“Real” Fiction

The New York Times best-selling author Jeannette Walls was quoted in the Times this past weekend as saying, “I’m not a huge fan of experimental fiction, fantasy or so-called escapist literature. Reality is just so interesting, why would you want to escape it?”  This kind of statement represents the kind of blindness that is all too typical of all too many “mainstream” writers and critics.

In fact, the best science fiction, fantasy, and other “escapist” literature puts a reader, in a real sense, “outside” the framework of current society and reality in a way that allows a perceptive individual to see beyond the confines of accepted views and cultural norms. Some readers will see this, and some will not.  As a simple, but valid example of this, take my own book, The Magic of Recluce, in which the “good guys” are ostensibly and initially portrayed as the “blacks.”  In western European derived cultures, as demonstrated by all too many westerns, where the good guys wear white Stetsons, and the bad guys crumpled black hats, in the United States, in particular, there is an equation of the color white with purity and goodness.  But this is far from a universal norm.  In many cultures, white is the color of death, and other cultures use other colors for purity.  My very deliberate inversion of this western color “norm” was designed to get readers to think a bit about that… and then, when they’d thought a while, I started writing other Recluce books from the “white” perspective, in an attempt to show the semi-idiocy of arbitrarily ascribing “color-values” to people or societies, or values to colors themselves.

I’m far from the only F&SF writer to use the genres to explore such themes or to question values or concepts, and I could list a number of writers who do.  So could most perceptive readers of F&SF.  This fact tends to get lost because fiction is for entertainment, and if we as writers fail to entertain, we don’t remain successful professional writers for very long, and, frankly, if we’re extremely successful at entertaining, we tend not to be taken seriously on other levels. Stephen King, for example, is technically a far, far better writer than is recognized, largely because of the subjects about which he writes, and not because he writes poorly – which he does not.  Only recently has there been much recognition of this fact.

Even with critics within the F&SF genre, there’s a certain dismissal of writers who are “commercially” successful as writers of “mere” popular escapism, as though anything that is popular cannot be good.  Under those criteria, Shakespeare cannot possibly be good or have any depth.  For heaven’s sake, the man wrote about sprites and monsters, faery queens, sorcerers and witches, along with battles, kings, ghosts, and ungrateful children.

Good is good;  popular is popular; and popular can be anything from technically awful to outstanding, although I’d be among the first to admit that works that are both good and popular are far rarer than those that are popular and technically weak or flawed.  And the same holds for so-called escapist fiction, no matter what the mainstream “purists” assert.

Then too, the fact is that all fiction, genre or mainstream, is “escapist.”  The only question is how far the author is taking you… and for what reasons.

9 thoughts on ““Real” Fiction”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Snobbery is snobbery, whether we’re talking about wine, literature, or culinary choices.

    A very good friend of mine asked me once why I was ‘wasting my time’ reading the sci-fi book I had in my hand while I was on the exercise bicycle. Since I had (and have several more times) read Parafaith War a couple times, I spoke to him about the various themes and symbols of the book.

    He asked to borrow it. He’s been a dedicated Modesitt reader ever since – though I make him buy his own books now.

    Before this, the surgeon was a dedicated reader of biography and New York Times Non-Fiction Bestsellers.

    I’ve even gotten him to read Glen Cook and Jack Vance.

    1. Thank you… I do appreciate it, because, from what I can tell, a great percentage of my readers come from other readers who like my work.

  2. Kathryn says:

    There is a definite snobbery, yet when you think about it, how many key pieces of literature – or should I say “Must Read Books” – are SF/F/H books? Dracula (Horror), Frankenstein (Sci-Fi/Horror), The Hobbit (Fantasy), The Lord of the Rings (Fantasy), Nineteen Eighty-Four (Sci-Fi), We (Sci-Fi) and so on.

    Genre works allow authors to use improbable or at-the-time impossible things to tell a story. Many of the greatest sci-fi works in particular explore how medical science or genetics can benefit and damn humanity. Are there many better novels for exploring the power of intelligence than Flowers for Algernon, for example?

    And then you have Cloud Atlas, a deep, churning mix of genres and styles that can be interpreted how you want to, but the main theme is that lives throughout history are linked. Maybe that link is a film, a book, a piece of music. But the links are there.

    As for yourself, Mr Modesitt, sir, you have explored morality and ethics in your books, particularly on political levels. You have explored how (to use Recluce in particular) chaotic acts are not necessarily destructive, and how ordered acts are not necessarily constructive – construction being something we see as ‘good’, destruction as ‘bad’ – and then further go into the morality of these acts. You couldn’t do it how you did outside of a fantasy work, because your method depends on a magic system.

    Actually, today at work a colleague asked me about the book I was reading (Andrzej Sapkowski’s Blood of Elves, for the curious), and I can’t tell if he was joking or half-serious about how I was “deceiving” myself by reading it, i.e. that I believed in what’s in those books (I feel it’s worth pointing out he is a religious man, and I’m athiest, so you can imagine exactly what I was thinking when he said that). But I believe those stories *as stories*, i.e. if I was reading The Magic of Recluce I would believe that in the book Tamra exists, that she has red hair, that she’s a very conflicted character, and that she can use magic. I don’t believe I can use spells, no matter how much I’d like to.

    I read fantasy, science-fiction and so on because I like the idea of other worlds. I like the idea that some worlds accepts people like myself for who we are. I like the idea that in some we can become who we want to be. I like the idea that these characters are going on a journey and I’m following them. They don’t have to be commentaries on politics, religion, gender, class systems. They can simply be a good tale.

    As a final point; Charles Portis’ excellent Western novel, True Grit, is a commentary on revenge. So are a number of sci-fi classic novels. What, truly, is the difference? Nothing. Nothing at all.

  3. Alan says:

    One of the things I have enjoyed about recent generations has been the shift in thinking about what was typically considered a ‘geek’ subject. Excessive reading, reading SF&F, computers, etc. That shift has popularized some things which I did as a child which had me ostracized.

    The resultant increase in SF&F movies and entertainment is one that I enjoy. I have watched that same section of the public library go from one back corner book shelf to several rows of shelves. Even small book stores will generally have at least one row.

    My personal book collection, upwards of two thousand books now, leans heavily toward SF&F. When people first saw the shelves of books they dismissed many of them because of that. Now I have friends who visit, asking to borrow a book or about an author they see on the shelf.

    A very real pleasure comes from sharing an author or book with some one, then discussing the characters and story later. More than a few of my friends have become hooked on a variety of different authors because of the great job they do of creating that ‘escape’. Some, such as Jennifer Roberson, David Weber or LEM do amazing jobs at building very thorough worlds which people love to be submerged in.

    I will be glad to grant you that there are also those who generate form books. The same basic plot repeated over and over, a number of romance and fantasy romance authors come to mind. They produce lovely stories, but once you’ve read one, you know the lay of the land for the others. (I’ve got some of those on the shelves too!) But even these less than stellar writers have their place. Sometimes I want to just sit back and relax with a book that offers nothing but a simple story. A quick, easy and light read.

    Other times, I’m ready to dig into the next LEM release with great zeal, or to go back and reread an older book as my memory gets fuzzy on the complex details interwoven between the stories.

  4. Elizabeth A. Mancz says:

    I believe it was Suzette Haden Elgin who pointed out that one of the things that Science Fiction could do was explore variations on culture – the “what if”s of human existence, as she did in her Native Tongue books – what if women were stripped of their legal rights? What would that do to our culture? What might women do about this? Whether you agree with her speculation or not, it makes you think about gender roles and equality. This is not something that mainstream literature can really do – not without becoming SF. I know of people who have used Elgin’s books in college classes in women’s studies and the like for exactly that reason – the book provides the students with a scenario designed to make them think critically about (And the average SF book costs far less than a 3 hour college course!)

  5. Ryan Jackson says:

    The sad part is when this type of snobbery exists not only outside the genre but inside it.

    There’s a very successful book series that reached its conclusion this year. Unfortionately the author passed away a while back and his editor selected a replacement to work with his notes and finish out the series.

    Now I won’t begrudge anyone who did or didn’t like things that changed, but I would point out that the author’s vision, his notes and his assistants and editor and wife were all heavily involved in making sure the story was told as close as possible to what the author would have wanted.

    Instead of being greatful we got an ending, or just simply stating and opinion and moving on, a vocal minority of the fan base went on the warpath. They ripped the new author apart for not being a “good” writer. Then when this was challenged they took a step forward and started claiming the original author wasn’t “good” either, simply better than the new one. It got the point that I had to completely step away from these communities or risk losing enjoyment in the work they’re supposed to be fans of.

    As Wine Guy said, Snobbery is everywhere.

    PS: While who the authors are/were and the overall story are faily obvious, I left them out more because I was focusing on the behavior of the “snobs” more than any particular author.

  6. Tim says:

    On snobbery, it is interesting as to what people leave about on their coffee tables or in their bookshelves – i.e. what visitors can see.

    Take Natural Ordermage for example. An excellent book but the artwork on the cover shows a Nazi lookalike woman/young man with a French cavalry sabre and fishing books blasting a pirate with light. The other character is not even looking at his assailant but marching in Afrika Corps uniform (sans cap) looking ‘tough’. It would be far far better to have had a plain black cover, then I would probably leave it about rather than risking knowing looks at my reading pulp fiction, which it is not. The artwork has let the content down.

    OK – I could just leave it out regardless, but why bother to risk the criticism I have encountered in the past and justify my reading? So I tend to hide away this good Sci-Fi but am happy to leave out Zelazny, Vance et al as their artwork is so much more superior.

    The artwork creates a situation where the novel is unjustly judged harshly from the outset.

    My experience, anyway

    Tim

  7. Re' says:

    My own experience has shown that I have a bias against certain “real” fiction books as they hit too close to home with my own emotions and especially fears. Through SFF, paranormal fiction and the other non-real fiction works I have been able to work through issues of prejudice and bias, gain empathy for those who are different and overall look at the world in a much more liberal and relaxed manner. I have gently guided some of my friends into reading these books.

    I wonder what this critic calls books such as “IQ84” by Murakami as it was highly praised fiction not SFF book and it is full of magic and paranormal occurances.

    We all see what we want to see!

    Re’

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