because it’s a Robin Hood retelling, I have always found it shelved as Fantasy whenever I’ve noticed in a bookshop. The same is true of Robin McKinley’s version, The Outlaws of Sherwood, if I remember correctly, and Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, but I discovered them all on the shelves of the Fantasy section as a teenager. The Godwin version, at least, seems to be classified as historical fiction now.)

The Ghost Bride is fantasy. It no more deserves to be labelled historical fiction than Westworld or Firefly should be defined as Westerns. Why there remains a tendency in any corner of the reading world to look down on fantasy or any other sub-category of speculative fiction as inherently less good than other forms of fiction by virtue of its subject matter is beyond me; it isn’t as though Game of Thrones and the Marvel and DC comic book lines have been losing money for their creators. Neither is it a recent invention–the origins of fantasy lie in the mythology and folktales of every culture. Hopefully the growing number of writers who are as brilliant in crafting a sentence as they are in creating new worlds and compelling characters will continue to grow, and the literary snobbery of looking down on speculative fiction will finally become a thing of the past.


Friday Fave: Vampire Films

The Hunger (1983), starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie

Vampires actually aren’t my favourite paranormal theme: I much prefer ghost stories. The trouble is that ghost stories made into films are usually rubbish, in my experience; there are a few notable exceptions, such as The Others, but on the whole they’re a disappointment unless done tongue-in-cheek. I’ve never found werewolves a particularly appealing theme either, again with the occasional exception such as An American Werewolf in London. Vampires are the reverse–often (although not invariably) dull in fiction, but frequently excellent as subjects for film stories. As supernatural/paranormal type films go. When I was a teenager, The Lost Boys (1987), (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) were the best recent offerings of the genre; after that the focus seemed to shift to ghosts and all the horror films inspired by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Saw (2004). There were the Underworld and Blade franchises, and the occasional silly or incredibly dark vampire film (Van Helsing, 2004; 30 Days of Night, 2007), but while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were going strong on television, there was a bit of a dip in production of films about vampires.

Then came Twilight. Love the series or hate it–I’m closer to the ‘hate it’ end of the spectrum, although I did read all of the books in a single binge during a fit of depression–Stephenie Meyer did bring vampires back to the forefront of pop culture. The first book in the series came out in 2005; in 2006 there was a sudden burst of vampire films, and the vogue has remained in effect since then, dominated, of course, by the film adaptations of the books. Lots of these films are dross, of course, but there have been a few gems in the flood.

Let The Right One In
Let The Right One In

Let the Right One In (2008) was in theatres at the same time as Twilight. Everyone I knew went to see Twilight; few people I spoke to had even heard of Let the Right One In, which I felt to be a crying shame, because it’s an excellent film regardless of genre, and so much more interesting than its more famous rival. Most vampire films incorporate some element of sexual attraction in their vampires, or else make them horrific, repellent creatures (Coppola’s Dracula manages to do both); Let the Right One In takes a different approach, telling the story of a lonely boy who befriends what he thinks at first another similarly lonely child; the sweetness of relationship between the two makes the child-vampire Eli’s predatory nature all the more eerie. The two kids in the lead roles, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, are brilliant–Leandersson is currently studying theatre and seems intent on pursuing acting as a career, but Hedebrant seems to have abandoned acting for music, which is the film world’s loss but, I presume, music’s gain.


Byzantium (2012) flew even further under the radar than most of the artier vampire films. I remember reading a review of it and thinking I wanted to see it, but somehow I got it into my head that it was a tongue-in-cheek vampire story about a girl’s boarding school. (I have no clue where I got this idea. All I can think is that I was reading a preview or review of American Horror Story: Coven, which started at about the time Byzantium would have been released on dvd, and I conflated the two in my memory. It wouldn’t be the first time my mind has played such a trick on me.) I forgot about it until I noticed it playing on one of the film channels and recorded it; even then it took me a couple of weeks to get around to watching it. I particularly regret this–it’s one of those films that would look particularly good on a big screen.
Byzantium isn’t tongue-in-cheek in the slightest, but neither is it a blood-and-guts horror film. It’s a little like Twilight in being at its core a romance between a vampire and a human, but it’s also an engaging, if flawed, thriller. This time the tension isn’t between vampires and their human prey; it’s between the race of vampires, here a sort of eternal Victorian men’s club a la Boodles or The Athanaeum, and the only two female vampires in existence, who are being hunted down for violating the rule of the order (i.e. that only men should be vampires). It’s a feminist vampire story, something that, to my knowledge, is entirely new in the genre, unless you count Buffy. It isn’t perfect; Gemma Arterton’s and Sam Riley’s characters are well-acted but inconsistent in their aims, and their respective about-faces at the end of the story, though necessary for the conclusion, make little sense psychologically. Saoirse Ronan and Caleb Landry-Jones, on the other hand, are pretty much perfect. (Landry Jones, unprepossessing as Banshee in the X-Men franchise, is absolutely magnetic as the terminally ill Frank, and would be worth watching even if the rest of the film were terrible.) The film also features Thure Lindhardt and Jonny Lee Miller being evil and Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy being cluelessly human. Its greatest weakness is its title–Byzantium is ostensibly the name of a bed-and-breakfast in a small coastal resort town in Britain, which presumably opened some time in the sixties or seventies. I can’t imagine an English family opening a B&B called Byzantium in any decade, even the swinging sixties. A bar, maybe, but not a B&B. Interesting and evocative as a title for a vampire film; completely at odds with the tone and locale of the story that the film unfolds.

Image result for The Only Lovers Left Alive
The Only Lovers Left Alive

The best and most recent of my favourites of the genre is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which features Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous lovers (Adam and Eve), Mia Wasikowska as Swinton’s wayward (well, possibly psychotic) younger sister, and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe. (The Christopher Marlowe.) There is some existential angst and fear of a mysterious plague that is killing vampires, but mostly the story is a snapshot of what Adam and Eve experience during the course of one of their rare reunions, on this occasion interrupted by Eve’s younger sister Ava. There really isn’t much in the way of gore or terror in this one; it is instead littered with a wealth of cultural references and gorgeous cinematography. It is the most accessible of Jarmusch’s films, and the most elegant of Tom Hiddleston’s–well, except perhaps for his turn as Henry V in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (swoon). I’d like to add a superlative for Tilda Swinton, but when is she not unheimlich and beautiful in a performance?

There are certainly other excellent vampire films, but if I covered them all we’d be here all day. (If you haven’t seen The Hunger, do, because–well, David Bowie is in it, do you need another reason?) Also, if you’re looking for a novel dealing with vampires that is not modeled on either Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer, I strongly recommend Lauren Owen’s The Quick–a bit steampunk, a bit literary, all kinds of awesome. And of course there is the original, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Happy Halloween!