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: Thandie Newton

Image result for thandie newton westworld

I had been planning on watching Westworld in the way I’ve planned on watching most of the new shows that HBO and Showtime have rolled out over the last three years or so–just barely remembering to set the DVR, not paying attention to who the leads are until the opening credits. I know the shows will feature compelling visuals and fine acting; I also have faith that they almost invariably feature strong writing. (Although season two of True Detective severely tested that faith. Severely.) I never question if these shows will be good; it is always a matter of whether the story will appeal to me. Even with the shows that I like, though, I tend to be lackadaisical about getting around to watching them; I only have an hour or two a day to pay attention to a TV show on weekdays, and I find that they often benefit from being watched in longer chunks than an hour at a time, so I save them up for weekends when I do the ironing.

Shows that I like so much that I simply lack the patience to save up several episodes for a mini-marathon are increasingly rare–there was The Killing, the first couple of seasons of Downton Abbey, Borgen, season 1 of Rogue, last year’s Deustchland 83, and now Westworld. I read a few conflicting reviews, one focused on Evan Rachel Wood and another, more critical, claiming that the show “starts off with a bang but then falls down a rabbit hole of Lost-style strangeness.” I disagree particularly with this last, as much as I usually like Vox’s reviews–my impression was the show’s writers and producers know exactly what they want it to be, there is one central mystery of which all the “disconnected” mysteries are threads, and if the rest of the season measures up to this first episode it will be a fine and particularly creepy exploration of our fear of AI. Just because it’s subtle doesn’t mean it’s a mess–there is no bad here, as far as episode 1 goes.

And there is this cast, this amazing how-did-they-cram-so-many-awesome-people-into-one-show cast. Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Sidse Babette Knudsen, Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes, and most of all Thandie Newton, who was the heart of the aforementioned Rogue until she left it and it was ruined.

I’ve loved Thandie Newton’s work since I saw Flirting on TV one afternoon, years and years ago. It was one of my favourite films for a long time, until I read about the director John Duigan’s abusive relationship with her; I haven’t been able to watch it since. In some cases I can separate what is on screen from what happened off-screen, but this is not one of them.

Fortunately there is a wealth of other excellent work Newton has done since, in addition to being an outspoken women’s rights activist and having, from all indications, an enviable family life. She’s never fallen into the trap of being typecast, doing comedy, drama, and action–she’s as adept at costume drama as she is at being a total badass, on screen and off. This will serve especially well in her role in Westworld, which, if the hints in episode one pan out, will be far more complex than simply an android sex worker. I find it a bit frustrating that all the articles I’ve read on the series thus far have been either breathless or cross in discussing the presentation of sex in the show (and most of them refusing to acknowledge that there is a difference between portraying sexual violence with the aim of highlighting its negative effects and doing so gratuitously), but only a few have mentioned the questioning of the nature of free will that the show explores, and none at all have even touched on the matters of consciousness and identity that made this first episode so compelling to me. I’m thrilled that Newton has a new role as promising as Grace in Rogue was, and I look forward to seeing where she takes Maeve.

Further reading on some of the activism Newton is involved with, and her own blog:

One Billion Rising


TED Talk: Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself