Fantasy & Scifi vs Literary Fiction

FantasyRecently, I got into an e-mail argument with a critic from a Dutch newspaper about the literary merits of fantasy and science fiction. The critic posited that the genres had ‘grown up’ and in doing so were actually making themselves a part of literary fiction. So, a rant about literary fiction snobbism.

Genres

First things first, let’s look at what genre fiction really is. From Wikipedia:

Genre is most popularly known as a category of literature, music, or other forms of art or entertainment, whether written or spoken, audio or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria, yet genres can be aesthetic, rhetorical, communicative, or functional.

In other words, genre fiction is a category of literature, based on certain criteria. I would argue that in the case of fantasy and science fiction, those criteria are formed by style and setting of the work.

Fantasy and science fiction are often pointed at as being ‘not real’, but that’s not really a valid way to categorize, because fiction by its name is always made up.

What’s ‘not real’ in fantasy and science fiction is the backdrop of the story. Most literary fiction takes place in the normal world, only with made up characters and a made up plot. Of course, the lines can blur, as not all fantasy takes place in other worlds, and some literary fiction takes place in made up places.

In general, though, the difference between literary fiction, science fiction, and fantasy fiction is in the setting and style.

Literature

So what does Wikipedia have to say about literature?

Literature is writing considered to be an art form, or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value.

Literature, I would argue, is the body of work that is considered to be special, and set apart from its peers. This body of work is different per country, and changes over time.

The difference between literature and non-literature is in fact a difference in quality.

You can agree with that or not, of course. But for the rest of this discussion, I’m using these definitions.

Smoke and Mirrors

In my Dutch classes in high school, I had to read literature, which contained literary fiction almost exclusively. This has always seemed strange to me. Apparently, my teachers considered literary fiction better than fantasy and science fiction. However, if you looked at medieval literature, there were suddenly fantasy novels there.

Of course, everybody has the right to like literary fiction better than fantasy and science fiction. That does not mean that literary fiction and literature are the same, because then suddenly the quality distinction becomes synonymous with the genre distinction. Suddenly, literary fiction = literature = better than fantasy and science fiction. Claiming literary fiction is better than science fiction, you’re claiming all literary fiction is better than all science fiction and all fantasy. The fact that the backdrop is different, suddenly says something about the quality as well. And that’s clearly untrue.

All your quality is belonging to us

The critic I mentioned truly likes science fiction and fantasy. His argument was that fantasy and science fiction were growing up — from the cardboard characters of the fifties to the more fleshed out ones of current fiction. He lauded the increasing diversity as well. Basically, he pointed out that the quality of the works has increased in recent years. So far I agree wholeheartedly.

However, the next step was to say that this brought the genres closer to literary fiction, obsoleting fantasy and science fiction as genres. And suddenly the same misconception rears its ugly head. Apparently the only different between the genres was the quality.

I’m not disputing the quality has gone up, but I don’t agree that that’s the difference between fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction. In fact, quality has nothing to do with it. The difference is the setting and style.

Of course, this kind of smoke and mirrors is also applied the other way. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for example, is literature, and it is also squarely in the fantasy genre. However, the Wikipedia article doesn’t use the term ‘fantasy’ at all. By silently rubbing out the line between literature and literary fiction, it’s suddenly possible to claim great works of fantasy as literature. And by extension literary fiction. Handy to keep the myth alive that one genre is better than the other; if it’s good then it’s suddenly part of another genre.

Conclusion

Dear literary fiction snobs, you can hate fantasy and science fiction as much as you like. I won’t begrudge you your tastes in books, but don’t begrudge me mine either.

Literary fiction is not the same as literature and not inherently better than fantasy and science fiction. Don’t shove that misconception down our throats, and don’t infect our education systems with it.

Rant over 🙂

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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