Fiction – What’s It All About?

According to A Handbook to Literature [Sixth Edition], fiction is “narrative writing drawn from the imagination rather than from history or fact,” but because of the intrusion of personal events, history, and other factors into such narratives, the Handbook then offers an alternative definition of fiction as “any of the ways in which writing seeks to impose order on the flux of thought or experience.” From my point of view, the first definition is too narrow and the alternative meaningless.

One of the aspects of the Handbook I also found most interesting was that I could discover no definition of “literature.” “Comparative literature,” but not literature. For a textbook/handbook that is all about literature, I found that omission unfathomable. But then, in the academic and critical worlds, what narratives are considered “acceptable fiction” and what are literature are all over the place.

At two universities I was considered qualified to teach writing, and one even found me qualified to teach introductory literature and a science fiction and fantasy fiction course. A third university allowed me to teach an honors seminar on F&SF literature and writing techniques, but wouldn’t let me near “regular” literature. Another writer I know never finished an undergraduate degree, but when that writer, who has published more than twenty genre fiction books, largely in the romance field [from major publishers] and won awards, went back to school, the administrators of that university insisted on the writer taking a beginning course on fiction writing.

As that example indicates, there are many universities, colleges, and scholars that contend, if almost covertly, that genre fiction can’t be literature. That’s also why I found the absence of a definition of literature in the Handbook to Literature amusing. When there’s not even a written definition of what’s included, how can you logically exclude anything?

In her 2014 acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters given by the National Book Foundation, Ursula K. LeGuin took dead aim at the fact that the corporate profit motive can be contrary to the art and truth that can lie in fiction and to the freedom necessary to express them. That’s true enough, but what often gets overlooked is that there are two other factors that can also strangle art and truth in fiction. One is sheer popularity. I have absolutely nothing against popularity. Any writer who does is a true hypocrite. But popularity has nothing to do with excellence. There are excellent books that are multi-million copy bestsellers, but damned few. Since most multi-million best-sellers range from almost terrible to fairly good, when publishers concentrate on finding and publishing primarily ginormous multi-million copy best-sellers, fiction and readers both suffer.

One of the character traits I loved about the late David Hartwell, who was my editor for 36 years before his untimely death not quite a year and a half ago, was his ability to make quite a number of good and sometimes excellent books “popular” enough that their authors could continue to be published, rather than merely seeking the best-selling and the popular. David’s editorial and marketing skills, and his mentoring of a huge percentage of editors, contributed markedly to the improvement of “literary” quality in F&SF, while still ensuring a good storyline. In a time when publishing margins are razor-thin, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to David’s legacy in this area.

The other factor that has a tendency to strangle good and great fiction is the proliferation of so-called impartial or judged awards that are essentially “insider” awards, awards given on the basis of criteria judged “great” or “vital” by a small group. No matter what any “expert” declares, there are too many ways in which writers can artistically convey great ideas, images, action, thoughts, and more for those ways to fit inside a fixed mold. Ironically, critics from both Salon and The New York Times have declared that the annual National Book Awards have become awards for insiders. There’s also a set of F&SF awards that is fact similar [and it’s not the Hugo awards, which are a straight fan popularity contest].

So… long live all kinds of fiction, especially all kinds of F&SF, because without all kinds, we won’t have the gems buried among the others.