Of the top ten highest grossing films of all time, how many of them are straight up science fiction or fantasy? All of them except one. The only film on that list that isn’t some kind of fantasy is Titanic, directed by James Cameron, a man who made killer robots and underwater aliens all the rage. While what makes money at the box office doesn’t really have bearing on the tastes of more highbrow literary folks, it does serve as a useful barometer for determining the state of pop. And when one considers that the next few generations of “important” writers will come from a time when Raiders of the Lost Ark is considered an “old movie” then the state of pop has a bigger influence on literature than ever. Between The New Yorker’s Arthur Krystal and Time’s Lev Grossman, the discussion as to what comprises genre literature versus literature literature is hot this week. Everyone’s looking for a rubric, and here’s mine. The difference is pop.
Pop is Fantasy. Pop is Science Fiction. And the future of literature is pop, because it always has been.
Of all the Dowager Countess’s many zingers in Downton Abbey, my favorites tend to involve her equating some new fangled invention with a Jules Verne novel or an H.G. Wells contraption. If Cousin Violet wants to both disparage something in the popular culture, while also ironically hint she knows all about it, she references the pop literature of the day: scientific romance. At least in the western world, early science fiction literature was pretty bonkers, but also relatively fresh. H.G. Wells or Verne are retroactively not regarded with the same kind of labels we might put on SF luminaries like Asimov or Le Guin. The genre labels hadn’t coalesced yet, and Wells and Verne were simply just what was popular at the time.
Though many might disagree (and I’m betting they will) the choice to employ speculative fiction or fantasy in literature is inherently a pop choice. Time Travel, Magic, Aliens, and so forth all provide larger-than-life analogs to real human problems, which makes the stories involving said concepts also larger-than-life. If something is larger-than-life, it is definitely trying to be pop — just ask The Backstreet Boys. The point is, big metaphors and crazy worlds in which a reader can lose themselves aren’t escapist per se, instead they’re inviting and calming to a reader (or audience) in a way that kitchen sink drama isn’t. All good narrative art, pop or otherwise, will tackle real problems, and if it doesn’t then it is essentially a literary version of Candyland: happy beginning, happy middle, happy ending. The reason why My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the worst example of both pop and storytelling is because there is neither conflict nor escapism. It is something about real life that feels like real life. In short, it’s dull.
Being dull is the greatest crime any work of literature can commit. We may consider it a slog to get through Ulysses now, but Joyce was mixing it up with that novel in ways no one had ever thought about before. By employing the bizarre format he does, Joyce was implementing a pop choice, not unlike a science fiction or fantasy writer would do. To put it in pejorative terms: Joyce found a gimmick or an angle. Now, I would venture to guess at least half of the new generation of writers between 25 and 40 years old don’t sit down and try to come up with a gimmick or angle. But the other half do. What’s the crime in coming up with a high-concept before the story itself? What’s wrong with wanting to not necessarily have something be character-based, but instead be concept-based?
Here is where pop can be tricky, at least in the world of literary or cultural “legitimacy.” The reason why Lev Grossman’s books teeter on the edge between literature and fantasy is because they are referential of fantasy literature (they subsume Harry Potter and Narnia; keeping him in both camps) but also because the main conflicts are real-world conflicts, augmented by the magical stuff. To put it another way: the metaphor of the magic has limits because, as he’s copped to, there are no villainous antagonists.
The “permeable membranes” between the genres that Margaret Atwood writes about become permeable when a writer decides to limit just how pop their story is going to be. The Time Travelers’ Wife for example has a little more pop appeal than The Magicians, because it is a love story first, and a science fiction story second. (Love truly does conquer all!) The heirchary is clear. Books or films, which (inetionally or not) blur the line, are paradoxically caught between being too pop and not pop enough. If you want to err on the side literary cred then you’ll favor character over plot every single time, like Grossman. What happens in the story isn’t as important as the emotional take away one gets from the story. Contemporary crossover novels like Super Sad True Love Story or Swamplandia! are also like this; the characters are king. There isn’t a point a to point b to point c implementation of the fantasy concepts which keeps the reader going. Instead, it’s about characters, with speculative, or pop, elements mixed in.
So what’s a pop metaphor for pop elements in books being mixed with the serious ones? Imagine Justin Bieber recording a song with Bon Iver with collaboration from Yo Yo Ma. This is what crossover literature from Grossman, Russell, and Shteyngart is doing. The ratio tends to be one pop element to two highbrow elements, or slightly less than 50%. Straight up pop like Twilight is just Bieber all the way.
So what is Fantasy? What is Science Fiction? The most common answer I’ve heard, when you crystalize all the analysis is the old “I know it when I see it” pornography excuse. But I’ll offer a different one. One that works every time. Ask yourself if any piece of narrative art (film or prose) has more pop in it than it doesn’t.
If contains slightly more than 50% pop, I’d bet its genre fiction. Pop is genre and genre is pop. Nobody wants to admit it, but everyone is doing it.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He prefers N’Sync to the Backstreet Boys and can’t get that one Chris Brown song out of his head.