Pretension exists everywhere, but sometimes I think nowhere more than in literature.
How many of us read The Grapes of Wrath in high school? How about The Great Gatsby? Or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? But, let’s be real: who ever assigned The Lord Of The Rings to a high school curriculum? Or what about Dune, Frank Herbert’s intergalactic political saga? Or even Stranger In A Strange Land, Heinlein’s science fiction classic set closer to home, right here on Earth?
Have a quick look through Wikipedia’ s Great Books page. Not only does it give a brief “sample list” of great books, it also offers a bit of exposition about the concept of great books and why they ought to be considered great. “Constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture,” is one given criterion, which certainly is a noble aim; “the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues” is another, similarly lofty, criterion.
Yet a comprehensive search through the list – I read every title on the Wikipedia page – reveals that I can count on one hand, indeed on three fingers, the number of books that could be considered science fiction, fantasy, or ‘genre’ fiction in some other way. That’s including Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Dracula, Frankenstein, Brave New World, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and many other equally insightful and intelligent works are excluded from the list.
Of course, you could argue, the list doesn’t really cover anything beyond World War II, either, and a lot of genre fiction has grown up in the post-war boom. But what about the treatment genre fiction writers are given in book review publications? The most serious of them, the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books (they all seem to have something in common, don’t they…) rarely, if ever, review science fiction or fantasy, and only touch on historical fiction when it ‘crosses thresholds,’ such as with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. When these books are given space in the hallowed pages of these publications, they’re spoken of as being ‘elevated’ above your usual genre fiction, such as with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
Why are you so afraid, Mr. Ishiguro, that your novel, which contains giants, knights, and a magical fog, will be considered fantasy? Why is this such a stigma to be avoided? Fantasy is a hobble, it seems, for authors who want to be taken seriously, who want their works to be treated with the dignity they deserve. Fantasy can create prejudices, apparently, because it just isn’t quite good enough to be considered great.
(Never mind that calling a literary work ‘magical realism’ instead of fantasy will immediately get you literary brownie points and elevate you out of the ranks of ‘mere fantasy’.)
Poor Mr. Ishiguro. Over the last few weeks he has been lampooned and skewered on all sides for this fear, when really he’s just representative of the broader pretension against genre fiction carried by nearly all the conventional ‘gatekeepers’ in the world of literature.
So we must ask ourselves why. Why is literary fiction, set in the real world, or just slightly afield, considered superior to ‘mere’ science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction? My theory is that because genre fiction sets itself apart from the real world, those literary gatekeepers assume that the intention of the novel is to provide cheap thrills, magic spells, smoke and mirrors, rather than a hard-hitting search for truth in human nature.
This is a fallacy.
The best fiction, whether science fiction, literary, fantasy, or historical, is nothing more than a search for what motivates us as humans, and how and why we do the things we do. The Lord of the Rings is a study in what motivates people to fight against all odds to overcome great evil, and how we can resist or fall into temptation along the way. Dracula is less about the centuries-old vampire than the way fear of the unknown and the grotesque manifests within us. Dune is a magnificent analysis of culture clash, the politics of oppression and revolution, and the way individual relationship play out on a geopolitical scale. Harry Potter teaches us more about how to be a good, kind, compassionate human being, than it does how to defeat evil lords with incomprehensible powers.
What does it matter that these stories have new worlds, magical weapons, or vicious monsters in them? Do the spells and spaceships and demons somehow stand in the way or obscure the path forward? Do these frills somehow make them less serious in their attempts, and if so, why? Isn’t life also at times funny, at times bleak, and at times full of unnatural beauty, mysterious caves, and bright fireworks? How are these books less noble in their attempts to find truth than the esteemed ‘great books’ revered by the literary gatekeepers in New York?
The truth is, they’re not. It’s only the turned-up nose, the pretensions of those at the top, the snobbery of the intellectual elite, that separates these genres and keeps them out of the hallowed ranks of ‘great books’. It’s long past time we acknowledged that the superiority is in our minds, not in the nature of the genre ‘distinctions’ we falsely ascribe.
“There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.” – George R. R. Martin