Literature versus science fiction

I am somewhat bemused by the way ‘literature’ is so often assumed to be a superior form of writing, above any form of genre fiction and, particularly, science fiction (‘ptooey’). Authors known for ‘literature’ are, apparently, more talented, competent and intelligent than ‘sci fi’ authors, who by definition are hacks, talentless and ignorant of basic writing skills and higher human truths.

It’s a funny attitude: I’d argue that the best science fiction (‘ptooey’) is easily as well-written as ‘literature’, with as much character depth and quality of styling as the material upheld by the literati. In the mid-twentieth century, before sci-fi was socially cool for the majority, Robert A. Heinlein’s writing was arguably as good as Steinbeck’s when it came to stylistic competence, social message, characterisation and plot, among other things. As always, the sci-fi setting was merely backdrop to a human story which, naturally, had to be drawn in careful and compelling ways that would appeal to readers while at the same time delivering a message.

None of this has ever been acknowledged by the beneficiaries of the ‘literature exclusively defines quality and status’ school. Never mind that ‘literature’ sells in quantities which are a tiny fraction of the figures achieved by science fiction. Never mind the fact that the audience for ‘literature’ is tiny ; whereas these days science fiction brings enjoyment to wide swathes of everyday society.

No, literature is apparently the better form, it would seem, defining the superiority of those who read and write it. Apparently those who write ‘literature’ are so superior as moral and intellectual beings that anybody who disputes their status is – by definition – wrong, thus proving that those who write (‘ptooey‘) science fiction are socially and intellectually incompetent.

The “Star Witch”, sans fuel tanks, approaches the alien slime world. I designed this starship around physics principles – note the radiators (and yeah, I wanted realism so I did some of the maths involved in defining its hab-module).

I find all this hilarious, of course. I was actually trained in writing literary fiction, formally (at a polytech, before university). So I do know what constitutes such material. Oddly, I usually write non-fiction, because I was trained in that too, and opportunities arose where I could publish. I mention this because it turns out that the only way the literati and their academic apologists take other writers credibly is if that writer steps forward with their own genitalia publicly clamped in one hand and declares themselves an ‘and poet’ in addition to all their other self-assigned labels, pouring forth their ‘feels’ about the latest academic/literati in-crowd social angst. This then becomes a label. You know: ‘Associate Professor of English, Intellectual Onanist and Poet’, ‘Associate Professor of English, Pretentious Cultural Appropriator and Poet‘ and so on.

Apparently the only way for ‘and poets’ to recognise the worth of other writers, personally and otherwise, is if the other writer plays that particular game and, naturally, steers well clear of science fiction (‘ptooey‘). That’s why I gave a science fiction story I wrote the tagline ‘Hot lesbian science chicks take drugs to defeat the alien slime monster’. It just seemed better that way. And, oddly, it was also a fair description of the tale.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019


29 thoughts on “Literature versus science fiction

  1. lmao! This made me laugh so much. HIGH FIVE!

    Imho, literature is not a ‘genre’ you choose to write in, it’s a judgement made about your writing, usually long after you’re pushing up daisies.

    The litterati seem to forget that many of the works we now consider to be ‘classic literature’ were poo-pooed in their day. Dickens wrote for filthy lucre, and the Bronte sisters wrote romance. Even good old Shakespeare was a bawdy old bard who kept his audiences entertained with sly humour and sexual innuendos.

    Great writing is simply that, great. And it pops up all over the place, in all sorts of genres. The thing about sci-fi is that it allows the author to explore what it means to be human, in the most extreme of circumstances. That’s what Heinlein did in Stranger in a Strange Land, and Ursula K. Le Guin did in Left Hand of Darkness. And those two are not the only ones.

    So glad you’re a Heinlein fan. And a writer of sci-fi. 😀

    1. Yup, good writing is always going to be good writing, no matter what it is. I find it incredible that authors who are ‘known’ for being ‘writers of literature’ are upheld when they write (‘ptooey’) genre fiction – their ‘take’ on the genre, as if it is going to be superior to the work of others. I recently saw a review of a sci-fi/robot story by a well known ‘writer of literature’ in which the literati were falling over themselves to praise the quality of his exploration of what it means to be human… utterly ignorant of the fact that it’s been a sci-fi staple really since Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein and all he’d done was re-hash (or maybe ‘re-discover’) the usual tropes, already well explored by (‘ptooey’) science fiction writers. Sigh…

      1. Hah…yes, main stream writers are ‘forgiven’ for writing sci-fi…
        Well, as far as I’m concerned, I love sci-fi and I’m proud to be a sci-fi storyteller. 😀

    2. Hi acflory and Matthew,

      I agree with both of you. Moreover, this superiority complex in the world of literature can also apply to the world of music, in which certain genres are presumed to be superior to others. I know this issue very well as I compose in multiple genres. This can be demonstrated by my multi-genre “Tammy” project as discussed in a particular section entitled “Musical Journey” within my post entitled “Khai & Khim: For Always and Beyond Goodbye” published at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2019/08/31/khai-khim-for-always-and-beyond-goodbye/#Musical_Journey

      1. Hi, SoundEagle. 🙂 You’re absolutely right about the music scene. I’m not a musician, but I love music of all kinds, and the place where I’ve found the /best/ music in recent years is Soundcloud. The Indie musicians there are creating the kind of music I love to listen to, and a lot of it ends up as trailer music. The irony of that is that people are much more likely to watch/listen to trailers than just about anything else.
        I haven’t listened to your music but I’ll check out that link. 🙂

        1. Hi acflory,
          I am delighted that you agree with me and that you are aware of similar issues in the world of music, which is, according to a French sociologist, the best indicator of cultural capital, or at least being the good currency and fair representation of an individual’s cultural capital, especially considering that music is the universal language.
          I look forward to getting your feedback at the said post, where you can actually play several of my embedded SoundCloud tracks. For instance, I made a hard rock version of the sweet ballad “Tammy”, and one can imagine what some musical purists might say or react. . . . .

        2. Thank you for your brief comment there, Meeka (acflory). I would like to inform you that you can instantly jump and listen to each and every one of the musical tracks by using the navigational menu entitled “Music Dedicated to Khim” located at the start of the said post. There is also the Caribbean version of “Tammy”.

      2. Oh Khai, I am so sorry. A truly beautiful tribute to Khim. And apologies for not realising you are on Soundcloud too. I’ve just followed you and listened to a little of your music. -hugs-

              1. Yes, all ten fingers and two feet. How I wish that I could have as many limbs as an octopus, then I would be able to handle even more notes on the organ!

                By the way, have you read my reply to you at the eulogy? The reply is done in a highly bespoke design, which you can only see in its entirety at the post, as the WordPress Reader does not display advanced styling.

  2. Once upon a time, too long ago for my ease of mind, I took a university English course on…science fiction!

    It seems Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was considered SF. Or fantasy. Whatever.

    At this remove in time that’s only of two books I remember, but in truth the one work included that was worthy of the name “science fiction” was Ms. Shelley’s immortal Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus. I’ve reread that several times since. It was the only good thing I got out of that course.

    Perhaps it’s worth remembering that in his day Charles Dickens was considered something of a hack. Publishing newspaper serials, forsooth.

    As far as genre goes, though, I’m not sure how long SF will survive. When Armstrong set foot on the Moon, a whole class of the SF genre became…historical fiction. Within the foreseeable future, someone will set foot on Mars, and another subset of SF will go the same way.

    What of the literati then? When human achievement catches up with our most flagrant imaginings?

    You know, even then, there’s still going to be Ms. Shelley’s wonderfully poignant and cautionary tale. We’ll probably go to the stars and return before we can regard that as “historical fiction.”

    But really, Matthew…”intellectual onanist”? Ouch! 😉

    1. Oh, I don’t know. Succinct. Evocative. Provokes horrible imagery that cannot be un-thought… 🙂 Besides, I can’t imagine someone who defines their self-worth by their intellectual pretensions also using ordinary English to describe what that actually amounts to… 🙂

      I can think of at least one person who precisely meets that tag – an academic/literati ‘and poet’ here in NZ who published a commentary on one of my books in NZ’s national literary review quarterly, informing the readership, as apparent fact, that I ‘thought’ I was ‘above’ the technical limits of my field, among other allegations that seemed more designed to display his own, shall we say, intellectual tumescence than to provide useful commentary on what I’d written. It was an egregious portrayal of my character and I did have him on about it. Alas, he didn’t have the integrity to engage beyond (foolishly) stating that he stood by his words, which basically meant he was admitting liability. I declined to pursue it further, though. Apparently I was so far beneath him that he could put words in my mouth that made me look stupid, pretentious and arrogant, all the while showing up how intellectually superior he was, and I had no right to object. Intellectual onanism at its finest.

      As you point out, snobbery towards sci-fi has been an issue throughout – writers we regard today as innovative and classic were dismissed at the time. Mary Shelley absolutely invented sci-fi in its modern form as social commentary. Plus The Tempest (aka ‘Forbidden Planet’) – once again, Shakespeare nailed it.

      1. Sigh. Regarding the sort of doltish onanist you describe, I’ve never understood that tendency. It must be a lonely world when you’re that great. Perhaps the lack of oxygen at those rarefied heights begins to affect their brains. I suppose I’ll have to stick with Sir Isaac on his seashore. See you there? We could probably find some pretty pebbles!

  3. Never been a fan of genre snobbery. Plenty of genre fiction writers are as good as literary fiction writers (and some literary fiction books are as bad as the worst quality genre fiction 😉 ) Especially agree with your point on sales- the vast majority of sales (and consequently what most people read) is genre fiction.

    PS love that tagline for that story 😉

    1. I have a story about that tagline. As I say, I’m primarily known for my serious history, so it appealed to me greatly to devise a way of both accurately describing the story to potential readers while at the same time punking the pretentious intellectuals who lack the humility to poke fun at the shibboleths they use to validate their self-worth. Soon after I thought it up, I ran into a friend of mine on the street in Wellington – another author, whose output and experience in the field was of similar scale to mine – who asked what I was up to. I mentioned I was writing fiction, which led to a short chat about the need to make sure it was proper ‘literary’ fiction lest I damage my repute. I promptly told him my tagline and he just about collapsed laughing on the street – like me, my friend was under no illusions about the reality of those who pass judgement on other authors in New Zealand…

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