The Nitpicks: A Note on Genre Fiction and Elitism within Literary Academia

I’ve written this rant elsewhere, on my tumblr, but this will be a more “polished” version, so to speak. I’ve put it under nitpicks, although it’s bigger than that. It’s more of a criticism of literary academia, which is very big. Something I’m almost hesitant to criticize. But I think as genre fiction and speculative fiction grow, the circle jerk within literary academia and its obsession over contemporary and misery fades a little. Just a little.

I’ll preface this with, I know the community is changing, and I know attitudes are changing with it. But there’s still a heavy bias toward “literary” fiction in the world of academia – where “real world issues” and “real people” are held higher than when issues are raised in a more fantastical setting with more fantastical characters. Anything beyond the “real world” gets thrown under a bus and considered to be, at best, entertainment, and at worst, something to rot your brain over. It might not be changing as much as I would like, but it’s changing. Slowly.

And to pretend that all literary or contemporary fiction has inherently more merit than speculative fiction because it’s not purely for entertainment implies that the “pure entertainment” type contemporary fiction doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t seem to hit the same kind of snobbery that genre fiction does. But it does exist: “chick-lit” is seen as empty and vapid, although this issue is more rooted in sexism than literary elitism. This essay/rant will hopefully focus more on literary snobbery, the elitism that surrounds the literary world, and not necessarily what makes something popular or not.

And it’s not hard, in all honesty, to find evidence that genre fiction gets snubbed at every major “prestigious” award, that genre fiction only gets recognized if it’s “lightly” speculative or otherwise have to find and create its own awards.

It does not take much to look at a list of prestigious awards for literature and see that almost none of the winners are genre fiction writers, that almost none of the novels are known outside of the literary sphere.

Where are giants like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, J. R. R. Tolkien? Jules Verne, H. G. Wells?

What is it about genre fiction that makes literary academia look down upon it? There’s no denying these writers have had massive impacts on our world, so much of their writing has ingrained itself into popular culture, more than the “classics” of contemporary, and more than the pulitzer and nobel prize winning novels. To deny the influence of Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, would be to deny a major piece of our popular culture.

And even beyond the popularity of these writers, and ignoring their influence, a common argument is that once we venture into the fantastical, once we leave the realm of the Real, we can no longer take things seriously. That the fantastical only has a place as entertainment rather than a setting that could be used to discuss matters, to experiment with issues, and to push issues to the extremes. After all, is that not what satire is? And yet, straight satire gets its praise. Translating real world issues into the fantastical gets shoved aside and called shallow.

Does literary academia have such a shallow definition of fiction that it can only consider critique of social issues if it occurs in a contemporary setting? Does literary academia struggle so much with the notion of suspending disbelief that it cannot look past the fantastical elements?

These are all symptoms of a greater problem from within the world of literary academia; where the concept that fiction must require “thought” in order to be good literature (an aspect deeply rooted in elitism) allows literary academia to push aside the more accessible genre fiction. This is all spawned by the notion that “thought-provoking literature” makes assumptions that the reader’s experiences are parallel or cognate to the author’s, while genre fiction lays things out, creates a play-by-play and aims for accessibility.

But barring that, ignoring the fact that genre fiction absolutely can spur deep thought, how is it that a good story – that good storytelling – is not enough for praise? Why is it that the effort and research that goes into building secondary worlds goes unrecognized by literary academia? What criteria does literary academia praise that isn’t present in genre fiction? Why does literary fiction only care for the absolute mundane or the most abhorrent of people? John Updike comes to mind for the latter, Gabrielle Roy comes to mind for the former.

This is not, in all honesty, an issue solely found in literature. Look to the academy awards and name a speculative fiction movie that has won it (I’m fairly certain only one has, and it was The Fellowship of the Ring). And within the film world, it’s almost a game for some, to spot the “Oscar bait” – movies that were clearly made to appease the academy, movies that hit certain themes that the academy has been known to like.

To say that a lot of contemporary isn’t written with the intention to appease literary academia would be misguided – how many contemporary novels are written as some form of misery porn? That real world issues can only be discussed with a certain type of misery only found in the real world, that social commentary can only be done with the living dread and hopelessness that seems to be ever-present in the society they want to portray. These stories seem to regurgitate the same sorrow and struggles in the same settings but in different parts of a country, with slightly different characters who have slightly different reactions. These stories become inherently about pain without any recompense.

Why does literary fiction feed off the apparent suffering of majority groups? Why do stories that are blatantly racist and sexist continue to get praise and excused in academic circles? So much of literary fiction is centred around unhappy marriages, unfaithful white men using women as objects, stories of white families on stolen indigenous land. Stories of non-white countries are shown through a white lens, exotifying it, making caricatures of the natives and resorting to racist stereotypes.

And those that aren’t misery porn? The “happy” ones filled with humour? Why do those get more of an academic standing than say, Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Shouldn’t humour stand regardless of genre? Does speculative fiction not allow for more freedom when creating humourous situations?

I have no suggestions on how to fix this. But I wanted to bring it to light, to confront it. There are underlying narratives here: of academia being rooted in a Western, colonialist, patriarchal lens, of arbitrary definitions of what makes something “good” and “bad”, of the stealing of minority voices and the willful ignorance of nuance.

We’re tired. Perhaps it’s just my generation, but we’re damn tired. We’re tired of the real world and the fights we’ve found ourselves in over basic human rights. We don’t want to be reminded of that dread and helplessness and hopelessness that we only seem to get in contemporary fiction. We’re tired of seeing stories about suffering and misery without hope, despite the circle jerk that literary academia seems to settled into over it.

I want literal demons. I want magic, i want a distant future where our main struggles are communication with another intelligent species. Just let me have my fantastical, where we can struggle and suffer, but kill those literal demons that plague us. Just give me a good story, damn it.

 

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