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.


Reading: Octavia Butler, Kindred

Author Octavia Butler

Kindred is a seminal work of science fiction. This is what I had been told, and this is what I went in to the book expecting. It’s not what I came out thinking (although I thought plenty of other things). Octavia Butler’s novel features a woman who finds herself inexplicably pulled through time whenever a particular person is in mortal peril, which unfortunately happens a lot. She is a black woman. He is a white man in early-19th century Maryland, the son of a slave plantation owner.

Published in 1979, Kindred is generally referred to as the first science fiction published by a black woman. 1979 was the year in which Margaret Thatcher was elected, Michael Jackson released “Off the Wall,” and five people protesting the KKK were shot and killed (by the KKK) in North Carolina. As relevant as the complex issues Butler raises in her book felt to me today, I truly can only imagine what they felt like to the average reader in 1979.

Cover of Octavia Butler's KindredButler’s writing is thoughtful and well-crafted, the pace of the story fast and yet each scene lingers. The relationships that Dana (the heroine) develops–with her white husband in both their own time and the antebellum South; with the slave-owning, abused boy to whom she is so oddly tied; and to the enslaved blacks on the plantation–are richly imagined.

That being said, I had a lot trouble reading this book as science fiction. Sure, Dana is pulled through time. That’s pretty weird. Turns out the guy is her distant relative. That’s intriguing. But there is no more exploration of that theme, and no investigation into what greater meaning it may have. The characters seem at best bemused.

I enjoy a lot of speculative fiction that doesn’t fit squarely within the box of a genre. And yes, science fiction has evolved a lot since 1979, but Dune had been out for 14 years, Star Wars for two; the genre was pretty well established. There is so very little in Kindred that could identify it with science fiction that I wonder if it hurts rather than helps the book’s tremendous power.

Reading this as a straight parable, or as historical fiction in which liberties are taken (see: Outlander…), might open it up to new readers. Far from diminishing Butler’s work, I would rather see it correctly homed so it could have the broader recognition it deserves.

Stuck for POC-authored sci fi? Try this excellent Buzzfeed list of 19 books, and one from Colorlines for comparison.

Still, perhaps I am not accounting sufficiently for the glass ceiling effect. Kindred does not constitute science fiction to me, but for a black woman to write herself in to a genre that had previously excluded her? That is extraordinary.

Have you read this or other works by Octavia Butler–forget that, by any person of color in this still very-white, very-male genre? Do you think I’m being too restrictive in my definition of science fiction? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.