Literary and Speculative: A Rant

I used to get all upset that literary fiction journals so seldom publish speculative fiction. I’d decry their elitism as they rejected me (this helped me to divert attention from the fact that speculative fiction magazines didn’t want me either, but never mind). Scifi is good, too! You guys are jerks! I’d wail.

I’d get mad that magazines professing love for writers such as García-Márquez, Borges, Rushdie and Murakami would say in submission guidelines that they aren’t interested in genre fiction. Hypocritical bastards! I’d cry. Shakespeare wrote about ghosts and witches!

OK, to tell the truth, I still get upset.

But you know what? Screw that. Speculative fiction isn’t just “good, too.” I think speculative fiction can kick the crap out of literary fiction any day of the week. I consider the Philip K. Dick Award more important than the Pushcart Prize and one Hugo worth a dozen PEN/Faulkner Awards.

In the January/February Mother Jones, Ted Genoways, editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, wrote a short and somewhat baffling lament. He called this “The Death of Fiction?” Not the death of literary fiction journals subsidized by universities, which is the actual subject of the piece, but the death of fiction. How dire! The poor, unhappy man. Perhaps he should read more.

Fiction magazines, regardless of genre and editorial preferences, are seeing hard times. Tastes change, media change, life changes (and fiction doesn’t die). Mr. Genoways, referring to the terminal state of university press quarterlies, notes that the university money is drying up. “Once strongholds of literature and learned discussion in our country, university-based quarterlies have seen steadily declining subscriber bases since their heyday a half-century ago—and an even greater dent in their cultural relevance.”

He is right when he speaks of a loss of cultural relevance. Yet speculative fiction, I counter with total smugness, has not lost cultural relevance in the least. Why? Speculative fiction must dive into the adventure of philosophy and romance and passion and invention. Literary fiction, meanwhile, has become fixated on stilted renderings of suffering. Some might think adventure is escapist; I think adventure is vital.

At the end of the piece, he proposes his solution, of sorts. “To pull out of this tailspin, writers and their patrons both will have to make some necessary changes—and quick. With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere. At the same time, young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers. I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.”

Oh, yes, Ted. Bravo, you’ve really socked it to “them.”

Incidentally, if you are among the many intelligent, sensitive writers of speculative fiction with your eyes fixed on the microcosm and macrocosm instead of your navel, and you have never relied on academia for a damn thing and you’re not dainty in the least, well, don’t bother sending your work to the Virginia Quarterly Review. They’d be lucky to have you, but their submission guidelines state: “We are generally not interested in genre fiction (such as romance, science fiction or fantasy) unless it’s of a high literary quality.”

That word “unless” indicates pretty clearly to me they feel that “high literary quality” is rare in genre fiction. I say to Mr. Genoways and editors like him, take your head out of your “unless.” Look, first of all, at where the ideas in fiction are still exciting, where prose still elicits passionate response and debate and wonder and impact. The answer is, and has been for a long time, genre fiction. Readers of genre fiction engage vigorously with the work, equally as a vehicle for philosophic inquiry and immersive pleasure.

Contrast this to what The Review of Contemporary Fiction (thank you, Wikipedia) said of The Ice Storm author Rick Moody: “Within Moody’s fictional treatments, the reader is necessarily one step removed from experience. We are engaged within a tight fuselage-world of the rendered text, an intricate and highly original language system wherein lurks characters sustained by the exertion of words, like the music sustained by the exertion of piano keys. Indeed, Moody’s characters are like word-chords whose considerable tribulations and emotional woundings are never the central fact of the text, but rather convincing casings, occasions to press ink on paper. Voices emerge—language projections that ignite from plot moments, from brutal experience set to the available music of language, characters finally as sonic events who inhabit a geography of print.”

I shudder to imagine on what planet that is a compliment. For a reader to be “one step removed from experience” means the writer failed. And the writer fails when he or she writes characters who are vessels for words instead of actual recipients and movers of story.

Of course, all fiction can be literary. All fiction can be speculative. All produce is organic. Right? But what Mr. Genoways is referring to is by no means the “Death of Fiction” but rather the slow asphyxiation of short literary fiction, a genre that refuses to acknowledge that it is a genre. It’s not just that all non-fantastical fiction is automatically literary fiction. No, indeed. Literary fiction is more particular than that. Gulping its own kool-aid, contemporary literary fiction poses in the mirror as the last bastion of the aforementioned high literary quality, while believing genre fiction to be the work of people who simply can’t handle the real world.

B.R. Meyers noted in his refreshingly biased screed, “A Readers Manifesto,” that “Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be ‘genre fiction’—at best an excellent ‘read’ or a ‘page turner,’ but never literature with a capital L. An author with a track record of blockbusters may find the publication of a new work treated like a pop-culture event, but most ‘genre’ novels are lucky to get an inch in the back pages of The New York Times Book Review. Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be ‘literary fiction’—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance” (July/August 2001 Atlantic Monthly.) I must applaud the editors of the Atlantic for publishing what was largely a critique of their own fiction publishing standards.

I find literature imbued with the power of myth far more relevant than writing about the hope-choking everyday trundle of caricatured common people down a nihilistic slope into numbness. Literary fiction, as a genre, seems increasingly to mistake cynicism for humor, detail for meaning and mere acceptance for hope. I find nothing laudable in the fetishizing of despair, but literary fiction so often proposes that, to paraphrase Lorrie Moore, miserable people “are the only people here.” And as for dialogue, the characters in literary fiction stories sound a whole lot like authors, even when they’re supposed to be cowboys. The genre of literary fiction, at its worst, reduces the vast internal landscape of human emotion to begrudging acceptance of persistent constipation. At its best, contemporary literary fiction doesn’t make me want to punch the author in the mouth.

I doubt Mr. Genoways and his colleagues will look upon publishing speculative fiction as a means of injecting fresh ideas into their ossifying publications. I suspect they would take the position of Harold Bloom and see the dwindling of their magazines and the popularity of genre fiction as endemic of the so-called dumbing down of America. To this I say, find me anything at all dumbed down about Ursula K. LeGuin. Show me oafishness in Phil K. Dick. Show me how E. Annie Proulx understands human nature better than Ray Bradbury does.


When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.

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