"Reality" and Literary Quality in Mainstream and Genre Fiction

One of the canards about genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, is that it’s not “real” or realistic. But what, exactly, is “real” or “reality?” Is the definition of “real” a setting or set of experiences that the reader would experience in the normal course of his or her life? Is a “real” protagonist one who is similar to most people?

Even in mainstream fiction, the most memorable characters are anything but normal. Let’s face it, there’s nothing dramatic about the life of an honest, hard-working machinist, accountant, salesman, or retail clerk who does a good job and has a solid family life… and, consequently, no one writes that kind of story, except perhaps most rarely as a dystopia. Most readers only want to read about these people when they’re faced with a great challenge or disaster and when they can surmount it, and by definition that makes the characters less “normal.” Readers generally don’t like to read about average people who fail; they do like to read about the failures of the “superior” people or the golden boys or girls. And just what percentage of readers actually live in multimillion dollar houses or penthouses or drive Bentleys or the equivalent? That kind of life-style is as removed from most readers, if not more so, than the backdrop of most fantasy or science fiction.

One of the great advantages of science fiction and fantasy is that it can explore what happens to more “average” or “normal” people when they’re faced with extraordinary circumstances. That’s certainly not all F&SF does, nor should it be, but what all too many of the American “literary” types fail to recognize is that a great amount of what is considered literary or mainstream verges on either the pedestrian or the English-speaking equivalent of watered-down “magic realism.”

After the issue of “realism” comes the question of how one defines “literary.” Compared to F&SF, exactly what is more “literary” about a psychiatrist who falls in love with his patient [Tender is the Night], dysfunctional Southern families [Faulkner], the idiocy of modern upscale New Yorkers [Bright Lights, Big City], or any number of other “mainstream” books?

When one asks the question of American literary theorists, and I have, the immediate response is something along the lines of, “It’s the writing.” I don’t have any problem with that answer. It’s a good answer. The problem with it is that they don’t apply the same criterion to F&SF. Rather than look at the genre — any genre, in fact — and pick out the outstanding examples, as they do with their own “genre,” and mainstream fiction is indeed a genre, they dismiss what they call “genre” writers as a whole because of the stereotypes, rather than examining and accepting the best of the genre. Yet they’d be outraged if someone applied the stereotype of “parochial” or “limited” to mainstream fiction.

Interestingly enough, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy — which awards the Nobel Prize for literature — just last year issued what amounted to that sort of dismissal of American mainstream fiction, essentially calling it parochial and narcissistically self-referential. Since then, I haven’t seen a word of response or refutation from American literary types, but perhaps that’s because all the refutations are just being circulated within the American “literary” community.

Maybe I’m just as parochial in looking at F&SF, but I see a considerable range of literary styles, themes, and approaches within the field, and intriguingly enough, I also see more and more “mainstream” writers “borrowing” [if not outright stealing] themes and approaches. That does tend to suggest that, even while some of the very same writers who have insisted that they don’t write SF are doing the borrowing, that some of the artificial “genre” barriers are weakening.

Of course, the remaining problem is that the book publishing and selling industry really loves those genre labels as a marketing tool… and so do some readers… but that’s another issue that I’ve addressed before and probably will again. In the meantime, we need to realize that F&SF is far from “an ineluctably minor genre,” as one too self-important, if noted, writer put it, but a vital component of literature [yes, literature]. Eventually, everyone else will, too, at least those who can actually think.