The Absurdity of Literary Marginalisation

This is a subject particularly close to me, and this blog was inspired by something that Ien Nivens touched upon in his excellent guest-blog at JS Chancellor’s Welcome to the Asylum: the question of literary marginalisation. Why is it that ‘alternative’ forms of literary endeavour, like fantasy, science fiction and horror, are not considered by ‘those in the know’ to be real literature, and just why do these very same people automatically turn their collective noses up at the mere mention of them?

When you analyse the situation and strip it right down, it’s just bizarre that this is so, considering that very often the same preoccupations and themes run through both genre fiction and high-brow realist contemporary material, the only difference being the settings and scenarios. Those differences really are minor, when all is said and done: one utilises fantastic, highly unrealistic settings, the other bases it in real life. At bottom, though, there are often more similarities than differences. Even so, this has resulted in a mutual distrust between the two camps.

As Nivens points out, one possible reason for this is that genre fiction is usually seen as the preserve of the socially-maladjusted reader with a reading age barely beyond his/her early teens, the spotty nerd who likes to dress up as his/her favourite character at conventions, speak meaningless gobbledy-gook (at least to outsiders), apparently live in a dreamworld (presumably because this one is so disappointing) and who are still virgins at 40 (again apparently). By contrast, those who read modern fiction are supposedly much more ‘in touch’ and engage with the real world, live ‘proper’, mature lives and therefore the literature they read is closer to the ‘truth’ (whatever that happens to be). When you get down to it, though, it’s all just a matter of interpretation and personal taste, and that’s all it is.

What I DO find surprising (and not a little odd) is the semantic acrobatics that some authors indulge in just to avoid their novel/story being shelved with the genre ‘trash’. Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is clearly a dystopian novel set in the not-too-distant future and deals with many tropes familiar to sci-fi readers: yet she has taken umbrage at it being called such a thing (at least, this is what I am given to understand). From my humble perch here in the Marshall-Jones household, I think that’s just pettiness in the extreme, as if the mere suspicion that it might actually be an SF novel is enough to taint its ‘worthiness’ as a piece of literature. Quite the opposite, I would have thought, as its appeal instantly appears to broaden.

Ultimately however, we all read because we like to spend a little time away from this particular realm of humdrum existence. In other words, we like to indulge in a little spot of escapism. And what is surprising is that many classics, the ones we are encouraged to read because they are considered LITERATURE, are escapist novels, whose premise is based entirely in fantasy. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, HG Wells’  War of the Worlds, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Sir H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and even Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as just a few instances. All are held up to us as examples of ‘worthy’ literature, essential reading if one is to be considered properly educated.

To be fair though, the apparent snobbery can be mutual – many (not all, mind) genre readers turn their noses up at realist fiction ‘because it shows a lack of imagination’. The literati snub genre fiction just because it’s all based in fantasy worlds, often not even on this planet and peopled by strange races with even stranger names. But what the latter often fail to realise, I think, is that ALL writing is fantasy, even that which is based in the real world, and that it all requires an immense leap of imagination in order to fully captivate the reader. Granted it’s much easier if your novel is set in London rather than on Planet Thong in the Brassiereian Galaxy, involving a star-spanning war between the Thongians and the evil Bocksers. However, the characters in both suffer the same ups and downs on a personal level, and both sets engage and grapple with a similar bigger picture, albeit on different scales.

For my part, I read across many different genres (and this ties in with an earlier post), with an emphasis on horror and science fiction. My main criterion is that the story has to be well-written and literate: and, following on from that, that the characters are believable and engaging, and that the story, above and beyond the narrative and plotline, has something to say to me. All these criteria can be applied to every type of fiction, be it horror, romance or magical realism. The point is, is that GOOD literature exists across ALL genres (and. let’s face it, so does bad), and that it shows a distinctly unbecoming ignorance if you dismiss something simply because you don’t like it or that you don’t understand it. I don’t care whether you’re someone who sweeps the streets or whether you’re a professor of whatever at whichever top university: sniffing at fantasy or magical realism, for instance, just because you despise either, for whatever reason, is the epitome of ignorance and prejudice. Let’s all just think back to when only a minority of the population were able to read – the fact that most of us can do so nowadays, regardless of whether we choose to exercise that skill or not, is nothing short of a miracle.

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7 Responses to “The Absurdity of Literary Marginalisation”

  1. I’ve thought this myself at times. Many kinds of genre writing struggle for mainstream respectability, and it’s not just SF/horror/fantasy which has a hard time.

    It doesn’t help when respected auteurs disown or downplay their SF writings, either – like Margaret Attwood, or JG Ballard’s self-imposed blocking of his Wyndham-like first novel, The Wind From Nowhere.

    As for the small list of ‘accepted’ genre literature, I’d mention Vonnegut’s Fahrenheit 451 and Maupassant’s short story The Horla. Meanwhile, Penguin are making an effort – Frankenstein and Dracula have been in their Classics line-up for decades, HG Wells has now received the stamp of approval and even HPL is now a Twentieth Century Classic author!

    To your final comment, I’d add that – ability nothwithstanding – we live in an age where the majority of people don’t read, as a quick look at the appallingly low numbers required to make it into the Bookseller charts will confirm. Take out the trash literature of crime, romantic slush and Andy McSoddingnab which bulks out the charts (and charity-shop shelves), and the figures are even more depressing.

  2. And, of course, don’t forget that e-books and e-reader devices are now gaining ground, although I suspect that, just like vinyl, the death of the physical paper ‘n’ ink book will be greatly exaggerated. As long as physical books exist, I will always favour them over the clinical digital variety anyday – but that’s plainly because I was brought up with a houseful of books…. and that’s where I get my respect and love of them from…. (In other words, blame my father… LOL)…

  3. Atwood, who performed the same kind of intellectual contortionism around Oryx and Crake, seems to have a love-hate relationship with science fiction/fantasy. We embarrass her, poor girl. Personally, I forgive her the way you forgive a sister for disowning you in public, because whether she likes it or not, she’s still family.

    Great post, Simon!

  4. My reply to Attwood would be to say, if you don’t like science fiction, then don’t write something that could possibly be classed as such… it’s as simple as that…. the inescapable fact is that these novels CAN be seen as genre, so just get over it and revel in the fact that you’ve acquired a new audience (and more royalties) LOL

  5. Donny Boucher Says:

    I’d just like to state that as a writer of sci-fi, I am also a long time fan, and I did not remain a virgin till I was 40. It was 39. Nice work, Simon.

  6. And remember, Romeo and Juliet was just an ol’ trashy romance novel.

    I think it needs to be acknowledged that all genres or themes have their works of everlasting brilliance, so-so mundanity (if that’s a word), and foul smelling dreck.

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