Yesterday Niall Alexander put forward a reasonable point of view:
But I’d go one further. Put what the consensus has deemed a “well-written” fantasy beside an acclaimed non-genre work, and I’d bet good money that the latter is of a significantly higher quality than the former. I mean technically… artistically… narratively – every which way, ultimately… I can see this being a divisive subject, but let’s not everyone lose our literary lunches at once.
Needless to say, everybody lost their lunch. I posted a comment in the thread in agreement but I think I was pretty much the only one. Usually, I would say that was a reason for me and Niall to re-examine our belief – and it is – but there is also something to the nature of a lot the responses which makes me think they aren’t engaging with him in good faith. Niall is a speculative fiction fan, he writes a speculative fiction blog, he prefaces this very post with a comment about who much of a fan he is; the comments, however, quickly assume the affronted defensiveness typical of the genre fan who feels they have been personally insulted.
Not all of them though. If we ignore Sam Sykes’s typically unhelpful pseudo-aphorism, Simon asks the key question: what do we mean by genre? The problem here is that fantasy can mean two things and I think this distinction gets lost later on in the thread. As a general mode of writing, the whole of literature can be split into the fantastic and the mimetic. However, as a genre, fantasy refers to something more specific. So yes, Jorge Luis Borges and Salman Rushdie write fantasy but no, it doesn’t make sense to consider them genre fantasy authors in the same way, say, Gene Wolfe or China Mieville are. It is true that this border is porous (and perhaps becoming more so) and that someone like Michael Chabon can have a foot in both camps but I still think it is clearly enough defined to be meaningful.
So Niall’s comparison is between genre fantasy and non-genre literary fiction (which will include non-genre fantastic fiction). Isn’t this an unfair comparison though? Putting your thumb on the scales? Another case of if it’s good then it’s not SF? No. If non-genre fantasy does tend to be better than genre fantasy then this gets right to the heart of what Niall is saying. The point of his post is not to cheerlead for non-genre literary fiction but to pose a question: could the fantasy genre raise its game? I think it could. There are brilliant examples of genre fantasy that certainly don’t – many of them listed in the comments – but these individual counter-examples don’t invalidate the argument. As Niall says: “But can a handful of truly worthwhile instances of speculative fiction be said to be representative of the genre entire?”
Mark Charan Newton raises a couple of related points. The first is that “mainstream literature doesn’t have to deal with heavy plot and weird worlds” and “secondary world writing is inherently restrictive”. This is an explanation for the gap so I don’t want to explore it further here but I will say that whilst it is an interesting idea I’m not sure I buy it. The second is that there is a question of perspective here: “mainstream fiction tends to get judged on the 10% good writers, whereas secondary world fiction is judged on the 90% of dross.” I’ve said before that people need to remember that Sturgeon’s Revelation isn’t a natural law and I think that applies here too. I don’t think what Mark is saying is true at all, I think people tend judge different types of fiction on the average example (the same way they judge most things). And I would say that the average example of genre fantasy is going to be worse than the average example of non-genre fiction; I think this would be true if I went into a bookshop and true if I applied it to my own bookshelves. (Someone raised the fact that, as a genre, fantasy is much than non-genre fiction. True enough but again, this is an explanation for the gap rather than a refutation.)
So, if the average non-genre book is better than average genre fantasy, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean you a fool for liking genre fantasy. It doesn’t mean you a fool for preferring genre fantasy to non-genre literary fiction. It isn’t about you at all. It just means that perhaps there is a conversation to be had about pushing the genre forward. If you want more, you have to stand up and shout for it.
The problem seems to be that a lot of fans want it both ways. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve been told that I’m over-thinking a genre book or a critical approach is too deep or inappropriate or pretentious. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen other people told the same. Equally, as Eric M Edwards say:
Very often I hear the argument that readers of genre novels are often “just wanting to be entertained” not challenged by what they find between the covers. Summer reads, after work books, familiar formulas and series, something to while away the time on a long train journey. In other words, these readers and there are many it seems, look first for uncomplicated stories told plainly and quickly. They are then, in the market for light reading. Unsurprising then, if much of what is produced is exactly this sort of book.
Yet when people point out this unsurprising fact there is uproar. I’m reminded of the recent spat between Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult and the New York Times. Why is it covering Jonathan Frazen and not them? Well, here’s why:
While Weiner admits she is not a literary fiction novelist and while Picoult argues that the themes of her work and Franzen’s, for example, are the same, even if she is a “commercial” writer and he’s not, both writers feel unduly dissed that critics don’t seem to take them as seriously as they do Franzen. Yet neither of them see the disconnect.
Many people fail to see that disconnect. If you don’t have high expectations for your own work, you can’t complain if others don’t either. And if you don’t have high expectations for what you read, you can’t complain if others do.