starshipcat (starshipcat) wrote,

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On SpecFic and LitFic

Over at Sarah Hoyt's blog, Jeb Kinnison has some interesting thoughts on the relationship between LitFic ("liter'chur," "serious fiction") and the various speculative fiction genres, and how it relates to the current controversy over the Hugos:

I’m one of those people who straddles STEM and the literate arts with reasonable skills and interest in both. I took time off to study literature-type writing with a crew at Harvard, and John Updike visited one day. He made it clear he was a craftsman aiming at a specific audience, highly-literate Northeastern upper class sorts, but I doubt he would have looked down on someone writing for readers who like adventure stories. Dickens and Stephen King wrote for mass audiences and were looked down on by the literati of their day, but over time they became respectable and suitable for PhD theses.

The definition of “literary” is fuzzy. It’s confused with “inaccessible” and often the most obscurantist works are lionized mostly because only a few people can appreciate them, since they require study not enjoyment — e.g., James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon. Modern art became a thing because commercial, mass-produced representational art had flooded the world with photographs and advertising that made art accessible to everyone, so artists set out for new territory, fleeing the old world of representational art and pioneering obscure abstractions and art-as-statement. Wealthy patrons had to be persuaded that paying more for art that was impossible for them to actually appreciate was going to give them higher status. Pretending to appreciate the avant-garde became another class signifier. Modern literature similarly fled the masses and accessibility to keep exclusivity and high status.

Read the rest over at According to Hoyt.

The desire to make science fiction more literary, or at least more acceptable to the literary gatekeepers, goes back at least to John W. Campbell's pronouncements that Astounding Stories (now Analog Science Fiction and Fact) would no longer be publishing stories that were in fact just westerns or war stories or sea stories or whatever, tarted up with some sf gadgetry for the cool factor. Henceforth, he would only be accepting stories in which the speculative element was essential to the story, and if it were removed the story would fall apart.

At the time Campbell made this change in editorial policy, there was a widespread perception that all pulp science fiction was nothing more than escapist trash. Campbell wanted to show that science fiction could be used as a vehicle for extrapolating known science and technology and for contemplating the consequences of those future technological developments.

We see another push to incorporate literary values into speculative fiction in the 1960's and 1970's. Robert A Heinlein wrote The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in lunar creole rather than the transparent prose that had been the norm in science fiction. Frank Herbert used literary methods of characterization and use of detail in setting scenes in Dune. Ursula K LeGuin placed her thought-provoking fantasies in prestigious magazines such as The New Yorker (much as Heinlein published many of the stories of the first Future History in The Saturday Evening Post.

Yet the sense of a stigma has lingered in the science fiction community, echoes of those stern voices dismissing our beloved imagined worlds as mere "escapist trash," unworthy of serious consideration. Telling us that we ought to want to read realistic stories about people who could actually exist (or have existed, in the case of historical fiction), doing things people can actually do.
Tags: literature, reading, writing
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