I was going to write something more about the connection between science fiction and academia, but Jon Evans’ post last week about the difference between magical realism and fantasy—and the ream of comments it produced—was too interesting to pass up. Genre definition questions are endless, of course, but they’re fun to talk about because they get at the heart of why each of us loves books; why we’ve spent countless hours of our lives looking at letters printed on bleached sheets of pulped wood.
Anyway, the post sent me racing back to David Lodge. As a literary critic, Lodge is in a relatively unique position in that he’s also a successful novelist, and one of the pleasures of reading his essays is to witness the way in which he can switch roles in mid-argument, speaking as a creator and a recipient of both books and criticism about books. This is most apparent in “The Novelist at the Crossroads,” an essay from 1971.
In this essay, Lodge—who, by his own description, writes “realistic” novels, by which he means simply novels about plausibly real people doing plausibly real things in plausibly real places—is responding to what he saw at the time as a crisis in definition as to what the heck a novel was any more.1 Faced with people like Norman Mailer on one side and William S. Burroughs on the other, Lodge writes:
The situation of the novelist today may be compared to a man standing at a crossroads. The road on which he stands…is the realistic novel…but the pressure of skepticism on the aesthetic and epistemological premises of literary realism is now so intense that many novelists, instead of marching confidently straight ahead, are at least considering the two routes that branch off in opposite directions of the crossroads. One of these routes leads to the nonfiction novel and the other to what Mr. Scholes2 calls “fabulation.”
Lodge, brave soul, then attempts to define fabulation:
Such narratives suspend realistic illusion in some significant degree in the interests of a freedom in plotting characteristic of romance or in the interest of an explicitly allegorical manipulation of meaning, or both. They also tend to draw inspiration from certain popular forms of literature … especially science fiction, pornography, and the thriller. Of these, science fiction has the most respectable pedigree.3
I know, I know—inherent in Lodge’s formulation here is the yawning gulf he creates between literary fiction and other kinds of fiction, and the value judgment that gulf always seems to imply. Let’s forgive Lodge what appears to be his condescending attitude toward science fiction, because I don’t think he means to be a jerk.
The point he’s making is that for the writer, issues of genre label conventions and their importance to what the writer is trying to accomplish aren’t constraints: they’re choices. They’re only as important as the writer wants them to be. She can choose to work within the bounds of a particular genre and write straight-up realistic fiction or the hardest of hard SF or the surrealest of the surreal. Or, she can mix and match the rules of these separate genres to her heart’s content.
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