Why the Divide Between Speculative Fiction and Literature?

Here are some thoughts on speculative fiction (a term that embraces much) by Kyle A. Massa.

Kyle A. Massa

Floating Castle

Literature | ˈlit(ə)rəCHər | noun | Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit. – New Oxford American Dictionary

According to a certain stuffy pocket of the literary community, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, collectively known as speculative fiction, don’t qualify as literature. Decent stories? Maybe. Cool ideas? Sure. But in the eyes of this snobbish literary elite, speculative fiction just doesn’t measure up to stuff like The Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick

Would you ever read Moby Dick willingly? Yeah, neither would I.

Take the 2003 National Book Awards as an example. That year’s winner was none other than Stephen King, who of course mainly writes horror. The literary elite wasted no time in attacking him, no doubt because he’s just a lowly genre writer. Here’s a quite from critic Harold Bloom.

“The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to…

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  1. I jumped across and read the full post – and agree with it. Here in New Zealand it’s got to the point where official support structures such as the Book Council and others, including critics, regard the only valid fiction of any kind as ‘literary’. Anything else is rubbish and proof of the author being an un-cultural and inept hack who shouldn’t be writing or published. That’s locally true of non-fiction, too, and the whole comes wrapped in a pernicious bully-culture that is impossible to dislodge.

    My own experience of that one has been salutary – a lot of the stuff I write, which by nature of being published commercially has to be pitched for the widest commercial audience, has been repeatedly run down in our local academic review magazine on the basis that I am apparently deliberately trying to displace the work of intelligent academics, Alas, they allege, I am so personally useless at it that I’d be lucky to be able to sit the right way around on a toilet. Being attacked in this way, incidentally, also removes any right I have to respond, including taking away my legal rights; and it’s been made clear it’s my own fault – apparently I made them do it because I wrote in their territory. Needless to say, it’s impossible to do anything about the underlying bully-culture – it’s absolutely entrenched in the field.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s the same in Canada. The exception seems to be when authors who are solidly “literary” branch out into the speculative realm, like Margaret Atwood. The other thing is all those big book prizes — they’re never awarded to books that smell of “genre.” I suppose one could argue that literary fiction needs that kind of help to get popular attention, but the corollary is that literary writing is inherently more valuable and worth preserving for posterity.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s an interesting topic, especially when you think about when the lines blur. Take Oryx and Crake for example, it’s seen as literary because of Atwood’s reputation, even though it reads very much as genre sci fi/dystopia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True. Once an author is considered “literary,” they can write in just about any genre without leaving that category. I don’t think it works the other way, though some may argue that the term “speculative fiction” really means literary sci fi or weird fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

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