As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and on behalf of all the variants and subgenres such as urban fantasy, alternate history and steampunk that collectively constitute “speculative fiction”, I would say that Genre fiction is different from literary fiction.
Whether it’s ray guns and rockets, swords, sorcery, or furry and fangbangers, the unifying and identifying characteristic of speculative fiction is that it does not attempt to imitate real life as literary fiction does. It stands out from the world we know. It takes us to an entirely secondary realm, be it Middle-earth or Westeros, or some other present where vampires and werewolves really exist and you call 666 to report a supernatural crime.
Read science fiction and you can visit the near future in the UK where advances in bioscience see mega-corporations using genetic engineering to exploit the human genome for profit. You can see humanity terraforming Mars or stepping into the distant future where humanity has colonized the stars, leaving an excluded, remnant population on Earth trying to figure out their place in this expanded universe.
I read all of these stories recently and as always, this distinctive misunderstanding made me read more carefully. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “familiarity breeds contempt” with literary fiction, but familiarity can certainly breed quick reading. The reader’s unconscious mind clings to familiar elements and fills in the rest. If you read a novel set in Manchester, even if you’ve never been there, you have a mental image of “Manchesterness” of other cities you’ve visited and what you’ve seen on TV.
Despite Peter Jackson’s best efforts, no one has ever been to Middle-earth. Speculative fiction encourages the reader to pay much more attention, to seek out the details that make sense of this strange world. Speculative fiction reading is not happening in Manchester. It’s like finding yourself in Outer Mongolia without the help of Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide.
This is why, done well, speculative fiction can be considerably more difficult to write than literary fiction. I can tell you from experience, as an author, as a reviewer, and having spent two years as an Arthur C Clarke award judge and read about 150 novels, that when readers pay so much attention to every hint and clue, the writer must have their internal logic, character consistency, and directing absolutely nailed. Readers must be convinced that this unknown world is solidly real if they are ever to suspend disbelief and accept the unreal, whether it be magic and dragons or faster-than-light travel.
You absolutely cannot hide an underlying weakness with a waffle. Otherwise, emails will come in, picking up discrepancies. Not just for the sake of scoring or nitpicking, but because fans become so engaged in fantasy worlds and so passionate about their characters.
This passion, so easily mocked by poking fun at Trekkies and Whovians, is another thing that sets SF and fantasy apart from literary fiction. Mocking this passion misses a key aspect of speculative fiction. By attracting many readers, contemporary fantasy becomes a platform for discussing today’s major social and political challenges, while science fiction continues to explore the impact of technological developments, for better and for worse, before to have to tackle these problems in reality.
Speculative fiction may not mimic real life, but it uses its magic mirror to reflect on the world around us. It is a fundamentally outward-looking genre, in direct contrast to literary fiction, which looks inward to explore the human condition.
Placing a story in another place or time allows speculative fiction to explore ideas that literary fiction might really struggle with. I am interested in divided societies; my father’s Irish, my mother’s English and the versions of Irish history I learned on my grandmother McKenna’s lap and at a girls’ grammar school in Dorset in the 1970s were quite radically different. I have friends who lived and worked in Yugoslavia, so to speak, and later in Croatia and Bosnia. I know diplomats who have had contact with Israelis and Palestinians. A literary novelist dealing with one of these complex and intractable conflicts faces countless challenges and pitfalls.
Write a fantasy novel centered on a restless and fractured country, where arrogant aristocrats pursue their ambition without caring about the suffering of ordinary people and you can explore the rights and responsibilities of power, the uses and abuses of privilege and the importance of involving people of all classes in managing their own destiny. As voter turnout continues to decline and abuses by the rich and powerful go unpunished for funding the political classes, getting people to reflect on the world around them is important.
Inspiring the next generation of voters to engage in the political process is vital. Science fiction and fantasy can do this because speculative fiction inspires young people to read. He was the mainstay of children’s literature from Edith Nesbit to CS Lewis to Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman and Francis Hardinge. It’s become a dominant force in popular culture, from Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones on TV to the Hunger Games movies and the new Captain America.
However, it is a double-edged sword. The common assumption that “kids stuff” or “commercially popular” means simplistic or inferior helps to perpetuate biases against science fiction and fantasy. It’s no wonder writers like Margaret Atwood have gone to such lengths to distance themselves from what they see as a harmful association. I wish she hadn’t – but I can see why she does.
It’s also great fun to watch the contortions of literary critics in the face of talented writers like the late Iain Banks and Joanne Harris, who are equally adept at literary and speculative fiction and refuse to apologize or justify what they write. And if the defining characteristic of literary fiction is sublime prose, then at its peak, Terry Pratchett is surely the best prose stylist today. So that’s where we get terms like counterfactual and magical realism, to save reviewers from sullying their copy with words like SF and fantasy.
Challenge people to justify this disdain and you’ll almost always find that they don’t actually read current speculative fiction. They read Lord of the Rings in school and lost the will to live somewhere around Tom Bombadil. Frankly, that’s understandable and I say that as a Tolkien fan. But rejecting a whole genre on this basis? It’s like reading Murder on the Orient Express as a teenager, deciding the solution is nonsense, and rejecting all detective fiction. Such prejudice makes no sense. And worse, it cuts the reader off from some of the most thought-provoking and immersive contemporary fiction.
So yes, as far as I’m concerned, the speculative fiction genre is different from literary fiction. By celebrating its distinctive strengths, we will come to recognize the weakness of instinctive biases against it.
Of course, accepting this difference does not mean that we have to choose between reading one style of writing or the other. A full literary life means reading across the full spectrum of fiction.
?? Juliet McKenna’s works include the fantasy series The hadrumal crisis, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Tales of Einarinn
?? This is an edited version of a speech given during an Oxford Literary Festival debate on the motion “Genre fiction is no different from literary fiction”