The Line Between Literary and Genre Fiction
by Wendy S. Delmater, Editor
I recently was asked a series of questions by a 17-year-old student. The questions were good, and I thought I’d share my answers with you, our readers.
1. Why do you think there is a line between literary and genre fiction?
- In my opinion, the line between literary and genre fiction exists only in the minds of academics. People in university settings and literary circles often are accused of being “literary snobs” by genre writers, but novels such as Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 and J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS are acknowledged masterpieces of literary genius. Certainly, during the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction magazines (1930-1940) there was was a great deal of mediocre work published in some of the lesser “pulp magazines,” but there is mediocre work in the literary field as well.
Rather than a solid line, I would describe tendencies in both literary and genre fiction. Literary fiction tends more to self-introspection, beautiful language, and “slice-of-life” stories. In general, genre fiction is more interested in plot and what we call “shiny ideas”: concepts such as a “What if this technology disrupted our lives?” or “How would someone handle things if he or she had a special power?”
2. Does the line do more harm or more good?
- Once in a while a genre writer such as J.K. Rowling will break out into the mainstream, but that is exceedingly rare. Genre writers therefore complain of the “ghettoization” of their books, and they have a point. Our novels are shelved separately, often in the back of the bookstore. Meanwhile mainstream authors work very hard not to be labeled as science fiction or fantasy writers because it affects their sales. I’m sure that it is the fault of how the books are marketed, but this marketing is influenced by the “genre is not literature” mindset; despite the very clear evidence and people LOVE genre stories. Most of the top-grossing movies are genre. So yes, it harms genre writers. The late Michael Crichton wrote “what if” stories about technology with horrific side effects (such as JURASSIC PARK) and he’s a perfect example of someone whose books were all science fiction, but he managed to avoid being lumped in with genre writers like Isaac Asimov, and Crichton’s sales were higher.
The “line” also harms the public because they remain unaware of writers just as good as Michael Crichton who may be shelved in the genre section. Authors like Paolo Bacigalupi, who wrote THE WINDUP GIRL–a story about the consequences of genetic engineering of food sources, animals, and people–deserve a wider audience.
3. What are some common myths people have about fantasy and/or science fiction?
- Somehow people get the impression that all science fiction is very hard to understand—too scientific—or that it is all about robots and ray-guns, and that it is best suited for children or the simple-minded. Note that the “too scientific” and “too simple-minded” myths cannot be simultaneously true.
There is also the erroneous impression that fantasy equals children’s fairy tales, and again that’s simply not true. It dates back to Victorian ideas about fantasy being all about such things as THE BLUE FAIRY BOOK; perhaps the worst example of talking down to children ever published. To that, all I can say is that most of the fans of Harry Potter are adults.
4. What are some common myths people have about genre fiction in general?
- There seems to be a myth that all written science fiction and fantasy is like television and movie science fiction and fantasy: “Lost in Space,” Star Trek,” or “Star Wars” – or kiddie cartoons. The truth is that Hollywood tends to simplify good science fiction or fantasy stories and rely heavily on special effects, and they dumb down most of their plots as a result. Somehow the public doesn’t think of a television series like “The Dresden Files” as genre: if it’s good it can’t be genre, and if it’s genre it can’t be good. My own mother held that belief and it took me years to break her of that prejudice.
5. What are the goals for Abyss & Apex?
- We not only submit our stories for genre awards; we also submit them for literary awards. One of the ways we are helping authors break into the mainstream is offering our fiction for free, and when a story goes viral on the internet we often make converts of readers who “thought they did not like science fiction (or fantasy).” And, of course, we are very happy to help people understand such issues via interviews like this one.
I rather like the fact that young people are thinking about such questions, don’t you?
–Wendy S. Delmater
Editor, Abyss & Apex Magazine of Speculative Fiction
Editorial © 2010 Wendy S. Delmater. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish